The doubly marginalized


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THE most famous Indian novel of recent times, the first to really bring Indian English writing on a world stage, was Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. At its centre is an issue behind so many atrocities against Dalits, but rarely discussed novelistically or otherwise: the love relation between an ‘upper’ caste woman and a Dalit man. In the novel, the affair ends in tragedy for all concerned, exposing in the process not only Kerala society which many thought to be so progressive, but also the supposedly ‘casteless’ Left.

Strikingly, it is the Christian community of Kerala which is at the centre of the novel. Amma, the woman, is a Syrian Christian – descendent of people who trace their heritage in India to the missionary work of St. Thomas two thousand years back, and now are identified as upper caste Christians, almost equivalent to Brahmans. Velutha, the male hero, too is a Christian, but the identity that margi-nalizes and in the end murders him is that of a Paravan, a Dalit. The story makes it starkly clear that caste among Christians is as much a determiner of life chances as among ‘Hindus’ – with Dalits and other subaltern caste converts marginalized within the Christian community as well as by the ‘dominant’ Brahmanic Hindus outside of it.


Who are the Dalit Christians? According to John Webster, who has become well-known as a ‘Dalit theologian’, ‘Between 10 and 15% of all Dalits in India are Christians. Between two thirds and three quarters of all Christians in India are Dalits.’ Even if we use a currently given lower estimate (60% of all Christians as Dalits), with Christians representing roughly 2.4% of the population, this does not represent a great number: only about 1.5% of all Indians.

Yet Dalit Christians are at the centre of a storm. They face discrimination by the society, by the state, and within their own church. They share the poverty and subordination of Dalits in general, yet are often perceived by other Dalits as being better off. They do not get the benefit of reservations which go to Dalit Sikhs, Dalit Buddhists, and Christians of tribal background – and when they do make the demand it is used as an excuse for attacking them. And, finally, they have hit the news in recent months as recipients of the greatest mass violence within India since the Gujarat pogrom of 2002 – with 50,000 Christians in Orissa, mainly (but not entirely) Dalit, being driven from their homes, subject to rape, murder, humiliation and forced ‘reconversion’ in the last year.

Christianity itself is a complex phenomenon in India, as it is everywhere, and just as racism has left its mark on US Christianity, casteism has done so in India – but through a much longer historical period. Indian Christianity has historical roots going back thousands of years, tracing its founding to nearly the time of Jesus through St. Thomas, who is believed to have travelled to the coast of South India and then moved inland, dying finally on the Coromandel coast in what is now Tamilnadu.

This planting of Christianity preceded the triumph of caste and its varnashrama dharma in India. In Kerala itself, the establishment of the caste hierarchy and the dominance of Nambudiri Brahmans at its head is dated only from after the sixth and seventh centuries. However, this hierarchy, and the Brahmanization of the Malayali population, included the ‘Brahmanization’ in different forms of its Christian population: the Syrian Christians today are classified, and consider themselves, as ‘upper caste’.

Once western Christianity appeared in India from the time of the Portuguese, it was almost enfolded by the existing triumphant caste hierarchy. The Jesuits, who were the most educated of the missionaries and began to move out after the conquest of Goa, frequently identified themselves with Brahmans and Brahmanism in a policy of seeking converts from among the most educated and ‘high’ cultural traditions of the country.

Thus, just as Jesuit missionaries in China identified themselves with Confucianism and associated with the court of the empire, in India they sought to win over Brahmans and identify with what they saw as the high cultural tradition. The most famous example was the Italian Roberto de Nobili who became a vegetarian and took up the dress and habits of a sanyasi, insisting that he was a ‘ksatriya’ and not to be identified with the ‘low’ and barbaric Portuguese. Behind this whole policy was the theory that caste was a ‘social’ not ‘religious’ matter, a position that did not particularly trouble the educated and elite Jesuits of the time.


Christian converts who came from subordinate castes, for instance from the fishing communities of the coastal areas, were also encouraged if not forced to maintain caste and sub-caste identities. Conversion by group, village and clan made this process almost inevitable. Among Goans today, for example, it is said that if one knows the surname and the village of a person from Goa, the caste is known; and marriages continue along these lines. Thus, where Catholicism and pre-Catholic forms are strongest, in South India, Dalits still remain confined to separate churches and separate burial grounds.


