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Dalit Bahujan Missionary Efforts in North Karnataka

Dalit Bahujan Missionary Efforts in North Karnataka

rohan vikarabad conf


Rohan Arthur

And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. – Matthew 19:24

Religion is for man and not man for religion – Babasaheb Dr. Ambedkar

They say that an individual’s identity is like an onion. That there are many layers, and each layer represents a discrete part of the whole. Firstly, is the individual an acceptable level of social granularity? Secondly, how well does the ‘onion’ metaphor apply in the context of India’s caste society?

Growing up in a Methodist (Christian, Protestant mission started by American missionaries) family in semi-urban North Karnataka in the 90s is, for me, an interesting case study of myself. The journey from a semi-urban environment to the urban sprawl of Bangalore, provides some vital clues to how caste and class operate in society. The church would naturally be the first place to look, but careful historical erasure by the church bangs the door shut on any historical context that can help me to answer the questions above. It is only with some scratched shavings collected from history that I have been able to find a context to my own onion. Whether the onion really exists, or not, is not of our concern right now. For many of my Dalit brothers and sisters, this documentation is not available. I have been fortunate indeed to have access to information about these histories, albeit through the racializing gaze of the colonizer.

rohan vikarabad conf

My childhood experience as a member of the Christian community was confined to the family and, on Sundays, the Church. On weddings and other festivals, there was also the extended family, an ever-present thread in the fabric of consciousness, with the inside jokes, the shared joys and sorrows, and the selfless care-giving of the older cousins and uncles and aunts. The inevitable matriarchs and patriarchs with their gentle love and gentler rebukes, the other little cousins and siblings: effortless playmates. I remember, most fondly, my father’s cousin sisters, who were my care givers when mum was away at work during the day. This was a microcosm that was set apart from the rest of the world. The world outside this sheltered existence (school, friends, social gatherings, parents’ friends etc.) was severely separate, completely alien. This is even though we were as ‘secular’ as anyone else, outwardly. A casual stranger could not really tell me apart from my classmates, or my father from his work colleagues.

My interactions with the world outside was always in a seemingly secular plane. This was accepted by me without question. Now the questions are arising: how did this magic trick occur? Of course, there had to be certain accommodations made in order to connect the two worlds. Who made those accommodations? Definitely not the world outside. The obvious answer is that owing to our minority status, it was us who had to acquiesce to the demands of a larger Hindu majority society. The perceptions of middle and upper class society in the 90’s were already majorly along the so-called ‘Hindu-Muslim’ binary. The Hindu being the unquestioned inheritor of all social capital and the Muslim being the ‘other’. We could not figure in this scheme of things, unless we assimilated ourselves into the majority. Our own personal experiences could go on at home. But, outside, better learn to behave. Better celebrate all the ‘Indian’ festivals with more fervor than the neighbours. When Christmas arrives, and with it the guilt of ‘betraying’ our identity, better celebrate that particular festival with even more fervor (not pomp or show: these were not available options to our families back then).

How true was this Hindu-Muslim binary? If I examine the small world that was Gulbarga back then, I see that the divide was perceptible, as stated earlier, only in the middle and upper classes. What of the real ‘others’? Did anyone care whether the domestic help or the person who came once a month to clean the drains was Hindu or Muslim? Definitely not. These were the real ‘others’. The very ones that were left behind by us a mere couple of generations ago. There was no word in my mind, nothing in the household language, for the system that created such organization, but now, I know: The exact same ‘taboo’ word that we are now learning to clamour about: CASTE.

What was it that separated my family from those ‘others’? Why did practically all the women (and many men) among my paternal relatives have teaching jobs? Why, none of the extended family had to labour in the hot Deccan summers, out in the open, doing unpleasant and exploitative work? Was this a result of ‘inheritance’? Or, perhaps, ‘hard work’? Both these options are quickly ruled out: There is no record of anyone owning any significant land, even up to four generations ago. So, inheritance is ruled out. Hard work: this is always an easy but also a bogus claim, designed to further disparage the already disadvantaged people, to break their motivation. Back to the ‘family’: surely, there was hard work. They made excruciating sacrifices, and did inhuman amounts of labour to build whatever capital they could manage. Clichéd stories of travelling long distances to attend school abound in my family too! But this was definitely not the key to our financial and social security. Well so if it wasn’t inheritance or hard work, what was it? What was the lottery ticket that brought us to this relatively safe existence? Why is this lottery ticket not available to those ‘others’? The most probable answer is education.

