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Muslim-Catholic dialogue in India: Is caste the main problem?

Muslim-Catholic dialogue in India: Is caste the main problem?

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Jason Keith Fernandes


Sharing his experiences on Christian-Muslim dialogue in the March ’09 issue of Jivan, Fr Paul Jackson was unusually reticent on the challenges that face the Catholic aspirant on this route. To say that this route is a path of thorns would not be an exaggeration, since there are quite a few voices expressing frustration with the lack of response to this aspect of our dialogical calling.

The roots of the troubling dryness of inter-faith dialogue within the Catholic Church in India, and the failure to effectively initiate a meaningful dialogue with the Muslims in India, lie in one basic ailment, in my opinion: the failure to develop a rigorous caste-based critique both of ourselves, the stand of the Church, as well as that of Indian nationalism, to which the Catholic Church has unwittingly become a handmaiden.

The Christian memory of Caste

A curious feature of many Indian Christians’ narratives of their journey in inter-faith dialogue is that these inexplicably begin with an acknowledgement of their Hindu ancestry. What is interesting, but not surprising, however, is that most of these narratives also revel and glory in their ‘former’ upper caste identity. This recollection of the route of their conversion to the Christian faith very often allows the speaker to make a crucial distinction between themselves and other Christians.

The implication of these recollections of ‘former’ caste status is that only those of the ‘culturally, socially and economically’ lower classes – those who have something to gain materially (even if it were only release from caste oppression) – convert. The privileged have no good reason or desire to convert. Thus if they do convert, it is because they were able to respond spiritually, to the ‘inner invitation’ that Christianity offers. This acknowledgement enforces a fundamental brahmanical declaration that it is the brahmin who is the repository of spiritualism. Indeed, it is possible that these recollections allow members of dominant castes to retain their ‘superiority’ in the Church. Indeed, we know that historically, both in places like Goa, and for De Nobili in Madurai, it was the desire to convert the upper caste groups, for whom De Nobili went out of his way to ‘inculturate’.

These recollections of caste sometimes do acknowledge the violence and injustice of caste. But caste oppressions may continue to mark the relationships of ‘lower castes’ and dalit Christians with their ‘upper caste’ Christian brethren and people from other religious denominations. The mere fact of conversion does not instantly, (if at all) alleviate the experience of caste from dalit lives, and we need to be aware of the manner in which caste continues to stalk the lives of Christians even after conversion.

The Memory of Caste and our Politics

Caste identities profoundly influence our view of the world and the options we take up for inter-religious dialogue. Very often one hears statements that conversion ‘did not make our ancestors some kind of sahib log. They did not change their dress, eating habits, social relationships and cultural ethos; much more, they did not sever their ties with others who remained Hindus. This creates a hierarchy among the Christians in India. Those who converted but did not adopt western manners hold some sort of exalted position, existing in a higher state of grace than those who did. They are, this narrative suggests, ‘better’ Indians, or that they are ‘Indian’ despite their being Christian. This logic would have us be ‘Hindu-Christians’.

This suggested hierarchy while being rooted in the problematic politics of nationalism and authenticity, is also reflective of the casteist framework of Indian nationalism that privileges the upper-caste Hindu.

The rejection of the traditional Hindu order has been an article of faith for the dalit movement in India. We have celebrated texts such as Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste, Kancha Illaiah’s Why I am not a Hindu that elaborate these positions. Right from social relationships, to dress, dietary restrictions, dwellings, the traditional order has been experienced by the dalits as oppressive, fixing them in a humiliating identity and marginalized socio-economic existence. It is only the dominant caste that has the dubious ‘luxury’ of remaining immured in its earlier relationship with other groups, Hindus or otherwise. There is good reason why Dr Ambedkar is consistently depicted as wearing a three-piece suit. The route of embracing the ‘Western’ was a route out of caste oppression for many groups in the subcontinent, including the Christian Dalit groups of the Konkan coast. Statements celebrating cultural purity subsequent to conversion therefore not only stigmatize the Christian communities in India that have westernized, but also close the doors within the Church – through caste-blind processes of inculturation – to genuine liberation from subjugation.

There is a further problem with the position captured in the phrase ‘they did not sever their ties with others who remained Hindus’. There is a certain presumption of a Hindu past in this and other efforts that animate inter-religious dialogue in India. Another example of this position is a statement of a prominent Indian theologian: “I feel that I am a Hindu-Christian. …It is the religion of my ancestors in which also I am rooted. …the advaita inspired by the Upanishads…Indian methods of prayer”.