The evangelical protestant missionaries, who began to arrive in small groups in the 18th century, represented a new, fervent, missionizing force, linking their message of Christian love to social equality and the condemnation of Indian caste. Many of these, for instance Bartholomaus Ziegenbalg (1682-1719) who started the Danish mission in Tranquebar, and William Carey (1761-1834), who was a cobbler by trade, were from poor and artisan backgrounds. They linked their message of spiritual salvation with the need for education and social uplift, and saw caste as an affront to God. Ziegenbalg was reportedly marked out for murder because of his criticism of Brahmans, while the daughter of the first convert made by Carey (considered a shudra) married a Brahman in 1802.

This new message which linked the need to fight poverty and illiteracy with a spiritual call, eventually awoke an impressive response in India. By the end of the 19th century, there were significant group conversions among tribals and untouchables in many parts of India in what has become known as ‘mass movement’ conversions.

It was at this point that the colonial connection complicated the issue. ‘High’ caste elites in Indian society feared – and still fear – the impact of such conversions. Fearing upheaval from the Brahman dominated ‘Hindu’ society, the British rulers of the subcontinent generally favoured a policy of opposition to missionary efforts. The East Indian Company from the time of its ‘rule’ in India had refused to let missionaries enter its territory; people like Carey had to begin their work in Danish controlled areas. In the heyday of the evangelical movement in the early part of the 19th century, this opposition began to be withdrawn as many British officials were also evangelicals; but the 1857 revolt against the East India Company led to a reaction.

Following this and the takeover by the British crown, opposition to both Christian missionary efforts and radical social reform in general became official government policy. Among other aspects of this which affected Dalits seriously, was a new exclusion of Dalits from the British armed forces – this was a policy affecting both Mahars in western India (Ambedkar himself owed his start in life to the fact that his father had gotten education and some economic benefit from service in the British army) and Paraiyas in the South.


Now this was cut off, and along with it, many opportunities for Dalit mobility. A renewed discouragement of missionary efforts, a renewed emphasis on only higher education alongside a refusal to support mass education, were policies whose main effect was to ensure that Dalits, including those who converted to Christianity, would remain in their place. Independence only heightened the ongoing exclusion of Dalit Christians. ‘Indianization’ of the Church, both before and after independence, in a context that did not challenge traditional hierarchies of wealth, knowledge and power, could only mean a Brahmanization. The fact that some states passed ‘anti-conversion’ laws only highlighted the existing situation.


Thus in many ways, Christian missionizing in India had paradoxical effects. Christianity was seen and depicted as a major challenge, a ‘foreign’ attack on Indian tradition, though from very early on, it was often missionary efforts that most helped advance the cause of vernacular languages and indigenous spiritual radicals. Ziegenbalg printed the first Tamil literature and dictionaries; Carey’s Bible translations were important for Bengali and other languages. In western India, Marathi is an important example. It was not considered a proper bhasha, only a boli (spoken dialect) by traditional Brahman pundits. The first Marathi book published was Krista Purana in the 1620s by a Jesuit from Goa; the first major Marathi-English dictionary was compiled by a missionary, J.T. Molesworth, in 1831; and the first translation of Tukaram was done as part of mission work by J. Nelson Fraser and K. Marathe and published by the Christian Literature Society between 1909 and 1915.

Missionaries also researched the lifestyles, traditions and histories of many lower caste groups, and spread this research among newly educated members of these castes. In turn, the ‘threat’ of missionary activity became a major stimulus for Indian-led social reform movements and renewed interpretations of ‘Hinduism’. However, the earlier promise represented by a mission thrust to provide elementary mass education to converts was forsaken. Instead, the missionaries and their churches focused energies and funds on setting up colleges and training the elite, rationalizing the forsaking of conversion efforts with a theory that they were, in some ways, laying a moral ground for the understanding of Christianity by ‘civilizing’ the existing Hindus.

