Thursday, January 22, 2015

Unapologetic Christians: Slaves and the Freedom Project

In the context of this business of Ghar wapsi, and the recent release of the novel Swapna Saraswat, it appears that tales about the terrible destruction wrought by the Portuguese have received a renewed lease of life. We in Goa need to be concerned about the myths these kinds of fictional accounts spread largely because, as Victor Ferrao has pointed out in his book Being a Goan Christian: The Politics of Identity, Rift and Synthesis (2011), the contemporary Christian in Goa is seen as a clone of the Portuguese and made responsible for the deeds of the early modern Portuguese in Asia, as well as the Christian missionaries of the time.

But what is it exactly that the contemporary Christian needs to feel regret for? The popular answer is forced conversions and the fires of the Inquisition. While I will not engage in the issue of the Inquisition in this column, I will address the issue of forced conversions that is raised with annoying frequency.

The core question that needs to be asked when dealing with the issue of forced conversions was very neatly raised by Uma Chakravarti in her celebrated essay “Whatever Happened to the Vedic Dasi?Orientalism, Nationalism, and a Script for the Past” (1990). In this article Chakravati points out that the myth of a golden age of Indian womanhood as located in the Vedic period was constructed only in the nineteenth century. Furthermore, this myth was articulated by foregrounding the Aryan woman "as the only object of historical concern" (p. 28). Completely left out of the picture was the Vedic dasi, women who had been captured, subjugated and enslaved by the conquering Aryans. It is for this reason that she posed the question of her title “Whatever Happened to the Vedic Dasi?”

Chakravarti’s question makes us realise that pre-modern India was not a land of free people. On the contrary it was a land divided into masters, and slaves, with a large part of the population being held in servitude by a small segment of population that was free and slave-holding. The caste-system was an integral part of this system of slavery. When the Portuguese arrived in the city of Goa, Ilhas and subsequently in Salcette and Bardez, they would have found free castes like the Saraswat, Dessai, Chatim, ashraf Muslim and a few others. The rest of the population, the ancestors of today’s Bahujan and Dalit communities would have existed in varying degrees of serfdom; tied to the land, and to their masters.

Pre-modern Goa would not have been a pleasant place. It was a society marked by human sacrifice, both voluntary, as well as involuntary. Look closely at many of the rituals followed by contemporary Hindus, and one will see the past of human sacrifice. For example, the ugly dolls often strung on contemporary constructions are substitutes for the bodies of slaves who would have been sacrificed to protect the emerging building.

When the Christian missionaries came into the city of Goa and its surroundings, it was this blood thirsty culture that their Christian morality caused them to attack. Remember that Sati was one of the first abhorrent practices that Albuquerque banned on taking power. Should one be apologetic for this destruction of the local culture or celebrate this destruction?

Similarly the conversion of local populations was not effected entirely through force and cunning. Rather, as Angela Barreto Xavier points out in “Disquiet on the island:Conversion, conflicts and conformity in sixteenth-century Goa” (2007) marginalised caste groups were more amenable to conversion than the free, land-owning and dominant castes. This is not surprising given that Christian missionaries extended themselves to ensure material support to those that converted. In the case of the village of ChorĂ£o that Xavier studies this material support was a palm-grove to offer accommodation to the marginalized segments of the village. In Xavier’s words, “They [members of this marginalized caste] had good reason to expect a better living in a Christian order—and they actually had the best reasons to dissent against the old order (p. 281)”. That their conversion was in fact dissent is made powerfully clear by Xavier when she points out that after their baptism these local persons “dressed and ate forbidden food, and behaved differently. That is to say, they openly transgressed their old rules (p. 282).” In the sway of the propaganda by Hindu nationalist groups and Indian nationalism, we have come to believe that caste is merely about the community one is born into. The fact is that until the advent of Christianity and until freedom provided by the Dalit framer of the Constitution of India, caste, especially for the lower castes, meant the inability to wear certain clothes, eat certain foods, and behave in particular manners. The conversion to Christianity, therefore, was definitely a challenge to the power of upper caste groups.

In her book Globalising Goa (1660-1820) (2014) Ernestine Carriera points out that the Christian missionaries also ensured laws that would make it impossible for Christians to be slaves (pp. 392-393) and that this new scenario was opposed by local Muslim and caste Hindu slave owners. While most persons focus on episodes such as these to stress the strategies that were used by Christian missionaries, what often escapes attention is the fact that we are dealing with slavery here. If we place our sympathy with the slaves then we are able to read the story of Christianisation from quite a different light. From this perspective, the story of the Christianisation is a story of the liberation of depressed castes from the cruelty of their upper-caste owners. If these upper-caste tyrants were forced to flee because they refused to brook this new situation of freedom then we need have no sympathy for them at all.

If at all we have been thus far sympathetic to the fictional accounts like Swapna Saraswat, then it is because we have thus far been listening to the myths of local savarnas peddled largely through coffee-table books supported and authored by dominant castes (both Catholic and Hindu) rather than the histories of Bahujan and Dalit castes. If these latter castes, most of who are quite contently Catholic, have no memory of conversion trauma then it is because conversion would have provided a welcome release from the more horrific aspects of caste life.

The majoritarian Catholic presence in the Old Conquests also brought relief to the non-Catholic Bahujan populations once the New Conquests were integrated into the Estado. Once the dominant castes converted to Christianity, the social mobility available to middle-rung and marginalised castes decreased and caste reasserted itself once again. Nevertheless, the horrors of the pre-modern system were muted. As the centuries progressed the Old Conquests began to get depopulated due to service castes withdrawing their services from the Christian upper-castes and migrating to obtain labour that would not be couched in daily and ritual humiliation. In his essay titled “Humiliation in a Crematorium” Peter R. de Sousa points out that the vacated space came to be occupied by Dalit-Bahujan groups who migrated from the New Conquests fleeing from the “the pernicious laws of Manu...which operated in the Konkan socio-cultural landscape”. De Sousa might as well have included cruel landlords to the list of horrors that the Dalit-Bahujans were fleeing from. The religious freedom that the leaders of the New Conquests negotiated for themselves when these territories were added to the Estado merely meant continuing impunity to treat lower castes like chattel. De Sousa argues that this migration from New to Old Conquests gave the Dalit-Bahujan a chance to “reinvent themselves”. This reinvention he refers to is perhaps the manner in which depressed castes were able to represent themselves as members of the Bhandari caste, which would explain the preponderance of this caste in in contemporary Goa.

The rhetoric of the Hindu Right, and that of their Ghar Wapsi project, rests on the suggestion that pre-modern South Asia was a society of free individuals. The fact is that it was not, it was a land of widespread servitude and slavery. Colonial rule and Christianity came as a welcome relief to many of the people who converted. This is not to say that slavery disappeared altogether. It definitely did not. However, the presence of Christianity allowed for a variety of previously unavailable challenges to the caste order. Those who converted made as much use of Christianity and the missionaries as the Hindu Right imagines the missionaries made use of the marginalised castes.

The vision of the Hindu Right is the vision of a caste ordered past. The question we need to pose when faced with novels like Swapna Saraswat is whose stories are they telling, and whose stories are they actively erasing. In other words, what ever happened to the pre-modern das and dasi?

(A version of this post was first published in the O Heraldo on 23 Jan 2015)

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