‘’The modern writing of Indian history developed during the last two centuries. The needs of these times had encouraged the adoption of certain attitudes and theories about Indian Past…….some of these stereotypes are related to the needs of imperialism for economic imperialism had its counterpart in cultural domination…..The picture (of India’s Past as )painted by the Evangelicals was on the whole black and bleak. The rationale was that the only salvation for India lay in conversion to Christianity’’.
-RomilaThapar, The Past and Prejudice, NBT 1975, pp 2-10
While surfing through the net yesterday I came across a small news head line which said that three hundred Asura families in Jharkhand have recently converted to Christianity. This reminded me of the huge protests against that took place in JNU against a notorious, racist and casteist journal called the Forward press that is usually in circulation in the remote, rural and interior areas of the country or universities like JNU. The journal is a part of the Joshua project which has its roots in the American evangelical circuits (headed in India by Thom Wolf) and usually contains good amount of bigoted fiction written and contributed by otherwise credible names in Indian Academia like Gail Omvedt.
The issue at hand last year was an interpretation of Durga Puja as the celebration of the murder of the Head of the Asuras by a Prostitute called Durga who consorted with him for nine consequent nights before stabbing him. According to the narrative the Aryans were Brahmins who invaded India in the Vedic times but could not defeat Mahishasura the head of the Asuras, the descendants of whom later came to comprise the Dalit Bahujan society. So they sent in their human poison ivy to seduce the great Asura ruler.
Problems with Narrative Leads to Violent Clashes
The problem that the student community saw in this narrative was fourfold.
First, though the journal calls itself forward press, the story was misogynistic (reflecting the Abrahamic context in which it was construed). It reinforces the medieval patriarchal concept that women are essentially wicked.
Second, the narrative stigmatizes the already castigated society of sex workers.
Third, the story reinvents the racial, diffusionistic narrative of history which is harmful for both politics and academics, a reason why after world war European universities steer clear of these bigoted and rather parochial theories.
Finally, the narrative was blatantly casteist, intended to rupture the already volatile caste situation in the country. A march was organized against the journal overnight by socially and morally dedicated yet nonpolitical students of the campus which was joined in by approximately six hundred students with various political affiliations.
However, the protest was confronted by a group of politically connected minions of the Forward Press. A clash ensued following which the Forward Press minions cried persecution. While the march was mainly led by students belonging to the SC and OBC community, the Forward Press minions who have substantial influence in mass media managed to present the united protest of students as a Hindutva attack on the rights of Dalits and Bahujans.
Eminent names like Arundhati Roy and Kancha Ilaiah carried out a signature campaign against random Hindutva organisations. The issue never got properly reported and within a week got convoluted in the politics of caste, religion, to be eventually lost.
Roots in Aryan Invasion Theory
The sudden emergence of the Asura politics in a forum that reports on Jharkhand is an indication that the subversive nonsense is about to raise its hood from the remote Naxal belts in India and knock the doors of India’s premier institutions once again. Therefore it is imperative for us to take cognizance of the intricate politics of race, caste and religion in India.
As far as race theory is concerned, it has become more of a taboo in the western Hemisphere where it originated though it has been kept alive in India by the western powers through their involvement in Indian academics and politics so as to subvert national harmony.
Famous sociologist, Dipankar Gupta has demonstrated in his work Interrogating Caste that race and caste are very different categories and that in India caste is a reality not race. He, I believe reiterates the point made by Dr. B.R Ambedkar in his path breaking work Who were the Shudras where he discusses the Race and the Aryan Theory in depth. To quote: ‘’… there is no evidence to suggest that there occurred any invasion of India by Aryans from outside [i].
He goes on to say that the theory is a ‘’perversion of scientific investigation’’. The theory is preconceived and overlooks facts [ii]. To the supposed subjugation by the Aryans cited in the Vedas through the conflicts between the Aryans and the Dasyus, he takes a stern stand to suggest that the conflicts only refer to some sort of religious (I interpret sectarian) conflict [iii].
