Saturday, April 5, 2008

Double Identities

The question of conversion to Christianity is significant to the idea of Dalit identity in India. “Untouchablity” in its various idioms-modern and archaic-continues to inflict the Dalit Hindu. Converting to Christianity was meant to dissolve the problems of caste-based discrimination. It emerged with hopes of equality and an improved position in the socio-political hierarchy of the state. This meant that the Dalit Christian would now have access to fundamental rights of education, employment, health, hygiene and most importantly a degree of social respectability, which she was denied as a Hindu. This rationale of conversion is built on debates, continuing from the nationalist era. The arguments against it are strikingly commonsensical in nature. And surprisingly, so-called nationalist leaders like Raja Rammohan Roy and Gandhi were staunch supporters of these. Going by their logic, conversion would mean allowing oneself to subordination by a foreign religion and an alien culture. This posits a threat to national integrity and security. In addition, Christianity as a product of institutions and individuals creates factions. It seduces “simple” Dalits by “other attractions” rather than by its questions of truth and faith. These “other attractions” would mean money, equality, and political importance. Gandhi argued that the concept of conversion was pro-colonial in that it disrupted the traditional structure of the villages and the Hindu unity.
All these accusations point to several factors. The Hindu nationalist presupposes that the Dalit amongst other things is “simple”, intellectually inferior, and lacking in wisdom and experience so much so that one fears their incapacity to discern what is not beneficial for them i.e. conversion. They have been herded like unsuspecting cattle in to a slaughtering house. The question is, has the Dalit never had an option? And in case she did, would it be too unreasonable to imagine that she chose Christianity to escape from a severely casteist structure. Christianity would simply mean a better life. Are the seductions of money too unethical in a situation of inevitable poverty and illiteracy? Through the years, the arguments against conversion-fears of cultural disintegration etc-reflect a cause for Hindu Nationalist consolidation. The reality that Dalit Christians have consistently been denied SC Reservations on the basis that Christianity as a religion has no basis for caste, reaffirms the above idea. Refusal to grant status actively ensures a reduction in the rate of conversion primarily because, as Hindus, Dalits can avail of reservations.
Ambedkar later consolidated that conversion was the only way out of the oppressive nature of the caste structure in India. One cannot think of Christianity in India without thinking about the Dalit predicament. The reality of Christianity in India is a complex one. We need to understand it not only through its tenets of truth and faith and equality before God, but also through the various shades, it has acquired within the construct of the Indian society. On one hand, it offers to the outcaste a sense of community and ways of resisting the ruling cultural system. On the other hand, Christianity in India is not without discrimination either. According to statistics, Dalits comprise 70% of the Christian population in India. They constitute an absolute majority within the specific community in India; despite that, they continue to be deprived by the church itself. This is because, after Christianity gained stronghold, upper castes began converting themselves. Consequently, they took over the administrative services of the church. The inherent casteist attitude continued to manifest as separate churches were built for Dalits, or separate sections were made for them within the church. It has become increasingly difficult for Dalits to rise up the religious order of the church. The fact therefore, remains that even as Christians, Dalits continue to occupy the lower ranks of the social and political chain. In addition, they face discrimination from their Hindu counterparts as well. Dalit Hindus accuse them of betrayal and crossing over to a form of organized religion, which they themselves do not possess.
As a result, the Dalit identity is fractured into two-the private Christian and the public Hindu. The private Christian worships at church, belongs to a community and avails of the benefits of education, which the church offers. The public Hindu possesses an official SC certificate and makes the most of reserved category seats. This finds representation within the structure of our university as well. A majority of the Mala-Madiga student community practices Christianity, but is admitted under the reserved category. The duality of their identity is complicated by its conflicting nature. Ironically, their identities mediate between the Hindu Nationalist cause (at least on paper) and a resistance against the same, between the state and the church. The ethical implications of this is not under question because the Dalit must device a means to undo the crisis of a caste ridden Christianity and a caste ridden Hinduism. For Sowjanya however, a PhD student in EFL-U, the public-private divide in identity does not exist anymore. This is because a majority of the Dalit population in coastal Andhra, especially the community she belongs to-Mala-is Christianized. She mentions that two-three generations before her the church had issues with Christians availing of reservations. However, she and her contemporaries do not face resistance any longer.
New questions emerge in the light of debates over the implementation of OBC reservations and granting of SC status to Dalit Christians. Recently, the Andhra Pradesh CM's proposal to take a Christian petition seeking reservations for Dalit Christians to the Prime Minister opens up possibilities of unprecedented repercussions. One might expect a substantial rise in the Dalit Christian population through conversion, now, because of its two-fold benefits of a progressive religion and reservations. Both the new and existing converts can happily relinquish their Hindu identities. This would mean a significant threat to a major section of the Hindu identity, and therefore, a severe blow to the Nationalist consolidation project.
In the meantime, the Dalit Christian remains split. Her dual identity serves her a temporary respite at the level of the public sector but socially, members of her own community, the church, and the state continue to corner her.


Reju George Mathew said...

well arguded...good job

yellow dream said...

This is a well written article and raises many questions concerning dalit christian identity. I just want to raise a quesion regarding Chunduru massacre. Is it a coincidence that the victims of Chunduru happen to be Dalit Christians? Or should we read it along the lines the author of this piece leads us? I would like a discussion on this.

Anonymous said...

very stimulating article. what kind of space / community has the church given to dalit christians; and what kind of counter culture / sub-culture the dalit christians have evolved over generations? how does the christian identity distinguish itself from their immediate Hindu neghbour.

Mahadiga@Gmail.Com said...

“A Tale of Two Sisters”. It concerned two members of Japan’s untouchable caste, the burakumin.

'lenny' DICKENS said...

a very good article. But two things should be taken into consideration. firstly, what is the role of the church in India?; keeping in mind that, the church is the second richest institution in India after the government of India. secondly, christianity in India is not a monolith. we should take into consideration the very many versions of it. how does caste configure in them? how are the protestant churches different from the catholic churches in addressing Dalit issues?
through this one may wonder whether the dalit christian identity is a 'double'-thereby connoting a negative aspect to it- or is it a critical subjectivity?