Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Interview with a Missionary

Dr Jose Maliekal


Dr Jose Maliekal is a Catholic priest who is the Principal of St John’s Regional Seminary, Kondadaba, Andhra Pradesh. He is a profound thinker who perceives the realities around us very keenly and discerningly. I am pleased to bring here this interview with him which was held via email. He speaks frankly about contemporarily relevant topics such as religious conversion, love jihad, fascism in India, and the farmers’ agitation.

 Apart from being a professor of philosophy and a deep thinker, you are also a Christian priest who has worked for decades among the Dalits in Andhra Pradesh. Many of the Dalits have been converted to Christianity. Why do you think they choose Christianity?

The Dalits negotiate religion in the particular context of their political, social and economic marginality and appropriate the various elements of religion to respond to their own needs and to pursue their own dreams. This dynamics challenges the missionaries as well as those who accuse them of converting the poor. Both of them, ironically, have one thing in common, namely the objectification of people. For example, if the subalterns are assumed as mute sheep without mind and freedom of their own, their change of religion is interpreted as forced conversion, by the right-wing forces or they are labelled as “Rice Christians” even by Christians. My experience as a missionary and more particularly, my five-year long research, among the Dalit Madigas of Andhra Pradesh falsify such assumptions and interpretations. We must think of the phenomenon of conversion, in new terms, taking into account of the agency of the people who create their own history, with their own choices and decisions.

 What is your opinion about the anti-conversion laws being enacted in certain states these days?

     Article 25 of the Constitution guarantees freedom of religion to all persons of India. The earlier Anti-Conversion Bills by different states and the recent attempts of BJP ruled state governments to bring in ordinances and bills on Love-Jihad, criminalizing conversions for marriage, go against the spirit and letter of the freedom of religion guaranteed by the Indian constitution. Along with these, the recent CAA, which evidently is anti-Minority in intent and communally tilted against the Muslims is yet another example of the Majoritarian Nationalist government’s overreach against the constitutional guarantee of freedom of conscience and religion. They also go against the agency of the Dalits, who opt out of the hierarchical oppression of Hinduism and opt into other religions, which at least promise equality and dignity. The call of the Sangh Parivar for Ghar Wapsi is also along the same vein of suppression of the freedom of religion.

At the release of his book
 In your book Standstill Utopias? you wrote that “The protectionism of the Catholic missionaries, coupled with their imposition of the dominant cultural and religious modes on Madiga life and religiosity have suppressed the potential for the enhancement of identity, leading to a state of truncated autonomy and contradictory consciousness.” It is a very profound observation coming from a Catholic missionary. Do you think the missionary activity among the Dalits in India should be less about religion and more about their personal, social, and cultural growth?

     The title of my work Standstill Utopias?: Dalits Encountering Christianity indicates that any claim that Catholicism responded holistically to the aspirations and dreams of Madigas would fly in the face of actual reality. Here is a case of ambiguity. When the Madigas were marginalized and discriminated against and stripped of their basic human dignity, Catholicism appeared to them as the way out of this appalling situation. But the unfolding of their further history in the fold of Catholicism has left a lot of questions open. In spite of a lot of advancement in their life-conditions, they have been perhaps chasing a chimera, and their utopias have come to a “standstill”. Their political potential, which is very crucial in any struggle for liberation, appears to be stunted. Their story seems to be one of fractured identity and truncated autonomy, to a large extent. My call for a primordial theology or a public theology as an alternative to the function or the play around the Altar-oriented pastoral approach of Christianity precisely addresses the need of religion, oriented to political economy and catering to the socio-political and cultural growth of the people, especially the marginalized. For a Subaltern, “Rice is God” and “Well-being, here below is Salvation.”

Love Jihad is a controversy that has gathered renewed momentum now. What is your view on love jihad and the surrounding controversy?

     Love Jihad is a bogey and a construct of the Sangh Parivar, which has to do with a history of Hindu beleaguerment, building itself on tiresome sexual rhetoric which is commonplace in caste society. The fundamental difference now, though is that such an entreaty comes from a position of brute power.   In a culture that routinely infantilises women or views them as foolish and incapable of rational choice, this is to be expected. If the upper caste women are tutored on how to behave, the ‘lower’ caste women are warned that they step beyond the Lakshmanrekhas ordained for them only at the dire cost of violence, abuse, and life itself. If it is bad enough that caste society is sustained by puerile fears to do with transgressive love, but to have parts of a nation get phobic over women’s alleged lack of emotional judgment and the alleged chicanery of Muslims is worse and civilisationally pathetic. As well-known social critic, V. Geetha observes, “While we stake our rights to lives and loves of our choice, equally, we might want to assert our right to re-imagine this nation, not in terms of faith and caste, but in ways we have learned from anti-caste and feminist traditions — where the nation is essentially an equal, just and fraternal society.” (https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/daring-to-love-beyond-societal-limits/article33172069.ece). What is of greater concern for me even Christians are increasingly falling prey to this well-orchestrated and cultivated Love-Jihad Islamophobic Goebbelsian Post-truth Propaganda.