This position is deeply problematic, since it excludes the possibility of conversions to Christianity from Islam (as occurred in Goa) and from tribal and dalit groups that traditionally did not identify themselves as Hindu. Indeed, the label ‘Hindu’ is one that got solidified only in the course of the national movement, one key moment being when prior to the Poona Pact of 1932 Gandhi refused to accede to the demands of a separate electorate for the Dalits, insisting that there could not be a division of groups that he (not the Dalits) saw as ‘the Hindus’.

This position could delegitimize the cultures of Muslim groups within the country. Islamic and Persian, Arabic and Turkic cultures have profoundly influenced the communities that call themselves Muslim, as well as other faith-communities, but, owing to the peculiar trajectory of Indian nationalism, have been projected as alien and foreign. Thus despite being an Indian language, Urdu is marked out as the Muslim’s language and so others keep themselves away from it. Indeed, the distinction between Hindi and Urdu has been one where the ‘foreign’ elements in Hindustani, have been pared away to be artificially replaced with the Indian (or brahmanical) elements from Sanskrit to create State Hindi. This resulted in the orphaning of the popularly spoken Hindustani that is increasingly losing ground to State-Hindi. It is this language, State-Hindi, that has also, by and large, been adopted by the Catholic Church in North India. This has only strengthened a nationalistic project, which cultivates in the faithful an exclusion of our broader sub-continental heritage of Persian and Arabic, while purportedly following an agenda of inculturation.

When we, within the Church, take positions that justify notions of nationalistic culture grounded in Hinduism, then what we do is to instantly shut the doors for dialogue and liberation for a whole range of subaltern groups – including Muslims – both within and outside the Church, and within and outside the Indian nation-state. It is worth bearing in mind that the phrase, “Hindu-Christian” whose use has been encouraged by some theologians, is in fact identical to the requirement that the RSS places on all Muslims and Christians in India – that they be Hindu-Muslims and Hindu-Christians, positing Hinduism (understood exclusively in its upper-caste brahmanical forms) as the base culture of India. Indeed many a time, the term ‘Indian’ is used liberally, when in fact the reference is to ‘Hindu’.

There is also a theological objection that one could raise to this identification with the Hindu as the fold from which we originated. When Christ resurrected, he destroyed for us, who are baptized into his faith, the shackles of time, race, gender, class and other worldly categories. We become, in baptism, a liberated people, committed to liberation for others.

To put it in another way, through his death and resurrection Christ purchased for us choice, a choice to wander through the garden of earth, without any discrimination, plucking the fruits of human existence that would contribute to the realization of the Kingdom on earth. It is our bounden duty then, to identify with cultures of the world, and especially those of the marginalized as we construct our local cultures of peace and justice. After conversion therefore, we cannot, in any way, return to our old identities. Our adoption of brahmanised Hindu practices subsequent to our conversion is a matter of a deliberate choice. This choice simultaneously includes our choice to reject our Persian-Arabic traditions, indicating a failure to understand the deeper meaning of our faith. This failure can in some part be traced to a desire to align ourselves carefully with Indian nationalism, and also a refusal to interrogate our caste identities that serve us, in this national context, very well indeed.

Inter-faith dialogists from Kerala very often rather naively celebrate practices peculiar to the Syrian Christians as examples of inter-faith dialogue, syncretism and inter-religious amity and harmony. The use of temple elephants in Church processions, the learning of the alphabet, and use of Christian prayers in a class of mixed religious denominations are some examples. A more conscious reflection on caste would have revealed to us that the use of the temple elephants is also a display of caste power, jealously guarded by the Kerala’s dominant castes. Similarly, the question we need to ask is, were these traditional schools open to those of ‘lower caste’ backgrounds or not? If not, their value as an example of dialogue is poor. Dialogue cannot be built on the backs of the oppressed; such dialogue will not amount to anything more than mere tea-parties for the privileged.

Inter-faith dialogue as erasure of difference

If we refuse to interrogate caste then the agenda of inter-faith and inter-cultural dialogue will change from acceptance of difference to eradication of difference. A quick glance at inter-faith texts suggests that the Catholic attempt at inter-religious dialogue is in fact an attempt to find a way for the Christian to become more ‘Indian’. This Indian-ness of course is understood primarily in Hindu upper-caste terms. Therefore strangely conversion to Christianity is seen as the alteration of a natural state of authenticity and dialogue and inculturation must now seek to redress it.

In such a scenario it is little wonder that it is exceedingly difficult to dialogue with groups like the many Muslim communities in India, that refuse to let go of defining features. It is because we refuse to interrogate our caste identities that the position of Muslim groups is mistakenly seen as obstinacy. Could this be one of the reasons why the official Church has maintained a deafening silence when, for years now, Muslims in Mangalore have been routinely attacked? The silence rested on the assumption that since Muslims slaughter cows, they are cruel, and since they are cruel, they must have initiated the attacks. Such logic regarding the slaughter of cows is peculiarly brahmanical, accepted by those who see themselves as originally Hindu. The blind spot generated by accepting this logic has prevented the Christian in coastal Karnataka from seeing the anti-Muslim violence as part of the intolerance against differences that is rooted in the upper-caste sensibilities that have given rise to Hindu majoritarianism.

