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Bombay Catholics and the question of caste

I dedicate this article to Sharad Patil, who remains a guide for reinterpreting non-Vedic knowledge in India. 

At the onset I wish to state that this article is restricted to the Bombay Catholics[1]I have not found any non-fiction writing that treats the geographically diverse Catholic groups as a unique category. Only in fiction has there been an attempt to synthesise their lives together. I … Continue reading of the non-elite background. The main focus are the East Indians, Goans, and South Canarans[2]I use the term South Canara to broaden the spatiality of these Catholics; I find the term Mangalorean to be limiting. Many South Canara Catholics traveled from the Udupi district for example., the community members I have grown up with. Each group is aware of the geographical origin of the other, and yet it is stunning that there has not been a comprehensive study across the city of Bombay[3]“Catholics In Bombay: A Historical-demographic Study of the Roman Catholic Population in the Archdiocese of Bombay” by Irudaya Rajan (1993) is the only documentation to exist but only … Continue reading that analyses the diverse origins of the Catholics on a non-elite level. 

The writing on Catholics in India is focussed on the lives of upper caste-upper class or Dalit Catholics though there are recent exceptions.[4]Fernandes, Jason Keith. Citizenship in a Caste Polity: Religion, Language and Belonging in Goa. Orient Blackswan, 2020. I argue that the larger number of Catholics are historically from a spectrum of occupations that fall between these two sections of society. I refer to Sharad Patil’s analysis of jati as a tribal institution that underwent changes in the medieval to early modern era. This lets us see the Catholics as socio-economically contiguous across communities of the westen coast. Lastly, I will focus on the role of ‘jāt’ which continues to be in use within the community.[5]Though the East Indians speak a dialect of Marathi, they are not seen as vastly different from the Konkani Catholics; the English language appears to have built bridges in this regard.

In terms of caste, chaturvarna distinctions have been emphasised in the Konkani Catholics of Goa and South Canara. Though the church has been aware of social distinctions in India for centuries, the universal brotherhood of Christianity does not allow it to provide a robust critique of this specific distinction. However, Sebastian Kappen remains a notable exception.[6]Kappen, Sebastian. Marx Beyond Marxism: A Critical Evaluation of Marxian Philosophy.

To gain awareness on this matter, I started documenting my family’s ‘humble’ origins.[7]The term ‘humble origins’ is always used in a patriarchal and patronising manner by upper class-upper caste groups who usually wish to veil the onslaught of day-to-day existence and the … Continue reading Whenever questions of caste came up, the immediate response was, “There is no caste in Catholics,” or the person emphatically exclaimed, “We are Brahmins.” If they were Brahmins and if there was no caste, why were so many Catholics around us not socio-economically affluent? Where was the material and social affluence? How was caste seen in our non-elite but not Dalit Catholic communities? If we were neither, who were we?

In a previous writing I have briefly recounted my maternal grandparents’ life at the Bombay Improvement Trust Blocks and the cotton mills. For this article, I wish to recount my paternal grandfather’s story, which was narrated to me by my father before he passed away a few months ago. 

My great-grandfather, Casmir Pinto, was born in the early 20th century in the area of Kulasekhar on the outskirts of Mangalore. Like most Catholics, he was classified as a chalgueni farmer (tenant-at-will). My father called him a shaman, but Casmir must have provided natural remedies to those who could not afford modern medicine in his community. Casmir did not own the land on which he and his family lived; he was part of a larger gurukaar agricultural system, which must have undergone further transformations during the East India Company’s rule.

By the early 20th century, the Catholics of Bombay drew their membership from a variety of geographical locations. The transformed agricultural systems of Goa and South Canara increased taxation rates. Casmir, like other impoverished people, was compelled to send his eldest son, Joachim (my grandfather), to work in Bombay by the 1930s. The men and women of these non-elite migrations struggled to find space in the city, but caused a proliferation of coods or clubs in which people lived by village distinctions (in their Goan or South Canara context). The elite of these communities began settling alongside wealthier East Indians and South Canarans in Santa Cruz, Bandra, and Vile Parle, as noted by Sidh Losa, and their social attitudes aligned with the diverse bourgeois forming in Bombay

Joachim was unable to find a job in the mills. Instead he found a job as a butler in the Nair Hospital canteen at Bombay Central. He was classified as a Class IV worker and was provided quarters accordingly. It was in the city that he met his wife Carmine who had migrated from Karkala—another small town in Udupi—and worked at a cotton mill before marriage. A year after getting married, he took up a wireman’s course after work hours, to be able to supplement his income and provide additional security to his family. 

