Dalits are still at the periphery of the social justice offered by the Universal Christian faith 

The Dalits who embraced Christian faith since the beginning of the 19th century onwards are still treated by the traditional savarna Christians (Syrian Christians) as untouchables or outcasts. Those people converted from non-Dalit factions, till recently are also assimilated in the bandwagon of Malabar Christianity, is a burning reality. Therefore, they (Dalits) are still at the periphery of the social justice offered by the Universal Christian faith. This was not a new phenomenon. It started from the day of first Dalit conversion. Hierarchical (jati based) Malabar Christian society’s agricultural as well as economic interest of the 19th century well reflected in the extension of their support to the British or English Missionaries (Protestant missionaries in general) in their effort of proselytism of Dalits. Earlier Dalits here lived either as slaves or as serfs of the Hindu landlords as well as temples (Temples as janmi: “… the temple that became the largest of the landed magnates of the time acquired the central place in the realm of agrarian economy.” Rajan Gurukkal, The Kerala Temple and Early Medieval Agrarian System, Sukapuram, 1992, pp 32 & ff). The missionaries who were responsible for the Dalit conversion deliberately avoided the process of socio-economic empowerment of the Dalit Christians. (T.M. Jesudasan, Dalit Svatvavum Adhikarathinte Prasnavum, (Mal) Changanacherry, 1997, p 166). It was a necessary condition to safeguard the Syrian Christian economic interest in the changing world order. Thus the centre of the contemporary problem goes back to the days of early conversions.

From ‘frying pan’ to ‘burning fire’

Out of the five and a half million Christians of Kerala, 15 percent that is 8.25lakh are converted from the erstwhile Schedule Caste (SC) Communities. (Jananikshepam Monthly (Mal), official journal of Church of South India Central Kerala Diocese, Kottayam, 2001, May). For the convenience of this study let us call them ‘direct converts’. The total SC population of the State as on 2001 census is about three million. Among them, about 15 percent are ‘disguised Christians’. The 4.5lakh disguised can be identified in this study as ‘indirect converts’. That is even after their conversion they are maintaining Hindu or their jati’s primordial name with the consent of the concerned Church priestly hierarchy. Several of them reached the enviable positions of the Indian administrative and strategic offices as the representatives of SC jatis. These ‘disguised’ are Hindu only for the namesake.

The 15 million, excluding the SC re-converts to Hinduism (both direct and disguised) are also the main constituent element of the Dalit Christians of the day. A lion share of them embraced Christianity during the British period. Most of them have a history of discrimination inside the Church for more than 50-150 years. In the meantime, the direct converts lost their Scheduled Caste identity because of historical reasons (S C assistance concept evolved during the British period. Then British India deliberately excluded the Christian converts from the SC jatis and made them devoid of their special consideration under the SC). But the assimilation of such Dalit converts to the mainstream of Christianity through the sermons and Holy Communion of the Church is yet to be realized. In short, “the emancipation of human consciousness from an immature state of ignorance and error” (Immanuel Kant) is still a distant dream to the Indian Church. 

The space of Dalit identity

The one important piece of information is that the SC converts to Christianity even after 150 years, are maintaining marital relations with their Hindu or primordial jati counterparts only. In the case of marriage or any other social relations, their difference in the faith is not at all a barrier even today also, is an interesting feature to be inquired. The space of Dalit Christian social formations is effectively utilized by the Church to pump in ‘disguised Christians’ into the core of the SC domain, is another danger which the contemporary Dalit Hindu social formations are confronting. They are functioning as crypto Christians in the Dalit space is an unnoticed truth. What they expected was not gained through their conversion to Christianity. They expected social equality. Beyond education or economic gains, the sharing of the vital social instrument of ‘cultural capital’ was not taking place. The main disability that still persists with them is the shortage of ‘cultural capital’. The savarna elements in the Christian Church are even today also reluctant to share it with the Dalit converts.

