In the Kandhamal district of Odisha state in eastern India, Christianity is a significant force in the lives of two minority communities who call the district home. Kandhas are a group classified as a Scheduled Tribe, marking their de facto indigenous status. Paanas are one of several groups outside the four-fold caste Hindu society regarded as ritually polluting and therefore “untouchable,” and are known by the political self-referent Dalit and the juridical term Scheduled Caste. Though both groups have been subject to Christian proselytization, it is the Paanas who have converted to several denominations of Christianity in overwhelming numbers.
Drawing on ethnographic and archival research between 2007 and 2010, I show how debates about conversion and Dalit materiality, tracing back to mission fears about the spurious and inauthentic position of Dalits as Christian converts, circulate within legal and national imaginaries to indict Paana converts to Christianity as duplicitous in Kandhamal. My use of the term duplicitous emphasizes the chimeric doubleness of the Dalit convert position within India as both spurious Christian and national subject, constantly interrogated and doubted both by the law and by Hindu nationalists. Scholars have already problematized the insistent refrains of sincerity and authenticity inherent to a distinctly Christian conception of an idealized transformative conversion. In what follows, I show how they lead Dalit converts to articulate doubts about their own conversion, but also how such doubts travel through legal and nationalist imaginaries to become productive of two foils around ethnic alterity—indigenous authenticity and Dalit duplicity—within ethnonationalist politics.
In Kandhamal, Christian pastors, mission workers, and Dalit converts preemptively and performatively disavow conversion as motivated by material desires. Christian Dalits discuss material benefits they receive from churches—education for their children, roofs for their houses—but always hasten to add that their conversion was only motivated by a true love for Christ and respect for his teachings. There are others who read the Bible, say prayers with their family, and light lamps for Christmas but hesitate to call themselves Christians. Articulating existential doubts about their identity and their own motivations for conversion, several Christians in Kandhamal disavow their own material motivations for becoming Christian. Expressing uncertainties, they wonder if their conversion was, in fact, “genuine”—if it would be recognized in the afterlife. These anxieties may be traced back to a long history in which missions treated Dalits as less-than ideal Christians, as well as to the continued circulation of doubts about the motives of Dalit converts by laws in India.
Historian Rupa Viswanath has elaborated on how Dalit materiality posed a challenge to Christian missions in India. They seemed confounded by the Dalit desire to convert in groups, throwing into disarray Christian assumptions about the conversion of an individual soul and also about the separation of pure religious belief from material-political desires. Indeed, missionaries despaired that they could never fully assess if Dalits’ motives for conversion were influenced by poverty or a desire to escape their abjection in a caste hierarchy in which they were reviled as polluting. In the local context of Kandhamal, a distrust of Dalit materiality manifested in missions’ dismay that churches established for the Kandhas were overwhelmingly attracting Paanas. Historian Barbara Boal details the “sense of shock” missionaries experienced upon realizing that the church established in Kandhamal was “overwhelmingly” Paana.
Despite their continual striving, missionaries described Kandha converts as “few and hard-won,” issuing statements to their supervisors that the “Kond Hope” should be abandoned. These historical accounts betray how indigenous groups such as the Kandhas were sought after and highly regarded precisely because of their reluctance to relinquish their own cosmologies. Yet, as Dalits came to Christianity, missions rued their desire to convert, always doubting if their conversion was motivated by a true understanding of religious doctrine and sincere faith rather than the material-political conditions borne from their disenfranchisement within caste Hindu society.
Such Christian panics about the separation between pure religious belief and materiality have also become encoded within secular liberal laws aiming to curb Christian proselytization in India. The Orissa Freedom of Religion Act of 1962 is one of six state-level statutes informally known as “anti-conversion” laws seeking to regulate religious conversions. The Orissa Act, the first of these to come into effect, purports to institute a system of administrative controls, including the filing of returns on every conversion, to prevent conversions by force, fraud, or inducement/allurement. Although the Indian Penal Code (IPC) clearly defines “force,” “fraud,” and “inducement,” the Orissa Act deviates substantially from these established definitions, making it clear the Act specifically targets Christian proselytizing as a criminal offense. “Force” includes the threat of divine displeasure or social excommunication; “inducement” includes the offer of any gift or gratification, in cash or kind, including the granting of any benefit, pecuniary or otherwise; and “fraud” is defined to include misrepresentation or any other fraudulent contrivance.