The result, of course, has been not only striking but obvious: despite the ‘threat’ of conversion and what appeared as a massive cultural activity by missionaries, the percentage of actual converts has remained minuscule in India. In contrast to a very significant proportion of Muslims – 13% in independent India even after the Muslim majority areas were cut off to go to Pakistan (and now Bangladesh) – and despite all the hype about conversion, at 2.4% of the population Christians have never represented, on their own, a social or political force. Even today, many Christian social activists, particularly those who have taken up the cause of Dalit Christians, consider the Church leadership to be ‘naïve’.1 


There is another important difference from the Muslim religious minority: the large majority of Indian Christians are either converts from Brahmans or other former ‘high’ castes, or Dalits; there are almost no OBCs except for small groups in the South (mainly from among former Nadars in Tamilnadu). And the large majority of Indian Christians are in the South, or from among the hill communities of the Northeast; Christians in the North have mainly spread to cities that have been major railway junctions.

It is worth asking why these significant differences between Christianity and Islam should exist? In part this can simply be explained in terms of timing. Islam made its big entry in India in the medieval-early modern period before the advent of mass communications, and a consolidated central rule. Most Muslim converts came not only from marginal groups (low castes, often previous Buddhists) but also from marginal areas in the eastern and western parts of the country. In the British period also, Christianity made a mass impact only where Delhi/central rule had never been previously established, in the Northeast. But in the rest of the country, it was more Brahmanism that consolidated its hold using the educational system and the communications and transport networks created under colonialism.


Christians, then, have occupied a very contested space within the Indian social structure, and one sign of this contestation was the very different response to it by the nationalist elite and the Dalit-bahujan social radicals, beginning with Jotirao Phule in Maharashtra, who emerged with their own voice. To Phule, the conversion efforts of both Islam and Christianity were at least initially emancipatory; he had written a long ballad, for example, on Muhammad, and made statements of the sort that ‘Muslims forcibly converted the Shudras and Ati-Shudras and freed them from the bonds of slavery to the Bhat-Brahmans.’

About Christianity, Phule very specifically underlined the dilemmas of Dalit Christians:

‘These days, because so many Shudra and Ati-Shudra farmers are accepting the Christian religion and arriving at a humane life, the importance of the Bhat-Brahmans has decreased and they are faced with the situation of working themselves to fill their stomachs. Observing this, so many Bhat-Brahmans have established various kinds of Samajes to defend the mad Hindu religion. In these they attack Christianity and Islam with all kinds of backhanded methods and create false ideas in the minds of the farmers about these religions.’ (Shetkaryaca Asud, first chapter, my translation)

‘Now if the Mahars and Mangs become Christians and try to improve their situation to make a claim to humanity, so many scholarly black Bhat Christians cling night and day to the white missionaries so that these helpless ones cannot achieve their purpose. Here too it is evident that the Christians coming from high castes maintain so many types of discrimination.’ (Chapter 4, my translation)

For Phule, in other words, acceptance of Islam or Christianity was a step towards liberation, but a failed and foiled one. It was, according to him, foiled in two ways, first by propagandizing against these as ‘foreign’ religions and second, by the maintenance of caste distinctions by high caste converts within the new religion. These parallel methods match the double discrimination Dalit Christians face today: stigmatized from outside as Christian, stigmatized from inside as Dalit.


There are a few, highly visible Dalit NGOs, including those run by Dalit Christians. The decision of the World Council of Churches around 1990 to contribute to such ‘social’ issues as anti-caste work has added to this visibility. It has been said, for example, that such funding helped to support the Dalit presence and demands at the World Conference against Racism in Durban, South Africa, in 2001. Yet again, such funding is minute in comparison with funds going into the promotion of ‘Hindu’ causes – deriving from the powerful and often religiously conservative NRI population, as well as from the Government of India itself; it is also minute in comparison to the highly funded and visible but conservative Church establishment in India. Further, the funds allocated by the World Council of Churches since the 1990s have come with a condition that they be used for ‘secular’ social activity. Thus, if Dalit Christians get aid, it is almost by accident.

Thus, on one hand, ‘convent schools’ get criticized by the Hindu right and at times physically attacked for supposed conversion efforts; on the other hand, the education they provide has become an Indian bye-word for providing English language facilities and quality education for an existing elite.


At the same time, Dalit Christians have borne the main thrust of the hate campaigns carried out under the name of stopping ‘conversion’. As John Dayal, a member of the National Integration Council of the Government of India has pointed out, though the Christian community in India had felt itself safe after independence, hate crimes have been increasing in the last decade. ‘After a spurt of violence in 1998-99, hate crimes against the Church and the Christian community have been increasing alarmingly… averaging about 250 incidents a year.’