The evidence cited to suggest racial differences rather suggest difference of language [iv]. That Dasas and the Dasyus were not racially different can be realized from the fact that Dasas could become Aryans and that the Dasas allied with the Aryans frequently in wars. [v]
The evidence suggested proving the existence of racial discrimination among the Aryan tribes though the word Varna, according to Ambedkar is flawed on the grounds that the invasion theory suggests the war of people belonging to two colors whereas the word ‘chaturvarnya’ would suggest four colors [vi].
According to Ambedkar, the Aryans did not belong to any specific racial group nor did they practice any kind of racial discrimination as they did not belong to any particular skin color group but rather comprised people who had various skin tones [vii]. The Aryans comprised a particular language group [viii].
Superimposition of race on Indian society as a means to understand it by the Europeans back in the nineteenth century can still be forgiven under their claims of ignorance (which though was not the case) but the ones who are trying to resurrect it today are intellectual terrorists.
They inject people with the following fictitious story. Racially White Aryans Invaded India which was then populated by Black Dravidians (this category includes various tribes, a list to which the names of various mythical beings like Asuras have also been added now).
Aryans were caste Hindus and therefore the Dravidians were turned into lower castes once the invasion was complete. The Dravidians are the Dalits and the Bahujans of contemporary times. Therefore Hinduism has caste as its essence. Therefore caste atrocity can be avoided only by conversion to another religion.
Hinduism comprises a vignette of beliefs and practices of which caste is only a part. We are all aware that there are strong ideological currents within Hinduism which reject caste. The Bhakti movement of the early medieval period was a manifestation of such ideologies.
Nevertheless, caste, owing to various socio-economic and political reasons has been a strong reality of Indian society. I use the word Indian and not Hindu because caste has percolated religions which made a place for itself in the sub-continent like Christianity and Islam.
In my opinion, this is suggestive of the fact that caste is an individual social ideology which does not have a concomitance with any religion or Dharmic traditions like Hinduism or Buddhism. So conversion out of a religion into another is not an answer to the caste problem.
A survey carried out by national council for applied Economic Research (NCAER) and reported by Indian Express suggested that obnoxious caste practices were to be found among adherents of all possible religions across India. This observation suggests the opposite of what many have been stressing about the possible social reconciliation through religious conversions.
One might contest that it is owing to the resurgent caste politics of India that caste has seeped into the daily lives of the multitudes across religious lines. Others might contest that caste practices are so tenacious that they have entered the realms of the other religions in India.
The first contestation is wrong as socially caste has been an arena of contestation and its later political manifestation is nothing but a mirror image of the social realities. The second line of argument is acceptable only to the extent that caste is tenacious.
However, this line of argument presupposes a pristine nature of other religions under consideration. Religion (not to be confused with Dharmic traditions), is designed in a way to promote the interests of social hegemons. In such a structure, assimilation of practices, which promotes social hierarchies, is easily possible and rather welcome. Therefore, it is not that other religions have degenerated in India. Rather, subordinating social institutions have been fused in order to maintain status quo among those at the top and bottom of the social structures. To understand this further a brief discussion on the nature of religion and caste and how they connect must be undertaken.
Nature of Religion and Caste
Every religion comes with its baggage of practices, which are detrimental to the interests of many. The victims (imagined evil communities who have been or are yet to be vanquished and those who are responsible for others without remuneration) of a particular religious ideology comprise not only those who are outside its fold but also those within it.
This baggage is added up by mutual interaction between adherents of different faiths. This augmentation of the baggage takes place through various means and modes. One such mode is conversion of people from one faith to another which is nothing but addition and subtraction of beliefs, practices,and customs of the new converts.
It’s never possible for an individual to start social life afresh or in virgin social conditions. Religion, even while proselytizing, in order to be acceptable to aliens, adds and subtracts its baggage of practices. Religion is a manifestation of the human mind and therefore it invariably reflects the inherent and inert desire of humans to dominate its fellows. Thus, religion cannot help but be exclusive and hierarchical, designed in a way to promote the interest of those who are capable of mustering economic and social resources.
Religion however works under the garb of egalitarian promises. It is like a product whose gruesome realities are hidden by its rather insignificant, false but rationally acceptable tenets, which are advertised to increase its number of customers.
However, religion unlike a product, cannot be discarded at will. Its basic ideology is much worse than market economy. The customer of a particular religious ideology signs invisible documents that demands compromise of individual freedom and enlists modes of chastisement and penalties in case the given commodity is discarded or desired to be returned.