What is so unequal about education that we were able to take advantage of it, and not the ‘others’? Why do I get the option of claiming whatever supremacy, and some of my less fortunate peers from childhood do not have this option? Why, then, from the same classroom, there are others who can claim supremacy over me? Surely, for such stark divides, answers like hard work and ‘merit’ do not suffice. These are but shallow excuses that further serve to widen the divides that already exist in our society. It is clear that my family had a privilege, ‘something’ else that brought about our meteoric rise, within four generations, from the exhausted existence as farm hands to the relatively comfortable existence of teaching jobs and rented houses. The ‘distance’ might seem short, but when placed within the context of a caste society, it is indeed remarkable.

rohan image from1910

Image from 1910

All human society is based on hierarchy. These hierarchies should have no place in modern society, and the effort for emancipation is as old as the oppression itself. However, in India, the hierarchy is based on a most insidious and cunning caste system. The power structures self-adjust in a manner that will always ensure that the labouring class remains in subjugation. There have been many significant resistances and revolutions. History has shown that the Dalit-Bahujan peoples have constantly revolted against this cruel system, and have scored many victories. But the caste system pervades everything and nullifies any victory either by extinguishing it or swallowing it whole. The history of the Christian Church in India is a classic example. Please note, my research has been mostly for the Methodist Church in North Karnataka, and my later experiences in churches in Bangalore. There is no reason to believe that this research, however limited to a small geographical boundary, is in a broad and general way, not representative of the missionary stories in other parts of India. Although each district had its own narratives, these histories are lost, and we are left with some more general histories, left with the bias of the European author of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Rohan image from 1906

There are tall claims about the Christian faith being emancipatory in nature. True, the New Testament and Jesus’ message is of peace, love and equality. There is no space for caste in this faith. But how far is this true for the Church in India? Can the church truly represent as an anti-caste movement? One of the most abhorrent schemes ever conceived by man, yet one of the longest living systems, what did it mean to the missionaries? What did they find when they reached the shores of India? Here is a revealing excerpt, albeit from couple of centuries after the missionaries’ advent[i]:


Morally, these people were very low and degraded. Immorality in the grossest form is to be found in our villages. The people are not fully conscious of the gravity of this terrible sin. ‘Dedications’ of girls have now been lessened to a great measure. This has been done through constant effort and prayer, and a wild cry against it. Hinduism allowed such illegal and unholy customs. When we oppose it the High Caste people come in the way and encourage it. In Gokak District three years ago this custom was prevailing to a large extent in many villages. In some villages one can find seventy to seventy-five such girls leading very wicked lives. Now see the change that is coming into their lives. At Kamaladinni there is a woman who has some beautiful girls. The mother is a dedicated woman. The expectation was that she would surely dedicate at least one of her girls as she has no sons. But as she is a good Christian, she has not the least idea of dedicating her girls. One of her girls is in the Belgaum Boarding School. Another one is in the village with her mother. She is married and is attending our school there. This evil custom existed for so many years, but now it is slowly dying out. We are encouraging our young men to cry out against it. Hymns and Lyrics opposing this custom have been composed and taught to the village people. In many places, such girls have been given in marriage and are good helpmates to their husbands.


