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London International Development Centre Workshop on Faith-Based International
Development, Date: 9 June 2011
[Transcript of talk, for source citations see published papers]
David Mosse, SOAS
I am not going to talk narrowly about Jesuit organisations in south India, but rather address the
broader question of the paradoxical role that Christian agencies — missionary and NGO — have
played in framing caste as a development issue— focussing on the special impoverishment,
discrimination and struggles over resources of India’s ‘dalits’ — those formerly referred to and
understood as ‘untouchable’ within social schemes widely labelled as ‘Hindu.’
Let me start with a paradox central to current ESRC research project1: the caste system is largely
excluded from official (state and donor) frameworks for the analysis of poverty and the achievement
the Millennium Development Goals in India and South Asia; and yet caste is more and more central
to the social and political assertion of rights to development resources by marginal groups
themselves, who regard their continuing inequality of opportunity, persistent poverty,
unemployment, ill health, high child mortality or low education levels and exclusion from services as
the result of caste discrimination. The Indian state of course does not lack programmes and
legislative frameworks for affirmative action for dalits under the category ‘Scheduled Castes’; what is
lacking is the incorporation of caste into anti-poverty policy-making as a continuing structural cause
of impoverishment, or as a critical unequalising process of contemporary capitalist growth, even
while the evidence of caste-correlated disadvantage and exclusion mounts.
If the state has been reluctant to incorporate caste into its development framework, anti-caste social
movements have themselves only recently begun to make access to development resources a focus.
Indeed, for long, the discourse of dalit struggle (if not the practice which has always been about
resources) has been religious – focused on untouchablity as ritual exclusion, humiliation and
subordination rooted in the cultural practices of Brahmanic Hinduism.
Now, there are many political and intellectual streams that have influenced the rise of regional anticaste movements. [CUT In the south 19th century dalit intellectuals identified with an ancient and
suppressed Buddhist tradition in the rejection of Hindu identity; the rationalist reformer EV
Ramaswami Naicker inaugurated a broad anti-Brahman social movement; and of particular
importance was the Dalit leader and public opponent of Gandhi’s caste-accommodating
‘Caste Out of Development: Civil Society Activism and Transnational Advocacy on Dalit Rights and
Development’ ESRC RES-062-23-2227
development visions, Dr B.R. Ambedkar, and whose birth centenary celebrated in 1990 marked a
high watermark of dalit political assertion and dalit cultural renaissance. Despite Ambedkar’s vision
of a broad constituency of the downtrodden and ‘broken’ (the meaning of Dalit in his native
Marathi), the ideological thrust of the dalit movement has been to locate the oppressions of caste
and untouchability in the Brahmanic scheme of varnashramadharma — a religious conception.]
But in south India perhaps the earliest and most forceful movement of dalit insubordination in
modern times were the mass conversion movements of ‘untouchables’ to Christianity and their
affiliation to one or other of the various missionary denominations active in the region — Anglican,
Lutheran, Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Salvation Army as well as the Roman Catholic Church
whose mission pre-dated these by 300 years. In consequence, a significant proportion of south
Indian Dalits are Christian, and the great majority of Indian Christians are Dalit.
I mention mission history not because these missions were the source of a conventional set of
development interventions— in education, health care, technical or agricultural training, women’s
welfare etc. — which of course they were (and these were institutionalised as post-mission NGOs);
nor because religious actors turned their attention to development efforts, but because of the
significance of missionaries in stabilising a policy view of caste as religions rather than as a condition
of socio-economic servitude — as a form of spiritual slavery, a Hindu religious system which
Christian conversion would cut at its roots.
Christian missionaries in the 19th and early 20th centuries in fact intervened in economic and political
systems securing the affiliation of subordinated caste groups, but to avoid the accusation that this
was the materially driven, insincere conversion of ‘rice Christians’, they were compelled to represent
socio-economic change as spiritual transformation; and dalits as oppressed by a Hindu religious
system. The very lack of a separation between the spiritual and the material (misery of the body and
of the misery of spirit) among their dalit converts made the distinction crucial to the missionaries
As result of missionary influence (e.g., though parliamentary debates in England) caste and
‘untouchability’ entered political debate and colonial policy-making as a Hindu institution (the target
of missionary attack and religious conversion). Post-colonial state affirmative action and policy
interventions on behalf of the ‘weaker sections’ remained premised on the idea of ‘untouchability’
as a debility arising from the practices of Hinduism. On the one hand, welfare is therefore framed as
compensation for historical disadvantage rather than addressing caste discrimination as an on-going
aspect of the economic system; on the other, as religiously-defined disadvantage it excludes
Christian and Muslim dalits from protections and benefits.
