Was money – or rice bags, ever an incentive? Let’s find out.
Claim: Christian Dalits are rice bag converts
Busted!: There has been clearly little to no evidence found of rice bags, or monetary incentives, provided for conversion to Christianity by Dalits. Across India, Dalits have converted their religious faith due to a number of reasons.
Father of the constitution, B R Ambedkar himself changed his religion and converted to Buddhism in a public ceremony on October 14, 1956, expressing his political understanding that caste and caste-based exclusion were indelibly linked to Hinduism and only converting out of the faith would liberate him and other Dalits. About 500,000 of his followers had also gathered there with him to convert to Buddhism. Over the centuries, the most large-scale conversion has been arguably of indigenous Indians with their multiple animist beliefs co-opted and converted into the ‘Sanatan Hindu faith’ followed by conversions to Abrahanic faiths which took place alternatively through trade, commerce, as a move towards emancipation and equality, and, in some instances by power and coercion. However, for forces of the far Hindutva right, showcasing and stigmatising conversions to Christianity and Islam fits well with their fundamentals of who is the “insider” and who the “outsider.’
As the government slashes export prices for Basmati rice after sales saw a huge downturn, one is reminded that rice remains a controversial topic in India. In recent times, Hindutva sympathisers have been pushing a divisive narrative that simplifies conversions to Christianity under a derogatory term: ‘rice-bag converts.’ The term insinuates that by providing a bag of rice, one can allegedly induce Dalit people, particularly those from lower economic strata, to embrace Christianity. This contentious viewpoint repeatedly rises and ebbs, and was even leveraged at a Supreme Court judge herself when the outgoing Supreme Court judge, Judge R. Banumathi, mentioned the influence of Jesus in her life during her farewell speech.
The following is an excerpt, courtesy the LiveLaw, from Justice Banumathi’s farewell speech, where she also narrates the difficult and harrowing circumstances in her early life, and how she and her family overcame them, “Though I am a Hindu, I believe in the gospel of Jesus. By the Grace of Jesus, I got educated and came up in life. I got into the Tamil Nadu higher judicial services at the age of 33 in 1988 and served the institution for over 3 decades.”
Soon after her farewell speech, Justice Banumathi’s expression of belief in the gospel of Jesus triggered a slew of derogatory comments on social media, with many labelling her a “rice-bag convert.” This online slur is part of a broader campaign by the Hindu Right to ridicule Christians in India, and it is disheartening to see even a high-ranking Supreme Court Justice becoming a target of this hate campaign.
Some examples of the tweets Justice Banumathi received on Twitter are as follows:
#Justice Banumathi: After d temples r free frm govts, the resources shud be used to inculcate pride in Hinduism & to serve d poor so that rice-bag-evangelism is eliminated 1/3 @MoAmi2 @NITINJO51699293 @rajkarsewak @Swamy39 @RahulEaswar @jsaideepak @viksa_bhartiya @RealSandeep21 https://t.co/E3rL6iYiID
— Akshai Aggarwal (@aka19a) July 17, 2020
Furthermore, when right-wing media portal, OpIndia, posted an article outlining Justice Banumathi’s statements on the gospel, the comments section was flooded with several users mocking her statement, with one user, Nandaa Kumar, also stating “She said cleverly I could benefit from reservations and monetarily from Jesus…”
Retiring Judge Banumathi reveals how she believes in the Gospel of Jesus Christ despite being a ‘Hindu’https://t.co/18IDtMARL3
— OpIndia.com (@OpIndia_com) July 18, 2020
Public figures such as Disha Ravi and comedian Kenny Sebastian have also been the target of hate campaigns, calling them rice bag converts. Sebastian was attacked online by a person called Madhur Singh, according to Scroll.in. According to Scroll, Sebastian replied to Singh on Twitter, now X, saying, “It’s not twitter if someone doesn’t call you a rice bag convert 🙂 Actually I learned a lot from ‘the placard guy’ who apparently fights for causes but doesn’t hesitate to be a bigot. I had to google what “rice bag” means. Sorry Madhur that I follow a particular religion.” Ravi too was the target of a disinformation campaign where a false claim proclaiming she was Christian went viral online and propagated a slew of hate towards her. SabrangIndia revisited the post attacking Sebastian linked on Scroll’s website by Madhur Singh, however the post on X seems to be deleted. It must be of note that Madhur Singh has about 135500 followers on the social networking site currently.
