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Source: The Hindu, 9 November 1999

Conversions and the Sangh Parivar
By Sumit Sarkar

THE SANGH Parivar has a rare ability to turn absurdities into what often threaten to become widespread commonsense. Today, with Ayodhya for the moment allegedly on the backburner, Christian conversion and the demand for an apology from the Pope for Inquisition atrocities are being sought to be made into key national issues. Meanwhile, the BJP and the Government it leads officially ``welcomesíí the Pope, but at the same time talks about the need for a ``national debateíí on conversions and does nothing to seriously curb the anti-Christian campaign by other Parivar affiliates like the VHP. The ground for the Ramjanambhumi agitation had been prepared in a similar manner by the VHP for years, before the BJP formally took it up. Already in Gujarat, where the BJP is solely in power, a bill has been circulated to punish conversion through (a very vaguely-defined) ``allurementíí by a minimum of three years in jail.

What is worrying is the way terms of discourse and commonsensical everyday assumptions are getting moulded, as had happened during the Ayodhya agitation. Many even among those who expressed indignation at the Staines murder thought it necessary to say at the same time that the doctor had not been indulging in conversions: as if it would have been somehow less terrible if a missionary proselytiser had been burnt alive with his sons. Conversion, again, is always assumed to be Christian (or, in different contexts, Islamic or any other non-Hindu) conversion. The systematic work of the VHP ever since its foundation in 1964 to spread high-Hindu practices and norms among adivasis is never acknowledged as conversion, but described by terms like shuddhi (purification), `reconversioní, or paravartan (turning back). The implicit assumption behind the use or acceptance of such terms is that being a Hindu is somehow the ``naturalíí condition of any Indian. Discursively, therefore, we are already perilously close to Hindu Rashtra. And ``Hinduíí, as defined by the Sangh Parivar, is obviously worlds removed from the devotion of a Ramakrishna for whom the difference between Ishwar, Allah and God mattered as little as that between jal, pani and water.

The surprisingly apologetic tone about conversions, even among many critics of the anti-Christian campaign, makes necessary the restatement of some things which should be obvious. Conversion in the sense of voluntary change of religion is not just a logical corollary of the Article 25 clause about the fundamental right to ``preach, practise and propagateíí religion (why else should anyone seek to ``propagateíí?). Freedom of conscience surely includes the right to change oneís views about religion, and a curbing of that right can lead to restrictions on freedom of choice in general, with dominant groups dictating what one can think or do in politics, artistic tastes, dress, ways of life. Conversely, conversion by force or fraud is equally reprehensible, and one fails to see the need for any ``national debateíí about it. Given the current political and administrative situation in a country where even Dara Singh can roam around freely, it should be obvious that groups like the VHP are far more likely to indulge in such methods. There is ample evidence, notably from Gujarat, that forcible or fraudulent Hindu conversions are in fact going on on a significant scale in adivasi areas (see, for instance, the Citizens Committee Report on Incidents in Dang District, Delhi, 1999).

The total implausibility of forcible Christian conversion in todayís India makes necessary a constant harping on Inquisition atrocities centuries ago. This extends to Christians the old Sangh Parivar strategy of branding all Muslims as `Babar-ki-auladí. All modern political movements deploy `historyí to enhance legitimacy and more. It needs to be emphasised, however, that `historyí is vital for the Hindutva project on a qualitatively higher scale: hence history text-books and funding bodies have always been the first target of saffronising drives whenever the Sangh Parivar has got into the corridors of power. Other 20th Century trends have also sought to link up with and/or construct heritages. But they have all been rooted fundamentally in contemporary conditions and contradictions: colonial domination, class, caste and gender oppression, environmental depredation. Hindutva in this respect has been always marked by significantly greater gaps and displacements. Thus a foundation-text of the movement, Savarkarís Hindutva/ Who is a Hindu (1923), written just a few years after Jallianwallabagh and the massive Hindu-Muslim unity of the Non-Cooperation-Khilafat movement, managed the remarkable feat of virtual silence about British rule through turning the edge of an admittedly-powerful and seemingly nationalist rhetoric entirely against medieval `Muslimí invaders and oppressors. The gap widened even more once Muslim communalism ceased to be a major political tendency after 1947 in the Indian part of the sub-continent.

