Friday, November 06, 2009
A new voice in Parliament
Charles Dias is the first Anglo-Indian from Kerala to be nominated as a Member of Parliament. Even as the community celebrates his appointment, he worries about how to meet their high expectations
By Shevlin Sebastian
At the reception accorded to the newly appointed Anglo-Indian MP Charles Dias at Kochi recently, the president of the Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee, Ramesh Chennithala, said, “There were so many applications for the post. [Congress President] Sonia Gandhi scrutinised them all and selected Dias, because he was the most meritorious candidate.”
The man in question is a soft-spoken, mild-mannered man who smiles easily, and has an engaging personality. Unlike most politicians, Dias holds a doctorate in history. A member of the middle class, he retired, in 2005, from the Kerala State Electricity Board as a liaison officer. Married to Gloria, a school teacher, the couple has two children: Tina, 28, and Aaron Francis, 24.
Following his retirement Dias worked on his doctoral thesis on ‘the social history of the Portuguese descendants in Kerala’. He presented it successfully at Calicut University in May, this year.
In his research he discovered that 90 per cent of the present-day Anglo-Indians are descendants of the Portuguese. From the early 16th century, the Portuguese married Indian women and this continued for 163 years.
“The Eurasians were doing well and had a high financial status,” he says. But in 1663, tragedy struck, when the Dutch defeated the Portuguese and captured Kochi.
“The Dutch confiscated the belongings and the properties of the Eurasians,” says Dias. “Many people were killed and the rest were asked to leave one night with whatever they could carry. Overnight, they became poor.”
The Eurasians fled to interior villages like Elamkunnapuzha, Moolampilly, Vallarpadom, and Mulavukad. “These were places where there were no facilities for education or a decent profession,” says Dias. “So the Eurasians degenerated.”
He has a look of pain on his face, even though this event took place more than 400 years ago. “The descendants still live there and I want to work for their uplift,” says Dias, the acting president-in-chief of the Union of Anglo-Indian Associations.
Apart from Dias, 59, there is only one other nominated Anglo-Indian MP: Ingrid McCleod, 42, from Chhattisgarh. “Between the two of us, we will have to look after the needs of 4.5 lakh Anglo Indians all over India,” says Dias. In Kerala, there are 1.5 lakh community members.
During the function when Chennithala announced that Dias will be able to spend Rs 2 crore annually from the MP’s Local Area Development scheme, there was sustained applause.
“What most people did not realise is that the money is not to be used only in Kerala,” says Dias. “It has to be spent for development works in several states. So, in that sense the amount is meagre.”
Dias is already feeling the pressure because many people have approached him with requests for jobs and various proposals for projects. “I worry about how I will be able to fulfill the expectations of all the people,” he says.
What has made things more difficult is that it is a community riven by dissension and conflict. A chairman of a school board that oversees the functioning of the 13 educational institutions run by the community refuses to leave his post after nine years, even though it was supposed to be a one-year term.
“Our disunity has brought a bad name to the community,” says Dias. It will need high leadership skills on his part to unite the warring factions. But Dias says his immediate objective is to do an overall survey on the unemployment situation within the community.
One solution, he suggests, is if the Centre can implement a reservation policy. “This has happened before,” he says. “During the first decade after Independence, there was a quota for Anglo-Indians in the Railways, the Post and Telegraphs, the Customs and Central Excise.” However, to achieve this is not going to be easy, but an access to Sonia Gandhi, the Congress supremo, will surely be of help.
Last month, thanks to his elevation, Dias was able to meet Sonia at her residence at 10 Janpath, New Delhi. “Mrs. Gandhi said, ‘Welcome to Parliament,’” says Dias. “She was serious and formal, but smiled often.” Sonia glanced with interest through the two publications Dias presented: an Anglo Indian souvenir and a 400-page book of history which he had edited: ‘Kerala Spectrum’.
The new MP’s deep knowledge of history should help him avoid the pitfalls of the past and enable the community to make its way into the sunlight.
(The New Indian Express, Kochi)