In what can be argued as one of the most detailed expositions on the origins of the Punjabi Christians in Pakistan, the book undertakes an arduous journey. It “explores the history, ethnography and liberation journey of the aboriginal, forest dwelling hunting tribe reduced to servitude by the Aryan conquests, who are called Chandala in classical Brahminic literature, designated as Chuhra in the census of India (1868-1931) and in contemporary Pakistan as Punjabi Christians.”
With a population of 2.8 million, Christians are the largest minority in Pakistan and with limited material or studies on some aspects of their history the author has undertaken this venture to fill some much-needed gaps.
Another important reason for taking up this study, he says, is the history of the community which is one of oppression and dehumanisation and the tendency among the upwardly among them to regard this history as something best forgotten and buried.
The author has lived and worked with the community and grew to acquire great respect for their “resilience and sheer unconquerability.”
Tracing the origins
The book goes about tracing the origins from Chandala, originally aboriginal rulers but now a crushed tribe, which some argue were the forerunners of the Chuhra. O’Brien uses material from the three volume Legends of the Punjab to showcase stories by the people themselves, for instance, the standard origin legend — “when Satan tempted Adam and Eve he was thrust down from heaven. Blood gushed from his nose and each drop became a pig. Allah-Talah brushed the sweat from his forehead and each drop became a dog. Filth multiplied upon the earth. Then: the Lord created the sons of Balmik to be scavengers on earth and created Lalbeg to clean the steps of the throne of heaven.”
The myths are used by the author for a specific purpose. “Myths reveal a region of ontology inaccessible to superficial logic. These myths reveal what the oppressed appear to society to be is very different from what they really are. …Subjugated but not silenced, they “remember” what the official narrative has suppressed.”
Genealogies or kursiinamas, funeral songs, wedding songs, songs relating to the homing of the bride, ballads, prayers, poems are presented in the book as a sort of counter narrative of the oppressed people, as a literature of resilience and survival.
A first attempt was made to study the psycho social life of the community in 1933 in Martinpur, a Christian village in which 55 families were settled around 1902. The researcher was struck by what he came to term, “the range of subtle antipathies” present in their relationships and he sought to analyse this in terms of chronic inferiority complex.
Quest for identity
The origin of the Pakistani Christians has been a controversial topic and the book says that in 1961 one activist proposed that they should stop denying their origins in oppression and work to express their faith from within the social reality in which they all lived. He was denounced as a social radical and his message was rejected with the sophism that the Christians wanted to be known by the sign of the Cross and not by the sign of the broom.
The Chuhras had to battle for religious identity as well. In terms of religion too, the Chuhras resisted Hinduism but they were always included as Hindus in the census. The book speaks of the Hinduisation of the urban dwelling Chuhra sweepers masterminded by Pandit Ami Chand which reinvented the cult of Balmik as one of the Hindu dharma. It took Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar to remark that the reinvented Valmik was a one-man advertising agency for “Ram Raj”. The Balmikis were also subjected to the Shuddi programme by the Arya Samaj in 1930.
The book touches on the quest for religion by the Chuhras and their forays into Sikhism with mixed experiences. While for Guru Nanak there were no Hindus or Muslims and he rejected caste and the social inequality it stood for, his largest followers came from the Jats. For the Chuhras, who joined the Sikh faith along with Chamars, they could occupy the lowest positions in Sikh villages, as studies have shown, according to the author. Even in army, the Chuhras who served with the Sikh army were neither allowed to become a separate force nor to be numerous in any one battalion.
Finally, the quest for a new identity ended when the United Presbyterian Church began its work in Punjab in 1855. Within 11 years, over 500 Chuhras had become Christians and by “1900 more than half of our people in the Sialkot district had become baptized by different groups and by 1915 all but about 300 of them. From 3823 adherents in 1881, the number of Protestants in undivided Punjab rose to 493,081 in 1947.” The reasons for conversion were much the same as anywhere else in the world.
The book gives a solid understanding into several aspects of the community’s origin and journey, if you can wade through it, and modestly confesses it is an invitation to an ongoing dialogue. Reports of the Christian community from Pakistan are not encouraging and perhaps a more contemporary analysis is also needed to understand their current situation.
THE UNCONQUERED PEOPLE — The Liberation Journey of an Oppressed Caste: John O’ Brien; Oxford University Press, No. 38, Sector 15, Korangi Industrial Area, P.O. Box 8214, Karachi-74900. Rs. 995.