The jatis other than Dalits breaking all their relations with the rest of their jati after their conversion to Christianity are the common phenomena since the days of the birth of Christian social formations in India. But at the same time, the SC converts to Islam immediately after their conversion curtail or segregate all their social relations with the rest of their original jati folks. It is true that their social status in the space of Islam is not much different from their Christian counterparts. Why this paradox? There is something beyond the sociological factor behind this phenomenon which needs further investigation by sociologists. On the other hand, other converts even from the subaltern jatis other than Dalits of India after their conversion to Christianity are breaking their relations with their original jati and establishing all kinds of relations with the Christians is the usual phenomenon.

The crucified Church

The Church in the Indian States like Kerala (say in the political space of the State) is the single largest employment provider. About 5lakh employment opportunities are available at the Church-owned schools, colleges, professional colleges, hospitals and other Church establishments in Kerala alone. In states like Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Delhi, etc the Church has hegemony in the said fields and are in the forefront also. Above all, the Church in Kerala is the appointing authority of eleven thousand most attractive posts of college teachers in its 200 odd aided arts and science colleges spread all over Kerala. The Church even today is not ready to share a portion of it with their Dalit Christians. The Dalit Christians are too educated compared to other Hindu or primordial jati Dalits. The Church can provide at least 1lakh posts to its Dalit Christians. Here the generous/hospitable hands of the Churches are tightened under the nail of ‘crucifixion’.

Dalit Christians in the Church are spiritually rich but economically too poor. Their Hindu counterpart’s economic position is not much better than them. The economic position of an average Indian even today also is computed in terms of land holding. Only one percent of Dalit Christian have a land holding of 40 acres and above in the most progressive state like Kerala. Four percent of Dalit Christians have no ownership over land in the same State. Ninety-five percent of them even today also have 2-5 acre land holdings. Out of the entire ‘true’ Dalit Christians in Kerala, only 10 percent have pucca or permanent residential houses. Only three percent own a well in the same State. The remaining depend on the public wells as well as public taps (now under the compulsion of World Bank public taps have vanished from the hamlets of India) for their drinking water requirements. This marginal land holding Dalit Christians are economically poor and belong to Below Poverty Line (BPL) category in most of the Indian states. If this is the actual position of the Dalit Christians in the most forward-thinking State like Kerala; what will be their condition in other states?

A lion share of the Dalit Christian population of the State constitutes an agricultural labour community in central Kerala. Joseph Pulikunnel, a veteran Syrian Catholic philanthropist cum-social-reformer, comments, “There are about 150 Christian (Catholic) colleges in Kerala (now its number is double), but you will not find any Dalit working there”. (Organiser Weekly, New Delhi, 29 April 2001). At present also the state of affair is the same. It is paradoxical to see that the same Church is leading the agitation to ensure the Dalit Christians’ name is included in the SC list.

Ways of Proselytism

Conversions are taking place in four ways. They are converted through conviction or otherwise belief, conversion for improving one’s social situation, conversion through inducements and conversion through coercion or fraudulent manner. The last two types are venomous. Two such types are not noticed in Kerala so far. It is because of Hindu vigilance. In fact, the time has proven that any kind of proselyte leads to the dilution of national feeling in the converted. It is an empirically proven factor since the days of the fall of Roman Empire. The history is pointing this impact of the conversion through its annals. This universal aspect is really generating doubt in the nationalist minds. Hence the present debate is the output of all the above realities.

Conversion to Christianity as a safety-valve

The first large-scale or planned Dalit (SC jati) conversion in Kerala took place on 6th September 1854, that is exactly 164 years back, and one Daivathan was converted to Christianity and christened or baptized him as Habel (in English Able). Prior to it the coastal people in the Malabar Coast were massively and forcibly converted by Portuguese padre Francis Xavier (now he is a saint in the Church) in the 16th century. The Christian source certifies that there are 921 million Dalits converted as Christians, who reside in Kerala alone whose social, as well as the economic status, is very pathetic and they are destined to the savarna (upper caste) Christian’s ostracism. Their journey to the paradise was no doubt like the old saying that goes ‘from the frying pan to the burning fire’. Their social position is between ‘devil and the deep-sea’. That is why the progenies of the first converted Dalit (Daivathan christened as Habel) returned to poorva dharma, i.e. in the broadest sense to Hinduism or their primordial religions.