Through the establishment of a legal-bureaucratic calculus, the Act aspires to assess the motives and volition of minority converts in order to ratify the “legitimacy” of conversion. Legally encoding the separation of a purely religious domain from the material-political, it consolidates conversion as necessarily predicated on a rational subject choosing their religion of their own volition rather than community interests. These laws reinscribe ethnic minorities and women as fundamentally irrational actors, unable to discern their own motives for conversion, as well as proselytizing religions such as Christianity as always already illegal. But most of all, the simultaneous demands for rational, free will as well as a devout purity of belief creates a particular impossibility of idealized conversion for Dalits, whose inability to disentangle their political and material community aspirations from pure religious belief renders their conversion spurious in perpetuity.
These ideas of Dalit materiality seem only to be confirmed by Dalits’ loss of legal recognition as Scheduled Caste upon conversion to Christianity. While Scheduled Tribes receive recognition regardless of their religious identification, which appears as another marker of their indigenous authenticity, Dalits in Kandhamal often puzzle over why they can no longer get recognition from the state if they convert to Christianity, even as their socioeconomic marginality is not transcended through conversion. Indeed, Paanas hesitantly reveal that their social marginality continues to mark them within their Christian faith. Yet residents of Kandhamal often invoke Dalit’s loss of legal recognition to emphasize that conversion must be dramatically improving Dalit’s economic status, and thus, be the reason why the state decided it was no longer necessary to provide for them.
Critiquing Dalit converts’ continued desire to be recognized as Scheduled Castes as “greed,” locals accuse Dalits of coveting benefits from both missions and the state, accruing an imagined excess of capital in a context of neoliberal development where materialism was both disavowed and envied. Not only does the de-recognition of Dalits upon conversion have implications for their economic uplift, but it also disarticulates Dalit and Christian identities in ways that render the chimeric Dalit Christian a figure that cannot be named legally and therefore is all the more distrusted socially.
More recent political developments have only exacerbated the implications of such an insistent distrust of the Dalit convert. In 2008, a twenty-year aggressive Hindu nationalist “reclamation” that sought to rival Christian influence in Kandhamal came to a head. Hindu nationalists have mobilized a large number of Kandhas, using among other strategies, anti-Christian rhetoric that casts Christians as foreigners who brought immoral, Western values to Kandhamal. Anthropologist Nathaniel Roberts has pointed to a longstanding discomfort with conversion within the Indian, and largely Hindu, national imagination, wherein figures such as Gandhi cast conversion as violent toward Hinduism.
Similarly, marking Christian conversion as inherently violent but also illegal, nationalist workers accused Christians of destroying the moral character of the district by promoting an unabashed materialism through service provision and aid work. They insisted that local Paanas’ conversion to Christianity was evidence that they were “selling” the land of the nation to foreigners. Paana converts who resorted to privately practicing Christianity while working in state jobs, using certificates attesting to their status as Hindus, were subject to fresh scrutiny. Wanting to practice their faith without fear, they began to make bids toward being reclassified as Scheduled Tribe, attempting to access what appeared to be an indigenous privilege—the ability to practice your religion without losing recognition. Nationalists drew attention to Paana attempts to retain recognition as deceptions that undeniably proved their mercenary nature. Repeatedly discussing Paanas as depraved, they disparaged them as traitors to their own religion. At the same time, they asserted the authenticity of Kandhas as indigenes who could not be persuaded by material lures to convert to other faiths, owing above all, an allegiance to their land—the holy land of the Hindu nation—urging them to expel these duplicitous Dalits from the district.
Always vulnerable within the national(ist) imagination, Dalit converts became subject to overt violence as ethnoreligious riots broke out between Hindu Kandhas and Christian Paanas, displacing twenty-five thousand Christians who are yet to return to their homes. Since then, violence against Christians and Muslims in India has only risen under a growing Hindu ethnonationalism whose scale and character have been extended and morphed in its steady escalation into right-wing populism. By analytically centering alterity, conversions emerge not just as political phenomena that sit uneasily within secular liberal formations, but also within nationalist imaginaries, accruing valences at the co-constitutional nodes of secular liberal law and majoritarian ethnonationalism.
As conversion differently implicates ethnic alterities, seeking from them different burdens of proof both within faith and within law, its inherent unreliability in establishing sincerity and authenticity establishes and solidifies borders between ethnoreligious minorities—borders whose attempted crossings only provoke renewed violence.