While Dalit movements saw themselves as a struggling against Brahmanic Hinduism — caste being at
root a religious system to be challenged ideologically through religious conversion and the assertion
of non-Hindu identities and cultural forms — paradoxically, the powerful and shocking events that
triggered Dalit political organisation in the 1990s (not only in south India), and which provided the
See discussion and references in Mosse 2012, The Saint in the Banyan Tree, pp. 55-58.
pretext for Dalit-focussed and dalit-led NGO action, were violent attacks against dalits by the nonBrahman so called ‘Backward Castes’ arising from conflicts over resources.
These anti-Dalit ‘atrocities’— including rapes, murders, arson attacks — were different from the
earlier impoverishing structural violence of upper caste landlords over dalit labourers, involving
ritualised humiliation, exclusion (from temples, public spaces, decent dress or speech). They
involved collective acts of demonstrative violence against dalits whose education, employment or
acquisition of assets — that is ‘development’— had led to rebellion against earlier exclusions,
including exclusion from land, certain occupations, and common property resources (e.g., water) —
and to assertions of self-respect. The anti-dalit violence was expressively reversing dalit
development. As well as physical assault, it involved, social and economic boycotts, the destruction
of property that targeted consumer durables — TVs, scooters — which represented Dalit progress.
Against this, the protective mechanisms of the state and its local agents, especially the police (locally
in the hands of upper castes) have been routinely unable or unwilling to act, despite legislation such
as the stringent 1989 Scheduled Caste Prevention of Atrocities Act.
In the 1990s, dalit activists were acutely aware that caste was not a traditional ‘disability’ but a
modern relation of power. Caste discrimination was alive in aggressive form in rural areas in
struggles over livelihood resources; but caste equally pervaded modern institutions of the state
(including the judicial system) and also the Churches.
In the mid-1990s Tamil Jesuits priests who were themselves dalit initiated the Dalit Christian
Liberation Movement that was especially powerful in the emerging south Indian Dalit politics. This
movement was not driven by a Christian critique of Hindu caste, or even by a liberation theological
response to exploitation, but by Dalit Jesuit outrage at the persistence of caste and systematic
discrimination against dalits within Catholic religious practice, in Church schools, seminaries and
social welfare programmes. Catholic development was itself casteist.
As Dalit Jesuits came out in rebellion against the bishops and Church agencies, they forced a shift in
social policy that put in place a ‘Dalit option’, prioritising Dalits in educational and development
programming, and centring caste rather than class as frame of analysis. Liberation theology was reformulated as Dalit theology. The same shift from a broadly Marxian to a caste (or Ambedkarite)
orientation occurred among NGOs when Dalit staff (field coordinators and local animators) came out
of larger non-Dalit led organisations to form their own NGOs, focused on dalit struggles and
conflicts. The threats inherent in pursing rural development with an explicit dalit agenda were such
that they had to inter-link into networks acting collectively in public protests over this or that
This splintering, multiplication and networking of dalit-led NGOs operating locally, and focused on
the issues of untouchablity, was made possible by funding streams from European donors — led by
the Church agencies — who adopted the emerging dalit- and caste-focus and connected through
Dalit theological and cultural work which was also funded. While Church donor policy was inspired
by developments in the Indian region, the notion of untouchability — perhaps conveyed
autobiographically by visiting NGO heads — provided European supporter congregations with an
outrageous and urgent image while rendering poverty and exploitation as culturally other.
But what really brought the focus of the dalit movements and the international NGO donors into
alignment was the concept of human rights (perhaps replacing a theologically conceived univeralism
with a secular one). The dalit struggles against oppression and exclusion allowed concrete
expression of a ‘rights based approach’ to development. Untouchability (carefully documented in
1998 by Human Rights Watch) was a human rights violation. A group of predominantly Christian
Dalits marked the anniversary of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1998 with the
formation of a National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR), and, drawing rights approaches
to local struggles, the Human Rights Forum for Dalit Liberation (HRFDL) became an umbrella bringing
together 14 Dalit NGO networks and some 200 organisations in Tamil Nadu alone, trying to forge a
common Dalit rights development agenda (or a Tamil interpretation of this) and supported by
European Church agencies. Both NCDHR and the HRFDL networks were galvanised through the
organising work that led up to the UN conference against racism at Durban in 2001 at which
representation was made to have caste recognised officially as akin to racial discrimination.
Meanwhile locally, Dalit NGOs insisted that the struggle for resources of land or water, the demand
for basic services (education, health, housing) provided in non-discriminatory fashion; the
operationalising of proportionate budgetary allocations for Dalit development (a state commitment
widely ignored, as so called ‘Special Component Plan’ funds are diverted – most recently to the
Commonwealth Games) were are all rights, Dalit rights whose abrogation amounted to caste
discrimination and ‘untouchability’ by other means – a criminal offence under law.
