Alarming rise of khap among Indian Catholics in UK

Source: Matters India

Editor: All names in the article have been changed to protect the identities of persons mentioned here.)

Tessmy, a Syro-Malabar teenage girl in UK, is in a dilemma and angry. Her two friends, Rachel and Roshni, are expecting babies from their boyfriends

Tessmy is not angry with her friends who live in Northham city in central England. She is angry with her community that acts like khap panchayat, or the caste-based kangaroo courts of some northern Indian states.

When the two kids arrive in the months of March and April 2015, two extremely different worlds await them, says Tessmy.

The kids’ expected reception to this world in March and April has become a study of contrasts – cultures, religious beliefs and social approbation.

“My mum and dad called me a prostitute and cursed my unborn baby before throwing me out of my home,” said Roshni, daughter of Syro-Malabar parents settled in UK. With tears in her eyes she pointed to the baby inside her and added: “I am afraid my baby will have not much of a social life as he grows up.”

The situation was just the opposite at Rachel’s home. The British kid told Tessmy, ‘My mum and dad are coming to stay with me and help us out as the date of delivery nears.”

Tessmy could not sleep for three days after listening to Roshni’s plight, a month ago. Her friend had to leave home abruptly and seek accommodation with the social service before she and her Bangladeshi Muslim boyfriend could find a modest accommodation.

Tessmy felt helpless and tried to store up some support from her South Indian community through her relatives and acquaintances who knew Roshni.

“No, we should not offer any support, not even keep telephonic contact with her,” said Joby, the choirmaster of the Northam Mass center when she broached the subject. “If we do, it may encourage other youngsters to follow suit,” he justified.

Tessmy was surprised at the explanation from Joby, her cousin with a reputation being a pious Catholic. Being relatively young and involved in youth activities she had expected him to be progressive and sympathetic to Roshni, who was a regular singer at the Northham church choir.

Another community leader reacted the same way.

“We had tried our best, sending her to as many retreats as she was willing to attend and the whole community is praying for her. But no change. She is a ‘gone case’,” said, Shyju, nicknamed ‘the pope’ in the community thanks to his full time involvement with it.

Roshni’s dad James is a community leader and the trustee at the Mass center. These Mass centers were started by Syro-Malabar priests a few years ago to instill in young Syro-Malabar Christians the so-called traditional values of their community.

These priests demonized the Western culture and emphasized the need to protect their younger generation from it. They expanded their activities into prayer groups, monthly and annual retreats, catechism classes and various other activities. Before the establishment of the Mass centers the faithful participated in the Sacraments along with the local Catholics, in a spirit of the universality of the Church and enjoyed it.

The arrival of the Mass centers changed all that. Jimmy being a leader of the community felt compelled to set an example when his daughter deviated from the ‘normal’ path. The members of the community appreciated his exemplary action and made sure their teen children knew of this action so that it could act as subtle warning to them should any such ideas creep into their mind.

Tessmy tried to make sense of Jimmy’s actions and the community’s reactions. The Syro-Malabar Catholics seem to have judged and punished Roshni by throwing her onto the street for something that would hardly count as a sin in a post-modern society like UK. It is another matter that these people had gladly taken an oath to uphold the values of the society when they were conferred its citizenship by the Queen.

Rachel is also a Catholic but her community is looking forward to welcoming the child. But Rachel was white and her society understood and practiced their faith in a different way.

“Is there a khap panchayat operating in our community?” Tessmy wondered seeing her community’s unanimous attitude to her parents stubborn stand.

‘Or is it a case of the community trying to deny that our youngsters have a different view of life than their conservative parents by hiding their head in the sand like an ostrich?’ she asked herself. “Or may be it is a combination of both,’ she concluded.

As she thought about these disgusting things, anger welled up in her heart against the community and particularly toward Roshni’s family.

The khap panchyats operate to protect the reputation of the family and the community. ‘After all, Roshni’s dad’s personal reputation was dubious,’ she thought.

It had taken a dip after he had held on to the mike set and some other assets of the secular community association, Northham Keralavedhi of which he was the secretary when it had split. As the secretary he was the keeper of the assets of the association and since he had not joined either of the groups he kept the assets with the hope he could use it to bargain with the splinter groups. The groups responded by naming him ‘mike thief.’

Three years after the split he returned the mike set to one of the groups in an effort to retrieve his reputation but the muck stuck. However his efforts to get elected as the trustee of the mass centre found success. That was easy as he was the only candidate and the priest in charge was a friend.

Tessmy put on Roshnis’ parents the main responsibility for her deviating from the normal middle class migrant kid’s path: finish the school, go to the university, find a job and then enter family life under the parental tutelage.

