Can Christians Be ‘at Home’ in BJP-Ruled India? (Counter Currents)


On Easter Monday, Malayali Catholics and the rest of the world woke up to the news that the BJP leaders in Kerala visited Catholic bishops on the eve of Easter. The BJP state vice-president even attempted to climb the Malayattoor hillock, one of the eight international shrines of the Catholic Church. The recent victories in the supposedly Christian-dominated Meghalaya and Nagaland seemed to have revived the saffron party’s urge for a breakthrough in Kerala, a state which has been relatively resistant to the electoral expansion of the party. Although the BJP has been approaching leaders of various Christian denominations for the last few years, of late, it is aggressively focusing on the powerful Syrian Catholic community of Kerala. The symbolism of the BJP leader’s attempted Malayattoor pilgrimage is not lost on anyone — the shrine of St Thomas, located in central Kerala, is also at the heart of the sacred geography of Syrian Catholics. As per community traditions, Thomas the Apostle is believed to have founded the community of Nasrani/ Syrian Christians by allegedly converting a few Namboothiri Brahmin families in what today is Kerala in the first century CE.

Among the Christian population in Kerala, the Syrian Catholic laity constitutes a potentially strong vote bank, one that is generally considered to be at the beck and call of the Church leadership. However, it may not be accurate to describe the BJP as ‘wooing’ Syrian Catholics anymore; the prelates are now openly welcoming the Sangh Parivar political outfit into their arms. We are witnessing an elaborate, spectacular courtship whose ‘communal’ angle is what receives the most attention, and rightly so. But the strong caste angle undergirding this nexus, ‘unholy’ by any reasonable Catholic and Christian ethical standards, goes glaringly missing in such critical responses. It may be erroneous to equate the stances of the clergy with that of the rank-and-file Syrian Catholic laity. Yet, the emerging political courtship between Syrian Catholic leadership and the Hindutva party is based on a solid social consensus shaped by caste. Let us consider a few aspects of this social consensus.

An ample number of sociologists and anthropologists have studied the seamless cultural universe the Syrian Christians have been sharing with caste Hindus in Kerala for centuries. The resultant cultural Hinduness is therefore shared by the Syrian communities in Kerala comprising not only Catholics but also a significant percentage of non-Catholic communities distributed across the Orthodox, Jacobite, Marthoma, and other Protestant denominations. Syrian Christians have borrowed many ‘Hindu’ practices such as horoscope, astrological observances like ‘auspicious’ times for marriage, rituals of magic, and birth and death pollutions, to mention a few. The advance of the evangelical, Charismatic movement within the Catholic Church, especially since the 1990s, has attempted to push some of these practices to the periphery. Still, the continuing sermonising against such ‘unchristian’ practices indicates their resilience. At the root of this cultural Hinduness is caste, an institution in which the Nasrani Christians have actively participated for centuries. And the myth of the Brahmin pedigree of Syrian Christians has been the peg anchoring this shared caste-based socio-cultural affinity. The shared Hinduness contributed to the socio-economic clout Syrian Christians enjoyed in the region historically. As caste shaped the faith practices of Syrian Catholic communities in Kerala, dissenting voices like those of Paremakkal Thoma Kathanar, an eighteenth-century prelate, remained lone (as is the case today). The dominant castes even appointed the Nasrani as the cleanser-cum-absorbent of caste pollution they imbibed upon contact with lowered castes. Therefore, despite the ‘foreignness’ of their belief, Syrian Christians, including Nasrani Catholics, became a caste in and for itself.

