Fighting Caste through Religious Conversion: Early Experiences of Nepali Dalit Christians
In India, Dalits have long used religious conversion as rebellion against the caste system – most notably the Bhakti movements and Dr Ambedkar’s neo-Dhamma – which Professor Gail Omvedt calls “India’s Enlightenment”. Unlike in India, Nepalese Dalit movements have not called for abandoning Hinduism; to the contrary, most of the Dalit activists, including many Marxists associated with the ‘communist’ parties, practise the religion. Yet, particularly after Nepal ceased to be a Hindu kingdom in 2006, a small but significant section of ordinary Dalits have driven conversion to Christianity. Increasingly frustrated and angry with the growth of the churches, high-caste intelligentsia and political class blame external elements, mainly Western nations, for evangelising poor and uneducated peoples using the lure of foreign ‘dollars’. The critics seem reluctant to admit that a major cause lies within the Hindu religion and culture founded on caste-based inequality. This recent turn towards a different faith among Dalits (and some ethnic groups) as a pathway to liberation I call Nepal’s “Silent Enlightenment”. But the scholarship in India says that Dalit converts experience limited freedom, and that they may face new forms of exclusion and oppression. Using a more nuanced analysis of the experiences of Nepalese Dalit Christians, I argue that conversion at least lays the foundations to freedom from the tyranny of caste. Conversion is certainly not a panacea for all the problems Dalits face every day; but I would argue that – contrary to the dominant view among Nepalese Dalits that Marxism is the best anti-dote to caste – conversion is key to Dalit liberation. I demonstrate this by describing and analysing how: 1) The inevitable internalisation of new belief systems detoxes, as it were, caste; and, 2) The adoption of new cultural practices, including religious and lifecycle rituals, frees Dalits from the entrenched caste system. To further prove my point, I discuss some of the ritual practices of Hindu Dalits in Nepal that are clearly designed to recycle, as it were, their own ‘unclean’ statuses. Thus, Dalit converts potentially regain their self-worth and dignity, which is key to their assertion individually and collectively. The paper will be based on: 1) Participant observation of a small Nepalese church run by a Dalit Gurkha pastor in London, England; and, 2) Qualitative interviews with some Dalit and non-Dalit priests and the laity within and without Nepal, conducted face-to-face and online.