Jose Kananaikil: He thought for them and acted

When Catholic faith and spirituality is seen from a proper perspective, we will realize that it is a liberating faith that must throw up people like Kananaikil (25 May 1934 – 12 January 2018) who can identify fully with the vulnerable and the marginalized.

Jose Kananaikil: He thought for them and acted

By Joe Palathunkal
When Jesus went to the Samaritan region and talked to a Samaritan woman, it was the greatest revolutionary act for a Jew two thousand years ago; the same was true when he allowed the lepers to come near him for healing because they were all sub-humans for the Jews who arrogantly looked at themselves as the only Chosen People of God. The situation was not much different when Father Jose Kananaikil (25 May 1934 – 12 January 2018) reached out to the Dalits of Bihar in 1980s though we Indians have a Constitution by our greatest Dalit visionary Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, Father of Indian Constitution.

Equipped with an M. A. in Indian philosophy and Religion from the University of Pune and another M. A. in Sociology and a doctorate from the University of Chicago, USA, this Patna Jesuit had a powerful intellectual armour to take on the pernicious caste system and caste oppression of Bihar. Their condition was horrible to say the least.

Whenever I visited Kananaikil’s residence near the great granary Golghar in Patna, I used to see a lot of typed pages spread over his table, chair and even bed, and little did I realize in those days that this unassuming man was doing a deep thinking and study on the condition of Dalits in Bihar. He not only thought for them but also acted with vision and foresight. The result of his thoughtful thoughts was his doctorate from the University of Chicago on the Scheduled castes of India.

To turn the thought into action he founded the Bihar Dalit Vikas Samiti (BDVS) in Barh, Bihar, 1982, and organized the Dalits on the lines of Dalit identity, Dalit unity, and Dalit development to educate them and organize them as Ambedakar envisaged. BDVS started cooperative societies, income generating activities; self-employment oriented training programmes, and legal aid cells.

By 1992 BDVS had 588 villages of Bihar as its field of action to help the Dalits demand their rights effectively. The organization also began management of schools and credit unions to protect the Dalits from the exploitation of money-lenders.

Kananaikil’s activities did not go well with the exploiting class and so they attacked the BDVS workers and members to intimidate them and suppress them. One of the workers Ram Swaroop was brutally attacked by the goons of the landlords and blinded. Police even refused to register a case against the attackers; instead they kept the victim in illegal detention without giving any medical care. It was an agitation by the BDVS members that got the victim released.

In another case the landlords unleashed attack on Dalit musicians when they demanded better pay, and they raped even the women. Coldblooded police apathy forced Dr. Jose Kananaikil to take the case to the Supreme Court of India and win it in favour of the victims and as a result each victim was given a house and land by the government.

By 2003 BDVS had 100,000 Dalit families as its members spread over 12 districts of Bihar meanwhile Father Jose Kananaikil had became a recognized voice of Dalits in the State. His annual Dalit Diwas was a great crowd puller. I remember a huge Dalit rally in the historic Gandhi Maidan of Patna to celebrate the dalit day and almost all the leading politicians of Bihar vying with each other to be on the dais. Even Lalu Prasad Yadav was there announcing free food for the whole gathering.

But besides the BDVS, Jose Kananaikil’s contribution to Dalit literature and writing is unforgettable. During his two decades of service as the Head of the Scheduled Caste section at the Indian Social Institute, New Delhi, Dr. Jose Kananaikil wrote and published copiously on Dalits and Dalit issues, voiced his concerns loudly on the human rights violations of Dalits.

Appropriately, he brought out a powerful Hindi monthly “Hum Dalit” (We Dalits) which published Dalit concerns through perspicacious stories and reflective articles. We Dalits remind me of Father Damien who after ten years of service among the lepers addressed them as “We lepers”. Father Jose Kananaikil too might have said in his heart of heart during his prolonged infirmity: We Dalits. When Catholic faith and spirituality is seen from a proper perspective, we will realize that it is a liberating faith that must throw up people like Kananaikil who can identify fully with the vulnerable and the marginalized.

(Joe Palathunkal is Associate Editor, Living In Faith)

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