At times, these commodities (religion) are forced upon people with swords and guns. In other circumstances, situations are created wherein a person is forced into conversion without realizing the forces of coercion and recognizing those responsible for it. These are situations wherein individual agency is an illusion and is rather at the mercy of situations already chosen by socio-political hegemons.
Owing to the invariable subjugation and subordination of those at the peripheries of the social order, the subaltern adherents seek their rescue through various means from the present ideological (here religious) malice.
Many resort to change in geographical contexts. However, even that does not help. Religion as a commodity has surrounded and overwhelmed the human psyche so much that escaping one form of it or the other is rather a dream that in turn is nothing but religious in nature. It is a psychological trap.
Ultimately, it is conversion to yet another fake promise of egalitarianism and salvation that the individual falls prey to. If that promise is coming from an ideology adhered to at present by socially insignificant groups, the individual is subjected to retribution for dropping out of a lifetime of ordeal by his/her erstwhile comrades. If the new faith is socially significant, one finds temporary relief from the previous ordeals, waiting to face new ones.
The above stated dilemma applies to those who try to escape caste through conversion.
Unlike the other tenets of Hinduism, caste is one that fits closest to the definition of religion where group identity overwhelms the identity of the individual, strict rules of social interactions are apply; where threats of ostracization are substantiated with promises of inhuman violence.
In order to escape caste, many desire to convert to a different group identity as a solution, only to land up with new forms of social subordination. Going by the adaptive nature of religion as stated above, many a times, old means of subordination continue to haunt social groups even if they shift to a new faith as such faiths reject the social evils, life styles or even geographical locations the religious refugees desire to escape only on paper. Religion, by nature is corrupt and the spread of one into the domain of another only increases the potential for devilry.
Chudamani and Chorao
To exemplify that conversion is not the answer to the caste problem, I would like to refer to a case study of two villages, Chudamani or Chorao and Care or Caraim on the island of Chorao in the sixteenth century Goa undertaken by Angela Berrato Xaviers [ix].
By around 1510, Goa was under Portuguese rule and by 1530, their rule intensified [x]. Religious conversion in Goa was a strategic means for strengthening Portuguese power. For this, many non-Christian ‘temples’ were demolished and Christian churches were established on their ruins by agents of the Portuguese imperial power [xi].
In Chorao, the initial converts were awarded with privileges while the ones who resisted were chastised [xii]. The Governor of the Portuguese King had forbidden pagan practices in Chorao. However, a community within the island, the Chaudarins decided to initiate a wedding according to pagan customs.
Owing to this, the judicial officials and Jesuits (Missionaries) arrested around 500 people and sent them to prison. In order to escape a terrible fate, the Chaudarins voluntarily decided to convert and around 1200 people converted in a single shot [xiii].
There is another version of this event available, where the number of people arrested is less and the people were arrested only after a failure of dialogues by the Jesuits in order to persuade the pagans forgo their idolatrous practices, which made the pagans resort to violence [xiv].
In order to escape conversion, many abandoned their properties and escaped. However, this was against the interests of the Portuguese rulers and measures were adopted in order to ensure that people do not flee Goa.
Many stayed back paying a special tax to the Portuguese to retain their faith with a promise to practice their rituals outside Goan territories [xv]. The Portuguese adopted various measures of reward and punishment in order to ensure conversions.
Narratives of the 1560s inform us that the Portuguese Jesuits along with officers would invade the houses of the natives accusing them of possessing idols and practicing forbidden rituals. Many natives tried to run but were eventually trapped in the Passos of the island where the Jesuits and officers were alert with swords and guns.
Many natives dove into waters, others drowned in water tanks. Several died of hunger hiding in caves and caverns [xvi]. Wild animals killed those who fled to the forests. The Portuguese claimed to engage in a ‘’just war’’ and spiritual conquest.
In 1566, royal orders declared the prevention of non-Christians from holding upper offices. A royal order of 1582 clearly forbade the non-Christians to hold offices whatsoever. Many such officers, especially the scribes converted in order to retain their positions. Conversions created rifts among the internally homogenous but mutually exclusive native communities of the islands. Non-Christians were denied voting rights in the village meetings [xvii].