Two inter-related questions arise here. Why target Christians, then, and how is the campaign attaining some plausibility?

Christians, as a small and electorally insignificant minority in most parts of the country, are in the first place a conveniently safe target under conditions of coalition government. Adverse foreign reactions have so far been kept within limits by the new strategy of, not big riots, but everyday petty humiliation of Christians in many parts of the country, interspersed with occasional gross acts of violence against individuals. Attacking them helps to keep the wilder elements within the Sangh Parivar both satisfied and in good fighting trim for future, more aggressive phases. Perhaps more important, Christians represent a convenient and not entirely implausible surrogate for `swadeshií at a time when BJP-led Union governments have speeded up the opening-up of the country to multinationals.

Like any major tradition, Christian history has its share of horrors and scandals: these would certainly include the Inquisition, close collaboration often with colonial projects, and numerous instances of crude cultural arrogance and Eurocentrism. It remains an elementary fallacy to hold todayís Christians (or Muslims) responsible for atrocities committed by some of their co-religionists centuries back. This becomes particularly absurd with the Inquisition, which had always had its edge primarily directed against fellow Christians (dissident Catholics, Protestant `hereticsí), and which in India could only have been a very marginal phenomenon, being confined to a few Portuguese ruled enclaves. The diversities within Christian (like many other) traditions must be kept in mind. Dissident readings of Christianity have been central to innumerable movements of the oppressed. The extent of missionary complicity with colonialism in India has also been much exaggerated and simplified. Early Company rulers like Hastings and Cornwallis, far from encouraging missionaries, often developed close collaborative relations with orthodox Brahman literati, and the Baptist mission had to set up its first outpost in Serampur, then outside British Bengal. Later, too, there have been many missionary critics of colonial policies. Above all, at the other end of the social scale, recent historical research is increasingly highlighting the extent to which sustained Christian philanthropic and educational work have had an empowering impact on significant sections of adivasis, dalits and poor and subordinated groups in general.

Such small gains in the direction of greater social justice may have been earlier the largely unintended fall-out of Christian proselytisation efforts, often among the very many who did not convert, but still found missions a helpful resource for their own upliftment. Today, with the churches clearly changing in quite striking ways, there is ample evidence of far greater awareness of such issues among manyó though of course very far from allóChristian activists in India. And perhaps it is precisely these aspects that arouse the greatest anger and fear among adherents of Hindutva. Certainly Arun Shourieís widely- circulated anti-Christian tirade, Missionaries in India (1994), is very clear on this point. It begins, and ends, with a violent denunciation of the ways in which the Church today ``spurred by the new `liberation theology,í is spurring movements among so-called `dalitsíííómovements which he fears ``would certainly disrupt Hindu society.íí

(The writer is Professor of Modern Indian History, University of Delhi.)

Blame it on the Sangh!

But no evidence of role in attacks on Christians

By K. Jana Krishnamurthi
BJP Today feb99

THE columns of the Bharatiya Janata Party's official organ are not
generally open to matters related to religion and religious institutions.
But unfortunately during the past three months or so a few incidents have
taken place in Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Orissa which have been blown
out of proportion so as to make it appear that assaults on Christians,
Christian church and Christian evangelists are being systematically
carried out by the Bajrang Dal and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and,
therefore, the Home Minister, Shri L.K. Advani, should resign and the
BJP-led Union Government should go.

Strangely, the foreign Press, too, which is generally indifferent toward
India, has gone in for adverse comments on these incidents. In our own
country, many from Opposition parties and media persons have gone all out
to attack what they call the "Sangh Parivar". It is in this context that
this article finds a place in this issue.