The Methodist missionaries arrived in India in 1856, and in the Deccan regions of Belgaum, Bellary, Gulbarga, Bidar, Raichur etc., sporadically and slowly, around the turn of the century. Some of these regions had never seen a white man before, had never heard of a Bahujan freedom fighter called Jesus. The ball was clearly in the missionaries’ hands. By their own admission, the focus of the Methodist missionaries (and also other denominations, e.g., Jesuit, Presbyterian etc.) was on the Brahmin section of the ‘native’ population, followed next in priority by other ‘caste hindus’. Caste Hindus are the people belonging to any of the four varnas: Brahmin, Vaishya, Kshatriya, Sudra. The rest, the untouchables were understandably not on their radar. Perhaps they were invisible. The missionaries brought the bible and the good news of Christ with the hope of civilizing the ‘untamed brutes’ of India. They found, however, that a small section of the subjects was highly educated and capable of greater mental and philosophical gymnastics than the great white superheroes! They also noticed that this small percentage of people held sway over the collective imagination of almost the entire native population. In the minds of the missionaries, the Brahmins were, indeed, the primary targets of the ‘good news’. The reasoning was as follows: anyway everyone follows the Brahmin’s word as if it were divine dispensation. Why not ‘civilize’ the Brahmin and therefore, ‘win’ over the rest? Secondly, the Englishman saw the Brahmin as a ‘first cousin’, owing to common ‘Aryan’ ancestry, and therefore projected his own narcissistic conceit of superiority in the Brahmin. This strategy is clearly stated in many literary works, for example, you can look up the work of Rev. Alexander Duff.

Understandably, the Brahmins were not very open to this new mumbo jumbo from the West. They had a great thing going anyway, backed up with their own mumbo jumbo. The lower castes, however, particularly the Sudras, took to this new faith, with its promise of emancipation, more readily. Still, the missionaries had not thought of the Untouchables, mind you. In many instances, it was the untouchables themselves who showed up in the mission compounds and demanded to hear about Christ, to get admission into the mission schools, to be baptized. James Elisha Taneti writes[ii]:


“It was not until 1891 that the sources became clearer about the interest of Dalits in Christianity and the attitudes of missionaries towards Dalits. Ernsberger’s choice of Indian clothing was a conspicuous example of a Methodist missionary’s attitude toward the social hierarchy in India. Brenton T. Bradley argues that Ernsberger opted for Indian clothing under the assumption that his western clothing might become a barrier in the preaching of Christianity. Badley also narrated an incident in which Ernsberger had cause to become grateful to Brahmins, making one wonder if his Indian clothing was due to his gratitude towards that community or with a view to proselytizing them. We cannot be sure if this gravitation towards ‘higher’ castes was typical of the rest of the Methodist missionaries of the time.”


We will find, in many instances, that the missionaries themselves got ‘converted’ to the Brahmin lifestyle (lifestyle is the key word, because faith is irrelevant in a hierarchically organized caste society). Take the case of Italian Jesuit missionary, Robert de Nobili. He arrived on the shores of Goa in 1605. How did he fare on his project to convert the natives to the faith of the ‘real’ God of the Christians? Here is an excerpt from Julius Richter[iii]:


“In this city of Madura, the metropolis of one of the ancient empires of South India, situated in the very midst of the main current of Indian civilisation, Nobili found himself confronted with the great and crucial missionary problem, “How can Christianity be brought within the reach of the people of India independent of efforts after territorial aggrandisement? How can it be so presented to them as that they may be in a position to examine it objectively and to accept it for its own sake?” He arrived at the theoretically correct answer, “The missionary must be, as Paul said, an Indian to the Indians,” and he determined to follow up this path in both directions : on the one hand, he would sever all connection with the Portuguese ; on the other, in all the concerns of his life he would endeavour to appear purely and simply a native of India. In determining on this second step, two facts were patent to him from the very outset: Christianity could only be brought within the reach of the Hindus by imitating the outward method by which they were accustomed to receive religious truth, i.e. by the person recommending it himself appearing in the guise of a Brahman; and further, he could only hope to win people of the upper classes, of the higher castes, by leaving the whole caste system unassailed and untouched.”

To paraphrase the story (it is too long to post it here): Nobili became an ascetic, after shunning all relations with his European associates. He took up a house and decorated it to resemble a brahmin abode. He even gave up eating meat, and avoided interacting with non-brahmins. He learnt the Brahmin art of dialectics, so that he could exercise himself for hours with learned brahmins, arguing about philosophy and religion. He devised a month-long crash course to ‘convert’ his brahmin friends to Christianity, but only after promising them that their caste standing would remain intact. This was an important deception because elsewhere in the region, converting to Christianity meant ‘breaking caste’, that is, to become an out-caste. 