There is a burgeoning religious consciousness in India under the leadership of Mr Narendra Modi. On the other hand, the Prime Minister is very tech-savvy too. Do you think there is a contradiction in this: embracing religion fanatically while promoting technology aggressively?

    A few years back, the gift shop of The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum used to sell a poster with 14 early signs of Fascism listed on it. Mahua Moitra, TMC M.P. from Bengal, in her maiden speech in the parliament, brought into relief, seven of them, to describe the murky political situation of the country, bordering on Fascism. The coalescing nexus of corporate sector and the entwined forces of government and religion are signs of Fascism. And India, with the rise of Right-wing Majoritarian religio-cultural nationalism is witnessing just that. The burgeoning religious consciousness finding expression in religious revivalism, unleashing the forces of communalism can perfectly co-exist with the technocratic paradigm of development, in favour of the corporate oligarchy, and the politicians, their stooges, perfecting the art of doublespeak, thriving on the culture of the post-truth. Modi is a perfect mascot and catalyst of this toxic alchemy of people-negating science and monolithic monster of religious fundamentalism.

What is your opinion about the farmers’ bills which have attracted unprecedented protests from a sizeable section of farmers?

    The three farm bills, passed in unholy haste in the parliament and which have come under heavy and widespread criticism, in the perception of the large sections of the farmers, are draconian and throwing them into the jaws of corporate sharks. Their repeal is called for because they negatively affect not only the framers, but also the citizens of India, in general, as they would have to be standing with begging bowls, subject to corporate whims, for their daily food, if these laws were implemented. As P. Sainath, the renowned journalist remarked during a recent interview, they are undemocratic and anti-people in nature, foreclosing the possibility of judicial appeal by the farmers, subjecting them to the mercy of the executive, which would play the role of judiciary. While the issues highlighted by the farmers’ protests are not entirely new, the current convergence of authoritarianism and corporate capital brings this existential crisis for rural agricultural producers, even more sharply in focus. The problem of low incomes in India’s agriculture sector is a complex systems problem, needing multi-disciplinary approach, towards systemic solutions, which must take into confidence, also the intended beneficiaries of the new policies.

 Finally, what do you think is the direction that India should take for improving its declining status in many indices like Hunger Index and Corruption Index?  

 As stated by Arun Maira, is his recent Lead Article in the Hindu (https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/in-agri-reforms-go-back-to-the-drawing-board/article33358238.ece), “India’s policymakers must improve their expertise in solving complex, multidisciplinary problems. They must apply the discipline of systems thinking, and not rely on siloed domain experts. Moreover, citizens around the country must be listened to at the very beginning, and throughout the evolution of policies; not communicated to at the end by experts who then complain that citizens are being misled by political forces.” This implies a democratic and bottom-up approach to problems, like migration, labour hunger and corruption. As Amartya Sen observed, development is freedom and in a well-functioning democracy, there cannot be famine. This is quite different from the policy approach of the Niti Aayog CEO, Amitabh Kant, who stated that there is too much democracy in India, which stand against tough reforms (https://www.siasat.com/too-much-democracy-niti-aayog-ceo-amitabh-kants-comment-receives-flak-on-social-media-2041658/). 

 I have not laid out the nitty-gritty of putting India a notch up above Bangladesh and Bhutan in the Hunger, Corruption and Happiness Indices, but what I have stated surely goes into the systemic approach towards that. The downward slide of Indian Economy and other indices, during the Modi Regime, starting with his “Ache Din Aa Rahi Hai” in 2014 to 2019 and beyond, can be rooted to the trust-deficit between the people and the government and “We know it all” attitude of the BJP governments and the RSS ideologues. The chasm between the Balconied India and the Dark Underbelly of Bharat has to be bridged. The Bharat, which COVID-19 Lockdowns threw up for the world, as the unshod migrant-workers, the shadow citizens, in their millions, walked back to their hamlets for the security of their families and a decent burial, in the eventuality of death, gripped by Corona.

 

PS. All the coloured highlights have been added by the interviewer.

 My review of Dr Maliekal’s book, Standstill Utopias?, can be read here: Dalits and Religion

2 comments:

  1. This line is very significant- "Moreover, citizens around the country must be listened to at the very beginning, and throughout the evolution of policies; not communicated to at the end by experts who then complain that citizens are being misled by political forces.”

    Most problems emanate from disregarding the basics of administration in a democracy.

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    Replies
    1. Yes. The way the farmers' agitation has been dealt with is a good example.

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