Jesuit Padre Robert De Nobili practiced untouchability in the Church to convert Brahmins

The question of the inclusion of Christians who converted from various Dalit jatis of Scheduled Castes in the SC Reservation Category (list) of the Government of India is a vehemently debatable topic in the present-day socio-political circles. Being a burning topic it is now necessary to make an in-depth study on this topic, in order to unearth the pros and cons of the problem. The problem is: once a member of SC jati converts from his or her primaeval faith or forms of worship to Christianity it results in or causes losing the privileges that he or she enjoyed previously as an SC. At the same time if he or she opts for Buddhism, Jainism or Sikhism for conversion he or she can retain all the constitutional privileges and rights as an SC, is in its primary stages of hearing. One feels that it is an anachronistic and draconian Act.

Similarly, a Schedule Tribe (ST) has enough freedom to step down from his primordial worship forms and embrace any religion of his choice without losing any of the privileges and reservations bestowed to the ST communities. However, now when SCs are facing the discrimination from inside and outside church everywhere in India, the question of equality arises before regimes. The SC converts raise the questions; why they are being discriminated that much? Subsequently, they quote the Bible and ask the highly jati-oriented Indian Church that “if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new”. (The Second Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians, Ch: 5, Verse, 17 – Bible).

Any harsh steps against the converted SCs will lead to several counter concerns. One is that the Church is a wealthy institution in India. Similarly, it is an organized force with a universal base. The other one is that in Christianity there is no room for jati or caste-based discrimination. Hence, the retention of jati discrimination in the Church is unethical and has no theological basis. Hence SCs from the lower strata of Hindu society who converted to Christianity during the colonial period are now causing several social disabilities as well as theological problems in the contemporary Christian society, particularly in Kerala, the oldest bastion of Christianity.

It is a universal truth that en-masse conversions of a jati result in the total migration of their social disabilities. Hence the conversion of Dalit jati to a newer faith or forms of worship never ends his or her socio-economic disabilities attributed by the society, is a fact for the contemporary Indian Christian social psyche. Here the conversion of general Indian mind is an essential condition. The demand from the Christian converts from various jatis of SCs for their inclusion in the reservation list of the government is central to all.

The question of proselytism

The question of Dalit jati conversion to all Abrahamic religions have been a subject of debate for more than a century in Kerala and recently in the rest of India. Kerala was the first place in India, the Christian Missions found worthy for proselytism activities. There are various reasons behind this, dominant being the socio-geographical grounds. Anyhow, the missionary enterprises did a meritorious work or service on their part by carving and stamping out 20 percent of the Christian population in Kerala from the broad Hindu social fabric.

In the 20th century, the conversion projects acquired a new turn. In Meenakshipuram, Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu, it acquired the character of the en-masse dismemberment of a specific jati of Hindu community. In March 1981 the Dalits of Meenakshipuram converted en-masse to Islam as a reaction to the age-old savarna Hindu approach towards them. Later, because of the interference of the Hindu religious leaders, they reconverted to Hinduism. Thereafter, it became a seriously debated subject among religiously (on caste base) thinking sections of the land.

Religious conversion in its specific context in the case of Malabar Coast and far South of India started with Saint Francis Xavier, a Jesuit Padre from Portugal. But at present only the contours of proselytes have changed. Though some of the most devoted followers of Mahatma Gandhi were Christians, he often clashed with the missionaries on the issue of conversion. He was not against conversions per se. (“I am, then, not against conversions. But I am against the modern methods of it.” Young India, 23 April 1931). Similarly, Swami Vivekananda adored Jesus with reverence. But he hated conversion. To him “every man going out of the Hindu pale is not only a man less but an enemy more“. (Complete Works, (Vol. V, p 282).

The jargon ‘Dalit’ is a popular expression and well-liked one in the Indian context. It is based on 17th century European reading of the Orient, particularly of Indian caste system. Etymologically its root can be seen in Sanskrit, which means suppressed/crushed, etc. Jyotirao Phule, the Indian messiah of depressed classes, whose main concern was for socially underprivileged, first used the term to measure the depth and extent of oppression and disregard which he came across in the untouchable sections of the Hindu society.

Anyhow those who come under the purview of Dalits are some of the most subjugated people in the Indian jati hierarchical structure. Once they were forced to work in some of the awful circumstances, serving the upper varnas as slaves or serfs. In the pre-independent India the Dalits, the backbone of the primary production, were at this juncture and were counted as the country’s ‘untouchables’. They were the lowest of the low in the Hindu hierarchical structure. Hence 60 percent of India’s estimated 25 million Christians are Dalits. They took solace in the Christian Church in order to evade the prevailing socio-economic ostracism from the upper class of the Hindu social fabric.

Vedicization of Christianity and the Dalit Christians

The early Christian missionaries of India had cast their net of conversion over all walks of life, irrespective of the Indian jati stratification norms, in the 19th century. The lower orders of the jati hierarchical societies became the major prey or victim of their covetous casting of the net of proselytism. It happened due to historical reasons. Thus the Dalits became a formative and constituent element of Indian Church. But it is interesting to note that the conversions of the Dalits or erstwhile untouchable jatis of Malabar Coast to Christianity caused multifaceted impact and reactions in the respective Christian societies. The induction of Dalit in the Christendom of Kerala (the earliest abode of Christianity in the East), became a matter of tension since their very incorporation in the Christian social fabric. Writer Titus George’s article helps to understand the root of this tension. “With the arrival of Robert de Nobili (a Jesuit Padre from Portugal) in the early 17th century, there was an attempt to place Christianity within the Vedic tradition. He took pains to translate and present Christianity as a tradition that would appeal to the higher stratum of the caste hierarchy. The Nobilian legacy still continues. One can comfortably say that Nobili triggered the process of placing Christianity in a Vedic pot. Even today, many Christian theologians would readily articulate Indian Christianity in terms of the Vedic tradition”. (Titus George, Christianity in India – Why must it be Vedic identity? Faith line column, the New Indian Express, Kochi, 25 September 2000, p 10). This morphological translation of the native Christianity and jatis’ en-masse conversions is the root cause of the birth of jati based discriminations.