Now, let us see what happened in these three States of Madhya Pradesh,
Gujarat and Orissa. In Madhya Pradesh, four Christian nuns were
gang-raped. This crime is unpardonable and must be dealt with very
seriously through due process of law. As the Union Home Minister stated,
this incident caused a revulsion in him. Indeed, everyone reacted in the
same manner.

But, as has been the practice earlier, some of our opponents started
abusing organisations like the VHP and the Sangh Parivar, alleging that
these organisations are responsible for this dastardly act. The State
Government, which is run by the Congress, after due enquiry, submitted a
report to the Union Home Ministry, saying that no organisation or
institution had anything to do with this heinous act. The State Government
also provided a list of accused, pointing out that of the 22 persons
arrested in connection with the crime, 12 were Christians. This report of
the Madhya Pradesh Government was quoted in Parliament by the Home
Minister and released to the Press, too. Thus, it will be seen that none
of the organisations which was alleged to be behind this attack on the
nuns had anything to do with it.

In Gujarat, the incidents took place in two tribal districts. Two senior
Sarvodaya leaders and noted Gandhians, Shri Ghelubhai Nayak and Shri
Chinnibai Vaidhya, who have been working in this area since 1948 at the
instructions of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and have nothing to do with the
RSS or any of the Parivar organisations, have come out clearly that
whatever happened in these districts was the outcome of efforts made by
Christians to proselytise the tribals. According to these two Gandhians,
some of the Christian missionaries were using 'unethical means' to achieve
their end.

They have also stated, "During the last five years nearly two dozen idols
of Lord Shiva and Hanuman revered by all tribals have been desecrated or
broken. The ancient beliefs of the tribals have been mocked at openly and
every effort has been done to browbeat and harass them into submission".
No one was murdered. A few sustained injuries and two temples and two or
three thatched prayer halls were damaged. The State Government acted
promptly and arrested about 20 Christians and 30 Hindus. The cases will go
before the courts and persons found guilty will be punished through due
process of law. The Prime Minister visited the affected places and heard
both sides and then assured safety and security to every citizen. He also
called for a debate on conversions.

The third incident took place in Orissa. One Australian missionary and his
two young sons were burnt alive along with the van in which they were
sleeping. The entire nation condemned it. While in the Gujarat incidents
our opponents and critics attacked the Gujarat Government-a BJP-ruled
state - and demanded its dismissal, in Orissa, a Congress-ruled State
where three precious lives were lost, the parties which had demanded the
dismissal of the Gujarat Government did not make a similar demand to sack
the Orissa Government. The reason is simple. In Gujarat, the BJP is in
power while Orissa has a Congress Government.

The Central Government has set up a Judicial Commission of Inquiry, headed
by a sitting judge of the Supreme Court, to inquire into the Orissa
incident and submit its report within two months. No partisan attitude can
be attributed, especially when the matter is being inquired into by a
sitting judge of the highest court of the land and appointed by the Chief
Justice himself.

Thus, it will be seen that in all these three incidents there is not so
far an iota of evidence to prove that they were a pre-planned effort of
any organisation. Therefore, no accusing finger can be pointed against the
Vishwa Hindu Parishad or the Bajrang Dal or, for that matter, any other

There cannot be any two opinions with regard to such incidents of
violence. They should not have taken place at all and whoever is
responsible for them should be apprehended and severely punished according
to the law.

These being the facts, one fails to understand how could some people have
appealed to the UNO, the US President, the Pope and such others. Here are
a few isolated incidents and the Governments concerned are already taking
speedy action to see that the culprits are punished and to present the
recurrence of such incidents.

Yet, many ambassadors from Western countries have met either the Prime
Minister or the Home Minister to convey their protests and apprehensions
about safety of Christians. More than that, the Western Press, which
generally does not find it fit to publish anything regarding India, has
come forward to focus on these incidents, colourfully embellishing them
and mounting an attack on the present Government of India. As reported in
an English daily published from Delhi, "there has been an avalanche of
adverse publicity for India with searching headlines portraying trouble in
Gujarat as some kind of a national witch-hunt against the (Christian)
community"... "That Hindus are on some kind of an anti-missionary crusade
is the refrain in all reports".

