Pastor David Kamble could hardly speak Telugu when he came to Gangapur for the first time. Hailing from a Marathi background, he faced the uphill task of preaching gospels in Telugu to the illiterate village folk. That obstacle, however, had to give way to his mission. Every Sunday he leads a group prayer of around 100 villagers in Gangapur, an impoverished village about 30km away from Sirpur town in Asifabad district of Telangana. River Pranhita, a tributary of River Godavari, flows five kilometres north of this village, separating it from the Gadchiroli district of neighbouring Maharashtra state. People here speak a kind of Telugu heavily mixed with Marathi, making it difficult to grasp even for the native speakers of Telugu.
A LAND OF EXTREMITIES
Gangapur is a place of natural and social extremities. Weather is unpredictable and harsh. After a hot summer, when the whole village would be thirsting for water, heavy rains arrive, flooding the whole landscape and throwing the lives into misery. Gangapur is virtually out of any road map. The only mud road that connects this village to the outside world gets cut off during heavy monsoon. The social discrimination and poverty existing here can be largely attributed to its isolation and negligence of the administration. Everyone in this village, irrespective of caste and creed, believes that a good all-weather road can bring prosperity here.
Pastor Kamble belongs to a missionary organisation called Church Growth Missionary Movement (CGMM). An indigenous missionary movement established in 1975, CGMM works among the tribes and lower caste groups to spread Christian faith. Missionary movements and religious conversions have always been subjects of heated debates in India. Why do people convert from one faith to another? Is it just an attempt to escape from social exclusions or is it for any monetary benefits or is it because of the charisma of the newly found god?
“This damn caste system,” Sanjith grinned when I enquired why Dalits accepted Christianity in his village. My journey to Gangapur wouldn’t have happened, hadn’t Sanjith invited me to his home. Sanjith says that no matter, however good a person’s character is, upper caste people in his village consider Dalits as impure and naive. According to Sanjith, no upper caste person would ever visit or dine at a Dalit home. An all-time smiling person, Sanjith is an exception in many ways. He is one of the few young men from that village to pursue higher education, facing all odds. Today Sanjith is doing his post-graduation in a university in Hyderabad. He seems to be strong in his belief that education will bring development to his village. Even though his father was the first person to get baptised in Gangapur, Sanjith has decided to wait. He told me that he still has many questions regarding the philosophies of Christianity that he is waiting to clear all those doubts.
THEIR NEW-FOUND GOD
I walked behind Sanjith towards their church. A small whitewashed building, with premises full of grass. Cows, goats and chickens were peacefully sharing that space. Dalits who got baptised and those who are interested in this new form of worship gather here every Sunday afternoons. We were the first people to reach the church that Sunday.
Sanjith’s friend Rajesh had already arrived. People started to arrive in small groups. Rajesh took a Dappu, a kind of traditional drum, and started playing it while singing devotional songs. Pastor Kamble arrived carrying a small plastic bag. He stood in front of the small altar, opened his bag and took out a small cross and Bible. He read out a few portions of gospels and then started singing with Sanjith and Rajesh. The songs were beautiful and the drumming gave a rhythmic background to the songs.
Most of the people assembled there were women, young men and children. They praised their god loudly, often clapping their hands. An old village woman was praying with her folded hands pressed to her face. Tears were coming out of her eyes. This is a kind of Christianity far away from the lavishly furnished cathedrals of Roman Catholic Church. Unnoticed by the traditional churches, these neo-believers are mostly unaware of their rich and powerful brethren in other parts of the world.
Even though the Constitution of India provides reservations for scheduled caste and scheduled tribes (The official nomenclature of Dalits) in educational institutions and governments jobs, those who officially convert to Christianity are excluded (Constitution of India, Article 341) from these benefits. Those who argue for their exclusion point-out that caste system is a peculiar nature of Hinduism and Christianity doesn’t have any caste system. Those who argue for benefits say that conversion doesn’t really remove the caste-based prejudices. Many of the converted Dalits especially youngsters prefer to resettle to towns and they prefer to identify themselves as Christians. But the irony is that most of these converted Christians prefer to officially register themselves as Hindus to get the benefits of caste-based reservations.
When a good number of Dalits of Gangapur embraced Christianity, other higher caste groups preferred to stay away from it. Sanjith told me that upper caste people consider their church as some kind of Dalit temple and Jesus as a Dalit God. The caste system is so powerful that conversion itself doesn’t pay any dividends. When asked whether they get any financial assistance from the church, Sanjith told me, “Only spiritual assistance,” pointing at his incomplete house.
CHRISTMAS STAR IN A FARAWAY LAND
“How many rooms are there in your house?” Sanjith’s mother asked me. I was standing inside their newly built yet incomplete, single-room house. They are still staying in their old mud shack because the flooring work of this house is not done. Now the floor is full of mud that it gets easily waterlogged during rainfall. Sanjith told me that they don’t have the money, around Rs30,000, to finish the work. I stood inside that small incomplete house. Light rays were coming in through a big opening left for fixing window. A little mouse was running around the room, showing its displeasure over my uninvited stay there. A Christmas star was lying on a plastic drum in one corner of that room. Blowing off the dust, I took it in my hand. A light blue star with “Merry Christmas“ and “Happy new year” printed on it. I stayed in that room for some time with that star in my hand. In this remote, unknown landscape these people left their traditional believes for something new and unfamiliar. I thought about that old woman who prayed with tearful eyes. Is this just an attempt to escape from the age-old humiliation in the name of caste? Or is this a celebration of having received an all-new God, who they hope, would treat them equally?
That evening Sanjith’s father was asking him to stop his studies and go for some job. Many young men from his village go all the way to Hyderabad looking for jobs. Most of these people end up in some sort of construction works, helping them to earn around Rs9,000 a month. I tried to convince his father by saying that education is not just for getting a job but also for escaping from discrimination. But he seemed to be little convinced. Without reservations or scholarship, people like Sanjith can’t afford education in our holiest educational institutions. He told me that he is facing a lot of troubles in communicating in English, especially in University. But he strongly believes that he can improve. Sanjith’s parents are incapable of financially assisting him. His part-time job as a tuition teacher, near the university helps him to manage his studies.
We were walking fast along that mud road, leaving behind Gangapur and its green paddy fields. The morning sun was slowly lighting up that impoverished village.I saw sweat drops glittering on Sanjith’s face. The nearest bus stop was still 4km away. Life has never been easy for him, but his dreams to save his people from the darkness of poverty and casteism make him fight harder.