The missionary zeal and its aftermath of indiscriminate conversion policy followed by Francis Xavier diminished the glamour and terrestrial glory of the Church in India. In order to convert the Brahmins, those at the apex of the Indian jati hierarchy, to Christianity and regain the lost glamour of Church, Robert Nobili, who settled later in Madurai (Tamil Nadu) practised untouchability in the space of Indian Church. The Catholic Encyclopedia on CD-ROM, updated 6th October 2005, says, ‘In his zeal to convert the Brahmins, Nobili adopted their mode of life and so had to cut himself off completely from intercourse with fellow missionaries. Through fraudulence, he depicted the entire Hindu tradition as the corrupted form of Christianity and claimed to have discovered a fifth Veda which he called Jesus Veda. Hence it is the earliest known instance of the introduction of jati based discrimination in the history of Indian Church. Thus it generated a feeling of the magnificence of Hindu jati tradition amongst priestly and laity space of India. It was also the beginning of the new tradition in the Indian Church and Kerala specific.

Furthermore, the Church historiographer G T Mackenzie (British Resident of Travancore during the early years of the 20th century) observes, ‘Christians prior to the arrival of Portuguese, did not form the part of Travancore aristocracy. (G. T. Mackenzie, the British resident in Travancore & Cochin, ‘Christianity in Travancore’, Govt. Press, Trivandrum, 1901, p 8.). With the colonial (from Nobilian days) interference or obstruction, specifically, the Christians of South India began to think in terms of class (jati) superiority. Therefore the later additions to the Christianity were looked down upon by the so-called earlier Christians. Hence is the jati hierarchy in the Christendom of contemporary Church orders of India.

Birth of cognizant signs of jatis in the Christendom of Malabar Coast

In the light of the above deliberations/ponderings, it is important to examine the balance sheet of Indian Dalit Christian community in general and particularly of Malabar Coast from its very inception during the 19th century. ‘Pulayar – one of the constituent jati of Kerala Dalit – was converted to Christianity on 6th September 1854 at Kaipetta near Mallappally in Pathanamthitta district of Kerala. One Dalit slave popularly known as Daivathan was the first to be converted to Christianity and named Habel. He is the Abraham of the entire Dalit Christians of Kerala’. (V T David, Anglican Church History of Travancore-Cochin, (Mal), Kottayam, 1930, pp 56, 57).

Except for the Syrian Jacobite Church, Syrian Chaldean Church and ethnic Christian Church of Kananayas (Kananayas Syrian Jacobite and Catholic Church), almost all the Churches in Malabar Coast and elsewhere in India are carrying the wagons of Dalits as part of their laity. Even though they are a major chunk of Indian Christendom, the untouchable/traditional agricultural labour class Christians were separated since the very beginning of their conversion, from the Syrian Christian (the said aristocratic) congregations and this led to the creation of new avarna/Dalit congregations. It includes labourers exclusively confined to agricultural activities and other menial occupations of the traditional Hindu society. “Their church had started out by encouraging converts from low castes, but after some time Syrian Christians could not stomach former untouchables sitting side by side with them on the same pews, and there had been a cleavage. Now there were separate Churches in some places, though converts were still admitted,” observes Nirmala Aravind in her novel (A Video, Fridge and a Bride, New Delhi, 1995, p181). The only difference between various Churches regarding Dalit representation is based on the percentage of Dalits in each of these Churches. The genesis of Dalit discrimination in the ‘altars’ begins in the Church from its very inception of Dalit’s en-masse conversion or an exodus to Christianity.

In the Protestant half of South India’s Christendom, there is an exclusive Dalit Church order that emerged as a reaction to the age-old discriminations of the upper caste (savarna) Christian mentality. It is known as C M S Anglican Church of India and is functioning since the 60s of the last century. Now, this Church has an all India base and Dalits are its very ‘bedrock’. In the Catholic half, there are Latin Dioceses (rites) that are exclusive centres of Dalits of various jatis and backward sections. In the Latin Catholic Dioceses also, there are incidences of jati discriminations based on hierarchical order which have been practised over by the subaltern Hindu counterparts of India from time immemorial. In short, generally the Christianity in India and predominantly of Malabar Coast is functioning as another smriti controlled Hindu society without Indian gods and goddess.

The Dalits in general, as elsewhere in India, in the all literate and a dominant egalitarian ideological based Kerala, are a race destined to be subject to the discriminations and injustices (economic as well as social) in both Hindu and Abrahamic religions of this region. In the opinion of Sushila Mehta the basic reality is subjective. “In a sense, therefore, the caste does not provide with a fixed social milieu for the individual, from which neither wealth nor poverty can remove him. The caste also limits the choice of marriage. Thus caste provides most of the social contacts of the individuals. The caste provides with the norms of behaviour for its members and with rules and restrictions for inter-caste group relations”. (Sushila Mehta, A study of Rural Sociology in India, New Delhi, 1980, p 62).