The methods used for conversion in Chorao led to serious criticism of the Portuguese and therefore they devised other ways of conversion as well [xviii]. Hard power was not the most viable means of conversion. Therefore, cultural and ritual assimilation in order to persuade the people to convert were engaged in. The converts were often allowed to keep their caste identities, privileges and obligations though these practices were in serious contradiction of the Catholic faith [xix]. Therefore, the introduction of force and allure towards Christianity only threatened the old social order but did not destroy it. It rather legitimized the old order through new ritual practices.
In the previous order of things, the Gaunkars, one of the village communities, comprised the social elites. They considered themselves Brahmins. They were also believed to be the founders of the village. However, the rest of the village community did not accept the high claims of the Gaunkars and they were rather considered Vaishyas or Shudras in the wider social circle [xx].
Nevertheless, this community controlled most of the resources. They, apart from holding the land resources, also engaged in various mercantile activities. Most of the Goldsmiths belonged to this community. They also acted as mediators between the Portuguese and rest of the population [xxi]. The temple priests also formed the local elite who were regarded highly by the others, as they were indispensable to the twice born castes and others who desired to go up in the social hierarchy [xxii].
Another community, the Kulacharins, outnumbered the Gaunkars and their ancestry at this place was as old as the Gaunkars, yet they comprised a rather middling section in the social hierarchy. They were seen as a serious threat to the position of the Gaunkars and as external mediators [xxiii].
Another community, the Adventicois lived in the village, though they were considered as foreigners. Some of them lived and worked while others held land and other forms of property[xxiv]. The Cuntocares provided credit to the Guankaras but were regarded with suspicion by the Gaunkaras. Even this community, though only economically related to the village would often intervene in the village matters [xxv].
Land was not the only deciding factor of one’s caste and occupation: purity mattered. The Goan untouchables, Frazaes were at the bottom of the social hierarchy. The Chaudarins were the palm groove workers. Though they also controlled the performance of others, most of them were themselves workers [xxvi].
Though the social vignette thus reflected a clear hierarchy of labors, the division of laborers was always contested. Most of the lower and the middle castes challenged the upper caste claims of the local elites while the status of the lowest castes was ambiguous. None of the castes agreed upon the lower status attributed to them by castes practically lower or higher to them in economic terms. All believed themselves to belong to some or the other legendary upper caste. The middle castes were always seen as a threat to the upper castes and measures were taken constantly in order to maintain status quo [xxvii].
It was in this context of heightened social contestation that the conversions came about. The conversions provided the lowest in the social hierarchy an opportunity to go up in the ladder as this brought them close to the Portuguese crown than anyone else and freed them from the bondage of the old order[xxviii].
They stopped engaging in the impure activities of the society and in turn, threatened the social elites of the old order. Conversion was seen as a method of settling scores of the older order[xxix]. The middling castes, converted as this provided them an excellent opportunity to overthrow the existing ruling elites[xxx]. Thus the elites were left with the option of fleeing the village, suspending their identity or to convert in order to reassert themselves[xxxi]. Finally, the upper order out of the fear of losing its status, importance and hegemony decided to convert[xxxii].
Either most of the conversions were forced or people agreed upon due to socio-political and economic implications. Only a fraction of the conversion can be regarded as out of conviction in Christianity. The cultural assimilation that the Portuguese engaged in order to lure the Gentiles into Christianity allowed them to retain earlier customs and therefore ensured the survival of the old social order. The previous upper castes, once converted returned to their dominating position.
The challenges put forward to the older order intensified the competition between the upper and the middling castes. Thus, only the religious order changed. The social order remained the same, where the lower orders returned to a full circle to return back to their servile position.
Moreover, the expectation of the Jesuits was shattered when they realized that most of the converts were not even Christianized given the number of complaints of gentility [xxxiii]. In Goa, Christianity compromised according to the needs of the local people. The structural relations between those at the top and the bottom of the social hierarchy remained the same. According to Angelo Barreto Xavier, until 1961, Goa seemed different from the rest of the country only in terms of the religion of the majority. The social structure was the same [xxxiv].
