Mahinder Singh sits with neighbors on charpai (cots of woven ropes) in their tiny village in Gangapar. (photo: John Mathew)
The Rev. M.J. Joseph, pastor of St. Alphonsa Church, leads a satsang in a mud hut. (photo: John Mathew)
Villagers gather for a candlelit satsang outside a house in a small village in Bhikkawala. (photo: John Mathew)
Mahinder Singh’s life has been fraught with hardship. His troubles began in 1947, when Britain — which had occupied the Indian subcontinent for generations — divided its colony into India and Pakistan, causing a migration of people considered the most extensive in recorded history. Major riots flared among Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. The ensuing violence killed roughly a million people, including Mr. Singh’s son and many of his relatives.
Born more than 90 years ago to a Sikh family of farmers in the Okara district of present-day Pakistan, Mr. Singh became one of the estimated 14.5 million people forced to abandon their ancestral homes and cross the new border after the partition. Complicating matters further, Mr. Singh is a Dalit.
A Sanskrit term, Dalit denotes the former “untouchable” groups in India’s multilayered caste system that segregates people on the basis of their birth. According to the 2011 national census, one in six Indians belong to this caste; in Uttar Pradesh, now home to Mahinder Singh, some 20 percent of the state’s nearly 200 million people belong to this group. And though Mahatma Gandhi called the Dalits “harijan” (children of God) and the Indian constitution bans caste discrimination, those once identified as such continue to lag behind, socially and economically.
The Indian government recognizes and protects Dalits, but Mr. Singh cannot claim any benefits; his community, Rai Sikh, is not listed as a scheduled caste in Uttar Pradesh. Nor may Mr. Singh appeal this status, as the special concessions for those of low-caste origin are restricted only to Dalits who identify as Hindus, Buddhists or Sikhs.
Mr. Singh accepted baptism as a Christian 12 years ago.
“I have wandered all my life for happiness and finally found peace in the Lord,” he says, standing tall and wiry despite a slight stoop.
Dalit Christians and Muslims are excluded from any concessions under the pretext that Christianity and Islam do not recognize the caste system. For the past 65 years, churches have been fighting to redress this injustice, saying it violates the Indian constitution’s prohibition of discrimination based on religion, caste or gender.
But Mr. Singh is not alone. He belongs to a community of hundreds of Syro-Malabar Dalits united within the Syro-Malabar Catholic Eparchy of Bijnor, which includes Uttarakhand state and the Bijnor district of Uttar Pradesh.
He and his wife, Preetam Kaur, live in a small village in an area known as Gangapar, a few miles from the eparchy’s newest parish, St. Alphonsa, founded in July 2013. Theirs is a story of both purpose and perseverance. Despite tremendous obstacles, the parish community has managed to thrive, buoyed by a fervent and unshakable faith.
On a Tuesday afternoon in May, around 15 people — mostly women — brave sizzling, 107-degree summer heat to assemble in Mr. Singh’s thatched mud hut. They have to duck to enter the low-roofed, two-room house. Squatting on mats and sheets spread over the floor, they join together in song and prayer.
Local catechist Xavier Masih leads what is locally known as satsang (“company of the truth”), a traditional gathering for prayer and discussion. The catechist plays on a dholak, a two-headed drum, starting low and rising to a crescendo. Between hymns he prays for the community and reads a scriptural passage. At the end, people queue up before him and the Rev. M.J. Joseph, who had arrived toward the end, to receive a blessing.
After the satsang, the group walks outside to sit in the shade and share their faith experiences.
“It is good to pray to God Almighty,” says Mr. Singh, explaining his reason for hosting the gathering, “for he has blessed us so much.”
The villagers take turns hosting satsang on Tuesdays, and usually about 30 people attend, says Mito Bai, Mr. Singh’s widowed daughter-in-law, who lives in an adjacent hut.
Mrs. Bai, who is in her late 40’s, says villagers look forward to this gathering, which is often scheduled at noon to allow agricultural laborers to attend on their lunch break. Faith, she explains, is central to the life of the community.
“God heals and blesses us in many ways,” she adds.
Nearly seven decades after the greatest tragedy of his generation, Mahinder Singh still leads a humble and simple life — but through his family, faith and church he has found peace.
“People come to church because they feel Christ has touched their lives in some way or other,” says Father Joseph, ordained three years ago. Such faith, he adds, is a great encouragement to those who work in an area that has so little of a Christian presence.
Gangapar, the region home to Mr. Singh and his family, means “the other side of the Ganges,” as a tributary of the Ganges River severs it from other areas of the state. For years, the river functioned as a barrier, discouraging Catholic priests from venturing further. For many in the isolated community, their first exposure to Christianity came from itinerant Methodist ministers who would visit and preach.
However, people from Gangapar would cross the river from time to time visit Bhikkawala, where the Syro-Malabar Catholic Sisters of the Destitute manage a dispensary. The priests and nuns noticed the villagers’ interest in the church and its services. “That is how we came to know the people of Gangapar and the work of the Methodists,” Father Joseph says.
The eparchy began outreach efforts in the area and six years ago bought six acres of land. A 300-square-foot open shed with a tin roof currently functions as the church. It has no cross and no altar. The only sign of the building’s nature is a painting of Jesus on one wall.