What was the result of this? Richter goes on to narrate the sordid tale of how Nobili himself became a brahmin. His followers remained brahmin in all purposes. They even devised a ‘Christian’ variant of the Janeu, and a ‘Christian’ version of the forehead tilak. As a result, the church that was formed from this exercise was exclusively for brahmins. Nobili worked all kinds of lying and deceit to effect this useless change in society. He claimed to be a brahmin himself, claimed that the bible was indeed the fifth Veda, which was lost, and now restored, thanks to the noble brahmin from Rome.

What really did Nobili achieve? Who converted whom? Gandhi is known to have called Christ as ‘one of the seven incarnations'[iv]. Dr.Y Moses cites an excerpt by Rev.H. Brewer[v]:


Rev. H. Bower, writing in 1846 condemns Robert de Nobili and his followers for professing themselves as Brahmans and thereby for despising the low-castes. He quotes one of their own authority which says, ‘They at their first outset announced themselves as European Brahmans, come from a distance of five thousand leagues from the western parts of Jmbudwip, for the double purpose of imparting and receiving knowledge from their brother Brahmans in India’.


Again, from Goa and Kerala, we see similar histories. The ‘Bamonns’ of Goa and the Syrian Christians of Kerala are a tale for another time.

As seen earlier, the missionaries fared better with the lower caste people. They were more readily welcomed into the communities. However, here too, there are different stories, showing differing treatments and differing readiness to break caste. There are recorded instances in the missionary diaries and in the South India Christian regional conferences from around the turn of the 20th century, where the missionaries bemoan the resistance of the Sudra Christians to worship in the same church as the untouchable Christians. This goes on even today, but the church is silent about it. This silence can be attributed to the fact that church leadership is mostly represented by upper castes[vi].

One incident describes the (now hilarious) hardships that poor Miss McGregor had to face in order to set up a school for Brahmin girls[vii]:


“One pupil was promised and the school opened on October in our own rented house. The promised pupil did not attend, but a little girl of caste lower than Brahman was the first pupil. She was followed two days later by three other girls. All the Brahman gentlemen of Brahmanipura were very polite, and invited us to their houses, but their solid opposition could be seen. In very polite terms they told us ‘No house could ever possibly be procured in Brahmanipura and no children would be sent.’ In the house of one gentleman (who had from the beginning shown his opposition while the others were all enthusiastic) when several were discussing the question that gentleman said, ‘These people are like this, they put a seed in the ground and then they wait and watch till it grows. Then they put their foot in any place they never let it go, it becomes their place. They do not change nor get discouraged wherever they get an entrance.’

…”The Brahman owner of the house told us that the above-mentioned gentleman told him that we sought a house for a school and would probably pay a higher rental than anyone else. The world, said he, is going to be filled with this thing whether we let them have a place or not. So you may as well reap the benefit of a higher rental and let them have it. They are good people and their purpose is good, quietly rent it to them and say little to others about it.’ That house we have taken for two years, and now that AND another house are offered to us for sale. ‘No children will come’, prophesied many, but they slowly continued to increase in numbers.


We hear of the varna system, and as Gandhi describes it, one would imagine a harmonious existence in villages, where members of all castes are going about their divinely ordained duties and maintaining a peaceful society. Nothing could be further than the truth. The concept of all jatis living side by side is a lie. At least in the Deccan, there were large geographical demarcations that were almost completely comprised of Bahujan people: Sudras, the ‘untouchable’ castes and of tribals. Of course, there were people of other castes too in these districts, but very few. Too few to matter, it seems, but they made all the difference. These handful of families controlled and consumed the labour of 95% of the population. These hot plateau fertile lands were home to the Bahujans, but they had no claim over their own home, because land ownership was in the hands of the ‘upper’ castes. The dalit-bahujan farm hands had no way out of the system. They were eternally bound, in slavery, to their miserable existence.

