Recently a large number of women on social media are being called ‘rice bag’, especially by right wing conservatives. It is a term particularly targetted at the members of Christian community in India. We delve into the history of the phrase, which might seem harmless at the face of it, and discover it is rooted in bias, narrow ideas of who is an Indian and, parochial ideas of belongingness.
What Does rice bag Mean?
Rice bag is a slur which is specifically targeted at Christians in India. Unreliable versions of history portray Christianity as a religion of the coloniser. During colonisation British came into India and converted lower caste and backward class Hindus to Christianity. The British gave the converts perks such as free food and education. The “perks” of conversion is colloquially called “rice bag” and such converts are dubbed as rice bag converts. This is a politically coloured narrative that paints Christians as “sell outs” for few perks.
I'm getting responses on my Twitter timeline, "rice bag". The reference is to the fact that my ancestors three years ago allegedly converted to Christianity to get rice. I'm glad they did coz they also got education. That's why I can speak of injustice on social media.
— Cynthia Stephen (@cynstepin) October 3, 2020
In the book Ivory Throne, historian Manu Pillai traces the history of Christianity dating back to pre-colonial era. The Syrian Christians in India are one of the oldest sects of Christianity dating back to 52 AD. Christianity in India, has come twice. The first time it came to the coast of Kerala was before Christ via by St Thomas Apostle. Hence, Syrian Christians have existed in India even before the Portuguese came to the shores of Kerala in 1498. A brief history of Christianity in India, rooted in historical research and accounts, sheds light upon the dangers of narratives which proclaim minorities to be “sell outs” for easy gains.
Why is it Derogatory?
Calling an individual “rice bag” is derogatory and dehumanising. It is reducing their identity, opinions and dissent to one aspect, their identity of being a minority. Established people from Christian communities are often called “rice bag” on social media. Faye D’Souza and Cynthia Stephen have often been at the receiving end of the slur. They are active critics of the current day Government and their policies. It is used to silence dissenters on social media by using their minority status against them.
At the root of this slur lies the idea of belongingness. While contemporary political narratives wish to reduce the aspect of belongingness to Hindus alone, one cannot discount the history of Indian subcontinent being diverse. There are enough and more reliable historical narratives that document the fact that various religions have lived harmoniously in India, Hinduism merely being one of them. Dissent continues to remain a Fundamental right guaranteed by the Constitution of India. A right that can be exercised by every Indian who lives here and has always lived in this subcontinent.
Reshaping Histories for Political Ends?
The primary goal is reshaping history by ordering the past to meet current political agendas. The narrative that is being built by right wing movements such as ghar wapsi is targeted at minorities, to convert them back to the religion they belonged to originally before they were converted or forced to convert. History is being shaped to fit the ideological mould of how Hindus have suffered at the hands of “invaders” and it obstructed the rise of Hindu state.
Movements like ghar wapsi and terms like “rice bag” have close connection. They belong to the same school of thought that acknowledges and validates only one identity- the upper caste Hindu identity. To validate and legitimise this identity every form of history is being re-shaped. Any opposition, criticism or even the simple act of stating one’s opinions is met with terms like “rice bag”.
[Photo by Praveesh Palakeel on Unsplash]