We know the discomfort caused by the pre-Vatican Council positions of the Church with regard to other faiths. However, in attempting to address these issues of exclusiveness and arrogance, we have swung to the other extreme of attempting to erase differences. This might make us see the Muslim who rightly refuses to get rid of the differences as the cussed Other.

Caste, Muslims, the Indian State and the Catholic Church

In making this analysis, I don’t intend to suggest hypocrisy or villainy in anyone who belongs to the Catholic Church in India, especially those engaged in inter-faith dialogue. On the contrary, all I want to do is point out that a pride in our caste identity encourages the Catholic to remain immured within it. The validation of upper-caste Hindu discourses by the Indian state gives this added energy.

A significant marker of the Indian Christian engaged in inter-faith dialogue is the desire to erase the tensions and find a meaningful way to be a Christian in India. This discomfort with differences can be credited to the silent messages promoted by the Indian State that to be authentically Indian is to be (like) a secularized Hindu. Advaita philosophy finds its base in definite caste groups. This connection is carefully glossed over and transformed into ‘Indian’ philosophy. Akbar is exalted as the ideal Muslim ruler because he eagerly accepted ‘Hindu’ practices into his daily life, reducing inter-faith dialogue to the now clichéd gustatory celebrations of religious festivals.

Similarly, upper-caste Hindu practices, like the lighting of the lamp, were taken out of religious and casteist contexts, to create apparently secular rituals which nevertheless played their role in forming a secular but Hindu national and public culture. All examples of goodness presented by the Indian nation-state, are examples of ‘upper-casteness’. It is these qualities that allow one to survive and rise in the Indian nation-state. It is this failure to speak truth to power that perhaps explains the aridity of our dialogical experiments.

Association with this national and public culture is easy, when one consciously or unconsciously identifies with the upper caste logics that drive it. This explains to a large extent the urge towards Hindu forms in our biased dialogical initiatives that take off from our unexamined ‘upper-caste’ identities. If one is Dalit or Muslim or ‘lower caste’ Christian, one has to first unlearn one’s culture to be able to participate in this natonal culture. Refusing to do so and demanding to remain rooted to one’s natal culture – or simply requesting to be allowed to remain as one is – as many Muslim groups in the country have done is seen as anti-national.

The winds of change brought by the Second Vatican Council have obviously been momentous and welcome. But we need to inquire whether our understanding of these changes has made genuine dialogue impossible. At some level the Second Vatican Council interrupted the universalism of the Catholic Church and affirmed the relevance of ‘local’ cultures. But unfortunately in many newly decolonized parts of the world, this ‘local culture’ was anything but clear. It happened to be a field fraught with class and caste issues. The apparently liberatory emphasis of ‘local’ has been co-opted by the nationalist agendas of these new, emerging States, that exclude even as they create spaces for those who belong.

In the Indian context, it appears more and more certain that the Church has unknowingly participated in supporting a nationalist culture built on upper-caste Hindu values. This unwitting support has, for the large part, prevented the Christian in India from realizing that the ‘Muslim problem’ in India is, in fact, a problem of all minority groups in the country that refuse to participate in the biased caste-Hindu construction of the ideal Indian citizen.


It is an accepted dictum that the basis of inter-faith dialogue must be based on mutual respect and respect for life and rights of all the groups. It has also been acknowledged that ‘any meaningful dialogue has to be liberational and any meaningful liberation has to be dialogical’.

While I underscore the importance of these insights, I’d like to point out that in order to reach out to Indian Muslims and to engage in a meaningful inter-faith dialogue with them, we need to carefully examine the fundamental bases of the Indian State, which sets up a highly exclusionary model for participation as citizen. Simultaneously there is a need for us to critically examine the manner in which we Indian Christians have failed to abandon our caste identities and memories, and the manner in which this lacuna contributes to shaping our priorities.

It is when the inter-faith initiatives of the Catholic Church would open themselves up to this avenue that dialogue and liberation would have been conjoined organically. It is this openness that would make the inter-faith dialogue initiatives of the Church in India oriented to respect for human life, justice and equality.


Jason Keith Fernandes ( is a Ph.D scholar associated with the Centre for the Study of Culture and Society (CSCS), Bangalore, and the Instituto Superior de Ciências do Trabalhoe da Empresa (ISCTE), Lisbon.

[Courtesy: JIVAN, May-June, 2009]