Harinath Das, a Dalit Hindu, prepares baskets in his home village of Chuknagar in Khulna district of Bangladesh. (Photo: Stephan Uttom/UCA News)
In 1988, a 13-year-old Hindu boy visited a barber shop with his father to have a haircut in Chuknagar of Khulna district.
Before finishing the haircut, the owner of the shop, also a Hindu, started hurling abusive words and threw them out of the shop.
The “fault” of the father and the son was that they were Dalits (outcastes or untouchables) and not eligible for services from people of the four-tier Hindu caste system.
“I have grown up watching how my community has faced discrimination, abuses and injustices from society. That incident shocked me and put a permanent mark on my mind,” Milan Das, now 45 and a father of two, told UCA News.
It sounds absurd but in those days it was very common to see Dalits being denied entry to restaurants, schools and even temples. Upper-caste Hindus and even Muslims felt discomfort in their presence due to long-running social stigma.
Even now, in many places Dalits are cremated in separate places from regular shoshan (cremation sites) designated for caste Hindus.
Three decades on, Milan has obtained a postgraduate degree, became a vocal campaigner for Dalit rights and now heads Parittran (Liberation or Salvation), Bangladesh’s first social action group promoting social change, education, empowerment and rights of Dalits.
The organization started in 1993 following years of social mobilization by a small group of Dalit students. It has become a strong agent of change for tens of thousands of downtrodden Dalits concentrated in Khulna, Jessore and Satkhira districts of Bangladesh.
Milan Das credits Catholic missionaries with development of the Dalit community. (Photo: Stephan Uttom/UCA News)
Pushing for change
For years, Parittran and like-minded organizations have been pushing for an anti-discrimination law to bring an end to abuses and discrimination against Dalits.
However, nothing would have been possible without outstanding service from Catholic missionaries, mostly priests from the Society of St. Francis Xavier for Foreign Missions (popularly called Xaverians), since 1952.
Two Xaverians — Father Luigi Paggi and Father Antonio Germano — pioneered social changes through services that provided education, livelihoods and unionizing of the community.
“The missionaries have offered us education and encouraged us to raise our voice against discrimination and injustice and demand our constitutional rights as citizens of the country. They are truly our saviors,” Milan said.
Dipali Das, 43, head of the Dalit Empowerment Foundation (DEF), a rights and empowerment group for Dalit women and girls, also credits Father Paggi and Father Germano with uplifting the community.
“For hundreds of years our ancestors have lived and died inhumanely. God created all human beings as equals but society put them into the lowest rung and didn’t even consider them as human beings,” Dipali, 43, a Hindu mother of a son, told UCA News.
Dipali said her father was among the first Dalit leaders to collaborate with Father Paggi, who has worked among the community since 1985.
“He is our guru and taught us the mantra ‘To be and to do’. His emphasis on personal and social reforms for the community changed our lives forever,” she added.
Father Luigi Paggi teaches computing to ethnic Munda girls in Satkhira district in 2017. (Photo: Stephan Uttom/UCA News)
The Rishi Mission
Xaverian missionaries have played a vital role in the advent and growth of the Catholic Church in the southern part of East Bengal (now Bangladesh) since their arrival in 1895 during British colonial rule of India.
They were entrusted with the responsibility when Khulna Diocese was formed in 1952 and the plight of Dalits came to their attention.
Dalits (literally meaning “trampled upon”) are also termed Rishi (wise or sage) in Bangladesh by humanists. Indian leader and philosopher Mahatma Gandhi affectionately called them Horijon (children of Hori, the Hindu god Vishnu).
Researchers believe Dalits make up more than 16 percent of the population of India, while in Bangladesh they account for about 3.5 million people or just over 2 percent of the population.
In southern Bangladesh, Dalits are often called by derogatory terms denoting their old professions, such as Methor (cleaners), Dom (grave diggers) Chamar (animal hide collectors) Muchi (cobblers), Das (servants) and Koiborto (fishermen). Social discrimination has been blamed for widespread poverty in the community.
Milan Das of Parittran estimates there are about 500,000 Dalits in Khulna, Jessore and Satkhira districts. Thanks to the efforts of missionaries, 80 percent have denounced their old professions and become farmers
Xaverians initially devoted themselves to education and the conversion of Dalits to Christianity. Today, three Catholic parishes — Shimulia, Satkhira and Borodol — are composed entirely of Dalits, accounting for half of Catholics in Khulna Diocese.
However, some rebel missionaries refused to accept conversion as a way of true emancipation from the plight of Dalits, so they pioneered social reformation to bring sustainable changes for the community.
After serving Satkhira parish from 1975 to 1980, Father Paggi left to embrace the Rishi Mission for the next 25 years.
“Instead of prioritizing conversion, I started universal education and a campaign for breaking the wall of social divide that entrapped the community for ages. I have tried to bring to their sense that it is their country too. They must demand for their rights, and if needed they must wage movements,” Father Paggi, 72, told UCA News.
Father Paggi’s rebellious activities didn’t go down well with locals, and even seniors of his religious order expressed resentment.
“Our elders didn’t like the idea of social changes and even termed us ‘atheists’. The locals were suspicious that this might just be another ploy to convert people. All we wanted was to ensure their food, housing, livelihood, education and empowerment, and religion comes much later,” the priest added.
More changes are required, including greater unity to advance Dalits’ development, he said.
In 2001, Father Germano took over the mission from Father Paggi, who went on to start a new mission for the marginalized Munda community near the Sundarbans mangrove forest.
The 81-year-old Italian priest has become so attached to the community that he has added the common Dalit title “Das” to his name.
“Father Luigi Paggi left the community on a strong foundation and I faced no challenge in continuing the mission because he has tackled everything so well. God has inspired us to discover God in the Dalits,” Father Germano told UCA News.
Father Antonio Germano has been serving the Dalit community in southern Bangladesh since 2001. (Photo: Stephan Uttom/UCA News)
A catechist’s tribute
In the 1980s, Chuknagar became a base station for “new-era” Xaverian missionaries serving Dalits in southern Bangladesh.
About 700 Hindu, Muslim and Christian students are in 14 schools in the Chuknagar-Khampur area run by Mary, Queen of the Poor Catholic Church, a sub-center under St. Joseph’s Cathedral Church of Khulna.
Because the missionaries didn’t force conversion on Dalits, the area has only 300 Catholics.
Shudhangshu Martin Das, 40, a Catholic and catechist, believes Dalits would be still in the dark if the missionaries were not there for them.
“Dalits have lived like animals and as untouchables, but they have given us hope and courage to overcome obstacles. Today, many Dalits like me are educated, able to eat and live with dignity thanks to great missionaries,” he told UCA News.
“The missionaries have literally put us in flower vases from the dirty drains.”
The anti-discrimination law must be passed to ensure the social dignity and human rights of Dalits in Bangladesh, said Mizanur Rahman, former chairman of the National Human Rights Commission.
“Bangladesh was born in 1971 with a spirit of freedom, equality and justice, and we will be far away from this spirit as long as Dalits continue to experience discriminations,” he told UCA News.