They had refused to give her the necessary support while in school as parents of many of her friends did. Her dad was a victim of his own success. His academic pursuits had ended at 10th class and a diploma in ‘turning and fitting.’ These studies were enough for him to get a job in a rig in the gulf with a decent salary.

With the money he saved he was able to build a house in Kerala, buy some plots of land and impress beautiful Jyothi, a nurse whom he married after a short love affair. Later he migrated to UK on ‘sari visa’ and got an job in supermarket. His experience of life had made him conclude that what one needs is street smartness and not too much ‘book learning.’

‘Look at me, I have proved book learning is not needed for success in life,’ Tessmy has heard him argue when people discuss importance of arranging supportive tuitions for success in exams and getting into a good university.

Academics in UK consider students whose parents are not graduates find university education challenging and propose remedial measures be taken at the high school stage itself. Thanks to his philosophy of education it never occurred to Jimmy that he needed to invest on his children. He would save money in buying properties and brag about it as would any migrant of his class and education do.

“Rubina is my new name,” Roshni said displaying a certificate when Tessmy met her in the studio apartment accommodation at Mayfield Road that she and her boyfriend had rented.

“Since my boyfriend is a Muslim, I thought I should convert,” she added. ‘She is willing to go to any extend to find acceptance and recognition,’ Tessmy thought.

However it did not appear to be a good omen to her as from what she had learned she knew Islam was equally if not more oppressive toward women.

‘Oh my God, she seems to have gone from an oppressive dad to oppressive husband,’ Tessmy thought but hid her feeling from her friend for fear of offending her.

Though born in a Catholic family and was baptized Tessmy does not practice her religion as her community do. Though not a regular church goer she never condemned her friends who did.

Women are on the forefront of supporting religious practices in spite of the lowly place that religion gives them made her think deeply about religions. Being a student at university she had on numerous occasions held discuss on this issue with people from a number of religions and had even attended a number of lectures along with philosophy students on religion.

From these she had concluded religion may have evolved to enhance social cohesion and cooperation and may have helped groups survive. The leaders of the Syrian Christian community in the UK seem to feel the same. In order to survive in the multicultural community they need to form small groups and preclude the possibility of their members mingling with others.

As a direct consequence of their efforts, the informal khap panchayats emerged among them. It is the logical conclusion of homilies that imported priests from Kerala give week after week demonizing western culture
‘Nothing could be far from the truth,’ Tessmy thought. ‘Roshni is a just one of the victims of this type of interpretation of the Word of God. She knew a number of others too. Thanks to their parent’s religious ideology and practices a migrant Malayali girl child has a hard time growing up. But once they reach 18 they are willing to take any risk to assert their rights as in the case of Rubina or Roshini.

Growing up was really hard for Rubina. She was a lively and bubbly girl who enjoyed chatting and meeting people. Her jokes and laughs used to bring extra life to the group whenever their friendship group met. When her parents restrained on her movements as she grew, facebook and internet provided an alternative.

Talking with other girls was tolerated by her parents but with boys was a no go area and was dealt with cane. Her friends have found her with bruises and swollen eyes a number of times, but she would not utter a word against her own family. Her elder brother often spied on her. She met her boyfriend on the net.

“They would call me a prostitute, if I talked to any boys even when I was only 11 years old,” Rubina recalled.

Looking around the house, Tessmy realized Rubina is preparing to be a caring mother. Though the child is four month away, she has already bought a pram, numerous baby clothes and cupboard full of nappies. It appeared to Tessmy she is determined to prove to her oppressive parents and to her community that one can be caring parents. She even put up a radiogram of her child on Instagram.

Tessmy also noted another contrast that disturbed her no end. A few weeks after Rubina was thrown out of her home her dad bought a Mercedes car worth £42,000 and moved to a bigger house after disposing off the old one. The family’s overall interaction with the community was ‘things as normal’ and the Syro-Malabar khap panchayat seemed to fully supported them.

Jimmy invited the priest at Mass centre to bless his new car and hoped that one day the priest would ask him to provide the comforts of his Mercedes to transport a visiting bishop to and from the airport. For any pious Catholic it is an honor that they can brag about to friends and relatives. ‘Should the plight of Rubina reach the ears of the bishop would he also dismiss it as ‘gone case,’’ Tessmy wondered.

‘If I had an opportunity I would take the bishop to the family of Rachel,’ Tessmy said. ‘It is their ideas that has created the Malabar khap panchayat and it is they who can dissolve it,’ she said emphatically.

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