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FR. AROKIAM

An Appa Story
‘Baptised but never educated’

Fr. Arokiam

As one of the people associated with Grihini from the very beginning, I tend to be called appa, ‘father,’ both because I am a priest and because I have been accepted as a senior member of the Grihini family.

Initially I was hesitant about getting involved in the women’s program that Jan Orrell was initiating. After all I was a man, a Jesuit priest and heavily involved in rehabilitating both men and women who had been part of the bonded labour case. Since when did Jesuit priests promote the cause of women? Fr Amalraj and I were more interested in leading a revolution for the freed labourers than worrying about women!

Then our paths crossed and have been crossing ever since. I needed a place where I could show a film called An Indian Dream to the bonded labour repatriates as part our rehabilitation program. A local Jesuit refused us his space and TV. I then approached Dr Habel, already involved in the bonded labour case, who happily gave us the use of the auditorium at Kodai School. Several days each week, freed labourers crowded into the facilities of an international school, something that did not go unnoticed by the local officials or the local community.

Jan Orrell then took the opportunity of visiting the freed labourers housed at La Providence, a Jesuit retreat centre with considerable property. She suggested that some of the property be used to establish a special program for the forgotten women of the Kodai Hills.

I say forgotten quite deliberately. For 100 years the Jesuits had been active in the Kodai Hills, but for 100 years the Jesuits had done nothing to help the women and nothing to lift the Dalits and Tribals of the area. For 100 years Dalits and Tribals had been labourers in the coffee plantations owned by the Jesuit. For 100 years Dalits and Tribals had been ‘baptised but never educated.’ As one old Jesuit said, when the first women came to Grihini, ‘They should be out catching crabs not trying to read.’

It was the unbelievable vision, drive and insights of Jan Orrell that was the catalyst for bringing together key people who made the Grihini dream a reality. Of course, I was sceptical. Jesuits are not feminists! Yet, the principles, approaches and compassion of those who supported Jan convinced us that a Grihini experiment was worth trying.

In spite of all the doubt and opposition, the transformation in the women of that first class and the reaction in the home villages convinced us that it was time Jesuit social justice theology ought to be put into practice for women!

Now we operate with an orientation that is diametrically opposite to what was espoused in the early days of Jesuit thinking. It was assumed that we should start from the top and educate those who were ‘intelligent’ with the hope that this would eventually lead to the redemption of those at the bottom, the Dalits and Tribals who were thought to be unintelligent.

After Grihini we think quite differently. Our task is to educate those at the bottom of the social ladder with the belief that they will eventually help those on the so-called top to understand their biases and also be liberated.

So, we start from the bottom. Criteria for selection into this program are related to the people at the bottom, the poorest of the poor. Selection to other programs is often related to merit and efficiency. One of Grihini’s criteria is illiteracy. If a girl has an education, it would be no more than 5th standard. Second criterion is coolie worker, third Kodaikanal rural women. The program has a clear ideology and ideals that are related to the poorest people at the bottom. This occurred because the organisers and originators had a sense of the oppressed. The program was designed to address the specific problem of the dehumanised and downtrodden women of the Kodai Hills. Now twenty years later, those at the bottom are more educated, but the need for social awareness and life-based education remains.

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