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Mainstream, Vol XLV, No 39

Christians : A Faith under Assault in Secular India

Tuesday 18 September 2007, by Vidya Bhushan Rawat



A Matter of Equity: Freedom of Faith in Secular India by John Dayal; Anamika Publishers & Distributors, New Delhi; 2007; pages: 487; Price: Rs 800 (Hard Cover)

Christians from all over India recently gathered in the Capital to protest against the Hindutva assault on their faiths in different parts of the country. On May 29, 2007, when they all assembled at Jantar Mantar seeking the government’s intervention to protect their institutions and people, it was a reminder to all of us that in a plural society, every one needs to appreciate the contribution of linguistic and religious minorities in its development. The gathering of Christians was, therefore, not seen in isolation and had support from all those who believe that the best bet for India’s survival is cohesiveness of different ethnic, religious, secular groups. In the past few months, the goons of the Hindutva forces have targeted the community and their faith leaders in various North Indian States, particularly Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, Orissa, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab and Gujarat. States like Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh, where the Christian population is abysmally low, are introducing special laws to prohibit conversion. Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand have already enacted laws prohibiting conversion. It is these States where extra-constitutional groups of the Hindutva brigade have taken it on themselves to do not only moral policing over people’s behaviour but also convert the tribals and Dalits back to the brahmanical fold. With Hindutva devotees at the seats of power, the goons are having a free day to kill anyone at their will. The assaults on Christian institutions have wider implications. The freedom of the gangs of Hindutva has become agony for all peace loving people including the minorities. We must also understand that minorities suffer from certain dilemmas and such assaults isolate them further and strengthen the theocratic leadership in the community. Moreover, the assault on Muslims and Christians is deliberate to suppress the internal contradictions within the Varna system. With UP gone out of their hand, the Sangh Parivar would re-launch its assault on the Muslims and Christians so that the assertion of Dalits, adivasis and backward classes is diverted against the ‘enemies’ and Brahmins and brahmindom have an unchallenged supremacy in the broader Hindu Samaj.

In many of these States the Bharatiya Janata Party, the political wing of Hindutva’s discriminating and destructive ideology, is in power. Much before they slaughtered Muslims in Gujarat in 2002, it was the Christians, their churches and their educational institutions, which were targeted by the lumpen Hindutva organisations. The unaccountability of the Hindutva forces and their various offshoots emerges from the open encouragement and support from the ruling parties in these States. It is not only outrageous but also unconstitutional that the State governments run by the Bharatiya Janata Party behave conspicuously and indulge in double-speak justifying these assaults in the name of intrusion of foreign culture and threat to India’s unity.

Look, what happened in Gujarat recently where the Kolis were on the street seeking justice. Narendra Modi never loses sight of targeting the Muslims and Christians who, he fears, are proselytising the tribals by throwing money at them. Absolutely farcical Mr Modi, Gujarati Banias and Brahmins have enough money to buy up as much as the evangelical groups, so please ask them to go into the villages, sit with the Dalits and tribals, share their agonies and pains. But we know it well that that is impossible in brahmanical Gujarat; citizens of the State use multiculturalism in the West to reap its benefits but the same people become Hindu chauvinists when the issue of multiculturalism crops up in their own State. In another way, Gujarat’s psyche has become totally brahmanised and a mere change of Narendra Modi would not work. An assertion of Dalits, Adivasis and backward communities (Gujarat’s backwards are Hinduised), for their political rights, in coalition with Muslims and Christians, would pave the way for throwing up a challenge against the current Hindutva culture prevailing in the State.

One of the issues that John Dayal has raised in his book is that of the right to profess the faith of your choice. The Hindutva groups obviously are not comfortable with this as they regard it as a threat. But conversion is a political tool and apolitical conversion has cost Dalits a lot. The first conversion that jolted the brahmanical structure was not in 1951 when Babasaheb Ambedkar embraced Buddhism, but the 1982 conversion of hundreds of Dalits to Islam in Meenakhsipuram in Tamil Nadu. For Hindutva everybody who is dissatisfied with her/his faith has been paid handsome amount of money to convert. Unfortunately, that is where the problem lies, as most of the converts are still much below the poverty line. If conversion had fetched good money and good life in monetary terms, I am sure the Brahmins, Banias and other upper-caste Hindus would have been the first to grab the opportunity.

