GRM 2010 GRM 2011

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Gulf Migration, Money Order Economy and New Dimensions of Religion: Understanding the Social Transformation of Christians in Kerala
Paper Proposal Text :
Gulf Migration, Money Order Economy and New Dimensions of Religion: Understanding the Social Transformation of Christians in Kerala
The religious topography of Kerala is quite unique, Muslims and Christians together constitute nearly 40 percent of the total population, which is a rather different demographic pattern from the rest of the country. Along with the social changes, by the beginning of 20th century, the newly introduced colonial economy prompted Malayalees to migrate to plantations in Sri Lanka, Singapore, and Malaysia as clerks and coolies. Later the discovery of oil in Gulf countries and the subsequent oil boom in 1970s generated a huge wave of immigration from Kerala. Currently the state of Kerala sends the largest volume of immigrants to Gulf countries. The Gulf migration provided a new lease of life for the otherwise poor employment situation of the state and at present, nearly 2.20 million Keralites are working in the Gulf countries .As a result of migration, Kerala has witnessed a series of diverse economic and social changes including among others, a money order depended economy.
The transnational nature of the Gulf migrants has significantly influenced the class structure, social hierarchy, worship patterns, family structure and above all religion and religiosity of in Kerala. Though several previous studies have examined the economic consequences of migration and remittances in Kerala, no attempt has been made so far to explore how migratory movements and remittances affected the religion and religious practices in Kerala thus leading to a transformation of the society. Consistent with many post-colonial, trans-feudal societies, in Kerala religion provided a clear avenue for the newly rich migrants from the to establish their legitimacy and position in the social order as well as a medium of re-entry for the erstwhile upper classes. This on the one hand, contributed to larger investments in churches/mosques/temples and religious establishments across Kerala, largely funded by migrants and Gulf based associations; and on the other, to the prevalence of new and ostentatious religious practices, doctrines and rituals.
During my field research among the Kerala immigrants in Gulf in 2009, I have observed that religion is salient factor in a migrant’s day-to-day life, as it fills the emotional hole created in the contexts of extreme social isolation that migrants experience in foreign countries. The arrival of new religious practises and remittances are changing the Christian landscape in the Kerala with long-history of Christian presence.
The flow of remittances from Gulf has transformed the class structure of the Christian society by promoting upward mobility along the class ladder for families that have sent migrants to the Gulf. Migrant sending families have increasingly used income earned in the Gulf to promote religion in the public sphere— in the process, enhancing their visibility and power in the most dominant and decisive institutions of social hierarchy. Since the beginning of 1980s, there has been a proliferation of Churches, Bible colleges and other religious institutions particularly in districts and taluks which have a significant proportion of migrant sending households. The Gulf returnee frequently spends substantial amount of money in becoming patrons of religious activities— a culturally approved way of transforming wealth into political power and social status (Oscella, 2003). By spending enormous amount of money in religious ceremonies, the migrants upon returning to Kerala acquire important positions in the committees of Church. This process of acquiring social mobility by acquiring religious capital often disrupts the existing power structure within the community.
The broad question that this study wishes to investigate is: whether the reorientation of Christian immigrants lives in the host country (Gulf countries) and the newly created wealth brings dramatic change in the lives and practices of Christians back home(in Kerala). This paper focusses on the ‘remittances inspired spirituality’ of Kerala Christians and would further explore whether change in religiosity and religious practices were in turn influenced by the migrant experiences based on their religious beliefs in their host countries. The broad question that this study investigates is whether migration –centered religious reorientation of Kerala Christians is abetting commodification of religion, assertion of communal identity, proliferation of radical religious groups, rise of Prosperity Gospel /Tele Evangelists and the emergence of new forms of worship in the Christian community.
Finally, this is an empirical study based on my (Teenmurti Fellowship) field research in Kerala .