Saffron strike

Published : Apr 21, 2006 00:00 IST

A Christian mission becomes the target of attack following a controversy over a book that allegedly insults Hindu deities.

T.K. RAJALAKSHMI in Kota and Jaipur

A BOOK by an obscure writer was all it took for a systematic targeting of the Emmanuel Mission International (EMI), a Christian organisation that runs a chain of schools in Rajasthan, in the third week of February. Minority organisations, political parties such as the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Congress, women's groups and the People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) came together on a common platform in the third week of March to condemn the attacks and the hounding of minorities in general in the State, timing the protests to coincide with the Assembly session.

These organisations also expressed their apprehensions about the Rajasthan Dharma Swatantrya Bill, 2006; passed by the Assembly on April 7, the new piece of legislation bans religious conversion. Offences under the new law are non-bailable.

There have been attacks on minority communities before, but the attacks on the EMI drew, for the first time, Christian organisations out on the streets in protest. The Rajasthan Christian Fellowship, which represents all denominations of the Christian faith, participated in the rally.

The provocation for the attacks was that the book "insulted" Hindu deities and thereby hurt the majority community's religious sentiments. Bunch of Truths (Haqeeqat in the Hindi translation) is written by C.G. Mathew, a lawyer based in Kerala. It was a rejoinder to RSS ideologue M.S. Golwalkar's Bunch of Thoughts. Mathew got his book translated into several languages. A professional translator based in Madhya Pradesh did the Hindi translation.

The EMI runs 49 schools in the State and has many majority community children among its students. It had nothing to do with either the writing of the book or its translations. However, it found itself a target of hostile attention after one Prahlad Panwar spotted the book at a bookstall during an EMI convention back in October 2005 and bought a copy for Rs.200. He filed a first information report (FIR) at a police station in Kota on February 14 saying the EMI was selling and distributing the book whose contents were objectionable.

Panwar, described by informed sources as an RSS activist, runs the Matantaran Virodhi Manch (translated, it means `anti-conversion front') in Kota, a city where the EMI runs four schools, an orphanage and a hospital. He says he visited the EMI convention to check if there were any conversion activities going on. Kota also happens to be the stronghold of Madan Dilawar, Minister for Social Welfare and Cooperatives, known for his stand against alleged conversions in the district.

After Panwar spotted the book in October, it also came to the notice of top police officers, including the Additional Director-General of Police (Crime). The Superintendent of Police in Kota received a letter from his superiors asking him to make an inquiry. He directed the Station House Officer at Bhimgajmandi, where the EMI is headquartered, to conduct an inquiry. The latter got hold of a copy, "studied" it and concluded that it contained inflammatory material. So on February 14, he filed an FIR.

So the EMI had two FIRs filed against it on the same day at two different police stations in Kota, with identical charges of trying to spread disharmony, which is an offence under the Indian Penal Code. The EMI premises in Kota were raided on the same day. Copies of the book were seized from the organisation's library and arrest warrants were issued against Archbishop M.A. Thomas, founder of the EMI, and his son Samuel Thomas.

Rakesh Pal Singh, Chief Investigating Officer in the case, said receipts showing the purchase of copies of the book were found during the raid. "It was clear that the book was bought, distributed and sold," he said. He also found the contents objectionable.

A police inquiry was now on into the EMI's role in distributing the book, but the attacks, which came soon after the raid, did not wait for its outcome. A group of people, allegedly members of the Bajrang Dal and the Shiv Sena, climbed the gate of the Emmanuel Mission School at Jhotwara and set fire to the cross on it. The buses of the mission's school in Kota were damaged. St. Paul's School in Kota was also attacked by some young men, who the police later said were Shiv Sainiks. On the night of February 26, they broke into the school and vandalised a statue of St. Paul. The police said that they were given a "good beating" before being released on bail, but the attacks continued. In Niwai in Tonk district, the manager of an EMI school and his wife were manhandled. In Taleda in adjoining Bundi district, a mission school was pelted with stones but the police prevented any further flare-ups; police sources in Bundi said the culprits were Bajrang Dal and Shiv Sena members. Two men in Kota announced a reward on Archbishop Thomas' head. They were arrested, but the Chief Investigating Officer dismissed the incident as a "non-event", likening it to the declaration by a Muslim cleric in the context of the Danish cartoons controversy.

The book was banned and on February 21 the Ministry of Social Welfare cancelled the registration of five societies run by the EMI. Their bank accounts were frozen, putting the Mission in a financial crisis. Five people, including the Mission's accountant, Samuel Thomas and the translator of Mathew's book, were arrested. Archbishop Thomas, whose whereabouts were not known, was declared an absconder.

There were indirect fallouts of the affair. Food and medical supplies to the orphanage and the hospital were disrupted, affecting 1,200 people, including children. The supplies were restored after political parties put pressure on the government; a CPI(M) team even visited the State from Kerala and Tamil Nadu.

This is not the first time that the EMI has been targeted. The police in Kota have never been able to prove charges of forcible conversions against the EMI or any minority organisation, but there have been allegations nonetheless. The district secretary of the CPI(M), R.K. Swami, and the president of the Kota Press Club, Pradyumna Kumar, said that every time there was an allegation of forcible conversion, the EMI opened up its activities for scrutiny.

There seems to be a pattern in the way in which these allegations are made and pursued. Lower-rung cadre of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad or the Shiv Sena, mostly unemployed men and belonging to the Scheduled Castes and backward castes, make the first noises. Then the Bajrang Dal picks up the issue. Ultimately, the Bharatiya Janata Party stands to gain as society gets polarised on communal lines.

Pradyumna Kumar thought vonversions of the kind alleged were unlikely in a prosperous place like Kota. Even the Sahariyas, the poorest community in the area, were dependent on the government, not on missionaries.

So what is it that the saffron brigade really has against the EMI? A lot of people in Kota think it could be the growing popularity and success of the Mission. Outfits owing allegiance to the Rashtriya Swyamsewak Sangh run some 30 schools in Kota and the success of the Mission's schools may not look like a good thing to them. So EMI-run schools, which are the most popular in Bundi, Kota and Jhalawar, become targets of attack.

Some people feel that the attacks were only a pretext to create a favourable atmosphere for the anti-conversion Bill. Legal experts of the PUCL say that the new piece of legislation will intimidate people who wish to convert as well as those who propagate the faith. Father Raymond Coelho, spokesperson of the Rajasthan Christian Fellowship, said that he had only noticed such attacks on the community in the past 10 years. In his mind, too, the recent attacks have a link with efforts to push the anti-conversion Bill through.

The Bill's Statement of Objects and Reasons says: "It has been observed by the State government that some religious and other institutions, bodies and individuals are found to be involved in unlawful conversion from one religion to another by allurement or by fraudulent means or forcibly.... In order to curb such illegal activities and to maintain harmony amongst persons of various religions, it has been considered expedient to enact a special law for the purpose." Clause (c ) defines conversion as the renouncing of one's "own" religion and adopting another; one's "own" religion is the religion of one's forefathers. Legal experts point to the partisan nature of the definition, which excludes re-conversions, significant in the context of the Ghar-Vaapsi programmes in Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh.

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