How Babasaheb helped me understand my identity as a Dalit-Christian

Christina Dhanaraj
How Babasaheb helped me understand my identity as a Dalit-Christian

Dr. BR Ambedkar. (File)

Like many others in India, my family chose to identify as “Indian Christian” to hide their Dalit identity. When a biology teacher at my school in Chennai asked me several times, if I really came under “open competition”, my father asked me to tell her, albeit proudly, that we were “Indian Christians”. It made no difference. The teacher, who also happened to attend the same church as mine, knew quite well, who we were and what our specific Dalit sub-caste was. I was a Christian on the outside, but on the inside, I was still a Parachi.

My paternal and maternal great-grand families converted into Christianity for both socio-economic and spiritual reasons. Becoming Christian meant that we could access mainstream places of worship, English education in missionary schools/colleges, and job opportunities in these establishments. My grandfather became a pastor for the Church of South India after being a teacher at a missionary school. My grandmother worked all her life as a teacher at Christian schools. I studied in a missionary school and a Christian college myself. In a way, Christianity was the ladder we climbed to escape caste.

Or so we thought. Over three generations and many years of socio-religious ostracisation, inside and outside the church, we have come to realise that the Christian identity in India is essentially a proxy for “low-caste”. No matter how well we hide it, caste markers such as skin colour, dialect, the locality we live in, our economic status and our networks (or the lack of it) give it away. The biology teacher of my past, and modern-day twitter trolls, think the same thing — “rice-bag convert”.

For Dalit Christians in India (particularly those that are young), this can be extremely traumatic. The lack of politicisation keeps us confused, reducing our complex social experience to prosperity theology. We are conditioned to treat the church congregation as our primary community, which is apolitical at best and casteist at worst. We are made to pretend that we’re just Christians, while having the lived experience of a Dalit. We grow up with no political tools or resources, and no intellectual ammunition to fight caste.

In retrospect, I believe I should have been more than just a Christian. I knew what my caste was, and felt deeply ashamed about it, but I didn’t know I could identify as Dalit. I was almost 20 when I found a platform — the Student Christian Movement of India — that helped me unpack my caste location. I was much older when I finally found Ambedkar. My family didn’t speak about him, and neither did my school nor my church. The friends I had then grimaced at the mere mention of his name. By the time he happened to me, I was in the thick of theorising Dalit politics, with fellow Dalits around me sporting the Ambedkarite identity. Between sly savarnas who kept alluding to us as doing “hero-worship”, and social media posts that kept assessing who was more Ambedkarite than the other, I was left wondering, “What does it even mean to be an Ambedkarite”?

A year ago, in the midst of a brutal, polluted winter in Beijing, I found a small part of the answer. In an effort to understand Ambedkar better, I began listening to the audio book, “Ambedkar and Buddhism”, written by Urgyen Sangharakshita and read by Ratnadhya. For 11 hours and 29 minutes, I listened to Sangharakshita’s description of Ambedkar’s life, his thinking and his vision for my community. Many things appealed to me — Ambedkar’s resilience, his dogged commitment towards his people, his confidence in his intellect, his love for discipline and his beautiful mind. No wonder my people emulate him, no wonder he is our role-model, I thought. But what took me by surprise was the way I reacted to Sangharakshita’s recollection of Ambedkar’s passing away.

B R Ambedkar died in his sleep on December 6, 1957, and close to 5,00,000 people had joined the two-mile long funeral procession. More than 1,00,000 had escorted Ambedkar’s ashes back to “Rajagriha”. Although my connection to Ambedkarism was very new, my heart sunk and tears rolled down, as I imagined how it would have felt to lose a beloved leader, and how things would have seemed so hopeless all of a sudden. What I felt then, closely resonated to what I went through when my father had passed away. In a way, it was similar: A community had lost their hero, like how I had lost mine.

It obviously takes more than just emotion to be an Ambedkarite. I’ll probably be told to read more of him, to practice his philosophy, to spread his thoughts. I’ll probably be asked how I can be a Christian and an Ambedkarite. I’ll probably be trolled for being a novice, or worse, a fake. In any case, I wish I had known Ambedkar earlier than I did. Although politisation would not have made any of the discrimination less hurtful, I’m confident it would have given me the much-needed access to Ambedkar’s political wisdom. Not being armed with Ambedkarite narratives meant that I had to internalise casteist violence and interpret it as something I deserved. Not having a rationalist understanding meant that I truly believed God was “punishing” me for my sins. Not knowing Ambedkar earlier meant that I had to wait for far too long before I could say I’m Dalit, not just Christian.

Ambedkar is for everybody, Ambedkarite or not.

This article first appeared in the print edition on December 10, 2019 under the title 'Ambedkar and I'. The writer is advisor for Smashboard. She was formerly consultant for #dalitwomenfight and co-founder of Dalit History Month project. She works and lives in the Netherlands.