Dalit NGOs (a majority of whom are led by Dalit Christians) now work to draw development concerns
explicitly to the issue of caste discrimination. Like other NGOs, they work to transfer assets, land or
housing to dalits and ensure improved access to services, but they also focus on the identitycategorical basis of development exclusion.
There are a number of ways in which Dalit NGOs keep the programme focus on caste discrimination.
(1) They give primary focus to direct acts of untouchability and violence against dalits registered as
human rights violations and taken up as ‘atrocity cases’; (2) they focus on access to those resources
which directly or indirectly symbolise dalit exclusion and untouchabilty: for example land alienated
from dalits, or common property resources and public services which are symbolic of orders of caste
rank, exclusion or spatial segregation into dalit colonies. Rights are claimed in ways that involve the
assertion of dalit identity, for instance erecting statues of Dr Ambedkar, drumming or cooking beef
while repossessing land, and the registering of cases under anti untouchability law. Correspondingly,
more general economic programmes such micro-finance lacking an emphatic caste focus are often
frowned upon.
But the dalit rights / caste approach is not carried out without difficulties and contradictions.
 Dalit NGOs find themselves having to ‘double up as micro-political organisations’ and
(because of state controls and rules of funding) are often divided into ‘social movement’ and
NGO fronts blurring the line between NGO, social movement and political party;
 the tendency to connect development agendas to archaic or archetypal forms of caste
discrimination limits the scope of Dalit development (a point made by one section of the
dalit activists keen to open space for dalit entrepreneurship to capture for dalits a slice of
the gains of India capitalist growth).
Indeed, NGOs return constantly to the village/agrarian society as the classic site of caste and
untouchabiity. This strategic localising of development as a matter of village land, common
property resources, temple festivals (etc.) keeps the focus on caste exclusion, but goes along
with other positions (anti micro-finance, anti-industrialisation, anti-liberalisation and antiglobalisation) with can put them at odds with the livelihood realities especially of dalit youth
seeking employment in regions of agricultural decline.
the emphasis on collective action and struggle necessary to dalit rights approaches can also
conflict with a community need for harmony or tie NGO strategies to the concerns of one
generation at the expense of the next;
The NGO wedding of rights approaches to caste also presents the more fundamental problem of
turning the politics of poverty into a politics of identity, and linking development to the fissiparious
logic of caste. As different caste groups under the ‘dalit umbrella’ compete for resources, or to
occupy and define the space of ‘dalit’ in their terms, the category dalit is itself unstable and divided.
Donor funding streams have exacerbated the tensions among Dalit NGOs, and between different
caste groups (targeting one or other group), have produced fund-linked networks, nodal agencies,
and the brokerage of resources and agendas. And now that a host of such problems leads to
disenchantment among major donors, there are ‘down-stream’ effects of policy shifts away from a
Dalit rights approach in terms of the splintering of agencies and evaporation of development efforts
and disillusionment on a large scale.
So there are today contradictory pressures: (1) There is a challenge to the dalit rights agenda to
escape the dead-end of identity politics and embrace a broader concept of the struggle against
exploitation and to join hands with other subalterns rather than focus on caste interests, which
among other things risks fetishising caste reservations that benefit a tiny dalit elite pursing their own
class interests. (2) On the other hand, the demand to ‘out’ caste, to challenge the official denial of
caste, and to emphasis caste as a structural factor reproducing disadvantage and inequality remains.
And without opening spaces for a dalit elite – bureaucratic, political or entrepreneurial — in a castestructured polity and economy, you only consign dalits to continued structural exclusion.
Meanwhile, the debate on caste, religion and development continues in Europe among donors, at
the UN and within international advocacy group (e.g., IDSN), and church federations. And in the
context of an active politics of religion, this whole dalit agenda is regularly ‘delegitimised’ by Hindu
nationalist organisations with the claim that the work that international development NGOs support
is a disguised form of Christian proselytism and western cultural appropriation.
The caste issue divides agencies. Unlike the churches who lend their weight to dalit rights advocacy,
international donors – the World Bank, UNDP, UNICEF or bilaterals – who have to negotiate with the
Indian government (which refuses to countenance the internationalisation of caste coded as a form
of racial discrimination) do not really know what to do about caste. It is a reality in their
programming (in health, education or rural development sectors), shows up dramatically in
disaggregated statistics on key human development indicators, is acknowledged as a key factor in
exclusion in unpublished reports backed by academic studies); but the Indian state’s embarrassment
about an international framing of development policy around caste (and its official notion of caste as
religiously defined disability) still ties their hands, and leaves the caste question in a quasi-religious
space occupied by NGOs and church agencies.