From frying pan to burning fire: Indian Dalits fail to find solace in Christianity

It is interesting to see that those Dalits converted to Christianity three or more generations back, now attained a good level of cultural progress compared to their counterparts in the aboriginal structure. It is not much below to the wealthy Christian counterparts and in certain extent better than poor (in economic terms) savarna Christians (Syrian Christians). Even though they are economically backward, they can produce best academicians, lawyers, good priests, bishops, and so on in the Christian discursive formations of India. All these gains are possible only to economically sound communities. Without the sound economic background, they gained a lot. They were able to utilize the limited educational opportunities that opened by the government or missionary school in a reasonable manner. On the other hand, their Hindu or primordial religious counterparts, even though they are blessed with several privileges that are granted by the government, failed to secure what their Christian counterparts had covered in cultural terms. Thus they are not successfully utilizing the immense and infinite possibilities of the modern education, because of the lack of proper direction and enlightened leadership. For direction and guidance, they are mainly depending on the mercy of political parties. But too eager political parties are tuning them as pawns in the game of elections. The Church, as elsewhere in the world, here also is not confined to spiritual exercises only. They are using its pulpit for the socio-cultural developments also. The similar Church in Kerala is reluctant or very shy to share higher education liberally to the Dalits from the days of European Missionaries.  (The British missionaries who strived for the liberation of the Dalits started only vernacular elementary schools for the Dalit converts. T M Jesudasan, Dalit Svatvavum Adhikarathinte Prasnavum, (Mal) Changanacherry, 1997, pg 166. & Rev. P C Joseph, Poikayil Shri Kumara Guru Jeevithavum Darshanavum, (Mal) Tiruvella, 1994, pp 47, 66).

Remarkable and jealousy creating achievements of the Dalit Christians (in the other spheres of life)

Now in health, hygiene, education, political awareness, and so forth like matters by utilizing their limited resources, they are equivalent or more to that of the forward communities. As mentioned elsewhere, the Christian converts are successfully and effectively utilizing the limited social resources available to them more effectively than others. It may be legacy of Missionary interaction and their pastoral care or the awareness acquired from the sermons of the pulpits and the communion of the altars. To an ordinary mind, it would be difficult to arrive at a concrete conclusion in this regard. So let the question be put to the readers with vibrant research mind. But at the same time, a major section of their counterparts who remain in Hindu or primordial cultural and religious compartments are not fully aware of carrying health and hygiene parameters along with their day to day social life. Usually most of them – even some educated and well employed – are the subjects of the gimmicks of country magicians or witches. For their domestic problems such as disease, financial problems, they find solace at the hands of these age-old/traditional ‘social mechanics’. This is usually causing the loosing of their money and arresting their onward material progress. The priestly control over the Christian converts may be the reason that keeps their Christian counterparts, even though they have good relations with their Hindu counterparts, away from these sorts of fake sciences.

The paths of European modernity were opened to the Dalits by the missionary bands of the Colonial period. The newly started vernacular schools and its formal education system became instrumental to it. For instance, by 1905 in the Princely State of Travancore, approximately one-half area of the present day Kerala State, there were about 300 such schools. The chief beneficiaries of such schools were mainly the converts from the Dalits. (Paul Chirakkarodu, Dalit Christavar Keralathil, (Mal), Tiruvella, 2000, pg 104). In addition to it, the Sunday Schools attached to each and every congregation became instrumental to the imparting of Colonial modernity as well as Christian didactic. Thus they started to teach, “Christian values are ultimately human values” through the new schooling system. (“The missionaries especially the Bakers concentrated their work among the low casts and outcasts. A large number of people embraced Christianity. Those who joined the Christian church got the freedom to travel along public roads and to enter the premises of law courts, post offices, and schools. The freedom enjoyed by the converted Christian attracted others as well.” Prof. Arby Varghese, The Contributions of the Baker Family, Kottayam, 1999, pg 50 & 57). Consequently, they introduced a two-tire pattern of formal education. As a result, it functioned in two directions, i.e., “the evangelicals reached out to the lower classes (avarna jatis) in Sunday Schools, missionary schools targeted the Indian elites”. (Peter Van Der Veer, Imperial Encounters, Religion and Modernity in India and Britain, Delhi, 2001, pg 6). As elsewhere, in Kerala also they concentrated only in the establishment of vernacular schools that targeted mainly subalterns. It imparted English model of education but not English language instruction. Hence the Christian texts were translated in vernaculars and it is sufficient to attain their desired goals; extension of the frontiers of Christendom. Let us quote Archbishop Desmond Tutu, South African Anglican Bishop, 1984 Nobel Peace Prize laureate comments on the said missionary targets: “When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said ‘Let us pray.’ We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land”. It is interesting to note that the missionaries, as well as the Church generally in Indian scenario and particularly of Kerala, did not give any importance to the higher education of Dalits who embraced Christianity. Anyhow the missionary sincerity is dubious.