Tribal orientations of jati

In his writing on Indian history Sharad Patil notes, “Jati is a product of feudal society representing the multiplying and increasing division of labour and social and economic inequalities in the society.” By 600 CE the jati-balutedar system developed and consolidated itself, resulting in the “unity between caste and occupation”. 

To broaden our understanding of the Catholics on the west coast, we must recognise that prior to conversion, they were part of the jati-balutedar society and even after. Antonio Remy Dias has analysed the relationship between land and the tribal system of the gauncarias in Goa. During the years of Portugese colonisation, the gauncaari system was transformed and came to be known as comunidades. Such a system was replicated in South Canara by the migrating Goans over centuries. The gauncaria system formed a socio-economic and ritual complex from which gauncaars maintained control over the land and the service jatis or mundcaars that lived on it. The mundcaars were paid in grains and provided residence on the gauncaar’s land for their services but were never allowed to join the system as equals. As a result of migration, a majority of the Catholics in South Canara were bound to it.

In the case of our family, Casmir, his wife, Julianna, and his brothers, provided daily labour to the local gurkaar’s residence, fields and provided buffalo milk to the area in exchange for a measure of rice and the ability to live there. This was decades before the land reforms of the 1970s in Karnataka, which provided their children with small landholdings in the 1980s.

Pinto family
Casmir and Julianna are in the centre. This photo was taken in the 1970s at Kulshekara, Mangalore. (From the author’s family photo archive)

Broadening the non-elite

I use the normative categories of elite and non-elite, which may suggest a dichotomy in which the elite invariably are the ones positioned to be in power and are the supposed opposite of the non-elite. So the immediate task is to broaden the non-elite section further. First I turn to Kenneth Ballhatchet’s book titled Caste, Class and Catholicism in India that goes into detail on how the missionaries deliberately elevated the bulk of their converts to a ‘high caste’ position, though they might have been gauncaaris or landed Shudras.[8]“In 1844 … The minority [were] high castes, there were some catholic brahmins only in Goa but virtually all other catholics were Eurasians, shudras and low castes. The missionaries mistook the … Continue reading Ballhatchet observes a similar situation in Tamil Nadu, for by 1850, “it was primarily the cultivating classes or ‘low castes’ that were catholics in Konkan and Bombay.”[9]Sidh Losa mentions how “Catholic inhabitants of Salsette Island and Bassein’s subdivisions would be labelled as ‘rural’ or ‘samvedi’ East-Indians.”

These productive jatis[10]I borrow the use of the term productive jatis from Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd. were of great value to the church, materially and spiritually. Though Ballhatchet correctly identifies the bulk of the Catholics as belonging to the cultivating classes, he is unable to place them in his chaturvarna system and relegates them to a ‘lower caste’ position, but lower to whom? To other members of the Shudra communities? The question then remains, what were the occupations of these Catholics? 

Sidh Losa reveals that most of these Catholics were, “Koli fisher folk, Kunbi cultivators, Agri salt-pan workers and Bhandari toddy-tappers”. Most of these occupations are considered part of the larger Shudra identity. It would be safe to assume that a bulk of the Catholics in Bombay, be they East Indian, Goan or South Canaran, are from these occupations and so were able to come together on a social level, even if it was not always preferable to the elders. The term ‘low caste’ cannot account for the diversity of the occupations. Presumably, the ones considered high caste created further distance between their own Shudra status and the ones they saw as ‘lower’. 

Due to lesser generational wealth, lack of access to English education, land resources and social mobility, these Catholics were marginalised on several fronts. Paradoxically, the patriarchal nature of such groups made them assertive on certain rights; they organised as part of the working class in the city and in matters of religion asserted their right to worship but did not develop a social theory of caste, nor could they distance themselves from the clout of the church, which, among other things, actively campaigned to prevent women from migrating. 

Towards a reinterpretation of the present

Joachim and Carmine Pinto
Joachim and Carmine Pinto in Mumbai, photo taken in the 1970s (From the author’s family photo archive)

My grandfather, Joachim, decided to settle down in Bombay, so he could send money regularly and keep the family home running in Kulshekar. He moonlighted as an electrician for several years, even after retiring as a liftman from Nair Hospital. Carmine and he raised a family in the city, and by then had begun to forge a new identity. 

