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Why Mumbai’s native Christians are doing a population count

The estimates of their numbers vary from 200,000 to 500,000, but the national census includes them under the broad category of Christians and the estimates are not reliable.

mumbai Updated: Feb 12, 2018 00:33 IST
Manoj R Nair
Manoj R Nair
Hindustan Times
East Indians,Mumbai,Christians
There has been lot of mixed marriages which makes the counting process even more complicated though there are plans to count people whose mothers are from the community. (HT FILE)

Mumbai’s native Christians, the East Indians, are conducting a population census. At recent cultural functions, visitors were handed over forms to fill out data about their families and ancestral villages.

The group, which lives in villages and towns between Vasai and Alibaug, trace their origins to the 15th and 16th when Portuguese missionaries converted members of local farming, fishing and salt-making communities to Roman Catholicism. The estimates of their numbers vary from 200,000 to 500,000, but the national census includes them under the broad category of Christians and the estimates are not reliable. “There was never a count and the estimates were made by politicians (during elections),” says Alphi D’Souza, spokesperson of community group Mobai Gaothan Panchayat. “Nobody really knows the actual number of East Indians. It was difficult to have a population count because the community is spread across Mumbai, Vasai and Raigad.”

Churches, which have reliable data on families that worship there, can be a more reliable source of information but parish records no longer classify them as a separate group. The baptism certificates issued by parishes also do not mention East Indians. There also has been lot of mixed marriages which makes the counting process even more complicated though there are plans to count people whose mothers are from the community.

“The certificates says Roman Catholics, though this was always not so. My grandfather’s baptism certificate says that he is an East Indian, but somewhere down the decades the practice was stopped,” said Dsouza. “We thought of getting the details from the church, but there are groups like Mangloreans and Goans (who have similar surnames). Trying to get details of one community from church records could become contentious and we did not want a controversy,” said D’Souza.

In March 2006, the group was declared an ‘Other Backward Caste’ - a classification that would have given them access to quotas in government jobs and seats in educational institutions. This was because many of the Hindu caste groups to which the East Indians trace their origins were listed in this category. But in the absence of documents that certify them as East Indians, they have not been able to access the benefits. “It is very sad; very few people have got the benefits,” says a resident of Kalina village, a former East Indian locality. “The administration needs to understand the problems and come up with a solution. A census will help us understand how many people how many are supposed to get the OBC classification and how many have managed to get the status.”

When the demand for OBC status was first raised in 2000, there was a debate within the community on whether they wanted to be in the list of groups enjoying reservations. Most families living in Bandra and Girgaum did not care for the reservations; some were actually embarrassed to seek the quotas. But those staying in villages in Vasai and Manori - largely fishermen and vegetable farmers – believed that the quotas can bring jobs and increase the number of young people opting for college education.

This is not the first time the community is holding a population count. One exercise which started in 2016 is incomplete. “We have not covered even 1000 people,” said Gleason Baretto of the Mobai Gaothan Panchayat. “That could be because when we first introduced the census forms we asked for too much information. We asked the applicant to fill in the names of the villages where their ancestors lived. We asked them whether their ancestors were Kolis, Kunbis or Agris. People did not have that kind of information.”

The new census forms are simpler and the community is lining up to get counted. At a recent celebration at a Madh Island church, volunteers distributed around hundreds of census forms.

First Published: Feb 12, 2018 00:33 IST