The plight of the poor Dalits once converted to Christianity, is horrendous. Fr. Saint Kuriakose Elias Chavara, a CMI padre, was a pioneer in the field of the Dalit conversion to the Catholic faith in the 19th century. Large numbers of Dalits were converted to the Catholic Church through him and he constructed a church and a school with the support of the ruling Hindu Raja of Travancore for them. In the deluge of time Dalits were kicked out from the church and the school, worth one hundred million rupees, by the savarna Catholic Christians and the poor converts now satisfy themselves with the 10-acre cemetery meant exclusively for the converted (here Dalit) Christians. (Dalit Love of the Catholics, A Kerala Paradigm, Organiser weekly, New Delhi, 9 September 2001). In short, wherever in India, there is a nominal savarna presence in the Church it is enough for Dalit discrimination.

Indian Catholics have kept caste and untouchability alive for 300 years. A ground report is from Harobele, Karnataka, where Dalit Catholics are at the receiving of upper caste aggression. (Hindustan Times, 2 August 2015). Even the Catholics Bishop’s Conference of India (CBCI), the highest decision-making body of the community has acknowledged the discrimination faced by Dalit Christians. That is why Arch Bishop Rt. Rev. V. J. Stephen initiated an exclusive Dalit Church in 1964. The outcome was the present day Anglican Church of India with 800 congregations’ and five lakhs laity (as claimed by the Church) all over India.

A Christians lesson

Those Dalits who converted to escape from the cruelties and discriminations of savarna Christian jatis in the 19th and early decades of the 20th century really lost their identity. The vulgarity of jati discrimination in the Christian society became a story of the past. Christians’ socio-religious movements in the late 19th and the early 20th century abridged this vulgarity of jati based disabilities in the lower strata of its jati hierarchy. But the old Christian’s jati based discriminations now migrated to the Christian society with its all biting tooth. In the 20th century Christian community through its cash crop cultivation (with the help of the underpaid Christians of Dalit converts), government jobs and social migration acquired immense wealth. This wealth furthermore enhanced the gulf between the savarna and Dalit Christians.

The number of the non-resident Keralites (NRKs) during the period 1998-2002 was 3,65,293, of which, the 82.5 percent are in the Gulf countries. Out of these 82.5 percent NRKs in the Gulf countries during the reported years, 49.5 percent were Muslims and 31.5 percent were Christians. The Hindu share in this sector was only 19 percent (Economic Times 19 May 2003). 60.5 percent of the total NRK remittance was the contribution of the minority communities. (K.C. Zachariah & others, Study, report in ‘The new Christians Express’, Kochi, 22 July 2003). The Chief Minister of Christians said in the Legislative Assembly that the total NRK remittance in Christians banks till June 2016 stood at 1,42,669 crore rupees (Economic Times 24 Christians 2016). Every year it is moving towards higher digits. It is equivalent to seven times of the state government receipts as centre budgetary support or fifteen times of the earning from the cashew export or nineteen times of the states marine export. The annual average remittance per household is also shown wide imbalances. A Marthomma (a Church order specific to Christians) Christian’s share is Rs.26,098/-, a Muslim’s is Rs.24,000/-, a Hindu’s is Rs.6,134/- and a Dalit Christians or primaeval SC is Rs725/-. (K. C. Zachariah & S. Irudaya Rajan, CDS Study, New Christians Express, Kochi, 16th July 2004). All these are sufficient to prove the identity loss of the poor Dalit Christians in the body politic of the Christian society.

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India Kerala
No. Percentage No. Percentage
Total 24 million 100 6.14 million 100
Dalit Christians 15 million 60 0.921million   15
Savarna Christians 10 million 40 5.22 million   85

(Basis 2011 C. E)

Nature of land owning group Percentage
No land group 4%
Between 2 & 4 Are 95%
Above 40 Are 1%

(Land Ownership Pattern of Dalit Christians of Kerala)

 

Quality of the dwelling place percentage
Pucca/permanent House owning 10%
Hut owning 90%

(Nature of dwelling places of the Dalit Christians in Kerala)

 

Well percentage
Owns Well 3%
Not owns well 97%

(Dalit Christian owning well in Kerala)

 

 

 

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