What drives the Dalits to Christianity?

November 02, 2010 10:07 pm | Updated 10:07 pm IST

DALIT THEOLOGY IN THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY — Discordant Voices, Discerning Pathways: Edited by Sathianathan Clarke, Deenbandhu Manchala, Philip Vinod Peacock; Oxford University Press, YMCA Library Building, Jai Singh Road, New Delhi-110001. Rs. 745.

DALIT THEOLOGY IN THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY — Discordant Voices, Discerning Pathways: Edited by Sathianathan Clarke, Deenbandhu Manchala, Philip Vinod Peacock; Oxford University Press, YMCA Library Building, Jai Singh Road, New Delhi-110001. Rs. 745.

Although Christian missionaries of various denominations have been active in India for several centuries, the 1941 Census placed the number of Christians in colonial India at just 1.6 per cent of the population. This clearly indicates that the main objective of the British rulers was colonial domination and economic exploitation, not religious conversion.

According to the 2001 Census, Christians constituted 2.3 per cent of India's population. This rise of 0.7 percentage point in their numbers over six decades has been a matter of debate. Starting with the Niyogi Commission (1956) down to a Supreme Court's 1977 ruling, conversion has been a highly contentious issue, sometimes inviting frowns from officialdom and the judiciary. Hence the interest in the question whether the Dalit converts to Christianity have indeed been seduced by proselytising missionaries to “change Gods.”

Urban artisans and people in the lower middle class have generally turned against their established faiths throughout history. Urbanisation gave these people a “greater access to religious preachers, to literacy, to education and books, to a great variety of personal relations, and to greater riches of urban culture,” says David Lorenzen in his introduction to Bhakti Religion in North India: Community Identity and Political Action (1995). A distinct feature of the Dalits who embraced Christianity is that a vast majority of them are from the poorest sections in villages, not urbanites.

According to John Webster ( Religion and Dalit Liberation: 1999), changing the religion is one of the ‘strategies' the Dalit communities adopted in their struggle to secure social justice and equality. The other four were: acquiring political power; securing as much independence as possible from the dominant castes; initiating reformist measures to reduce prejudices among themselves; and deploying cultural modes of communication, like literature and theatre, for conscientisation. Dalit theology has grown out of this practice of changing religion. We have Christological reflections in M.E. Prabhakar-edited Toward a Dalit Theology (1989), and methodological formulations in Arvind Nirmal's Reader in Dalit Theology (1992), and biblical reinterpretations in V. Devashyam's Frontiers of Dalit Theology (1997).

This book presents, in three parts, 16 well-researched essays on different themes by theologians and teachers and is a mine of profound concepts and serious ideas on ecumenical social thought, myths of Dalit origins, and so on. Does the ‘Dalit Theology' have anything to do with ‘Liberation Theology'? Sadly, the points of convergence/divergence between the Dalit Theology and the South American Liberation Theology are not discussed in this book. One of the reasons could be that Sathianathan Clarke, an editor of this volume, has already authored a tome on the subject titled Dalits and Christianity: Subaltern Religion and Liberation Theology in India (1998). Yet, the omission is a real shortcoming.

From Punjab to Tamil Nadu, there have been a lot of conversions for well over a century. What leads the Dalits to Christianity? Does anything change for the better after conversion? It emerges that, despite conversion, the Dalit Christians continue to be denied “land, water and dignity.” And the women among them have to bear the double cross of ‘lowest caste' and ‘womanhood.' Sujatha, a woman tricked into unwed motherhood, is told: “The palm leaf is torn, whether it falls on a thorn or a thorn falls on it.”

The relevance of the book stands enhanced in the context of the spate of violent attacks by the Hindutva forces as a backlash to religious conversions in recent years. The worst of these were witnessed in 2007 and 2008 in Kandhamal (Orissa), the target being the meek Dalit Christians from the Pana caste. Dalit conversions are not a calamity but they throw up situations of “slippery identities and shrewd identifications,” say Clarke and Peacock epigrammatically.

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