In the name of faith

Published : Feb 11, 2005 00:00 IST

The Festival of Blessings organised by the supporters of millionaire televangelist Benny Hinn in Bangalore provides an opportunity for the Sangh Parivar to further its communal politics.

in Bangalore

LARGER-THAN-LIFE images of a coiffured, smiling Benny Hinn, the California-based millionaire televangelist, gaze over traffic snarls and congested city intersections in Bangalore. The hoardings, which made their appearance a month ago, were part of a publicity campaign for a three-day Festival of Blessings addressed by Benny Hinn in Jakkur, Bangalore, between January 21 and 23. For the harried city denizen, intent on getting to work each morning and back home each evening, such hoarding campaigns in the heart of the metropolis represented at best a flicker in the unceasing flow of signages that assault urban sensibilities every day. But organisations such as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), the Bajrang Dal, the Hindu Jagarana Vedike, and a motley group comprising religious leaders of various Hindu mutts, were quick to seize the political opportunity that the Festival of Blessings had presented them with. They drummed up a shrill campaign against the Festival and its organisers, alleging that the real purpose of the festival is Christian conversion.

The BJP and its Sangh Parivar allies were able to enforce a partial bandh on January 21, the first day of the three-day festival. Gangs of their supporters forcibly closed shops in many parts of the city, set fire to tyres on roads, and stoned and flattened the tyres of government buses. Their efforts, however, could not stop the event, which was attended by an estimated three to four lakh persons, including Karnataka Chief Minister N. Dharam Singh and several of his Cabinet colleagues, and Union Ministers M.V. Rajashekharan and Oscar Fernandes. In a statement, Dharam Singh said that his government had granted permission for the event because the "Constitution has guaranteed the right to all faiths to worship and practise their religion". He also said that when Indian religious leaders conducted prayer meetings in other countries, India must show tolerance for the leaders of other faiths.

Billed rather grandiosely by its organisers, the Benny Hinn Ministries, as "the largest Christian event in history", the Festival of Blessings may have passed off - as did a similar "festival" held in Mumbai in February 2004 - as yet another religious convention intended to collect the faithful in a show of strength. No different, in essence, from the Hindu Dharma Samavesha held in Bangalore in December 2003 by organisations allied to the Hindu Right. The centrepiece of a Benny Hinn service, and its biggest draw, were his working of miracles that have supposedly cured thousands of people from life-threatening illnesses. This too is not uncommon in India. Claims of miracle wielding powers and the ability to cure sickness are made by a legion of godmen and godwomen, starting from the village medicine man, right up to the heads of powerful and wealthy cults, such as Satya Sai Baba, Kalki and Kerala's Mata Amritanandamayi. Indeed, for scientists, rationalists and secular groups, the opposition to the Benny Hinn show is based on his false promises of healing.

For the Sangh Parivar protesters, however, there is all the difference between an Indian miracle man and Benny Hinn: the latter is Christian, and therefore must certainly have a hidden conversion agenda. The high-cost publicity blitz launched by the Benny Hinn Ministries, and the manner in which it flaunted a guest list that read like a who's who of political India - N. Dharam Singh, Governor T.N. Chaturvedi, several Chief Ministers from other States and Union Ministers, including Human Resource Development Minister Arjun Singh, to mention a few - was picked up by communal organisations to allege government patronage to Christian organisations that are engaged in covert conversion.

For the BJP, the Festival presented a golden opportunity for political mobilisation around a deeply divisive issue. Despite being the single largest party in the State Assembly, the BJP had been unable, ever since the Dharam Singh coalition government assumed office in May 2004, to build a serious campaign on any political or development-related issue. Its attempts to disrupt the annual Datta Peetha celebrations at the Bababudangiri shrine in Chickmagalur in December 2004 were firmly put down by the State government. Nor could it drum up any support against the arrest of Jayendra Saraswathi of the Kanchi Mutt. The Festival of Blessings became the peg upon which they hoped to hang their next campaign. The party called for the cancellation of the event by the government and the arrest of Benny Hinn for attempted conversion. Sections of the legal fraternity and leaders of the Kannada movement, such as M. Chidananda Murthy, have called for the cancellation of the programme on essentially the same grounds.

The Left was divided over the issue, with the Communist Party of India demanding that Hinn's programme be cancelled on the grounds that he would dupe people with promises of miracle healing. The State unit of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) took a different position. "Benny Hinn, or any religious preacher for that matter, is well within his rights if he propagates or even criticises another religion. But he cannot denigrate another religion. Secondly, the propagation of blind faith and obscurantism is against our constitutional objectives. Finally, we criticise the double standards of those communal groups that criticise Hinn but tolerate obscurantism in their own religion," G.N. Nagaraj, CPI(M) State secretary, told Frontline.

"Of course the demand for the cancellation of the programme is totally wrong," Gowri Lankesh, Editor, Lankesh Patrike and Convener of the Karnataka Communal Harmony Forum, told Frontline. "In India anyone has the constitutional right to propagate one's religion, to convert, and to assemble peacefully. The Sangh Parivar has been holding Hindu samajotsavs across the State and country. What moral right have they to ask for the cancellation of the programme?"

A pamphlet written by a member of the Benny Hinn Ministries that allegedly equated idolatry with harlotry further fuelled the opposition amongst Hindu groups to the event. The organising committee of the Festival withdrew the offending pamphlet immediately and publicly apologised for the insensitivity of its contents. "The pamphlet was put out without the permission of our publicity committee by a person who is not directly under the Festival of Blessings," said Sajan George, who heads the Protocol Committee for the event. "The police have booked cases against him, and we too are taking action."

Conference organisers alleged that the protests had nothing to do with religion but were part of a political agenda. "We have adhered to all the laws and regulations. It is those who are opposing us, including a section of the media, who are inciting religious intolerance," George told Frontline. "As an Indian, I continue to hold my right to practise my religion that my Constitution guarantees. Have Christians become tenants in their own country?"

The moral outrage expressed by Hindu mutt heads in Karnataka over the alleged attack on idolatry was surprising considering the strong anti-idolatry tradition that forms the basis of Veerashaivism, a breakaway Hindu tradition that has strong historical, religious and political roots in Karnataka. Basavanna, the 12th century founder of the Veerashaiva sect, and several Veerashaiva preachers, attacked Vedic Hinduism for idol worship and its patronage of the caste system - and in words that would make the controversial Benny Hinn Ministries pamphlet sound almost complimentary.

THE Karnataka High Court had turned down the pleas contained in four petitions filed before it to ban the event on the grounds that it was a veiled attempt at conversion. Referring to the order of a lower court restraining the BJP from holding, organising or staging any protest within 100 metres of the Jakkur airfield, the State Advocate-General stated in the High Court that "any attempt to create a law and order problem will be crushed".

In an affidavit filed in the High Court, S. Mariswamy, City Police Commissioner, had said that 10,000 policemen would be deployed on those days. This figure included two companies of the Rapid Action Force, 40 platoons of the Karnataka State Reserve Police, 1,200 officers from outside Bangalore city limits, 40 platoons of the City Armed Reserve Police and the entire Police Force of Bangalore City. There will also be 2,000 officers and men of the traffic police to manage traffic exclusively for the event.

The entourage that has flown into the city in Benny Hinn's private multi-million dollar jet was staying at the posh Leela Hotel. The venue was the State government's Jakkur Airfield Training Ground for which the organisers had paid the government Rs.10 lakhs as rent and another Rs.10 lakhs as caution deposit. Seventy-two screens (24 ft by 12 ft) and two mega screens twice that size had been erected. Three lakh chairs had been arranged for the audience, and areas prepared for floor seating.

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