As children, at numerous family gatherings or festivals, conversations about the subject of marriage or social relationships always came up. Invariably the next question from my grandmother would be to know the said person’s social position, “Kuhlee jat?”[11]I translate this to “which jati do they belong to?” It is a Konkani word, but the multitude of usages it has, can be found in the other Bombay Catholics as well. And till date, the single word jāt operates on multiple levels within the community; purity and pollution, economic conditions, colourism, English language level, education degrees, historical occupation of the family, the number of generations that the family was Catholic, family village location, etc. 

Zāth does not foreground any single characteristic but offers a term by which one can address a variety of discriminatory and unitary practices that must be subject to critical evaluation. In subsequent generations Catholics began to marry across these geographical boundaries in Mumbai. In South Canara, Goa or Mumbai, these productive jatis–working classes have been listed as Backward Classes[12]There is a case to be made for economic class in the Catholics as well. but are yet to reap the benefits of reservation. We are aware of how problematic such a categorisation of people as ‘OBC’ can be. Even the term Shudra has to be recovered from its feudal mirasadari peasant caste and Hindu chaturvarna context.[13]The 2021 book, The Shudras: Vision for a New Path and the Problems Surrounding the Essentialization of a Hinduized Shudra Community still makes a case only for a unified Hindu Shudra identity, to … Continue reading

With the transformations in the post-independence era, rise of nationalistic Hindutva, Mumbai’s real estate development, migration opportunities in Gulf countries and increased influence of the church, Catholics of this grouping have distanced themselves from Dalit communities and remained content to maintain a patriarchal status quo. The upper class bourgeois Catholics have maintained Brahminical practices of purity of bloodlines to maintain their wealth, have taken on their ancestral pre-conversion surnames and moved further west

Historically, only a tiny minority have been of high caste origin, so contemporary claims of higher caste status among the elite must be challenged. Documentation of the lived experiences and critical exploration of the cultural activities of the productive jatis–working classes must emphasise their shared community experiences in Mumbai, which might provide us awareness of unique processes that have been invisibilised over decades.

Elroy Pinto is a film-maker and researcher based in Mumbai.

Notes

Notes
1 I have not found any non-fiction writing that treats the geographically diverse Catholic groups as a unique category. Only in fiction has there been an attempt to synthesise their lives together. I use Bombay as a term to orient the non-elite Catholics in a particular time frame and to tie their future generations to the space of Bombay. Other groups include Tamilians and Anglo Indians. My work also does not refer to Dalit Catholics.
2 I use the term South Canara to broaden the spatiality of these Catholics; I find the term Mangalorean to be limiting. Many South Canara Catholics traveled from the Udupi district for example.
3 “Catholics In Bombay: A Historical-demographic Study of the Roman Catholic Population in the Archdiocese of Bombay” by Irudaya Rajan (1993) is the only documentation to exist but only covers four parishes. I could not obtain a copy of the work for this article.
4 Fernandes, Jason Keith. Citizenship in a Caste Polity: Religion, Language and Belonging in Goa. Orient Blackswan, 2020.
5 Though the East Indians speak a dialect of Marathi, they are not seen as vastly different from the Konkani Catholics; the English language appears to have built bridges in this regard.
6 Kappen, Sebastian. Marx Beyond Marxism: A Critical Evaluation of Marxian Philosophy.
7 The term ‘humble origins’ is always used in a patriarchal and patronising manner by upper class-upper caste groups who usually wish to veil the onslaught of day-to-day existence and the relentless labour that generations of our people have had to do.
8 “In 1844 … The minority [were] high castes, there were some catholic brahmins only in Goa but virtually all other catholics were Eurasians, shudras and low castes. The missionaries mistook the shudras as high caste.”
9 Sidh Losa mentions how “Catholic inhabitants of Salsette Island and Bassein’s subdivisions would be labelled as ‘rural’ or ‘samvedi’ East-Indians.”
10 I borrow the use of the term productive jatis from Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd.
11 I translate this to “which jati do they belong to?” It is a Konkani word, but the multitude of usages it has, can be found in the other Bombay Catholics as well.
12 There is a case to be made for economic class in the Catholics as well.
13 The 2021 book, The Shudras: Vision for a New Path and the Problems Surrounding the Essentialization of a Hinduized Shudra Community still makes a case only for a unified Hindu Shudra identity, to accept the homogeneity of the word Hindu itself is an oversight.

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