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Embodying Both our Dalit and Christian Identities

Dual identities have always been contested terrains. When we look at the intersection of being Dalit and being Christian, those terrains deepen. Dalit Christians make up the majority of Christians in India. And yet, we have a mixed reaction to our dual identity.

Recently, I went to pick up a rental car in a Canadian city and the South Asian manager greeted me with these words, “I recognize ‘Sunder’ and ‘Boopalan’ but ‘John’ caught me by surprise.” He went on to incredulously add “I’ve heard of ‘John’ in Goa but…?” He already asked me where I was from in India and I already said “Bengaluru city.” So, why rehearse the same confusion, again? He acted as if my Indian identity and my Christian identity did not go together — like oil and water.

Dual identities confuse many. While why this is the case with incredulous South Asians is a topic for another day, today, my intention is to probe a little into why the Dalit-Christian dual identity sometime sits like oil and water even among Dalit Christians.

For Dalit Christians, asserting “I’m Christian” does not always overlap with embracing their Dalit identity. You may be a Dalit Christian like me, having grown up well into your teens or adulthood, not even knowing the term “Dalit.” But regardless of where you are in your identity journey, I want to ask — is it possible that our Dalit roots have caused a latent shame in us, somehow making it seem like we have to choose between our Christian and Dalit identities?

I believe that we do not have to choose. We can embrace both our Dalitness and our Christianity. We can sit at the table, as it were, as both Dalit and Christian. There is much pride to be had in both of those things.

Because of the history of caste-based marginalization and humiliation suffered precisely because of our Dalit identity, many Dalits converted to Christianity in their quest for liberation. For this reason, for some Dalit Christians, being Christian means bracketing out Dalit identity, believing that God “saved” us from a “no place” and “no people” status to a holy and sacred status that is imbued with dignity and pride. In this view, being Christian means saying goodbye to all forms of humiliation. But we can say goodbye to humiliation, without evading, shedding, or feeling ashamed of our Dalit identity. But we can be both Dalit and Christian. We are.

We know that this humiliation and shame of Dalit identity comes from being treated as untouchable by dominant caste society. We internalize much of what is taught to us by dominant caste people and, when we convert, many want to forget. But I want us to explore this question – to whom are we untouchable to? Although casteist words and worlds treated Dalits with hate, our Dalit ancestors touched us with love. We might have been untouchable and outcaste to those conditioned by caste hatred, but to our Dalit relatives and to each other we were dearly touchable. Amongst us, we cared for each other with tenderness. Our Dalit parents picked us up, placed us on their hips, and fed us with food — both human and divine. Many of our Dalit kin did not allow the cruelty of the world to enter their most intimate spaces, and instead introduced us to sights, sounds, and smells that imagined a new and better world. They touched us with the very breath of life. There is pride in that, there is dignity in that just like there is dignity in the word Dalit. Dalit does mean “oppressed,” “crushed,” or “broken.” The word “Dalit,” however is political — it allows Dalits of various religious stripes to come together and say no to casteist forces of death and yes to that which gives us life and freedom.

Saying “I am Dalit” allows each Dalit person and community to feel a sense of connectedness to a sea of collective resistance despite being oppressed and crushed. Mala, Madiga, Chamar, Mang, Paraiyar, Chakkiliyar, Holaya, Pulaya — our Dalit identities are many but we are one in our quest for life and liberation. On the one hand, affirming our Dalit identity taps into the same power that our Dalit ancestors employed in not allowing outside caste-based cruelty to take over their lives. On the other hand, such an affirmation of Dalit identity also enables us to resist caste-based oppression in our own time, recognizing that caste continues to crush and break persons. This is what the term “Dalit” captures and enables us to embrace. Dalit Christian pioneer, James Massey, once said, “Dalit is a symbol of change and revolution.”

For some of us, living into our dual Dalit Christian identity might come effortlessly. If this is you, may your tribe increase. For others among us, our Dalit identities may be a new weight that we are coming to terms with — Dalit identity might be a weight that is uneasily passed on from one generation to the next — evaded and ignored, at worst; only hinted at, at best.

Wherever we are in our coming to terms with the weight of our Dalit identities as Christians, I leave us with an encouragement from the Dalit writer Bama: “To bounce like a ball that has been hit became my deepest desire, and not to curl up and collapse because of the blow.” May the new weight we feel be like that ball. Let us rise in pride as Dalits and Christians.