Pakistani Christians may be Chief Justices, magistrates, sessions judges, police bosses, generals, surgeons, college principals or street sweepers, but they are all verbally persecuted by being referred to as Chuhra — the C-word. Legislation will not repair the damage since it cannot change hearts and, name-changing of persecuted communities across the world has also failed to redress their conditions. Something else is needed, but before that an explanation of the background of the C-word and how it stuck itself to the proud sons and daughters of the Punjabi soil — a tale of lost heritage, conversions and death by the kindness of bumblers.
Being indiscriminately associated with the C-word (below) has played such havoc with the psyche, identity, self-image and well-being of Pakistani Christians that being called Isai or Masihi is no longer relevant.
Chuhra Dalits are the lowest among the untouchables within South Asia’s shameful caste system. History reduced them to being scavengers and handling carrion. Actually, only the least fortunate among the approximately forty Chuhra clans are scavengers. Each clan has a designated vocation, such as executioners, assassins, basket-weavers, makers of winnowing sieves, bird-trappers, trackers, tanners, canine and equine groomers, machchi bakers and midwives, mirasi minstrels, doom singers, farm laborers and so on. The clans have names, traditions, genealogies, priests to perform their rituals and recount their kursinama genealogies at weddings.
They are also identified as the Balmiki faith community. Balmiki was the author of the Ramyana and is also known as Bala Shah and Lalbeg.
Converted to Islam, they are called mussalies. When they prosper, they may attach the prefix Sheikh to their name, as practiced by some of the higher caste converts. In South Asia, Islam was able to disassociate mussalies and Sheikhs from their erstwhile stigma of scavengers. Sikhism can claim even more credit for disentangling Mazhabis and Rangretas from their past — Maharajah Ranjit Singh’s elite Nihang units bristled with Mazhabis and Ranghretas as did many of the Sikh crack Light Infantry regiments of the British Indian army. The result is that a Sikh, irrespective of his caste or clan is addressed as Sirdar-jee. And they’re all levelled out with the Singh suffix.
Name-changing by Sikh and Muslim untouchable converts was helpful.
In the case of Christian converts it was tearfully comical.
The Christian ruling class didn’t mind them borrowing their names but that’s where the buck stopped. The Brits only socialized with the higher caste Christians, Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs —from a safe distance.
Socio-politically, Christian missionaries in South Asia failed to launder their converts’ past into a respected entity. It was asking too much from their British rulers to accept these converts within their ethnic and social hierarchy. And the missionaries also believed that a ‘Christian’ name was an English name. Converts with feeble antecedents were encouraged to attach the suffix Masih in the hope of instilling pride through a name-change. The approach failed but was continued since the collection of brilliant seminarians were unable to come up with a viable alternative actually staring them in the face.
Many caste names, especially those of the higher castes and in particular of the quarter million Jatt and Rajput converts to Christianity, were replaced by English first names. This quarter million potential buffer against the slur of the ‘C’ word disappeared into thin air, except for a few stubborn families who clung to their heritage.
Even among the forty untouchable clans only a small number were scavengers. It is a pity that proud clan names such as Luté, Jahé, Dhae, Sahi, Tengré, Goriyé, Kandara, Kotana, Kurtana, Pathan, Rawat, Machchi, Doom and others have been locked in cold storage.
Their founding myth is tragically illustrious.
In the time of the Mahabharta wars between the Kauravas and the Pandavas there were four sons of Kanwar Brahma, a Brahmin noble — Bharata, Sadhara, Paratna and Purba. When their cow died they made Purba, the youngest, drag away the carcass, first promising to help him in his task, but eventually casting him out, disinheriting him and, dividing his inheritance among themselves. Purba found shelter with the scavengers and carrion-handlers who already existed as outcasts from other clans due to differing reasons. The descendants of Purba, the fallen Brahmin, are the Chuhras, themselves a collection of over forty clans.
Five consequences of the abortive Anglicization of Christian converts still challenge them.
They found themselves alienated from the macro-culture, they were bereft of a micro-culture, they became dependent on mission jobs and they are considered a residue of colonialism by Pakistani Muslims.
They are also an embarrassing residue of colonialism for the former colonizers who have smugly converted from Christianity to rationalism.
The consequences of God being considered an Englishman came home to roost after the creation of Pakistan.
The Muslim menial workers suddenly filled the gap of the departing Hindus and Sikhs in other vocations and new land-owners fired the Christian laborers on the former Hindu and Sikh farms. This happened on a scale yet to be measured and there was an influx of Christians in the cities seeking work. They were channeled into sanitary workers’ jobs eagerly vacated by Muslims who were retrieved by their newly empowered coreligionists for ‘cleaner’ jobs.
One has only to read Shauna Singh Baldwin, especially What the Body Remembers, to appreciate that before 1947, a regular household sweeper in Rawalpindi was a Muslim addressed as Sheikh.
The Christians of Pakistan need to rehabilitate and reinstate their rightful clan names, whether they be low or high-caste. I always considered it a tragedy that the Director of the Lahore YMCA, Sham Sunder Singh Sandhu, a land-owning, over six-foot tall Jatt had to become S.S.S. Albert at the Independence of Pakistan for fear of being taken for a Sikh and killed or harassed as being potentially seditious.
Pakistan has come a long way since then and the blunders of duffers can be tackled.
It is time for the Dalit Christians of Pakistan to stand up to the higher castes of their own community, get them to act on their behalf to change their situation through education and affirmative action and proudly claim their ancestral heritage of fallen Brahmins.
Further Reading. “Dalits Were Uppercasts”: BJP’s national spokesperson Bizay Sonkar Shastri, in “The Hindu”, October 29, 2015.