Enter: the missionaries. Around the 1890’s, Dalits started entering the church. More and more were stepping up to be baptized into Christianity, based on the promise that they will leave the miserable disease of caste behind. As stated earlier, this did not really work out well for them. There was resistance from caste Christians when the Dalit Christians entered the church premises. Taking of the communion, as a common sacrament, along with an untouchable was far too repugnant an idea. In many regions of South India, particularly Tamil Nadu and Kerala, separate churches were formed, with the congregations divided along the lines of caste. There are fewer such instances recorded in North Karnataka and Telangana, but even there, there were furious uproars whenever a dalit was ordained as pastor. How could the caste congregation accept benedictions and the sacrament from an untouchable minister? This was unheard of, and most blasphemous. From these instances, we see that the Christian faith did little or nothing to shake the old prejudices, and rather in turn adopted some of these prejudices and propagated them through the generations.

Real change, however, came through the women of the church. The Methodist missionaries called these the ‘Bible Women’. These women were charged with propagating the word of the Bible, and with getting more and more people to send their children to schools. Jotiba’s and Savitrimai’s revolutionary work for female education was not far from these districts of North Karnataka. Education for the girl child was not really a new idea. However, funds and facilities were lacking. The entry of the missionaries was the game changer. There were schools set up in each district. Of course, there were separate schools for boys and for girls, and again separate schools for caste children and untouchable children. Mrs.JH Garden reports from the Yadgiri Circuit[viii]:


This Circuit has had only one Bible Woman. Mrs. Malappa Lewis, though another is being sent next year. She makes tours of the villages with her husband and works among the low and high castes in the town of Yadgiri. There has been a very great expansion of the work of this Circuit during the year, and here at least the women are not more backward than the men in becoming Christians.

She reports a very great change in the attitude of the caste women and in the spirit that they show when she visits them in their homes. Formerly she was made to stand far off on the verandah, not allowed to come near or touch them or enter the house. Now they take her by the hand, lovingly lead her to every nook and corner, and show her everything they have in the house.


Of course, this work continued with the help of funds and ‘man’power from European missionaries. Many European women came to the Deccan to give their life’s work towards building and educating marginalized communities, and their work will always be remembered with gratitude. My late grandfather remembered a Mrs.Lipp rather fondly. In his years in the boys’ hostel in Gulbarga, there was scarce money and food. He ran errands and cleaned the premises to earn whatever little he could, so that he could get food and pencils for himself and his younger siblings. Even many years after he grew up and was serving as a head-master in a village school, he used to get annual greeting cards for Christmas from America, from Mrs.Lipp, with the inevitable $5 note inside. These young British and American women, Pandita Ramabai’s Mukti Mission, and many other missionary efforts were instrumental in bringing education to the lower castes in Gulbarga and surrounding districts. There were men too. For instance, Rev.EA Seamands is remembered fondly, and every November there is a jathra in his honour in Dharur near Bidar. As instrumental as they were, the initiative of the untouchables to discard their humiliating past has been the real revolution for families like mine.

rohan image from 1906 1

Image from 1906

Thus, Bahujan women (mostly) and some Bahujan men were at the forefront of the revolution. Not missionaries, not the church, and surely not the upper caste converts. It is the hard work of these women that ensured that so many bahujans got education. Education of girls was a most vital part of their ministry. Here is an anecdote from a school in Hosetti, where an upper caste school inspector went on his annual round[ix]:


It was very amusing at the time of Hosetti School inspection. The master had gathered the children on a verandah. The inspector at once began to object to the place, complaining it was far too small. I was expecting any minute to hear him complain of first the smoke that began to pour out of a window, next the fumes of the fried chilies to which the housekeeper was treating us. These never moved him. All at once he stood up, said the children should move across the road into a field. Why! The smell of dried fish curry was unbearable. Fortunately for us, an empty verandah was near at hand where he finished his examination. This is an outcaste school. The Inspector is a Lingayat. The master daily teaches in a place where the open tanning vats send forth odors strong enough to be noticed rods away. These poor children would never be taught were it not that Christ makes His followers willing to go anywhere. The Christian endures daily, the non-Christian found it extremely difficult for only a few hours.


