The last few weeks of the year have always been a time of warmth and goodwill for me. A season when carollers sang outside our houses and neighbours brought plum pudding, kalkals, rose cookies and bottles of homemade wine. It was always a time of harmony.
This seems so far removed from the hate we saw this year when Karnataka, where I live, tabled an anti-conversion bill (Karnataka Protection of Right to Religion Bill, 2021) just before Christmas. In other parts of the country, Hindutva groups disrupted peaceful prayer meetings and desecrated churches.
Also read: Celebrating a Christmas without Christians
In Kolar Gold Fields, the little gold mining town where I grew up, religions blended with almost imperceptibly. Inside a Dalit miner’s hut, one could find a crucifix placed next to a picture of Amman or Murugan. Family members could belong to different faiths, or to no faith at all as they embraced communism. Did they believe in all gods or no gods? I never thought of it then.
We all celebrated all festivals, but Christmas was special. Perhaps it was a colonial hangover, after all, the British had built the township with its clubs, hospitals, schools and sprawling bungalows. They created a “White Christmas” in a tropical country complete with cotton wool-covered trees, Santa Clauses and funfairs modelled on the ones they had back home. I grew up at the cusp of Independence and got a taste of both worlds—the cocooned one in which European officers lived and the one they left behind. I remember the parties that would be held in the run-up to Christmas and New Year in the garden of the KGF club… the donkey rides and ‘Aunt Sally’ stalls, the swing boats and merry-go-rounds. There were other parties too in the various clubs, which were less exclusive and more fun. What made these celebrations special and different from the stodgier British parties were the balls in the evenings where the fabulously talented Anglo-Indian bands would play the latest numbers and beautifully dressed girls and boys would swirl around the floor.
During all those growing up years, while I enjoyed that wonderful Christmas-in-the-air feeling all December, I was hardly aware of the Dalit Christians who formed the majority of the Christian population in KGF. Dr. Y. Moses in his NLSUI study on the Dalit Christians of KGF says there were 90 European workers in 1883, which increased to 339 in 1935. In the same year, there were 29,592 migrant Indian workers. They were the most poorly paid and did the riskiest jobs.
Most of the Dalits had converted to Christianity after they came to KGF. They were landless agriculturists from the neighbouring Tamil and Telugu speaking areas, who were escaping the clutches of exploitative upper caste landlords. These families were enticed by the offer of free accommodation, rations and a regular salary. They did not realise then that what they were paid was a pittance compared to what the white bosses got. They had the riskiest jobs, the worst accommodation and were recruited to do menial jobs for the British dorais. But they had nothing to go back to so they stayed.
Christianity, for them, became an aspirational religion. Unlike the religion of the society they had fled, there was no rigid caste system. And yes, there were the inducements of free rations and subsidised education.
Dr. Moses, himself a Dalit Christian from KGF, writes that “the reality of caste within the Christian community today is a stark reality even though most Christians do not wish to admit the same.” Over the years, he adds, Dalit Christians have developed “an attitude of hopelessness and resignation weighed over by caste discrimination and exploitation.”
Did the missionaries exploit the poverty and helplessness of these migrants-turned-miners? Probably. Did they force them to convert? No. Any miner’s family will say their ancestors converted because they wanted a better life. That life didn’t improve dramatically is a different story, but none want to convert back from the religion their forefathers embraced.
There are lessons for today in KGF's Christmases and New Years of yore when everyone, across all the lines we draw for ourselves, joined in the celebrations. It was a time of love and joy, far more acceptable than the current climate of violence and hate.
I remember KGF's beautiful ritual at New Year's Eve: At nearly midnight, a bent old man would hobble across the stage carrying a scythe. As the countdown to midnight began, a little girl danced onto the stage, ushered the old man out, and waved her wand to shower peace on everyone. People would hug and wish one another as the new year rolled in, tossing out old prejudices and looking forward to the future.
The grand balls and parties are gone, but did we have to lose that beautiful idea of sharing celebrations, hugs, cheer and good wishes too? As we count down to 2022, let's push out prejudices and hatred ring in harmony and coexistence.