Towards a Hindu nation

Print edition : January 30, 1999

As the fascist agenda of the Parivar unfolds, it is clear that what is at stake is not religion, but political power.

K.N. PANIKKAR

THE Sangh Parivar has taken another step towards demarcating the nation as Hindu. So far the attempt has been to stigmatise Muslims as alien and anti-national and thus to exclude them from the nation. Now the net has been extended to include Christians also. Many people are surprised by the sudden attack on this peaceful, small community, with a low profile in politics and hence of no threat to the Parivar. What is really surprising, however, is that it has taken so long in coming. For Guru Golwalkar himself had bracketed Christians with Muslims and Communists as anti-national. His disciples are now implementing his teachings through violent means.

The last one year has witnessed well over a hundred incidents of attack on the person and property of Christians. The attacks are not incidental to communal conflicts to which Christians are a party, but are unprovoked physical attacks and arson and intimidation by the stormtroopers of the Sangh Parivar. They are all criminal acts perpetrated under the political patronage of the Bharatiya Janata Party. Missionaries have been stripped naked and paraded through the streets, even burnt alive, nuns have been gang-raped, churches have been razed to the ground and the Bible and other religious literature have been burnt.

The heightened animosity and violence against Christians coincides with the rule of the BJP at the Centre. Prior to that the incidence of violence against Christians was relatively low. It is estimated that over a period of 32 years, from 1964 to 1996, there were only 38 instances of violence against Christians. Even in 1997, not more than 15 instances were reported. Apart from the increase in their numbers, the area of incidence of such attacks is also suggestive: most of the attacks have occurred in States ruled by either the BJP or its allies - Gujarat, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana. That in none of these States governments gave adequate protection to the victims perhaps accounts for the increase in their incidence.

Instead of taking stern action, BJP leaders have either rationalised or justified what the cadres of the Parivar did. In Gujarat, where the attacks against Christians have been intense and continuous, conversions have been invoked as a reason by none other than the Chief Minister himself, suggesting thereby that Christians themselves are to be blamed for inviting the wrath of Hindus. A senior functionary of the BJP justified even rape as a reaction to conversions. The response of Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee, who is considered a good man and a liberal by many, was the most devious. By calling for a public debate on conversions, he suggests that the blame, in fact, rests with the victims. His move is a veiled threat to individual freedom, guaranteed in the Constitution after extended discussion in the Constituent Assembly. The freedom of conscience and the right to propagate it, be it of religious faith or of atheism, cannot be dissociated from the rights of the citizen in a democracy. The freedom, it is said, is indivisible.

With implements from their armoury, VHP volunteers strike a menacing pose at Ahmedabad last fortnight. The recent attacks on Christians are another example of the unfolding of the fascist agenda of the Sangh Parivar.-UDAY ADHVARYU

IS conversions the real issue? Or is it only a surrogate for advancing the Hindutva agenda?

Christianity in India has a history of about 2,000 years. Beginning almost at the time of its inception, Christian missionaries have spared no effort to "save the souls of the idolatrous, superstitious Hindus". They set up their missions, churches, seminaries and schools whenever and wherever they could gain a foothold. The missionaries learnt Indian languages, set up printing presses and published literature - both secular and religious - to propagate their faith. That in the process they contributed to the enrichment of Indian languages - in several Indian languages, the first codes of grammar were composed by missionaries - is a different matter. The missionaries used the public space to communicate the principles of their "superior" religion and at the same time to "expose the faults and foibles of Hinduism."

Yet there were no Crusades in India - not even what happened in China in the 19th century when missionaries were attacked and driven out from the interior. Hinduism responded in an entirely different manner. Instead of violence and coercion, the claims of the missionaries about their religion and their denigration of Hinduism were challenged through public debates. Theological disputations were integral to the intellectual life of India from very early times. It greatly contributed to the enrichment of its epistemological tradition. Such dialogues took place between members of all denominations - Buddhists, Jains, Christians, Muslims and Hindus. Quite often the rulers provided the platform for such debates. The Hindu-Christian debates have been theologically quite productive. In the 16th century, continuous disputations took place between Hindu pundits and Portuguese friars. When John Wilson, a missionary of great erudition and scholarship, was pursuing his evangelical work in western India, a Hindu intellectual, Vishnu Bawa Brahmachari, refuted his arguments against Hinduism at weekly public meetings at Chowpathy in Mumbai, following which a public debate was organised between him and some missionaries. If the pamphleteering of the 19th century is any indication, such exchanges took place between members of other communities also. For instance, in Malabar, Makti Tangal countered the arguments of the missionaries in several of his writings.

Indian rulers have generally adopted an impartial attitude in inter-religious relations. Not that they have not patronised their co-religionists or constructed shrines of their faith: the examples of such pursuits are aplenty from the times of Asoka to the 19th century. But lending support to the persecution of followers of other religions has been rather rare. There are exceptions though, as in the case of the Cholas, the Huns and the Sungas in early history, some Muslim rulers during the medieval period and the Portuguese in more recent times. But the general attitude is exemplified by what Maharaja Ranjit Singh said to one of his Ministers who happened to be a Muslim. A fakir brought to his court a copy of the Koran, which the Maharaja acquired by offering a large sum. When asked by his Minister as to why he, a Sikh, had done so, the Maharaja, known for his wit and wisdom, reasoned that God had given him only one eye so that he could look upon all religions without discrimination.

The colonial rulers, influenced more by expediency than by principles, chose to desist from interfering in religious matters. Until 1813, the East India Company kept Christian missionaries away from its territories. Several British officials, however, believed that Christianisation was both a religious and a political solution, as it was likely to ensure the permanence of the Empire. As a result, whether to Christianise or not was a widely debated issue. In the aftermath of the Revolt of 1857 - seen by many as a response to British interference in social and religious matters - the colonial rulers reaffirmed the policy of non-interference. The colonial state was not a major player in evangelisation, although a nexus between officials and missionaries did exist in certain areas without receiving official approbation. No mass conversions to Christianity took place under the aegis of the colonial rulers. State patronage was not a decisive factor in conversions.