Mrs.DP Hotton reports from Raichur[x]:


The school has been holding its own and we have been well pleased at the way the Lord has led us. We have had many things to be thankful for. On account of illness and transfers some girls have been obliged to leave, but new ones are always ready to step in to fill up the gap, and were it not for the small dormitories many more could have been enrolled. We now have forty-one boarders and six small boys as day pupils. Last week we were delighted to accept two caste girls. One a weaver whose father and she have recently been baptized. They were anxious to have her in school but had heard that ours was for low caste children. So they permitted her to come for the present saying that they would send her to another which they think is a high caste school. The other is also from the weaver caste. She is a bright child and always runs to meet me when I go to the compound. She loves me and delights to kiss my hands. We have taken special interest in both of these girls and now they say they are so happy they do not want to go away. We are hoping that the parents will see when they visit the girls, that we have not a caste but a Christian school.


Here is something that can move you to tears, a story of little Esther, who brings a turns out to be an agent of change and progress for her family[xi]:


Esther belongs to the Pariah caste. Her mother was married when very young. Soon after Esther’s birth, her husband deserted her for another woman. Esther’s bringing up was very sad. The poor child often hadn’t enough to eat, and consequently grew up a very delicate and sickly child. Her mother and grandmother were both employed in the rice fields, and their wages barely sufficed for the daily necessities of life. In this sad state of poverty, the young mother fell into temptation, and had an illegitimate family. The child steadily grew bigger and in the course of time became a servant to a Muhammadan. While Esther was in this employment, one of our Christian workers came across her, and persuaded her to attend his school, which she did during her spare hours. In school she not only learned to read and write, but also learned about Jesus, whose faithful little follower she became. She then asked the teacher to come to her home, as she wanted him to talk to her mother and grandmother. At her request he did so, and as usual met with great difficulties. Both her people were bigoted heathen, and would not brook interference from anybody. This did not however discourage the teacher, and he went on steadily with his work. One day, Esther came to him and said, that she was praying very hard for her mother and grandmother, and Jesus would answer her prayers. Not long after this, the teacher, during one of his visits, discovered that the man with whom Esther’s mother had been Jiving was driven out of the house. God had at last answered little Esther’s prayers, and her mother’s heart was touched. She abandoned her old sinful life, and tried to make atonement for her past sins. Both mother and grandmother took a stand for Christ, and finally the whole three of them came to our Church and were baptized. Esther’s father heard of the change that had come over his wife and daughter, and returned home and craved forgiveness for his past sins. Eventually, this man also was baptized and now the whole family live together, a God fearing and happy life, Gems gathered for Christ’s Crown.


The hard work of Bahujan women and men built communities, built churches, and schools. They ensured the good education of lakhs of bahujan children, which in turn ensured that their families could rise above centuries old oppression, and could look forward to a life of self-respect. Still landless, and with few possessions, but with a morsel, a beginning of social inclusion and identity. Alas, as with all revolutions, this one too came with an expiration date. Within a matter of a few generations, the very churches built by the Bahujans have become breeding grounds for oppression by the upper castes. Upper caste Christians have invaded and hijacked the urban English-language churches, which are the real seats of power. The urban regional-language churches seem to be doing slightly better, and the rural churches are just left languishing with inadequate funds and ample apathy. They are frequently victims of atrocities by local goons. Over and above this, lower caste identity is erased, so that upper castes can control the leadership of the church. The songs and practices of the Dalit Christians are all but lost in the urban milieu. The animist-Christian hybridized cultures that emerged after conversion have been lost too, in search of ‘ritual purity’: The same ritual purity that infects the caste system in India. Dalit Christians are most affected, doubly affected by this system: within the church and outside. Today, the Indian Constitution provides a powerful Act to counter atrocities on SC/STs, but this is only limited to Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs. Muslim and Christian (and other religious) Dalits have no protection from atrocities. Affirmative action too has no help for Dalit Christians. They do not have the option in Karnataka to receive reservations based on their SC/ST status. The state offers only 2% reservation, and that too for Christians as a minority group, and recognizes the SC converts to Christianity as an OBC group. Inevitably, most of the minority reservations and the OBC reservations are consumed by upper caste Christians. The best spokesperson for the plight of the Dalit Christians is the church itself, but as we have seen, the Church is either busy twiddling its thumbs or with consolidating their upper caste leadership.

