Tuesday, 24 June 2014

NATION AND SALVATION: THE PAST AND PRESENT OF THE CHRISTIAN IN INDIA



The gruesome murder of Mohsin Shaikh, a Muslim techie from Pune has shocked many. One of them is Nidhin Shobhana, based at the Krantijyoti Savitribai Phule Women’s Studies Centre, Dnyanjyoti Savitribai Phule University, Pune. Reflecting on the horrific incident in an article published in Round Table India (www.roundtableindia.co.in) from a Christian subjective position, he tried to shift the focus beyond the obvious rhetoric found in mainstream press. He dwelt on the manner in which ‘minorities’ perceive and understand each other and suggested that while on the one hand the Christians of India feel safe because they believe that they are not like the Muslim other, on the other hand they have to deal with the threat of being a minority themselves in a clearly Hindu majoritarian order. One could suggest that this is a case of Christians trying to fit themselves in pre-given nationalist moulds. While this may certainly be true, the flip side of the issue is that the politics of nation and nationalism may also exert pressures on the Christians to be nationally-compliant. A Christian thus, is pressured to construct a self that is Christian while simultaneously imbibe Indian (read as Sanskritic) cultural values.

The Christian in India, according to Shobhana, has to manage a “juggling act to exist in a ‘caste-bitten’ society, [and to that extent] …Christians often dress up in uniforms approved by ‘Caste Hindus’. The almost saffron colour sarees of Catholic nuns is a worthwhile literal example”. Indian Christians create a difference for themselves by claiming – indeed demonstrating – their usefulness towards strengthening and enriching the Indian nation. The schools run by Christian missionaries across cities and villages in India patronized largely by the urban Indian elites, can be a case in point. But these claims to national usefulness encounter problems or “contradictions”.  I believe that these problems have something to do with the fraught relationship that the history of Christianity (and thereby Christians) have with the Indian nation.


I would like to take-off from Shobhana’s astute observation and argue that for the Christians, participation as full citizens is also dependent on their compliance to “adhere to the dominant ideology”.  The Christian has to jump through many hoops to negotiate his/her survival within the politics and understandings of the nation.

It must be pointed out that it is not just the present or contemporary usefulness that the Christian has to repeatedly assert, but he has to also account for the perceived violent past during Christianization, starting from the sixteenth-century. Indeed, the Christian of today has to apologize for it. To substantiate this claim, I would like to focus on a text titled The Christianisation of the Goa Islands, 1510-1567 (1965) that the Jesuit historian Anthony D’Costa wrote in response to A. K. Priolkar’s The Goa Inquisition (1961).  Marked by greater methodological rigor than Priolkar’s work, Fr. D’Costa drew on the voluminous Jesuit epistolary archive to argue for a history of conversion/Christianization that was not always marked with violence and mayhem. And yet, despite making bold assertions, Fr. D’Costa was still operating within the ‘nationally useful’ paradigm that we have acquainted ourselves with.


Fr. D’Costa had suggested that “as a requisite of social equality, national cohesion, and international fellowship” India had accepted many of the ideals that the missionaries propagated way back in the sixteenth-century. Yet, Fr. D’Costa could not escape the established understanding of widespread destruction during Christianization, arguing that although there may have been some misunderstandings between the missionaries and the natives, yet there were some “Hindus” who recognized the merits in the ideals that the missionaries stood for. Indeed, there was friendship between some Hindus and the missionaries, “which in the course of time characterised the relations between the Hindus and Christians”. Thus, the ‘usefulness’ (or in other words the success) of the missionary endeavours is judged by the yardstick of the contemporary nationalist understandings, ideals, and values. Similar “contradiction” also emerges when one is confronted with an understanding that stresses the absolute brutality of the Inquisition. Fr. D’Costa saw a way out: he sought refuge in the ancient brahmanical texts of Indian civilization. Concerning the executions by burning at the stake by the Holy Inquisition, he said, “And coming to death by fire, that, too, was admitted in the Dharmashastras…”

In other words, Fr. D’Costa made Christianization as a process intelligible within the understandings of Indian nationalism. Clever and innovative though the strategy may seem, Fr. D’Costa was not the first one to use it. Even during the course of the Indian national movement many Christian leaders tried to contextualize the contemporary missionary enterprises, such as providing good schools, healthcare, and women’s empowerment in the language of Indian nationalism.

Therefore, it is no easy task to be a nationally-useful and -compliant minority. While it is certainly true that the Christians – consciously or not – buy into nationalist understandings, one can also turn this formulation on its head to suggest that it is the pressures that are exerted by the dominant, nationalist ideology or ideologies that necessitate the production of a Christian identity that is essentially nationalist. These conflicting and contradictory pressures can be observed in Fr. D’Costa’s views discussed above. From a reading of The Christianisation of the Goa Islands, one can suggest that, on the one hand Fr. D’Costa wanted to be a part of the nation but on the other, he was unable as the history of Christianization (understood to be violent and destructive) was heavily bearing on him.

While I am in solidarity with Shobhana’s critical assessment of the Christians in India, the case needs a sensitive approach so that one can understand the various oppressive pressures that are placed on the minorities of India. The fraught relationship that the religious minorities – along with their history and culture – share with the nation may have a lot to do with many of the problems that face the Christians of India today.

Read Nidhin Shobhanas essay here.

(First published in  O Heraldo, dt: 25 June, 2014) 

2 comments:

  1. Hi Dale! A warm Jai Bheem! I am really happy to know that you are in solidarity with my position. I completely agree with your proposition for 'more sensitive approaches'. In fact, specific regional caste histories would inform our questions further. Thank you for your situated insights.

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    1. Thank you Nidhin! I am glad you like it.
      Viva Bhim!

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