The mid-19th century in Bombay presidency saw the rise of a unique ethnic community, the Marathi Brahmin Christians. The fall of the Maratha empire and the arrival of British missionaries during this period resulted in a number of Marathi Brahmins aspiring for new social, educational and religious status. Though conversion to Christianity was a conscious and well-intended decision for most Marathi Brahmins, the social reception meted out to them thereafter posed several problems. Ostracised by the Hindu upper castes on one hand and looked down upon by the Christian society on the other, Marathi Brahmin Christians found themselves leading a life of severe identity crisis.
Historian Deepra Dandekar’s recent book, “The subedar’s son: A narrative of Brahmin Christian conversion in nineteenth century Maharasthra”, explores the experience of Christian conversions among Brahmins. It investigates how new converts dealt with accusations of pro-colonialism from Hindu upper castes, even while identifying with Christianity and maintaining an upper-caste Marathi identity at the same time. Dandekar’s book is an introduced and annotated translation of the Marathi book, “Subhedaracha Putra” written by her great grandfather, Dinkar Shankar Sawarkar. Being an insider to the group, Dandekar writes an account of the community that is not only rich in its historical ethnography but is also self-reflexive in terms of what it meant to grow up in a mixed family of a Bengali Hindu family with a Marathi Brahmin Christian mother.
In an email interview with indianexpress.com, Dandekar discusses her book and the personal experiences that led to her writing it.
What kind of social and political conditions resulted in conversions to Christianity among Marathi Brahmins in the 19th century?
The arrival of British missionaries in the mid-19th century in Bombay Presidency (after the Charter Act of 1813) fulfilled an educational, political and social vacuum among Brahmins, produced by the fall of the Peshwai. The Peshwai and its social-economic trappings that had hitherto provided Brahmins from surrounding areas with personal and professional skills, fell in 1818, and Brahmins disbanded from the Peshwai had limited means of earning professionally. More importantly, Brahmins after the Peshwai’s fall became socially and politically irrelevant and dis-empowered as scholars and intellectuals, unless they adapted to British education and new professions. While some Brahmins endorsed social reform (like the Paramhans Mandali, or Justice Ranade’s engagement with reform) others joined Hindu nationalism (like Tilak), while still others from among non-Brahmin segments joined lower-caste emancipation movements (such as Phule’s Satyashodhak Mandali). But there was another small segment of Brahmins that was produced by the British mission. Those, who had gained education from the mission, discovered a new self-hood, a new way of being modern, educated and religious at the same time, by emulating the missionary man as an exemplary paradigm of strong character, that combined scientific and Christian convictions.
How did the converts seek to integrate themselves with both Marathi and Christian society?
Christian converts remained liminal, or one can say, marginal, to both upper-caste Hindu society, a context from whence they had emerged, and the British missionaries, whom they emulated. While Hindu Brahmins shunned and ostracised the Brahmin converts from within their own fold as anti-national cowards and impure betrayers of ancient family traditions, British missionaries (especially Protestants) treated converts as incomplete Christians. While this discrimination received from British missionaries that considered native converts as only “half” Christians was racist, the problem also lay with Protestantism itself. Protestants did not believe in the validity of true “conversion” (unlike Catholics who depended more on rituals), since the convert’s “change of mind” or “heart” was hard to estimate. Protestant missionaries were hence constantly afraid that converts would “relapse” to Hinduism and run away, returning to their families. They never realised that converts had no place left to run, since they were shunned as impure by their own caste and clan groups in the region and would never be accepted back in any case. But British missionaries controlled “native” converts very strictly within the mission, often excommunicating them on small accounts of transgression from the mission compound, until they begged forgiveness.
On the other hand, converts became “trophies” for the mission, signifying the success of the mission outpost to the mission office in London. Detailed conversion narratives, accounts and reports were sent regularly to mission head offices in London that painted an idyllic picture of the mission, to be read appreciatively as success and achievement stories, justifying its annual budgetary expenses. Hence, trapped between Hindu upper-castes and British missionaries, Brahmin converts found it impossible to integrate on either side of the spectrum. They constituted a separate kind of a hybrid category, writing on Christian religiosity in the vernacular, infused with emotions of “Krista Bhakti”.
What was the experience of Marathi Brahmin Christians after the independence of the country?
Yes, this is a difficult question. Indian Independence was not a simple process, since it was embroiled with the Partition between India and Pakistan in the same year. But there were other federalist movements in India, parallel to Pakistan. In Western India, the Samyukta Maharashtra Andolan led to the formation of Maharashtra, cleaved from the Bombay Presidency and parts of Karnataka and the Nizam’s province in 1960. While the initial idea of Maharashtra was that of a unified Marathi linguistic state, Marathi politics was dominated after 1960 by the rise of Hindutva, the preeminence of the Shiv Sena under Balasaheb Thackeray and the resurgence of the RSS. As Maharashtra grew into a Hindutva dominated Marathi linguistic unit, Brahmin Christians were forced to erase their Christianity within mainstream Marathi Hindutva. This amelioration took place in various ways. While some lowered their boundaries with lower-caste converts to remain Christian, others increasingly relegated their Christianity to the private sphere keeping it a secret, while living in Hindu families. Still others converted back to Hinduism once they married non-Christian spouses. Others mixed with Christians from other regions, other countries and upper-caste converts from other religions groups like Muslims or Bene Israeli Jews. In order to not be accused of mission-loving, anti-national betrayers of the Indian and Hindu nationalist cause, many Brahmin Christians deliberately espoused Hindu nationalism, to counterbalance their hybridity. Yet, integration remained difficult.
