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Pastor David Kamble could hardly speak Telugu when he visited Gangapur for the first time. Hailing from a Marathi background, he had come to preach to the village folk, most of them illiterate. Residents of Gangapur spoke Telugu heavily mixed with Marathi, making it difficult to grasp even for native speakers. However, the language barrier soon gave way to his determination. Now, the pastor leads a group prayer of around 100 villagers every Sunday.

Kamble belongs to the Church Growth Missionary Movement (CGMM). An indigenous movement established in 1975, CGMM works among the tribes and lowered-caste groups to spread the Christian faith. Missionary activities and religious conversions have always been subjects of heated debates in India. Why do people convert from one faith to another? Are people lured or forced to convert? Is conversion just an attempt to escape social discrimination? Is it for any monetary benefits or because of the charisma of the newly found god? The answer may not be that simple, but Gangapur offers a glimpse into the complex web of narratives around religious conversions in India.

Located about 30km from Sirpur town of Telangana’s Asifabad district, Gangapur lies close to Maharashtra state. Pranhita River, a tributary of the Godavari River, flows 5km north of the village and acts as an interstate border. The village harbours both natural and social extremities. The weather is unpredictable and harsh. After a hot summer, when the parched land will be thirsting for water, heavy rains flood the village and throw the lives into misery. Gangapur is virtually out of any road map. The mud road that connects the village to the outside world submerges during the monsoon. Social discrimination and poverty, too, abound here.

“Damn caste system,” Rajesh grinned when I enquired why Dalits in his village accepted Christianity. My journey to Gangapur wouldn’t have happened, hadn’t Rajesh invited me to his home. Rajesh said that no matter what their character or education was, the Dalits were looked upon as “impure” and “naïve” by the upper-caste residents of the village. None of them would ever visit or dine at a Dalit home, according to Rajesh. An all-time smiling person, Rajesh was an exception in many ways. Facing all odds, he was one of the few young men from Gangapur to pursue a university education. Rajesh was doing his post-graduation at a central university in Hyderabad. He seemed to staunchly believe that education would bring development to his village. Even though his father was the first person to get baptised in Gangapur, Rajesh decided to wait. He told me that he still had many questions regarding the philosophies of Christianity and that he was waiting to clear all those doubts.

On that Sunday I walked behind Rajesh towards the village church. It was a small whitewashed building, with premises full of grass. Cows, goats and chickens were peacefully sharing that space. Baptised Dalits and others interested in this new form of worship gathered here every Sunday afternoon. Rajesh’s friend Sanjith greeted us when we reached. As people started to arrive in small groups, Sanjith took a Dappu, a traditional drum, and started playing it while singing devotional songs. After a while, Pastor Kamble walked in carrying a small plastic bag. Standing in front of the small altar, he opened the bag and took out a small cross and Bible. He read out a few portions of the Gospels and started singing. The drumming gave a rhythmic background to the songs.

Women, young men and children formed a majority of the assembly. They praised their god loudly, often clapping hands. An old woman was praying with her folded hands pressed to her face. Tears were rolling down her cheek. This was a Christianity that sprouted far away from the lavishly furnished cathedrals and pompous religious celebrations I was familiar with. Unnoticed by the traditional churches, the neo-believers of Gangapur seemed to be unaware of their rich and powerful brethren in other parts of the world.

The Constitution of India provides reservations (quotas) for the members of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (official nomenclature of Dalits) in educational institutions and government jobs. However, people who officially convert to Christianity are excluded (Constitution of India, Article 341) from these benefits. Those who argue for this exclusion point out that the caste system is inherent only to Hinduism and that Christianity doesn’t have any such graded inequality. Those who argue for reservation benefits claim that conversion doesn’t take away caste-based prejudices. Many of the converted Dalits, especially youngsters, prefer to resettle in towns and identify themselves as Christians. Ironically, most of them officially register as Hindus to avail themselves of the benefits of reservation.

When a good number of Dalits embraced Christianity in Gangapur, higher caste groups preferred to stay away from it. Rajesh told me that upper-caste villagers considered the church as some kind of “Dalit temple” and Jesus as a “Dalit God”. It seemed the caste system was so powerful that conversion itself didn’t pay any social dividends. When I asked whether they got any financial assistance from the church, Rajesh pointed at his incomplete house: “We receive only spiritual assistance.” He didn’t have the money, around Rs 30,000, to finish the work.

“How many rooms are there in your house?” Rajesh’s mother asked me curiously. I was standing inside their partially built single-room house. The family still stayed in their mud shack as the flooring work of the new house was not done yet. The floor was full of mud and prone to waterlogging at times of rain. Light rays were coming in through a big opening left for fixing the window. A mouse was running around the room as if to show its displeasure over my uninvited stay. A Christmas star was lying on a plastic drum in one corner. Blowing off the dust, I took it in my hand. A pale blue star with ‘Merry Christmas’ and ‘Happy New Year’ printed on it. I stayed inside for a while holding the star. In this remote landscape, why did these people abandon their traditional beliefs for something unfamiliar? I remembered the old woman praying with teary eyes. Was this all just an attempt to escape the age-old humiliation?

On that evening I saw Rajesh’s father advising him to stop his studies and start working. Many young men from his village frequented Hyderabad, the largest and most prosperous city in Telangana, in search of jobs. Most of them ended up in the construction sector, earning around Rs 9,000 a month. I tried in vain to convince his father that education was not just a means for a job but also for escaping discrimination.

Without coaching, reservations and scholarships, youths like Rajesh can’t enter premier educational institutions. He regretted he had trouble communicating in English, especially at the university. He, however, believed he could improve. Rajesh’s parents were incapable of assisting him financially. For the time being, his part-time job as a tuition teacher, near the university, helped him manage his expenses.

The next morning we walked at a brisk pace along the mud road, leaving behind Gangapur and its paddy fields. The dawn was brightening up the impoverished village. I saw sweat drops glittering on Rajesh’s face. The nearest bus stop was 4km away. Life was never easy for Rajesh, but his resolve to escape poverty and casteism made him push further.

Published in 2013


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