Lessons and Observations
This case study demonstrates the use of religion for strengthening the position of the political elites and perpetuating the rule of the hegemons. The use of force and logic of ‘’just war’’ elucidates the politically malleable nature of religion.
Further, the assimilation of customs or the use of ‘’sweet violence’’ where the assimilation is conditional also displays how a particular religion has a structural space ready for assimilating institutions intended to maintain social hierarchies.
Here,caste was not injected from an external agency into Catholicism but it was deliberately allowed to promote the interests of the political (Portuguese) and native social elites. Though religion might claim to have certain traits, it can always be reinterpreted or its doctrines might be blatantly transgressed in order to promote the interests of those in power. Religion is not what is mentioned in the doctrinal books but what is practiced and those in power decide what is practiced.
Given the inherent characteristics of religion, it is impossible for an individual to escape oppression, until one manages to accumulate socio-economic surplus. Economic surplus provides the necessary conditions for mustering social surplus.
In any geographical context, the subalterns cannot rescue themselves from subordination and subjugation through religion.The only way out is through economic assertions.
In the Indian context, therefore, the ones looking for respite from caste oppression need to promote their economic capabilities, as no amount of religious conversion can change the status quo. Caste is adaptable as can be seen from the case study just discussed.
Therefore, conversion would only lead to a race of adherents from the lower sections, jumping across religions for salvation chased by the social elites of the previous orders. Both caste and religion are archaic, parochial, communal, irrational and insensitive to the demands of a postmodern era.
Jumping from caste to religion is like jumping out of the frying pan into the fire. The answer to the caste issue therefore lies in superseding caste identities through economic prosperity and not through religious identities.
Intellectual Terrorism Encourages Social Fissures
Intellectual terrorists, in order to further their communal pogrom, wanted to extend SC reservations to Islam and Christianity. A Supreme Court ruling left many annoyed as SC reservations were not extended to Muslims and Christians.
The demand to do so was to incentivize conversions in the first place. Had the apex court succumbed to such demands, the already fragile social fabric would have been further ruptured. The proponents of emancipation through conversion have been left grumbling and wrestling in their own theoretical muck.
They now face the dilemma to either accept that religious conversions do not terminate caste discrimination (be it any religion) or to be content with the logic of the ruling. It is high time that we deal as strictly with these neo-Asuras and their cultural bandwagon in order to herald a true enlightened post-colonial, and an indigenously modern Indian State.
‘’The Time has come for us to free ourselves from the necessary polemics of History writing of the colonial period. We should acquire the confidence of critically assessing our own culture and History.’’
-Romila Thapar, The Past and Prejudice, NBT, 1975, Pg2
[i] Dr. B.R.Ambedkar, Who were the Shudras? , Gautam Book Centre, 1946, pg 80
[ii] Ibid. pg 83
[iii] Ibid. pg 81
[iv] Ibid.pg 82
[v]Ibid.pgs 81, 83
[vi] Ibid.pg 85
[vii] Ibid. pg 87
[viii]Ibid.pgs 72, 74
[ix] Angela Barreto Xavier ‘’Disquiet on the Island: Conversion, conflict and conformity in Sixteenth-century Goa’’ in Indian Economic Social History Review 2007, Jstor
[x] Ibid. pg 270, 280
[xii] Ibid, pg 280
[xiii] Ibid pg 281.
[xv] Ibid. pg 283
[xvii] Ibid. pg 286
[xviii] Ibid. pg. 284
[xix] Ibid. pg 290
[xx] Ibid. pg 274
[xxi] Ibid. pg 273-274
[xxii] Ibid. pg 275
[xxv] Ibid. pg 275
[xxvi] Ibid. pg 276
[xxvii] Ibid. pg 276, 277
[xxviii] Ibid. pg 281, 284
[xxix] Ibid. pg 284
[xxx] Ibid. pg 284
[xxxi] Ibid. pg 282
[xxxii] Ibid. pg 284
[xxxiii] Ibid. pg 89-91
[xxxiv] Ibid. pg 270-271
Ranojay Bhattacharyya is a graduate in Sanskrit from St. Stephen’s College and a post Graduate in History from JNU. At present, he is an M.Phil Scholar in Women and Gender Studies in Ambedkar University Delhi.