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January 5, 1999


E-Mail this column to a friend Arvind Lavakare

Cross Fire

Towards the end of last September, it was the rape of four missionary nuns in the tribal Jhabua district of Madhya Pradesh which prompted Indian Church units to cry "wolf" against the BJP-led coalition at the Centre though the state government was run by the Congress, whose president was literally a Roman Catholic.

Fuel against the BJP's "communalism" fire was later added by allegations about the way that party's state government in Gujarat was treating Christian educational institutions; some attacks on the Christian community stoked the fire.

Then, on December 4, after the Congress had retained Madhya Pradesh and its triumphs in Rajasthan and Delhi had put the BJP on defensive, Christian missionaries observed a protest day in several parts of the country. Their call: protection of secularism; their grouse: the attacks in the last two years on the Christians had made their life and religion insecure; their totem-pole: a cross carried by a youth and bearing the words "Extremist Hindutva."

Finally, in X'mas week came reports from several places in Gujarat's Danga and Surat districts regarding attacks on Christian prayer halls. It was set off by a rally convened at Ahwa (Danga district) by a little known organisation called Hindu Dharma Jagran Manch, which is said to have announced a dharmayudh (religious war) on the Christians.

Even as The Indian Express played up the X'mas drama with a six-column front page headline about "communal strife", Ashok Singhal, a leading light of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, brought it all out in the open at Jaipur. Speaking at a VHP programme, he warned of an atmosphere being created for "Christianising" the nation. He even labelled the Nobel awards to Mother Teresa and Amartya Sen as politically motivated, part of a Christian conspiracy, "a sanction to Christianity to spread its base in the country."

This view does appear to be far-fetched and outlandish. But utterances of two top Roman Church authorities do indicate towards a zealot bent of the Christian mind. According to the Houston Chronicle of October 13, 1992, "Pope John Paul II, visiting the Dominican Republic, said that he must protect his flock from the 'wolves' of evangelical Protestantism wooing Latin Americans away from the Roman Catholic Church... As shepherds to Latin America's 395 Catholics, the Pope said he must 'take care of the sheep who have been put in my care and protect them from the rapacious 'wolves.' " The continuing bitterness between the Catholics and the Protestants is a pointer to the powerful hold which the two Christian sects exert on their respective communities.

The second utterance that proclaims the Roman Church's belief in their faith being supreme, above all other faiths, came in 1994 after Prince Charles wanted to be the protector of all faiths. Lord Corgan, a former Archbishop of Canterbury, reacted angrily as reported in The Sunday Times, London, of June 26, 1994. According to that newspaper, Lord Corgan said, "If he is saying Christianity is equal with other religions, we should differ profoundly from him. As men, we are all equal before God, but are you talking about religions and saying one is as good as another? I hope he is not saying that."

Implicit in this comment from a high priest of the Anglican Church is the basic tenet of Christianity viz the route to salvation is only through Jesus Christ and that, therefore, all other religions are inferior, false.

This superiority complex of the ancient Crusaders is what irks the intellectuals of the Sangh Parivar who have done a fair amount of little-known study on the role and impact of missionaries in India. The parivar's favourite quote against the conversion indulged in by the missionaries is from Mahatma Gandhi. In Young India of April 13,1931, the Mahatma said "Every nation considers its own faith to be as good as that of any other. Certainly the great faiths held by the people of India are adequate for her people." Referring to the work of the missionaries in India, the Mahatma even then believed that "If instead of confining themselves purely to humanitarian work such as education, medical services to the poor and the like, they would use those activities of theirs for the purpose of proselytising, I would certainly like them to withdraw."

It's not only faith per se for which the Sangh Parivar faults the Christian missionaries in India. What perturbs it, angers it, is the political fall-out and impact which it believes conversion has had on the country. Fifty-one-year-old Ramesh Patange, a post-graduate in economics and politics from Bombay University, and considered a senior RSS ideologue, expressed the following view in an address last year:

"When our 'converted brothers' who were like us before conversion, take an anti-national stand, it creates grave problems. The change in dress habits, languages and values of life after conversion produce fissiparous tendencies which in turn are followed by demand for separate states. Demands are voiced for secession from the country. Afghanistan, Baluchistan, Northwest Provinces, West Punjab and East Bengal broke away from India because Hindus there were pushed into a minority by the Muslims. The same scenario is emerging in Kashmir and the North-East."

Another writer, Suresh Desai, while addressing a seminary in Bombay in March 1997, alluded to the role of Christianity in helping colonialism and imperialism, and reiterated the belief that the aims of missionaries are predominantly political. "What happened in America in the wake of the assaults of conquistadors like Cortez, Pizarro and Balbora and the Portuguese in Goa and the Goa Inquisition reinforces my theory," he said, "that their ulterior motive is political power and spirituality is used as means to achieve it." He drove home his point by reminding his audience that "In Latin American countries, it is a well-known fact that the Jesuits were involved in the game of power."

Patange believes this deviousness of Indian missionaries was manifest, albeit at a lower level, in the protest day observed by them on December 4. For instance, one of the points in their protest was that the life and religion of Christians were being threatened due to the increasing attack on their community in the last two years. If so, why was the protest delayed till the BJP-led coalition tottered after its assembly poll defeat? Wasn't it really an effort to hammer in the last nail of the Hindutva brigade's coffin?

Wasn't it proof of the colossal clout of the Church that the protest was led by the clergy members and not by others in the community?

Wasn't it proof of that clout of the Church over its educational institutions that not one of these institutions stayed away from the protest?

Why did a couple of Christian fora get so upset when the coalition's home minister announced in Parliament that half of the accused in the Jhabua rape case were Christians? Incidentally, these fora went mute when, after they had publicly stated that Mr Advani's information was wrong, the home ministry promptly clarified that the information was based entirely on the details received from the Congress government in Madhya Pradesh.

Despite this deep-rooted mistrust of the missionaries, especially the perceived dangers of their large-scale conversion activities in the country's North-East, none among the policy makers in the BJP or among the RSS is inclined to accept that violent, repressive measures is a way of halting the missionaries in their track. All those Hindutva protagonists accept that various civilised efforts are called for in order to assimilate the Christians (and the Muslims) in the national mainstream with their religious freedom intact. They realise the interpretation that Hindutva means anti-minoritysm can be proved completely wrong only through concrete actions and programmes. Hence, thought is being seriously given to a separate organisation in the Sangh Parivar for paying special attention to non-Hindus.

May that thought take shape quickly. Else, good governance and economic development in the country will encounter more dangerous speed breakers. If, meanwhile, the Christian missionaries indulge in a confessional, it would be all to the good.

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