This rose to an unprecedented level in 2007-8, with the excuse provided by the murder by Naxalites of the swami leading the ‘anti-conversion’ movement in the state.

‘Orissa in 2008 saw 120 deaths, 4,500 houses burnt, over 300 villages purged of Christians, and women, including religious people, raped. Six thousand men, women and children are still in government refugee camps, from the peak of 26,000.’

This does not include the thousands still living in forests, away from their homes. And it does not include concurrent attacks in other (mainly BJP-ruled) states such as Karnataka.

Tensions in Orissa have had complex origins. On one hand, bitterness between the tribal Khonds, now mostly identifying as Hindu, and the often Christian Pana Dalits, go back at least a century. As studies such as by Biswamoy Pati (2003) have shown, both tribals and Dalits have followed a complex path towards improving their position; it is also true that there has been overlap and intermarriage between the two groups. Among the factors contributing to the communalization of Orissa in recent decades, the Gujarat connection should be mentioned: Gujarati business investments in Orissa mines are considerable, and this money has been a major source of funding for the RSS in Orissa itself.

It should also be noted that it was not only Dalit Christians who were attacked, so too were tribal Christians. Even non-Christians associated with the Church and mission activity were subjected to rape and harassment. The unprecedented violence climaxed in the last months of 2008, a period when the Orissa state machinery under Naveen Patnaik simply kept itself aloof. It was the strenuous efforts by a small group of Christian and non-Christian supporters, including an investigatory committee led by Professor Manorajan Mohanty of Delhi, that finally resulted in some publicity and revulsion throughout much of India, forcing Patnaik to dissociate himself from his alliance with the BJP in the 2009 elections.


By the 1980s, the growing Dalit movement in India was accompanied by a new theology, first articulated by a Maharashtrian Dalit Christian, Arvind Nirmal, as ‘Shudra theology’, and then identified by James Massey, M.E. Prabhakar, M. Azariah, K. Wilson, V. Devasahayam and F.J. Balasundaram as ‘Dalit theology’. As Massey put it, Dalit theology is

‘an affirmation about the need for a theological expression which will help them in their search for daily bread and their struggle to overcome a situation of oppression, poverty, suffering, injustice, illiteracy and denial of human dignity and identity. It is these realities of Dalit life which require the formulation of a Dalit theology. The highly philosophical schools of thought such as Gnana Marga, Karma Marga and Bhakti Marga were of no liberative and theological value to Dalits.’ (Oommen, 2000: 34)


But Dalit Christian theology is more than just an Indian reflection of worldwide liberation theology, and more than just a reaction to the Vedantic identifications found in much upper caste Indian Christian theology. For example, Sathianathan Clarke, through a study of Paraiyar Christians in Tamilnadu, argues for the special significance of the goddess and the drum – a way of viewing the ‘word’ not just in literary terms but also in oral, musical, emotional communication.

There has been a tendency for Dalit theologians to argue that ‘only Dalits can do Dalit theology.’ This, however, represents an often contradictory position of Dalits generally: on the one hand the word ‘Dalit’ gets defined in broad and inclusive terms (as all oppressed, or all caste-oppressed – which it was in the Dalit Panther manifesto); on the other, it is used to mean only the ex-untouchables now referred to as ‘Scheduled Caste’. The argument as such becomes internally contradictory, though it can be argued that the ability to understand from within the life-experiences of an ex-untouchable can be achieved only by exceptional empathy or similar experiences of people from other caste communities.

For example, it might be said that India’s most famous Christian convert in colonial times, Pandita Ramabai, is an exemplar of ‘Dalit theology’. She was the daughter of an outcaste Brahman, not a subaltern family. But as she started working with women, she ended up identifying fully with the poor and subaltern girls abandoned during a turn-of- the-century famine, and building a utopian community of women based on them, Mukti Sadan, the Abode of Freedom. Ramabai had from the beginning defied the Church establishment on theological as well as social issues. She also insisted on her own autonomy, and when she finally prepared a Marathi translation of the Bible, consciously avoided using Vedic-Sanskritic terms. The point is that the initial thrust of Dalit Christian theology was, like Dalit literature generally, positive – but could fulfil itself only by coming forward as a model for all theologizing.