According to The Pioneer, the exaggerated headlines scream, "Christians
bow to Hindu violence" (Australian) "Christians claim Hindu Nationalists
intolerant" (Hongkong Standard) "Christians targeted in Hindu Hate
Campaign" (The Daily Telegraph), "Catholic Hall set on fire' (The New York
Times) "Hindu Mobs Attack Churches in India" (Financial Times). The Buenos
Aires Herald wrote "... and dozens of churches (were) destroyed in the
Western Indian state of Gujarat".

On the other hand, look at what is happening in Indonesia. Here in India
not even a single church has been demolished anywhere. Two or three
thatched prayer halls have been damaged in two tribal districts of
Gujarat. Newsweek magazine in its January 21, 1999 issue has quoted a
Roman Catholic priest in Jakarta as saying that in 1998 alone more than
200 churches were burnt in Indonesia. Has this been taken up by the
foreign Press in the manner in which the stray incidents that occurred in
India have been commented upon?

Why should the Western Press go in for slanted versions of these
incidents? What is the purpose they want to achieve? Do they want to
create an impression that Christians cannot live in India with their
religious freedom assured, that the present BJP-led Government is
indifferent to such attacks on Christians by the so-called "Hindu
fundamentalists", that the Christians are facing such problems because of
the present BJP-led Government? What is the motive behind such screaming

The only conclusion to which any impartial observer can come to is that
these biased Western papers would like to engineer the wrath of Christians
in various countries towards the BJP-led Central Government of India. Can
it not be construed that an atmosphere is being created so as to deprive
India of any help from these countries which may be one form of trying to
destabilise India?

This hue and cry in the Western Press is echoed in the views of many
politicians, political analysts and commentators in India. Do they
honestly believe that such attacks on our country will do any good for
India? It is one thing to attack your own Government for political
purposes, but altogether different to allow foreigners to dabble in
matters that come exclusively under the internal affairs of the country.

Further, does it fit in a democratic set-up where both in law and in
practice an accused, even if he is charged with committing the gravest of
crimes, does not get punished except through due process of law? How far
is it correct and in tune with rendition of justice in a democracy where
the rule of law is supreme, that an individual or an institution gets
punished and hanged by the Press and political leaders even before a
judicial trial takes place? Does it fit in with high journalistic or
political ethics?

The RSS has been banned thrice and every time the Government had to eat
dust as it had to lift the ban. In all these 50 years there have been many
communal clashes for which the BJS, RSS and later the BJP have been
accused. Yet, there is not a single instance when anyone belonging to
these organisations has been arrested, charged, brought before court and
punished by the courts.

Take all these incidents. Every one of them has taken place in a tribal
area. Why not in other places? Anybody who has studied tribal society
would know that they have their own customs, manners, tradition, etc. They
zealously guard these. They do not allow anyone to interfere in them. I
request all those who study these stray incidents to keep this attitude of
tribal society in mind and find out the real reason for the violence.

Christianity and Islam have prospered in India because of our commitment
to 'Sarva Pantha Samabhav'. Secularism, or 'Sarva Panth Samabhav', lies at
the core of Hindutva. Take this away and Hindu society loses its
sustenance. No Hindu organisation can or will ever bear ill will towards
any religion, especially against Christianity. Even as Hindu society
considers and respects all ways of worship, so also it expects that Hindu
society will be respected in the country of its origin. How can a Hindu
feel respected if he is called and treated as a heathen or kafir? Our
Muslim and Christian brethren should deeply ponder over this.


On Dialogue
Wadhwa Commission
The evil in our midst
Truth Behind Forcible Conversions
Alternate accent
Bjp View
Without Conversion
Right to preach
Cast, not cash
NCM report
Towards Hindu Nation
Orissa Killing
Dhara Singh
RSS media on Christians
Index of Attacks

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Last updated: February 23, 2000 .