Notes on the fringe

Print edition : November 13, 1999

THE Pope's visit to India was preceded by long-drawn, high-pitched campaigns by Hindu fundamentalists and Christian groups, albeit with different objectives.

A rath yatra from Goa, organised by the Sanskriti Raksha Manch (SRM), a Sangh Parivar organisation, reached Delhi on the morning of November 4. The rath, a converted van, was decorated with banners decrying Christianity and the alleged conversion of Hindus by Christian missionaries. "Ram chahiye, Rome nahin" (We want Ram, not Rome) declared one banner. The yatris dispersed after holding a public meeting at which they decried "forcible conversions".

The SRM held another public meeting the same afternoon near the Arya Samaj mandir at Karol Bagh. Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and SRM leaders addressed the small gathering of people who did not seem to have a clue about the issues that were raised by the speakers, including VHP leader Acharya Dharmendra and Bharatiya Janata Party's Member of the Rajya Sabha B.P. Singhal. The speakers reiterated their demand for an apology from the Pope for the Goan Inquisition. B.P. Singhal claimed that the papal bull issued on May 4, 1593 by the then Pope to the King of Portugal regarding conversions was still valid. He claimed that it was only after the bull had been issued that atrocities against Hindus occurred in Portuguese-ruled Goa.

Other means of 'protests' included the distribution of anti-Christian literature at press conferences organised by the VHP and the SRM. An advertisement questioning the 'motives' behind the Pope's visit was put out on the front pages of leading newspapers, by a group of 'concerned citizens' from Chennai.

The VHP and the SRM, however, said that they would not hold any protests on the days the Pope was scheduled to be in India, apparently in deference to requests from some quarters of the BJP.

THE Catholic Bishops Conference of India (CBCI) held daily press briefings to disseminate information about the activities undertaken by the Catholic Church in Asia, including in empowering Dalits and tribal people in India. The Church's concerns about establishing an equitable world order were highlighted, as were Mahatma Gandhi's views on Christianity. The CBCI, while raising doubts about the funds received from abroad by Sangh Parivar organisations, sought from the Union Home Ministry complete details on foreign funds received by Christian organisations in view of the misgivings expressed in certain quarters (read Hindutva organisations). It pointed out that Christian missionaries ran nearly 15,000 educational institutions in the country, besides more than 7,000 social welfare institutions. The CBCI claimed that these funds helped meet only a small portion of the expenses required to run these institutions.

B.P. Singhal, who studied in a missionary school himself, however, seemed to be unimpressed. He alleged that conversions had increased in India after the Pope's visit in 1986. He further alleged that Nagaland and Mizoram were witnessing separatist movements primarily because of the rise in the Christian population in these States.

Not wanting to take any chances during the papal visit, the Delhi police sought to ensure foolproof security arrangements by making preventive arrests, including that of the Shiv Sena's local office-bearers. Despite this, three Shiv Sainiks attempted to stage a protest at Rajghat's main gate even as the Pope was paying homage to Mahatma Gandhi. They were rounded up by the police.

There were no other untoward incidents. The All India Christian Council said that despite the protests that preceded it, the Pope's visit went off well. It stated that the Pope had received a positive response from the people and the government. A spokesperson for the Council said that following the visit, dialogue and understanding at a new level had been put in place.

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