This is what apparently has not happened. Dalit theology, again like Dalit literature generally, does not appear to be moving forward to fulfil its initial promise. Specially in the Christian case, in the last two decades, Dalit Christians have found themselves in an ideological and philosophical quandary. The ‘liberation theology’ of the 1970s and 1980s lost ground in the U.S. and elsewhere to a new Pentecostal evangelicism, stressing ecstasy and with wide appeal to those frustrated with Church establishments throughout the world. It is also often ‘otherworldly’ and fundamentalist, emphasizing salvation in heaven as opposed to action in this world. The effect of this in India was anti-Dalit. Dalit Christians have for some time found themselves caught in a pincer between two major forces within Christianity: on one hand, a Church establishment (among both Catholics and Protestants) inclined to compromise with ‘Hinduism’, promising to avoid conversions, seeking the ‘good qualities’ of Vedantic Brahmanism and Sanskritic traditions; and on the other, an evangelical opposition to this Church which stressed only prayer and spiritual uplift. Neither option seemed to give much space for fighting the existing social injustice Dalits and other subaltern castes were exposed to.


Thus, in the last few years, Dalit Christians under attack in Orissa and elsewhere have found much less help within the Christian fold then they had the right to expect. Those who devoted time, energy, and their own resources to the cause of Christians under attack – often but not always Dalit Christians themselves – have in turn been marginalized within the Church. Activists like John Dayal of the Catholic Union found themselves almost single-handedly trying to put out material on the issue; evangelical activists such as Sunil and Nitin Sardar – both Dalit Christians from eastern Maharashtra – have occasionally been bitter about the lack of support from the Church establishment. ‘A number of people and groups have been getting tremendous funding from abroad, and using it only for prayer meetings! – if for that!’ In spite of this bitterness about the way attacks on Christians have victimized Dalit Christians while allowing a few in the establishment to become vocal, visible and comfortable, the work goes on.

‘We are trying a fourfold process,’ as Dayal puts it. ‘Christians have to be given full rights as citizens, with all that it implies. Dalits have to be treated as citizens – including rights of social justice and affirmative action – without reference to religion. Third, there is a tremendous need for affirmative action within the Church itself. Finally, Christian Dalits need to build their links with other Dalit movements. The awareness of leaders and spokespeople like Phule and Ambedkar is increasing, but much more needs to be done. We are trying to organize round table discussions, conferences, create literature.’


In spite of all the obstacles, there is a growing consciousness and assertion everywhere, and Dalit Christians may yet be able to overcome their isolation, and turn their marginalization into a voice that can resound through India. As African American feminist Bell Hooks has written in her study, Feminist Theory From the Margins to the Centre, the margins in fact can provide a truer viewpoint, a broader vision.



1. Interviews, John Dayal, Sunil Sardar, Nitin Sardar.


Sathianathan Clarke, Dalits and Christianity: Subaltern Religion and Liberation Theology in India, Oxford University Press, 2000.

Robert Eric Frykenberg, Christianity in India: From Beginnings to the Present, Oxford University Press, 2008.

Susan Billington Harper, The Shadow of the Mahatma: Bishop V.S. Azaraiah and the Travails of Christianity in British India, Eerdmans and Curzon Press, 2000.

James Massey, Dalits in India: Religion as a Source of Bondage or Liberation With Special Reference to Christians, ISPCK, Delhi, 1995.

Manoranjan Mohanty et al., Report of the Concerned Citizens Independent Fact-Finding Kandhamal, September 2008, Orissa.

Arvind Nirmal, ‘Towards a Christian Dalit Theology’, Heuristic Explorations, Christian Literature Society, Madras, 1990, pp. 138-56.

George Oommen, ‘The Emerging Dalit Theology: A Historical Appraisal’, Indian Church History Review 34(1), June 2000, pp. 19-37.

Biswamoy Pati, Identity, Hegemony, Resistance: Towards a Social History of Conversions in Orissa, 1800-2000, Three Essays Collective, New Delhi, 2003

J. Jayakiran Sebastian, ‘Baptism and the Unity of the Church in India Today’, in Michael Root and Risto Saarinen, Baptism and the Unity of the Church, Eerdmans Publishing Co., pp. 196-205.

John C.B.Webster, The Dalit Christians: A History, 2nd edition, ISPCK, Delhi, 1994.