Education and economic progress are generally very closely associated phenomenon in the Kerala specific situation. Formal education ushered in the path of the culture of social mobility among Christians and newly educated subalterns. In this situation specific the marginalized sections like Dalits in general and particularly of their Christian counterparts will be the immediate victims of the changing world orders. Therefore in a state like Kerala, any imbalance that happens in the educational field, even though it is negligible, will be reflected hundred times in the performance of the upcoming generations’ economic set-up. Elimination of Dalit Christians from the higher and professional education is a serious issue. In such a situation, in the near future, because of the educational backwardness alone, the Dalits and Dalit Christians will be forced to survive in the periphery of the society.

The acquired economic backwardness of the Dalit Christians

In the economic scenario, they lag behind all the communities/jatis above them. Before their conversion to the Christianity they lived outside the Hindu mainstream and therefore they were in the marginalized array. In the pre-colonial and colonial period, the economic well being was determined on the basis of landholding. Here they were destined to live in the land of janmies below the status of animals. Therefore when land relations began to determine social status of jati they were reduced to landless agricultural labours without any civil rights. Even after the much-applauded land reform enactments of Kerala, the Dalits’ quest for farmlands, remained as a forbidden fruit. They were forced to satisfy with five cents. Hence even after a generation of land reforms, they have no land to bury their dead.

Since the missionary interaction in the socio-political domain of India, most of the Dalits were slaves. (Francis Buchanan, A journey From Madras Through Mysore, Canara and Malabar, Vol. II, 1983, rpt, Madras, 1991, pp 360 ff). Thus they opted for Christianity. Ward and Conner give us a thumbnail picture of the living conditions of the Dalits in the whispered period. “They live in hovels situated on the bank of the fields, or nestle on the trees along their borders to watch the crop after the toils of the day, and are discouraged from erecting better accommodation under the idea that if more comfortable they would be less disposed to move as the culture required… The bark of the areca often furnishes their whole clothing, which at best never exceeds a bit of cloth sufficient for the purpose of decency: the hair allowed to grow wild, forms in time as immense mass, whose impurities cannot be imagined without shrinking”. (Ward and Conner, Memoir of the Survey of Travancore and Cochin States, Vol. I, 1863, rpt, Trivandrum, 1994, pp 149, 150).

Behind their economic backwardness, there are historical reasons. The immediate need of the Dalit conversion to Christianity during the colonial time was social equality. Then it was a partial victory. Now their condition is not different from the folklore story of man between sea and devil. It was a slip from frying pan to burning fire. Through the conversion they acquired a certain level of cultural mileage; on the other hand, they lost the major ‘other’. European missionaries had not given any due consideration to the empowerment of Dalits while they were converted. They never guaranteed any material well being but the only paradise. So while they engaged in conversion they were very particular that those converting should be humble, firm and consistent. (Paul Chirakkarodu, op cit, p 89). The acknowledgement of Archbishop Desmond Tutu is applicable in Kerala also. Therefore the ‘convertor’ and converted equally ignored the economic or material aspect at this critical juncture of the conversion.

(Image courtesy: Vatican Insider)