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Stigma and discrimination: an impediment to human right to water, with specific reference to Casteism in India , by Rev. Dr Raj Bharat Patta

The fourth reflection of the “Seven Weeks for Water 2019” of World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical Water Network is by Rev. Dr Raj Bharat Patta, an ordained minister of the Andhra Evangelical Lutheran Church in India. He has recently completed his PhD on the topic Subaltern Public Theology for India from the University of Manchester, UK. He served the Student Christian Movement of India as its national General Secretary and also the National Council of Churches in India as one of its Executive Secretaries, particularly focusing on Dalit and indigenous people. He currently serves as an Authorised Presbyter at the Stockport Methodist Circuit in UK with a pastoral charge of three churches.

Raj Bharat PattaThe fourth reflection of the “Seven Weeks for Water 2019” of World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical Water Network is by Rev. Dr Raj BharatPatta, an ordained minister of the Andhra Evangelical Lutheran Church in India. He has recently completed his PhD on the topic Subaltern Public Theology for India from the University of Manchester, UK. He served the Student Christian Movement of India as its national General Secretary and also the National Council of Churches in India as one of its Executive Secretaries, particularly focusing on Dalit and indigenous people. He currently serves as an Authorised Presbyter at the Stockport Methodist Circuit in UK with a pastoral charge of three churches.

In the following reflection, he narrates the story of Hagar through her voice, when she was left in the desert to fend for herself without an adequate supply of water to survive with and to keep her son Ishmael alive. Patta, draws similarities between the Dalit communities in India and that of Hagar, when it comes to access to water.

Text: Genesis 21:8-21

Reflection:

Early in the morning, long before the sunrise, when it was still dark, Abraham, through whom I bore his first descendant, deserted us and sent us away into the desert. All that he gave was some left-over food and a skin of water and left us into the dark.

I did not know where to go with my son and started to walk through the wilderness, for that is where I came from. Coming from a Black Ethnic Minority community, an outcasted community, I was treated as a property of my master at their house and was inhumanly pushed out from their house. After a brief walk in the woods, my child felt hungry and I fed him with food and water. Towards the end of the day in that scorching sun in the desert, we were thirsty and couldn’t continue our walk. We woke up the next day thirsty and searched for an oasis in that desert and could not find any water. I couldn’t see my son dying of thirst, and I left him alone near a bush and was sobbing at the other end, for God alone can save us from this thirst. I might be the only woman, perhaps the only slave woman who had a conversation with God in the Scriptures, calling God as ‘El -Roi’ (God who sees). Yet, Abraham, who couldn’t overcome his patriarchal dominance, deserted me and my son. And now we are dying of thirst here.

At that moment, God saw our plight and heard our cries. In fact, the patriarchal writers of the text in Genesis, did not record my plight and cries and mentioned that God heard the cries of my child. Yes, God did hear the plight of my son, for God gave life by quenching our thirst with a well of water. God sent a water angel and checked the matter from my end and strengthened me by providing water to us. Water was life to me and my son, for through water my child was ordained to become a great nation.

I realised without water, life is nearly death. For I have seen it with my own eyes, for my son was nearing death from thirst, and was longing for fresh water. By drinking water from the well, Ishmael my son came back to life. When my son and me were dying of thirst, God sent an angel with water from a well. God’s response is accurate, timely and relevant. Even though Abraham deserted me and my son, God did not leave us nor forsake us. God gave us waters of life so that we become a stream of life for many generations.

As I narrate this story from the perspective of Hagar in the Bible, I recount several people across the world today in 21stcentury who are dying thirsty, with lack of water, in fact lack of fresh water. My experience echoes with several peoples’ experience today. Like me there are many who are quintessentially ‘outsiders’, marginalised on gender, social class, caste and ethnicity, and have been yearning for fresh waters to save their lives.

I see like me many Hagars in the Dalit communities in India today, for whom death appears so nearby the denial of water. One of the ways through which the casteist people expose their segregation and discrimination to Dalits is by denying the access to water, by not allowing them to draw the water from the same wells or hand pumps they use. More than 20% of Dalits do not have access to safe drinking water, only 9.84 % Scheduled Caste ( a list of lower caste people who are recognised as Dalits in India)  households have access to sanitation, and most of the Dalits depend upon the mercy of their upper castes to allow them to access water. Dalit women have to walk long distances to fetch some water for their families, which result in several other ramifications in terms of rights and health. Added to this the Dalits who are dependent on land, the livelihood of the entire family is dependent on her, and denial of access to water means denial of right to life. The violation of the basic human right such as water reveals the cruel indignity of the caste system today.

The God of Hagar is a God who sees and is a God who hears, for the God of justice, sees and hears the cries and tears of communities who have been living under stigma, discrimination and exclusion. The God of Hagar comes to the thirsty communities with wells of fresh waters, quenching their thirst and granting life.

When Hagar speaks, she exposes the powers of patriarchy of the faithful people. When Hagar speaks, she invokes a God who sees and hears the plights of the thirsty communities, thirsty for justice and peace. When Hagar speaks, she is firm in addressing the thirst of her children. When Hagar speaks, she overcomes stigma and discrimination inflicted by caste and such other prejudices. Let those that have ears listen to Hagar and strive for a just world, where water will be accessed by all people freely and justly.

 

Questions for Discussion:

  1. Identify the “Hagars” in your own community who are “nearing death” from thirst? Discuss how can you address the issues of thirst in your own context? Or how can you be a water angel in your community?
  2. If you were an additional character in this text, who you would be and how would you quench the thirst of Hagar and her son Ishmael?
  3. Analyse the nexus among caste, gender, class, race and thirst? Who are thirsty and why are they pushed into situations of thirstiness?