At any rate, conversion is a complex matter. Richard M. Eaton, in an excellent study, The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier, pointed out the inadequacies of the existing theories of Islamisation, including those of patronage and social liberation. His contention that the spread of Islam in Bengal was as a religion of the plough is fascinating. Yet it is true that conversions to both Islam and Christianity have been from the lower caste orders. The increase in the population of the Mappilas (in Malabar) in the 19th century is a telling example. The increase took place from the middle of the century after the abolition of slavery in Malabar, which is now part of northern Kerala. Many of the agrestic slaves freed from their bondage opted for Islam. Mass conversions have often been of a caste as a whole for which the internally oppressive system of Hinduism has been responsible, rather than any external agency. Rather than looking for scapegoats from other communities, Hindu leaders should learn to look inward.

A Christian place of worship at Karadiamba village in Dangs district of Gujarat, which was destroyed by activists of the Hindu Dharma Jagran Manch on December 26.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

After 2,000 years of Christian presence and almost 200 years of Christian rule, the progress of Christianity in India has not been very substantial. The community is still tiny. The Census of 1991 records the number of its followers at 2.4 per cent of the total population. Nor have they increased in number during the last decade; in fact, their strength has relatively declined from 2.6 per cent in 1981. The missionary efforts at evangelisation obviously have not met with great success. If so, there is hardly any substance in the present hue and cry about conversions being a great threat to Hindus. What is at stake is not religion, but political power.

DEMARCATING Hindus politically and culturally from other denominations is central to the politics of the Parivar. That is the essence of cultural nationalism which provides the ideological basis of Hindu communalism. So far this demarcation was pursued through a hate campaign as well as violence against Muslims. A stage has come when it has become necessary to expand the scope of the enemy, for two reasons. First, the possible political advantage from representing Muslims as alien and anti-national has run out of steam. Secondly, since 1992, Muslims in different parts of the country have shown that they are capable of retaliation. The lessons of the bomb blasts in Mumbai, Chennai, Coimbatore and Kerala are not lost on the Parivar: violence and aggression are nobody's monopoly. Home Minister L.K. Advani, who exudes communal hatred, on the one hand and distributes awards for communal harmony on the other, narrowly escaped being hurt in Coimbatore. Muslim-bashing is not easy any longer. Yet it is necessary to privilege the Hindu, in contrast to the alien other. Hence the focus on Christians.

The aggression against Christians is incidental also to the need to expand the electoral base of the BJP. Middle class-upper-caste support is inadequate to gain a majority in Parliament, as was evident from the elections of 1996 and 1998. In the quest to expand its electoral support base, the minorities and, to some extent, the lower castes are out of the reckoning. A group that can be possibly considered is tribal communities, among whom the Parivar has already initiated some work. After the BJP came to power, tribal communities are being wooed with promises of statehood to some areas where they are predominant. But the Parivar has to contend with the influence of Christians in the tribal areas where the missionaries and charity organisations have been active in educational and developmental work. The tribal communities can be brought to the Parivar's fold only by undermining the Christian influence. The outcry against conversions, as is happening in Dangs, is a result of this. Invoking Christian conversion as an issue is amusing since most of those who belong to tribal communities are not Hindus and their religious practices are not even remotely connected with any form of Hinduism. If Christians are accused of conversions, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad can also be accused of doing exactly the same thing. The latter is no less reprehensible than the former. In fact, in the 19th century, several tribal revolts were reactions to Hindu intrusion into their way of life. Both the missionaries and the VHP are in effect endangering the traditional religious practices of tribal people.

Another field in which Christians constitute a hurdle to the Parivar's march is education. The Parivar, conscious of the ideological importance of education, has set up about 20,000 schools under different denominations and is poised to form a parallel system. The Ministry of Human Resource Development, under the control of two Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) stalwarts, is queering the pitch for it. In a bid to facilitate the expansion of the Parivar school network, Human Resource Development Minister Murli Manohar Joshi recently proposed an amendment to the Constitution so as to extend to all other the privileges so far enjoyed by the minorities. He also tried to give some legitimacy to the parallel system by inviting the manager of one of the RSS organisations to present a scheme of education, at a meeting of State Education Ministers (Frontline, November 20, 1998). Unless Christian educational institutions, which generally enjoy a very good reputation for maintaining teaching standards, are discredited and displaced, the Parivar will find it difficult to advance its network. Hence the attack on these institutions in the name of abetting conversions.

Apart from all these, since the demolition of the Babri Masjid, Christian organisations and institutions have taken some initiatives to promote secularism and to oppose communalism. They have held workshops, conducted studies and generally promoted activities aimed to sensitise people about secular values. This has understandably enraged the Parivar, particularly the lumpen sections within it, both political and intellectual, which are out to teach Christians a lesson. While the BJP ideologue and eminent journalist Arun Shourie "unmasks" missionaries in his articles and books, the Bajrang Dal strips them naked in the streets and burns them alive.

The anti-Christian tirade is, therefore, not accidental. It is another example of the unfolding of the fascist agenda of the Parivar. That the BJP leadership, including the Prime Minister, has not unequivocally condemned it is reflective of its tacit acquiescence. Christians have been identified as another enemy, a new symbol, to demarcate the nation further as Hindu. The attack on Christians is therefore not a simple law and order issue as some allies of the BJP seem to believe. It is a profoundly political question which can be overlooked only at great peril to the Indian Republic.

K.N. Panikkar is Professor of Modern History at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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