On the other side of that wall is a room where the priest lived. Recently, he offered the space to a homeless family, and took up residence in a room rented from a villager.
The parish has 12 Catholic families, including two Father Joseph baptized in March. About 60 more families also come to church, called Khrist Bhakta (“devotees of Christ”) — people who follow Christ without receiving baptism. They all live in villages within a 3-mile radius of the church.
Because of the community’s Methodist roots, they have yet to adopt Catholic devotions and acts of piety, such as the rosary. “Many find silent, personal prayer difficult,” Father Joseph says, as the parishioners had become quickly accustomed to the “charismatic faith” of the Methodist preachers they had first encountered, which fit well with their traditional satsang.
But the Syro-Malabar priest recognizes another, more fundamental problem for the community.
“The language used in the liturgy is high Hindi, which many do not understand. Since most speak Punjabi, they do not connect to the Divine Liturgy.”
To better reach out to the community, the pastor encourages the assembly to pray and worship for 45 minutes in satsang style. He then reads from the Gospel, gives a brief homily and continues the Qurbana, the Divine Liturgy of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, with shortened and simple words, leaving unchanged only the eucharistic liturgy.
“This has promoted active participation,” Father Joseph says.
Father Joseph says many villagers have shown interest in the faith, but social repercussions hold them back.
“After baptizing two families, I have realized people worry about losing touch with their relatives. In emergencies, they used to go to their brothers and sisters for help. After becoming Catholics, relatives taunt them, telling them to go to their priests and nuns for help,” the young priest explains.
But some people, such as Jaswir Singh of Champatpur-Chakkala village, have braved such criticism. The turbaned man entered the church despite objections from his brothers, who are Sikhs, yet he is convinced Jesus will take care of him and his family.
“We became Christians because God entered our life,” he says.
He denies a common allegation by Hindu radicals that Christian missionaries entice poor Dalits with monetary benefits.
“I have not come to the church to receive something, nor have I received anything. We remain poor and continue to work for our living.”
Last year, the farmer had to mortgage his land to build a brick house to protect his family from the floods that ravage the village periodically. The transaction is risky, but Mr. Singh recognizes his good fortune, as most of his fellow parishioners work as landless laborers, earning some 250-300 rupees (about $4-5) daily.
Nearly three-quarters of India’s Dalits work as agricultural laborers, earning barely enough to feed their families or to send their children to school. As a result, many remain illiterate. A study four years ago by India’s National Sample Survey Office found that among scheduled castes and tribes, about half of males and three-quarters of females could not read or write.
In Gangapar, this group includes Jaswir Singh, his wife and his eldest daughter. However, Mr. Singh is determined to educate his four younger children.
Manoj Masih, Mr. Singh’s teenage neighbor, similarly hopes to place his younger siblings into boarding schools. The 18-year-old Catholic youth says he could not attend school because of poverty. He works on farms to supplement the wages his parents earn, and hopes for a better life.
Father Joseph hopes to make this happen. The Eparchy of Bijnor awards scholarships to needy children, paying their tuition for six months with an additional stipend to defray the cost of room and board and other fees, to attend boarding schools in either Bhikkawala, for girls and boys under age 10, or Mandawali, some 60 miles away, that houses older students.
Mr. Masih says he hopes to educate his sibling at least up to the tenth grade. “The Lord will help me,” he says, holding the rosary he wears around his neck.
His entire family was baptized more than three years ago after prayers, he says, healed his elder brother.
“We had spent lot of money for his treatment. But it was Prabhu Jisu (Lord Jesus) who cured my brother,” Mr. Masih says, adding that he had a vision of Jesus in a dream asking him to spend less time at work and more time in prayer.
“We pray in the morning and evening,” he adds with a sonorous voice that can often be heard adding its color and vigor to the satsang.
Roads in the area have not seen repairs for decades, says Surendrapal Singh Rai, a parishioner who coordinates the social service works of St. Alphonsa. The nearest bus stop is about two miles away.
He says the government departments and officers neglect the area because most residents are Dalit. Hence the parish reaches out to 15,000 families through initiatives for women, children and adults, regardless of religion. These efforts are improving lives, he says, and changing peoples’ attitudes toward the church. By raising awareness and building community, the parish aims to create a better support structure for the greater Dalit community.
Yet this outreach can backfire. In 2008, a group of radical Hindus lashed out against the presence of Christian missionaries in the area. Local people rallied behind the parish when protestors came to torch St. Mary’s Church in Bhikkawala and kill the pastor, the Rev. Jose Thekkemuriyil, amid accusations of “manipulating gullible Dalits.”
“But the villagers, led by their chief, chased them away,” Mr. Rai says.
The parish has not had such an incident since, he adds. Still, events like this serve to highlight yet another dimension of challenges this community faces.
“Our problems have not ended,” says Mito Bai. “But the Lord helps us to accept whatever happens in life.”
Speaking of the seasonal floods that threaten to their homes, she notes: “Once we were in neck deep water and we had nowhere to go. However, the Lord helped us face that situation.”
One day, Mrs. Bai hopes to have a brick house of her own, so she never has to worry about her mud hut washing away. But she remains philosophical — and realistic.
“Whether mud house or concrete one,” she says, “we have to go to God one day, leaving everything behind.”
Jose Kavi writes about social and religious issues in India from New Delhi.