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Attack on Christians:
Dialogue, what dialogue, and with whom?
It is not a crisis between Hindus and Christians. It is a war that the fascism of the Sangh is waging against all of India’s minorities, the Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, as well as the Christians. The Sangh Parivar has a fascist ideology. To talk of a bilateral dialogue between Christians and the Parivar is to betray all of India’s minorities, its Dalits and its marginalized communities that are also victims of the Parivar..
‘We are attacked as a community, and we respond as a denomination,’ says John Dayal in this article which seeks to explain the motives behind the Sangh Parivar’s repeated suggestions for a dialogue between the church hierarchy and the Parivar.
The day after Atal Behari Vajpayee led his council of ministers at the swearing in ceremony at Rashtrapati Bhawan, there was considerable speculation about one minister among north Indian journalists gathered in Parliament’s Central Hall, the place where political foes meet in goodwill over a cup of tea, and gossip is generated which becomes reality the next day. The man under review was O Rajagopal. A North Indian journalist wondered why Vajpayee had broken his own rule about taking people who had lost the Lok Sabha elections. Several heavyweights of the BJP had had to cool their heals in the wilderness till they could be rehabilitated with dignity.
Rajagopal’s claim to a berth in the Council of ministers was that he alone was a senior enough BJP politician from Kerala, and the state had to be represented both in the council of ministers and in the checklist of the BJP which wanted at least one of its cadres in every ministry, as the top man or the second in command.
But political observers were not convinced if the loser had become a winner just for this reason. Sangh Parivar insiders then explained to the bewildered northerners just what
Rajagopal meant to the BJP. Rajagopal’s inclusion, they said, had promised that the Christian church would be ‘delivered’ to the BJP through his stronghold in Kerala.
For good or for bad, this is the impression that the BJP and the Sangh Parivar has of the Church in India. They firmly believe that Kerala is the soft underbelly of the Church, and whatever be the movements, currents or theological pursuits anyone else in the country may be following for the moment, he, she or they could always be brought to heel through the Kerala Church route. This understanding is part of the Sangh Parivar’s overall assessment and categorization of the Christian community in India. The North Eastern Christians, of Mongoloid stock and Baptist, Presbyterian and Catholic denominational adherence, have all been termed anti-national and supportive of violence and secessionist movements, to be politically denounced across the country. This is one reason why the BJP reacted with such violence recently to the revival of the Forum of Christian Members of parliament, whose convenorship is with MPs from the North East. There is no way the BJP can sit quiet if it feels that the 800-odd members of parliament are going to be sensitized on pro-Christian issues by these MPs of the North East.
The tribals of the larger Gondwana belt, from Rajasthan in the west to Bihar in the East, are not adivasis but vanavasis to the BJP, forest dwellers of a larger Hindu diaspora to be challenged for their current faith but be wooed constantly through the ‘ghar wapsi’ programmes as part of an aggressively spiralling co-option programme. The entire Vanvasi Kalyan Parishad, ekal school and sundry other programmes of the Parivar have been structured on this premise, and ironically, the fund collection programme for the tribal areas involves seeking donations from western Church-based organizations as much as from NRIs.
As far as the BJP is concerned, there are but few Christians in the north, living as the remnants of the British Raj in UP and Rajasthan; and even the few lakh Dalit Christians of Gurdaspur in Punjab can be neatly bracketed and ignored. The Christians of the Konkan belt encompassing Goa, Maharashtra (mostly Mumbai) and Karnataka are still to invite a close BJP study, with their strong linguistic cohesion, their apparent western mein, and yet their strong nationalistic tradition. After all, the movement against the Portuguese was initiated by Goan Catholics, long before the 1847 movement was a reality elsewhere in the country. The strong Christian communities of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh have invited the study of the Parivar, but are at present not part of its political programme, left to its allies in the Dravida groups to woo, a job that Karunanidhi is apparently doing with some success in Chennai.
The blatant manner in which Prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and the Sangh Parivar have rejected the Christian demand for Dalit Christians being given equal rights within their brethren from the Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist faiths, is also part of the Sangh’s attitude to the Dravida Dalit Christians. It is to be remembered that the Hindutva opposition to equal rights for Dalit Christian is not so much as to deny the Christians anything, or that it will be a big strain on the national exchequer), it is essentially a punitive measure to keep Dalits from wandering into Christianity [or Islam]. If they do, they lose whatever rights they have. In is locking the stable doors on an entire group deemed to be vassals, and correctly presumed to be ready to flee the caste stranglehold at the first opportunity. No one need misunderstand the Sangh’s attitude and thesis on this. They know very well that even after two hundred years of British Raj, there were not many conversions in the north, because of the harsh caste regime as well as for the presence of large intermediate castes, which acted as a buffer between the missionaries and the poor, preventing any large-scale conversions in two centuries. Dravida land was not so easily contained, and large numbers had indeed become Christians (and Muslims) in the past. Even the Hindutva elements in the Congress realized this, and brought forth the Presidential order of 1950 to check any more group movement.