What is the demographics of the community at present? How do they identify themselves and relate to the larger Indian society presently?
Christians, understandably, form a very small minority in the demography of Maharashtra. While Hindus constitute nearly 80% of Maharashtra’s population, Christians constitute only about 1.0% of population. And Brahmin Christians are nearly impossible to find among these 1.0%, unless one were to trace particular convert families from mission archival records and follow them painstakingly across the globe as remnants of Bombay Presidency’s mission history. Most Christians within this 1.0% in Maharashtra today consist of Goanese Catholics (especially in Mumbai) and non-Brahmin congregations that espouse a Pentecostal style of Christian healing.
To speak of predicaments faced by my own family: at the time of my great grandfather in the last quarter of the 19th century, there were still enough families from a similar caste background for his elder sisters to marry into. Things already became more complicated for him as he left the mission with the death of his parents, and arrived all-alone in Pune, being the first of his family to marry outside caste, into a Bene Israeli convert family from Pune. But for many of his daughters, who came of marriageable age in the mid-20th century, situations had already altered. With Indian Independence, came the complete dissolution of the mission and many Brahmin Christians found it difficult to find partners. Two of my grand aunts hence, remained unmarried. Others from subsequent generations married among affinal relatives, Christians from other regions, Christians from outside India, Hindus, and upper-caste converts from other religious communities.
My mother married into a Hindu Bengali Brahmin family from Delhi and my father’s parents hailed from a priestly clan in East Bengal, arriving in Delhi in the 1920s with other Bengalis who had shifted with the shift in capital from Kolkata. And though my father appreciated my mother’s Christianity deeply (involving everyday prayers and church services) my mother’s religion remained an uncomfortable secret in our extended Bengali family, even as we lived separately in our own nuclear unit. No one spoke of the elephant in the room, or ever acknowledged my mother’s religious difference, as she mixed with Bengalis, picked up their language, food, and adapted herself to the whole Puja culture. As I grew up, I often asked her whether she believed in it. And her answers were always abstract. I grew up surrounded by my parents love and devotion for each other, and my mother’s secrecy and discomfort about religion.
My mother often counterbalanced this discomfort about what was supposed to be shameful (the history of conversion), but yet also somehow glorious in the present, Christian conviction being after all deeply wonderful, with the persistent desire to trace her hoary Hindu roots, lineage and ancestry with what I often perceived as excessive nationalism. I struggled considerably through my childhood and youth with questions of religion and identity, feeling vaguely apologetic on both sides of my family, and dutifully justifying my background, caste, religion, language and national loyalty to anyone who cared to investigate our ‘value’. It was exhausting and traumatic, but it had one good side. I realised that my hybrid Christian roots constituted an interesting subject for a book; a quest my father encouraged. This book is hence addressed to the erasure of my mother’s religious identity and difference, something that just stood like stagnant water in my heart with no outlet for years. And it was funny. As I translated this novel on conversion, I realised that my great grandfather’s problems had been similar: exhaustion with relentlessly curious and at times, cruel questions about conversion. It gave impetus to his writing of the Marathi tract “Subhedaracha Putra” in 1895, which in turn reflected my own impetus to write and translate “The Subhedar’s Son” in 2019. Sometimes the relevance of history lies in the realisation of how certain questions remain timeless, eternal and nagging, refusing to be answered: “Why did you guys convert, if you were really Brahmin?”
How is the experience of upper caste conversion different from that of lower castes?
Yes, there is significant difference between upper-caste and lower-caste conversion. The main assumption underlying the framework of lower-caste suffering perpetuated a belief that Dalits could not be intellectual, introspective or ideologically invested in conversion as an expression of their “free will”, simply because they had no other alternative but to convert. This argument is, of course, grossly fallacious, since it assumes that all Brahmins gained equally from Hinduism, the upper-caste clan, and the caste system in general. This is obviously untrue, since if this were indeed the case, Pandita Ramabai would have been unable to build a women’s Christian mission that rescued hapless Brahmin widows. So, all Brahmins were definitely not equal, least of all Brahmin men and women.
Similarly, all Brahmin families were not the same; rich and poor families differed. Furthermore, not every family member in the Brahmin clan had the same privileges. Shankar Nana’s “defection” to Christianity is a case in point — the youngest, somewhat orphaned, and slightly disabled son of a comparatively impoverished Brahmin landlord, who had been reduced almost to penury by the downfall of the Peshwai and the subsequent confiscation of Inaam lands by the British. To assume that he gained as much as his older brother did, from his father’s inheritance, his caste status, or clan, is obviously untrue, as is revealed from his Christian witness. Therefore, that he was as poor as a non-Brahmin boy, fleeing home to convert his religion at the mission, is also therefore, equally true. Shankar Nana was indeed somewhat of a visionary way back in the 1840s, when he realised the fallacy of Brahminism as nothing more than a construct, when he first broke caste rules without caring that he was Brahmin himself, and thereby broke the very construct of Brahminism as he began living with other converts at the mission.