By Sujata Jena
Manila, August 28, 2019: On August 27, the Kottayam Principal Sessions Court announced a landmark judgement convicting 10 persons to double life sentences for the death of Kevin P Joseph some 15 months ago.
The 23-year-old Dalit Christian man was abducted and murdered on May 26, 2018, and his body was found floating in the Chaliyekara river in Kollam, Kerala, two days later.
I welcome the verdict and appreciate the wisdom and audacity of Judge C Jayachandran in delivering justice to Kerala’s first ‘honor killing’ conviction.
Kevin, as the victims was known, was abducted by Shanu Chacko, the brother of his wife Neenu. Her father Chacko John (a Latin Catholic) and her brother had objected to the relationship.
Shanu was enraged that Neenu had decided to marry Kevin and had abducted him along with his cousin Aneesh, from the latter’s home in Mannanam, just a few kilometers from Kevin’s house.
The young couple had first met at a bus stand, and a love bloomed over the next two years to end in a tragedy.
The motive behind the gruesome crime was the couple’s refusal to separate.
It was shortly after the duo decided to get their marriage registered that Kevin was abducted and murdered.
To me, it is shame, shocking and saddening that Christians indulged in honor killing.
How could the Church overlook, leave alone allow, caste discrimination, or indeed the very notion of caste with Christ’s church of 2000 years?
It simply means we have not come out of the caste mindset and caste prejudices. It goes to prove that the caste system is deeply rooted in the Indian society irrespective of religion.
The time is ripe for a revival in the Church. It is time to take action. A time for the Church to put its efforts where its mouth is.
Honor killing is not just a Christian problem. India’s caste system takes its origin in Hindu religion. The caste system divides Hindus into four main categories – Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and the Shudras. Many believe that the groups originated from Brahma, the Hindu God of creation.
Manusmirit acknowledges and justifies the caste system as the basis of order and regularity of society”.
Sources say, “Dozens of people, both women and men, are killed for “honor” every year, falling victim to the deeply entrenched caste system. The majority of these killings take place in the agrarian states of Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan, where land ownership and caste go hand in hand and an honor culture thrives by maintaining caste and gender hierarchies.
The upper castes fiercely guard their hold over land and power in the community”.
It is not justified to have such perception that it mainly happens in North India. There are many cases which occur in South region as well.
Among these stories, one story that has left a deep impression on us is that of Shankar and Kausalya of Tamil Nadu. Shakar, Kausalya’s lower caste husband, was killed in broad daylight by her family.
Not long back, on September 14, 2018, Pranay Perumalla was murdered in front of his wife, Amrutha, in an alleged honor killing. ‘My father ordered my husband’s murder,’ was the anguished statement of Amrutha.
In another suspected case of honor killing, “a man killed his 20-year-old daughter and completed her final rites hurriedly on October 29, 2018, in the Prakasam district of Andhra Pradesh.
On May 22 this year, a young Mumbai doctor Payal Salman Tadvi took her own life because she could no longer take the insults of her colleagues, who denigrated her because of her caste origins.
National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), which gathers data about different crimes in the country, shows that the rate of crimes against Dalits has risen in the last few years. The conviction rate for such crimes has also declined substantially.
In 2016, an estimated 214 incidents of crimes against scheduled castes (SCs) were reported, up from 207 the previous year, according to the NCRB data.
In all of India, 40,801 atrocities against Dalits were reported in 2016, up from 38,670 in 2015. The NCRB data shows that even in this age, being a Dalit is not easy in India.
The country has enacted many laws and social initiatives to protect and improve the socio-economic conditions of its lower caste population since the 1950s, but the continuous tradition of marrying in one’s own caste has kept the system rigid in the present day.
Christian faith teaches that all humans are created in the image and likeness of God. Hence everyone is precious in the eyes of God and fellow human beings. “Any kind of social or cultural discrimination in basic personal rights on the grounds of sex, race, color, social conditions, language or religion, must be curbed and eradicated as incompatible with God’s design.” Gaudium et Spes #29
The caste system is a sin; a sin that divides the human family, blots out the image of God among specific members of that family, and violates the fundamental human dignity of those called to be children of the same Father.
Indeed, caste discrimination is more than a disregard for the words of Jesus; it is a denial of the truth of the dignity of each human revealed by the mystery of the Incarnation.
Christ was diametrically opposed to injustice and discrimination. He opted for the poor, the excluded and the vulnerable. He preached justice and love for all. ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ is a pretty tall order, if one thinks deeply and seriously about what this message really means. It’s pretty difficult to love anyone as one loves self.
“Hundreds of Dalits who joined Christianity to escape grinding poverty, exploitation and humiliation, are estimated to number some 30 percent of India’s 27 million Christians. Together with tribal people, who also form about 30 percent, these socially and economically poor groups constitute the majority of Indian Christians.”
No matter how progressive the Church teaching is, the caste system continues to torment the Indian church. The Catholic Church in India says it does not approve of caste discrimination. But it says it is helpless in resolving this issue.
Dalit leaders are not represented in most church decision-making bodies and face discrimination by being allotted separate parishes, feasts and localities, including exclusive spaces for them in churches and even some cemeteries within the Christian community.
“Justice is delivered for Kevin but my son isn’t coming back,” mourned Kevin’s mother after the verdict.
The country has seen many such cases. Dalits are attacked, murdered, lynched, killed, mocked, dragged, banned, threatened, charged and curtailed for eating beef, marrying the choice of his/her own, wearing wrong shoes, going to church, entering into temple, giving speeches, singing songs, writing books and so on. They are tortured for doing very ordinary thing and for all wrong reason.
It is crucial for Christians to save the precious lives of our brothers and sisters. A duty most appropriate in our times, especially for Church, is to work untiringly to end all forms of discrimination that take away life and one’s dignity.
It is a high time the Church implemented the Dalit Empowerment Policy of the Catholic Bishop Conference of India(CBCI) and made its authorities and faithful follow it strictly.
(Sister Sujata Jena is a member of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary(SS. CC.) congregation. She did her novitiate in 2006 in the Philippines. She has a master degree in Social Work and a law degree from Utkal University, Odisha. She has worked among Dalit and tribal women, children, and youth of the eastern Indian states of Odisha and West Bengal. Currently, she is studying Missiology in Manila, Philippines.)