I agree with you Shiv Shankar, that Dalit Christians have made great progress because of their education. But we need to do much more together on the caste issue. I have studied conversion movements for a long time and have come to the conclusion that the 19th and early 20th century conversions were the result of a search for equality. The Dalits have not succeeded in this enterprise because the Shudras who joined the churches in Tamilnadu and Andhra Pradesh had taken control of the churches. The Dalits did not have a slot to fill in the caste hierarchy.
So there has been an amibiguity on the caste issue. The positive point is that education has helped the Dalit Christians to become aware of their right to equality and they are struggling for it in TN and AP. Dalit conversions were prevented in Kerala by the fact that the Syrian Christians were already in charge and they would not allowed the Dalits to move up. So the Ezhavas who had the same status as the Nadars did in the neighbouring district, moved upwards through the SNDP and education. The Nadars did not have any competion since there were no Christians in that district. So they took control of their church and used it to move upwards and become a "backward" caste. There are enough studies on it, for example of Oddie and my own. Oberoi's study shows that conversion of Dalits to Islam in Western Punjab and to Sikhism in Eastern Punjab was a result of the same process. This conversion was in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Sri Ram Sharma, the best historian of the Mughal age shows that conversion to Islam in the Mughal age was through the work of the Sufi missionaries and not through political interference. That too was a search for equality and that explains why probably 80 percent of the Muslims in the North are of Dalit origin.
This process also shows the failure of the religions that preached equality to live up to this teaching. It is true of Christianity, Islam, Sikhism as well as Buddhism because caste is an Indian social sin and remains after conversion. However, the fact that education helps many of them to become aware of their right to equality points the way forward. The struggle for equality that follows from it may result in much tension but it will slowly strengthen the forces of equality. That is where all of us have to work together to strengthen these forces. People with power will not yield it easily. In fact, they will find every possible argument to retain the power they have. The arguments include standards, the scriptures etc. But we need to work together on the side of equality.
Dr Walter Fernandes Director, North Eastern Social Research Centre __._,_.___
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