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An "Upper" Caste System so deep rooted



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Upper caste Catholics demand special rights, threaten to reconvert
SHIV KUMAR

PANAJI, NOV 23: More than four hundred years after the first Catholic
Church
was established in Cuncolim, relations between it and the upper caste
Christian Gaonkars continue to be strained. Attempts by the present
parish
priest Soccoro Mendes to devolve administrative functions to lay
worshippers
from the lower castes have resulted in him being threatened by the
Gaonkars.
The Gaonkars are village rulers since pre-historic times hailing from
the
kshatriya community.
In a letter to the Director of the Holy See, Jacquine Nevarro Valls, the

Gaonkars have demanded that the Pastoral Council constituting lay
parishioners comprise entirely of their members as was the practice in
the
past. With the Catholic Church coming down hard on the caste system
among
its members Mendes appointed two members from the backward castes into
the
Pastoral Council in January this year. Though they are less than 3,000
in a
community of 20,000 Catholics, the Gaonkars comprising twelve clansare
opposed to sharing power.
"We are under a lot of pressure from the kshatriya community to maintain
the
old practices," Father Mendes told The Indian Express. He has been given

police protection after he complained of threats to his life.
However, the Gaonkars insist that the land on which the Church stands
originally belonged to the community. "Though the Portuguese converted
us by
force they respected our confraternity rights," says Josico Fernandes,
spokesperson of the Gaonkars. The community has now threatened
reconversion
to Hinduism if the non-Gaonkars are not withdrawn from the Council,
Fernandes said.
Incidentally, the Catholic kshatriyas of Cuncolim share a strong bond
with
their Hindu counterparts. The famous procession from the Shantadurga
temple
at Fatorpa attracts equal participation from both communities.
Emancipation of the lower castes does not seem to have touched the
affairs
of the temple either. The managing committee of the temple
thoughappointed
by the State Government comprises entirely of Gaonkars.
The dispute within the Church has also cast the spotlight on historical
events, which occurred here five hundred years ago. In 1583, attempts by
the
Portuguese army to convert the people of Cuncolim by force failed with
the
Gaonkars repelling the attack. Five Jesuit priests accompanying the
Portuguese army were killed in the skirmish. They were subsequently
beatified. In retaliation the Portuguese lured 15 chieftains of the
Gaonkars
to Assolna fort nearby on the pretext of holding talks and massacred
them.
The event which still stirs up passions in Cuncolim is being raked up
afresh. Gaonkars, Christian and Hindu, have set up a chieftains memorial

committee to honour the slain defenders of Cuncolim. The memorial will,
however, come up in the vicinity of a memorial for the slain priests
which
is venerated by the minority community. "It will surely hurt the
sentiments
of Christians," says Father Mendes. He,however, feels that the memorial
for
the chieftains should be put up at Assolna where they were massacred.
The site of the proposed memorial is a disputed land with the Gaonkars
and
the descendants of a Portuguese count claiming it. A 50-year-old case in
the
matter is still being heard at the Quepem civil court.



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