Acclaimed doctor and public health practitioner who routinely talks about caste, health and nutrition, Dr Sylvia Karpagam, has also been at the receiving end of casteism in the form of the rice bag convert slur on her X account often, as you can see in the X exchange below.
But didn’t you want the same privileges when you or your parents got the first Rice Bag? Or are you unhappy that you didn’t get it?
— BlackGrain (@GrainBlack) October 28, 2023
This suggests a derogatory attitude towards Dalits who it is imputed “can be so easily bought” as also of course towards Christians themselves who are all made to carry the late 17th-18th century “missionary tag”. Conversions as scholars have seen have been driven by multiple impulses, and cannot be all attributed to force and coercion. A large percentage of the conversions to first, Christianity and then Islam were not (only) borne of force but of a perceived sense, among oppressed sections, that faiths that had equality and parity in worship, offered equality and dignity denied to them at birth.
The claim that Dalit Christians are converts solely motivated by material gains also reveal an attitude that is not merely patronising towards Dalits but deny oppressed caste any agency. By imputing such motives and speaking of Dalits in largely insensitive and offensive manner, by virtue of their historically subjugated positions, are not just incapable of exercising agency, but are also incapable of having spiritual aspirations or inclinations. This derogatory right-wing claim would thus envision Dalits as being a group of people that does not have any reasoning capacity, ability of critical thought, sense of judgement, or aspirations beyond relieving themselves (transactionally) of poverty. This entrenched way of thinking does injustice not just to Dalits but the spirit of equality and fraternity as well the cultivation of critical thought as embedded in the Indian constitution.
Furthermore, as explored in another Hate Buster by CJP, it was noted that missionary faiths, including Christianity, have arrived and spread in India via a number of ways, routes, and methods. They cannot be clubbed together with the Hindutva adage of saying that they were spread by the sword; doing so would not only be a disservice to history but also to living practitioners of these faiths, many of whom belong to marginalised backgrounds. The article argues that Christianity, as opposed to the perception the right-wing wishes to spread, did not arrive in violence. In fact, Christians have had a largely peaceful coexistence, starting from the state of Kerala, with a history that goes back, as local legends would say as far back as to the times of Thomas the Apostle.
These conversions were not just about embracing a new faith but represented a collective effort by Dalits to attain dignity, self-respect, and the ability to shape their own destinies. In an article titled Change and Continuity by S M Michael, he notes that there are records that mass movements to conversion were a historical moment marked the beginning of the modern Dalit movement. In these situations, individuals made a group decision to become part of a new community that not only had a religious tradition comparable to that of the caste Hindus but also promised newfound dignity and esteem. Further this push towards discovering and exploring new faiths was promulgated by a response to a socio-religious system that had failed to address Dalit needs and aspirations. Hence, it is difficult to identify conversion to Christianity as an instance of missionaries luring, coercing or even bribing vulnerable individual Dalits to convert; there is ample evidence of collective, decisive conversions. Ambedkar, when he converted, converted en masse with about 500,000 people converting at the same time, which points to the fact that there is a collective and well thought out push within Dalits to move to a different faith. Furthermore, this push was not sanctioned by errant gurus but by informed leaders, one of whom exists today to be globally known as the father of the Indian constitution.
One question we must ask leaders, politicians is that if instances of monetary or material incentives are provided to convert, then there must be some evidence of the circulation or reception of this money being transferred. Because, as one can see scholars and activists who have researched and worked on the issues converting Dalit Christians have estimated, according to Scroll.in, that about 50 -75 % of the Christian community in India consists of Dalits. If there was undue funds flowing in this relatively large number of people, as is claimed, it would reflect in the government data which assess economic status of these groups.