We also tend to ignore the fact that the government has itself divided various Dalit communities. It has knowingly done the biggest conversion in the history of India by including Dalits, tribals, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jains and all those who are not Muslims or Christians, into the Hindu category. That has been the biggest blunder and conversion in the history of India and must be vigorously opposed as all these communities have their distinct cultural identities. Opposition to Dalit converts come from the fact that Dalits are considered as Hindus. So the government, the Hindu reformists want them to first face untouchability and social oppression again to get the benefit of reservation!

Despite my deep antipathy for Justice Ranga- nath Mishra for the politically motivated report that he presented on the 1984 anti-Sikh riot victims, the latest efforts by the Mishra Commission need our support, because these defend the right of an individual to profess any faith at the personal level without losing her/his fundamental right. Asha Das’ objections must be rejected before they take a dangerous turn. Nevertheless, it is also essential for the Church and Christian leaders to introspect about their Dalit agenda. It is easier for them to ask from the government for the rights of the Dalit Christians but at the same point of time, let them come out categorically to explain about the efforts they have made to empower Dalits within their community. A community which has in its possession India’s best known colleges, medical colleges, engineering colleges, media institutions, academic institutions etc., must disclose: what percentage of reservation has been given to Dalits and tribals in these institutions? If Christians were really willing to mobilise the Dalits on their side, empty slogans would not work. They have to be seen to be working for the Dalits. They cannot expect Dalits to follow their upper-caste leadership.

Christians are not hated in the power structure even when the Hindutva thugs target their priests. One of the reasons for that is that the growing feeling that Christians own large educational institutions which actually strengthen the Hindutva forces. The bitterest critiques of Christendom come from those who were educated at these prestigious institutions. They will not targets prestigious institutions in Delhi, Mumbai or elsewhere because most of their family members come out of these colleges. We must understand the philosophy behind this as my friend, Ram Puniyani, often suggests. The RSS and its Parivar have most of their ideologues coming from these institutions but when the Church and its educational institutions go in the villages and teach English and modern education to Adivasis and Dalits, that raises eyebrows. Education would open the mind of these people and will instigate them to challenge the racist philosophy of Hindutva. Tomorrow they will challenge the concept of merit of the upper castes. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Barring a few exceptions, things have not worked. Education is for profiteering and not much has been done at the village level. There have been compromises from the Christian leadership on this issue and their stand on the emancipation of Dalits and reservation.

AMIDST all this, one person who has unequivocally and uncompromisingly spoken against Hindutva and its fundamentalist ideology is Dr John Dayal. For the past few years, he has been very active putting the political agenda of the community and taking a strong line of action against the communal outfits though it is also a known fact that for his strong secular approach and convictions he is not the best person for the religious leadership.

A Matter of Equity: Freedom of Faith in Secular India is an outstanding work of John Dayal. Though a large number of articles have been compiled and updated for they were published in Indian Currents, yet by bringing them all together with other important documents, this book serves a great purpose for all those who are interested to know about the Christian community and its work in India as well as the vitriolic campaign of the Sangh Parivar against the Christian educational institutions. John Dayal has not only been a critique of the Sangh Parivar and its goons but he has asked the Church also to look into its role. He has documented incidents major violence against Christians in the last 10 years. May he get the strength to document and assist other secular groups also, those who may not like the evangelical groups very much like their dislike for the Muslim and Hindu radical groups. Yes, John Dayal is the Christian community’s secular face who has stood against all kinds of oppression, for the freedom of expression during the Emergency, which he so wonderfully documented in his book with Ajoy Bose, as well as his campaign against the fascist government of Narendra Modi in Gujarat. Therefore, it is not surprising that many of the Church friends were not happy with this uncompromising man who has no interest of ‘protecting’ his prime location institutions. It is these uncompromising men who actually help the community more than those who pretend to help them in the name of ‘protecting’ their community identity. And these points reflect sharply in his analysis when he says that the National Minorities Commission does not really care about the rights of the Christians.

Some of the chapters in the book are great essays and show John Dayal’s grasp over the problem and his efforts to link the Christian community with the varied secular groups.

“A Christian Perspective to National Integration” is one such excellent essay in the book where Dayal advocates the creation of awareness for human rights and developing a civil society which, according to him, ‘calls for sacrifice’.

The article “Ignorance, Bigotry and Bloodshed: Perspective of Confrontation, Coexistence and Peace in India and South Asia” is simply superb and needs to be read by all those who wish to know the birth of various ethnic-religious identities in India and South Asia. It also helps understand the culture of appreciation towards those who are not ‘like’ us and differ with one another not only in outlook and perception but also language and religion.

