How the Vankar community became Gujarati Catholics and migrated to Mumbai | Mumbai news - Hindustan Times
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How the Vankar community became Gujarati Catholics and migrated to Mumbai

Jun 10, 2024 08:32 AM IST

Special privileges like state support to weavers’ cooperatives and reservation in education and government jobs were given to Hindu Vankars after Independence

MUMBAI: On Sunday, a group of women dressed in traditional embroidered ghagra-cholis performed dandiya to kickstart a conference held at St Peter’s Church in Bandra West. The women, who had come from Pali village in Bandra, Borivali and other parts of Mumbai, were Gujarati Catholics.

Gujarati Catholic women play dandiya at a conference on “Migration of Christians and Urbanization’, with reference to Mumbai” held at St Peter’s Church in Bandra west organised by the Church History Association of India, Western India branch on Sunday.
Gujarati Catholic women play dandiya at a conference on “Migration of Christians and Urbanization’, with reference to Mumbai” held at St Peter’s Church in Bandra west organised by the Church History Association of India, Western India branch on Sunday.

At the conference, organised by the Church History Association of India’s Western India branch, a research paper on ‘The Beginnings of the Gujarati Catholic community in Mumbai’ was shared by Rev Fr Nilesh Parmar from the Church of Our Lady of Velankani in Irla. “When the Roman Catholic missionaries arrived in Kheda district in 1893, they began to work alongside the Vankar (weaver) community,” said Rev Fr Parmar in his speech. “Soon there was a mass conversion movement among them to Christianity.”

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Rev Fr Parmar added that the new faith proved to be a “revolutionary movement” for the Vankars of Charotar at all levels, offering them “religious freedom and dignity”, social mobility and economic betterment mainly through education. “Christianity became a powerful religious and social movement so that by the time of independence, more than 80 percent of the Vankars had accepted Christianity,” he said.

According to Rev Fr Parmar’s research paper, after Independence, special privileges like government support to weavers’ cooperatives and reservation in education and government jobs were given to Hindu Vankars. “But the Christian converts were denied these privileges because they were supposed to be free from the ill-effects of caste discrimination,” he said. “Later on, the Hindu Vankars and other scheduled castes came to be identified as Dalits while the converted Christians were known as Gujarati Christians.”

Rev Fr Parmar said that some Vankar families from Mogri village near Anand in Gujarat set out in 1891 for “the ever-enticing city of Bombay” and took up menial services as gardeners in St Joseph’s Convent at Bandra. He held forth on how the immigrant workers brought a seriously ill child to the Convent of St Mary Paul. “The child was baptised into the Catholic faith before he died,” he said. “Some days later, the father, mother and two brothers of the deceased child felt an urge in their hearts to become Christians and after four months of instruction by the sisters, a total of eight persons were baptised on November 1, 1891. Thus, was laid the foundation of a new Catholic faith among the Vankar community of Gujarat in Bombay.”

The Gujarati Catholic community in Mumbai is now over 115 years old. Apart from these earliest migrants, some families from central Gujarat also came later and found both shelter and employment in St Joseph’s Convent, Bandra. It is here that they converted to their new-found faith. More and more members from the Charotar region in Gujarat continued to flow into Bombay and made it their home for years to come.

Fr Parmar said that though there was no exact number available of Gujarati Christians (all converts of different Christian denominations) in Bombay, according to the census of 1961, they formed 1.6 percent of the total Gujarati Christian population that had migrated to Greater Bombay. Today, there are about 4,000 to 5,000 Gujarati Catholics in different parts of Bombay.

“In the early years, Gujarati Catholics were concentrated mainly in Bandra West and Mahalakshmi-Tardeo,” he said. “Steeped in poverty and struggling to get a proper footing in Bombay, they were helped by a host of Catholic missionaries and other leaders of the community who combined their religious duty of combining faith with socio-economic upliftment. The missionaries paid attention to their education and in 1960, Rev Francis Whitley SJ started Jag Prakash Vidyalaya, a Gujarati-medium school up to Class 7, dedicated exclusively to the education of Gujarati children. The school ceased to exist after the 1960s due to various socio-political reasons.”

For the many Gujarati Catholic families who were reeling under debt, having borrowed from private money lenders at usurious rates, Rev Edward Solar SJ started the Isha Jagprakash Gujarati Credit Co-operative Society in December 1954. It had 18 members, each contributing a meagre 5 per month. In the last 50 years, the society has chalked up a membership of 1,520, with a working capital of 1.5 crore and gives loans and other financial aid to its members.

The housing issue was also tackled by the Church. In the initial years, many Gujarati Catholic families lived in shanties, chawls and employees’ quarters. Paul Solanki, a leading member of the community, established the Shri Navchetan Cooperative Housing Society with an initial 45 members in June 1958. In 1966, twelve flats were completed and the long-cherished dream of many to live in their own pakka homes was fulfilled.

Another housing project, the three-building Sneh Sagar, was launched near Mount Mary in Bandra in 1972 under the Slum Rehab scheme, affording shelter to more than a hundred families over the next nine years. Another building Swapna Safalya was added in 1985, and later Divya Darshan, another building, was also added.

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