Similarly, scholar SM Michael argues that in India’s approximately 20 million Christians, around 14 million belong to Dalit caste groups, and thus would account for 70% of all conversions to Christianity. That the Indian church itself has (practices) its fair share of casteism is testimony to the pernicious pervasiveness of caste as a division. That Dalit Christians are excluded from affirmative rights granted to Dalits (including those who have converted to Buddhism and Sikhism) adds yet another unfortunate and discriminatory dimension.
Wouldn’t this mean, if the conspiracy that material gain was provided by missionaries in exchange for conversion were true, that most of these converted people would be significantly better off than and experience some change in their economic class? What does the data say here? Let’s take a look at government data and see if it can support this right-wing theory.
Whither the proof?
However, the data does not corroborate the theory, of the report by Scroll.in further attests that out 30 % of Dalit Christian live under the poverty line, according to a 2004-’05, by monthly per capita expenditure in rural India conducted by the National Sample Survey Office. Interestingly so according to Dr S. M. Michael, who has worked on the question of Dalit Christians, has written that one of the most significant benefits that the Dalit Christians have derived from their conversions is education. Michael argued that while illiteracy rates continue to remain relatively high among Dalit Christians as compared to other Christians from other caste groups, the impact of missionary education across India has played a crucial role in providing the communities with upliftment. Now, right-wingers would argue that provision of schooling and educational facilities would amount to a monetary incentive, however the claim does not hold ground. Missionary schools have opened their arms to students of all religions, and have provided avenues for studying at these schools for the larger Indian community at large. If missionary schools have contributed to the upliftment of Dalit Christians, then surely they must have contributed to the upliftment of Indian students across religious denominations. However, this remains a logical assumption and not an expression of facts, but it does serve to provide us with some food for thought.
A neglected history
Over the past couple of years, proponents of the Hindutva movement have crafted a narrative of hostility toward Christians and other religious minorities. This campaign includes downplaying the role of Christian missionaries in India’s socio-economic development and framing conversions as a deceitful scheme aimed at eroding the nation’s cultural heritage. The conspiracy theories surrounding Christian missionaries are numerous, and they go beyond the scope of this article. Article 25 of the Indian constitution clearly affirms the right to freedom of conscience and religion, emphasising that all individuals are equally entitled to profess, practice, and propagate their faith.
Teesta Setalvad, writing for Sabrang India, notes the extremely vulnerable and marginalised positions occupied by Dalits in India, and asserts that one must let go of the refusal to recognise the contribution of Christian institutions in the absence of the pointed welfare initiatives for Dalits. Furthermore, the authors asserts that Christians individuals and institutions have an inbuilt mandate as part of their religious duty to help and alleviate the hardships of the marginalised, “To accept their role is to face our moral and cultural poverty, the rank injustice and marginalisation that we have perpetuated on sections of our people. To accept their role is to nail the grand lie.” The article further notes that it was St Francis Xavier who led a pioneering endeavour to open primary schools in every village. Christians living in India have contributed greatly by setting up libraries, institutions, and engaging, including crucial work of archive generation that has been instrumental in constructing India’s rich history. Furthermore, their efforts were recognised by stalwart leaders Jyotiba Phule and Pandita Ramabai. Jyotiba Phule founded the Satyashodak Samaj (Truth Seeker’s Society) 1983 and has written critically about the extensive work done by missionaries for the backward castes with regards to education. Pandita Ramabai, a Brahmin widow, converted to Christianity to escape, and testified before the Education Commission in 1882 about women’s right to education, saying “in ninety–nine cases out of a hundred the educated men of the country were opposed to female education and the proper position of women.”
Thus the question readers must ask is, what purpose does the idea of ‘rice bag Christian’ serve, whom does it benefit, what political interests does it serve to those who claim it, and what does it mean when we denigrate a whole population of 14 million Indians as a group?