Another important message is the ‘liberation theology’ of the Church which liberated the Shanar women in Travancore and Tirunalveli district of erstwhile Travancore state, where the Dalit women were prohibited from covering their breasts. The missionaries helped them to lead a life of dignity and self-respect. An unknown story is that of Sophie James Joseph, who was a nurse in Delhi’s St. Stephen’s Hospital and who saved life of a Sikh family when they were sought to be butchered by the upper-caste thugs of the Congress party in the aftermath of the assassination of Indira Gandhi.

The Christian community needs to heed his advice to introspect its own work among the Dalits. He writes: “How have we responded to the demands of Dalits? Not low cost schools for low caste people but high quality English schools which will allow the Dalit children to find their place under the sun in the modern age. The answer has to be given soon.” This was written by Dayal in September 2001 but seven years onwards he needs to ask the Church and the Catholic groups again whether their call for right to convert and rights of the Christian Dalits is confined to the number games only. What substantial work have the Church institutions done during the past seven years to uplift the Dalits? The Christian institutions have enormous power and strength to help the Dalits. Two months back, Ambrose Pinto, the Principal of St Joseph’s College, Bangalore, revealed to me how his college has reserved seats for Dalits, OBCs and minorities and that still remains one of the best colleges of Banglore. And there is no dent to its meritocracy. Perhaps a right answer for the Principal of St Stephen’s College, which constructed the brahmanical think-tank of India and officially went against the policy of reservation of the Dalits and OBCs in the Supreme Court, under the pretext of being a minority institution. The Church institutions must respond as to how many seats are being reserved for the Dalits and tribals in the elite institutions run by them and how much help is being offered for that.

Another superb piece from John Dayal comes in the form of “Hindutva’s Dollar Trail”, which exposes the funding mechanism of the hate campaigners of the Sangh Parivar. That India Development and Relief Fund (IDRF) has been supplying the funds to Vikas Bharati and nine other offshoots of the Sangh Parivar is a shocking revelation. Between 1994-2000 it contributed 3.2 million to these hate mongers in India. The Government of India must look into it and find more details of such organisations which spread communal hatred in communities in India. Such funds must be treated at par with the terrorist funding against which the US Administration and UK are waging a decisive battle. The unfortunate part is that the Christian world is deeply divided today and still considers Islam as its enemy number one and hence other hate mongers get the benefit of these things. Even in Britain, the Right- wing Hindu groups have got great protection from those in power. Interestingly, for the Sangh zealots, there is another interesting revelation in the book. The 106 per cent growth of Indian population, predominantly upper caste Hindus, between 1990-2000. The Sangh Parivar is too much disturbed by Christian growth rate while one is unable to understand that if conversion was taking place that rapidly why the population of the community did not reduce during the past five years.

While the government is trying to get data related to the condition of Muslims in India, showing that Muslims have been discriminated against in administration and political system for their ‘sin’ of having created Pakistan, it would be grossly wrong not to find out the problems of the Christian population in India, a majority of whom happen to be Dalits and tribals. The recent NSSO data have revealed that the poverty in the Christian community is far more than that in the Muslims. While Muslims being the second majority of the country must get their due share in the power structure, we must also ask the government to appoint a Committee like the Sachar Committee to study the condition of Christians as they are the main victims of the Sangh Parivar’s violence after the Muslims.

The Christian community must introspect why it is unable to counter the Sangh Parivar’s propaganda and assault on its churches and machinery. It must learn a lesson or two from its Muslim brethrens. Muslims are a politically mobile community in India particularly in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Their political understanding is far superior that of the other communities. Muslims have depended on their own work and never on any government dole and therefore can still live their life in greater dignity. Christians, on the other hand, have remained a highly apolitical community. People like John Dayal are in a minority in the community for they speak the truth without feeling guilty or apprehensive of the Sangh Parivar and its goons. Of course, the price has been bigger in the form of they being the targets of attacks but they have remained uncompromising. The Christians by and large remain part of the power structure, particularly the upper caste elite among them, and therefore do not hesitate even in compromising the interests of the community. John Dayal remains an exception among the Christian elite who we can find at all platforms—from those against communalism to those fighting unsus-tainable globalisation or assault on Dalits and tribals or special economic zones.

It is therefore important for the religious groups to leave the space for the political people to lead the movement for human rights of their members in India. A community under theocratic leadership cannot fight its battle for survival, which is essentially political. And hence John Dayal’s words need to be heard with attention.

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