rohan image from 1913

Image from 1913

As stated above, the histories that are available in written form are produced through the racialized eyes of the European or American chronicles. Very few names, like Mrs.Malappa Lewis and Mrs. Job Karodi are mentioned. The real size, in numbers, that made up the movement are staggering. These stories will only emerge from the families’ oral histories. For instance, my father’s grandfather was one of the scribes that worked on the translation of the New Testament to Lambani language. However, in all histories that refer to the translation work, none of the Indian translators are mentioned. The credit is given to the white man who oversaw the translation. Similarly, my mother’s grandmother, Padmamma, along with her husband, traveled great distances over a period of many years, in continuous efforts to educate people of villages in the vicinity of Raichur(Karnataka) and Mehboobnagar(Telangana). The personal sacrifices, the ever present privation, children borne and sent away to school… all these histories are important to me and important to the posterity of anti-caste movements. How many such histories? Millions!

Can landed Protestants from Europe or America, most of them infused with patriarchal Victorian values, ever have any anti-caste claim? Of course not! Can American Protestantism of today, in all its racist glory, have anything to do with Pastor Nagraj’s ‘church’ situated in a small rented ‘shop’ in Peenya? Closer to home, can we ever hope for emancipation from the agraharam-styled brahminized urban elite churches? Why do we need them? There are only two options: 1) work from within, and fight for rights and representation, and 2) abandon these dens of oppression and form your own community churches. Here are words by the Buddha, quoted by Babasaheb: “be self-illuminating like the lamp. Don’t be dependent for light, like the Earth. Don’t be a satellite. Be a light unto thyself. Believe in Self. Don’t be dependent on Others. Be truthful. Always take refuge in the Truth, and do not surrender to anybody!” Again, going back to Matthew, Jesus says, “And if anyone will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet when you leave that house or town.” (Matthew 10:28).

rohan image from 1906 2


We need another revolution. There should be focused efforts to undo the historical erasure wrought by the Church, so that Bahujan Christians, especially Dalit Christians will remember the part they played in emancipation of their brothers and sisters, and are once again inspired to fight for their rights. The OBC-Dalit fights should be set aside, so that we can realize who the real culprit is, the very same ones who are standing in pulpits and admonishing us about everything under the sun, and those attending Pastorate committee meetings, deliberating over what snacks are to be served after Church, and how to compete with other churches for the upcoming Christmas Musical. Only a strong Dalit-Bahujan leadership will make this possible.

What role did religion play in this story? We see that religion played an important role as a positive social disruption and as a mobilizing factor. However, institutionalized religion (including atheism), being a seat of power, is also a den of intrigue and oppression. In our efforts to annihilate caste, we must keep our focus clear: to attack and destroy every institution that subscribes to caste hierarchy. There is nothing positively radical in ‘radical’ religion-ism or ‘radical’ atheism. Would it make sense to buy a movie ticket and then sit for three hours in the movie theatre staring at the ticket? True, religion gives us powerful tools for assertion, but the institution of religion is of little or no use once it has fallen into evil hands.

Coming back to the onion. Now I can say that the individual does not exist without the community. If the analogy is forced further, we can only admit to the fact that the layers of the onion can represent the various parts of the identity like gender, sexuality, religion. What about caste? Caste is not a separate layer that can be easily peeled off. Every layer is infused with caste. It is that damned onion juice that flows out from every pore, the pungent fumes that leap at your face and make your eyes water.


[i] South India Women’s Conference, Kolar, 1930

[ii] James Elisha Taneti, Dalit Conversions to the Methodist Episcopal Church in Karnataka, 2007

[iii] Julius Richter, History of Missions in India, 1908

[iv] For these, and other revealing excerpts from Julius Richter’s work, check my Facebook post:

[v] Dr.Y. Moses, An Overview of Christians in Karnataka with a Special Focus on the Plight of Dalit Christians


[vii] South India Women’s Conference, Gulbarga, 1913

[viii] Mrs.JH Garden, Gulbarga, 1912

[ix] South India Women’s Conference, Belgaum, 1930

[x] South India Women’s Conference, Raichur, 1913

[xi] South India Women’s Conference, Madras, 1914



Rohan Arthur works in an MNC in Bangalore. He is interested in music, history and photography.

 All images courtesy the Yale digital library.