Barring a few exceptions, studies on caste among Malayali Christians have tended to focus on non-Catholics in Kerala. The role of caste in the formation of Syrian Catholic identity requires greater scholarly attention, given the dominance the community enjoys among Christians and the larger Malayali public. Officially, the Church debunks the Brahmin origin myth of the Nasrani Christians, at least in the liturgical classes where Catholic social teachings are taught. But the rate and extent of diffusion of the ‘official policy’ within and outside the community seem negligible. Syrian Catholics continue to lay genealogical claims to Pakalomattam or any other ‘original’ Brahmin-Nasrani families whom Thomas the Apostle reportedly converted to Christianity. From Kudumba Yogams (family gatherings) and Kudumba Charithrams (chronicled family histories) to marriage alliances to seemingly casual enquiries while socialising in the churchyard after Holy Mass, kinship proximity to the original Nasrani homesteads is always gauged. This invocation of Brahmin pedigree finds expression in Malayalam acronyms like ‘Athi Purathana Katholica Kudumbam’ (A. Pu. Ka. Ku. or Pu. Ka. Ku.), meaning ‘ancient (read aristocratic) Catholic family’. The term has received greater currency in the region thanks to a genre of post-1990s low-brow Malayalam cinema. The very imagined community of ‘A. Pu. Ka. Ku.’ summons its reprehensible Other: The Puthu Kristiani (Pu. Kri.), meaning ‘newly converted Christians’ or neo-Christians. In fact, ‘Pu. Kri.’ has been a common slur Syrians use to refer to Dalit Christians. This writer has witnessed Syrian Catholic individuals using the term as a racist, body-shaming insult to describe family members of darker complexion because, as per this reasoning, Syrian Christians can only have a fairer ‘Aryan complexion’!

The constant invocation of kinship claims to Nasrani aristocracy requires us to understand the place of Brahminical patriarchy in cementing Syrian Christian identity. Today, demographic shifts have left the community with more unmarried men, and that too of relatively lesser educational qualification and professional status than Syrian Catholic women. For instance, about a decade ago, Church leadership openly expressed concerns about Syrian Catholic girls marrying (non-Catholic) ‘auto drivers’ — referring to the blue-collar class as if the community did not have that stratum of working population. Today, Pre-Cana (mandatory pre-marriage course organised by the Church) counsellors advise women to choose a Catholic partner by considering the ‘quality of character and faith’ over material status. In this scenario, women who choose to marry outside Syrian Christianity face a tough time negotiating the hostility and covert violence by the community.

Complicating the matter of female agency within the community further is the global and national climate of Islamophobia, which has birthed the bogey of ‘Love Jehad’. However, not enough attention has been paid to an equally unproven accusation of ‘Ezhava Jehad’: an oxymoronic term used by some Syrian Catholic priests to suggest an alleged conspiracy by Ezhavas, an ex-untouchable community (and other oppressed caste men) to ‘lure’ Syrian Christian women. Even if women marrying outside the community wish to retain their Catholic faith, a right they are entitled to under Canon law, they must undergo punishing and often humiliating bureaucratic procedures. At the same time, alliances between Nair or Namboothiri men and Syrian Catholic women, despite their frequency, do not invite the kind of vitriol that Muslim-Christian or inter-caste marriages routinely attract.

On the other hand, it is not puzzling at all that caste Hindu Malayali men speak derisively of ‘biscuit Christians’ and ‘rice-bag converts’ without any qualms about courting and/or marrying Syrian Catholic women (although they are not likely to let her practice her faith or raise their children as Christians). The advance of the Hindutva ideology in Kerala might have amplified anti-Christian sentiments among caste Hindus. But the mythical Namboothiri origin story of the Syrian Christians tempers the hatred for the ‘non-Indic’ faith. Meanwhile, the distinctive caste status of ‘Malayali Christians’ propagated through popular culture forms like movies and Syrian Christian cuisine has begun to achieve pan-India appeal. Consider the 2010 box-office hits by the Tamil-Malayali film director Gautham Vasudev Menon, viz, Vinnaithaandi Varuvaaya (Tamil), its Telugu version Ye Maya Chesave and the not-so-successful 2012 Hindi remake (Ekk Deewana Tha): these movies celebrated if not fetishised its ‘Malayali Christian’ heroines hailing from central Kerala, the Syrian Christian stronghold. The implicit caste status of ‘simple’ sari-clad Jessies and Annies from Kerala places them a notch above the (more) Westernised, miniskirt-wearing Sandras from Bandra. ‘Malayali Christian’ characters have appeared in more Bollywood and non-Malayalam productions since. Wait before you discredit this newfound appeal of the ‘Kerala Christian’ as a popular culture fad: Syrian Christians are more likely to find rented apartments without much fuss in cities across India than Muslims and Dalits. The shared Hinduness of Syrian Christians gaining traction across India grants them certain privileges and immunises them from the Hindutva hatred faced by other Christians and minorities today…

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