The centre understands the Dalit Christian movement essentially as a Dravida Christian Dalit movement, outside of Kerala, even if major rallies are held in New Delhi. Incidentally, when Vajpayee and other Sangh leaders mocked at the Church hierarchy which called on them at various times during in 1998-2000, the reference was always to the caste system within the Church, an issue of some gravity only in Tamil Nadu.
The demography of the South, and electoral politics of Karnataka, Andhra and Tamil Nadu also ensures that the Christian cannot be easily wooed by a North India-based BJP. There are too many local and easily available opportunities, whether it is in Telugu Desam, Janata Party or the Dravida groups, on offer to Christians as an alternative to the Congress if they so desire, leaving them no reason to respond to the BJP’s warmest overtures.
Kerala is a different kettle of fish. To the Parivar, every parameter in Kerala seems to make the Malayalee Christian subject of much curiosity and interest for its think tanks and its socio-political strategists.
The first is the obvious one. The Malayalee religious, priest and nun, diocesan Catholic or Pentecost and evangelical missionary, seems to dominate the religious horizon. The Kerala diaspora permeates all parts of the country, every diocese, almost every parish.
The BJP believes that any success it scores with the Kerala Christians will therefore automatically become operative in the rest of the country. The wide variety of denominations available in the ancient Church in Kerala, many of them with their headquarters in the state, also makes its possible for the Parivar to play on theological, doctrinal or dogmatic fissure lines to get someone or the other on its side in any given controversy or political situation.
(As an interesting aside, it must be remembered that the BJP has successfully, if only for the time being, wooed the Shia community in Lucknow, after failing to make any dent in the Sunni solidarity after the Babri Masjid demolition. Progressive opinion within the Muslim community says that the BJP has sharpened the divide between the two sects, Sunnis and Shias, in Uttar Pradesh to suit its own politics).
The BJP is also looking at the electoral politics of Kerala, a state it has long sought to enter, in vain so far. After penetrating the Konkan community in the northern districts during the Emergency, and moving to the upper caste youth in the succeeding decades, the BJP realizes it has to grapple with the community and political equilibrium in the state. The two fronts, UDF led by the Communists and its rival led by the Congress, each have a strong base among the religious communities. Christians in a manner of speaking hold the balance of power in the state, and their support is crucial for a party to survive in the state.
Soon after Rajagopal was made a minister, newspapers, including some very friendly with the Sangh, wrote long articles on how wooing, and not confrontation, would be the new BJP mantra in Kerala. Rajagopal himself made it a point to respectfully call on venerable bishops, and offer his services to more down to earth missionaries. Working through small favours for petty problems - and several of the problems, including denial of visas to visiting missionaries were creation of the BJP government itself -- Rajagopal has been able to win a toehold in the community.
Rajagopal has a strong ally in National Commission for Minorities Christian member John Joseph. A Hyderabad-based Keralite, Joseph did a three-year term in the Commission as a nominee of PV Narasimha Rao. His first stint is remembered best for the delay in the Christian marriage laws coming up before Parliament. After a gap of three years, Joseph was again nominated, overruling the recommendations of the Church for a Dalit priest. No major church or group recommended him for nomination as a representative of the community. Joseph, an ever smiling middle aged man, is at pains to explain that he is not a BJP nominee but has been recommended by his good friend Chandrababu Naidu, the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh.
Joseph was a member of the NCM team, which visited a handful of places in western Uttar Pradesh, which had witnessed violence against convents, nuns and priests. The NCM found each one of the cases to be a mere act of crime, and ruled out any communal angle to the incidents. The clean chit to the Hindutva forces was hotly contested by the Church, by the victims and by human rights groups, including the United Christian Forum for Human Rights, the ecumenical Hyderabad-based All India Christian Council and the All India Catholic Union.
The nuns and priests who were the victims, each complained that the commission had used only small and convenient portions of their testimony to reach its conclusions, entirely disregarding the brunt of their witness of increasing communalism and threats in their respective areas. The nuns of Mathura spoke of their terror, and the residents of Kosi Kalan of how the assailants beat the priest to the mouth of death, and then nonchalantly drank and feasted on the Church lawns before making away with their booty, the priest still lying bleeding nearby. Another priest, from Haryana, gave a written statement saying that while he had indeed said the attack on two nuns by a scooterist could be an accident - a scrap of sentence used by the commission - he had also told Joseph and other members how a Cross was burnt, together with a Crescent, during the Dussehara Ravana fireworks. His full statement on rising communalism in Haryana was disregarded.
The prime minister himself led the attack on Church spokesmen, while his party’s official voice, Venkiah Naidu, singled me out for the honour of a personal attack in a full press conference at the party headquarters. The prime minister’s point was that one should not question the integrity of the National Commission for Minorities as it could have serious consequences. He also maintained there would be serious consequences if an impression went around abroad that Christians were not safe in India.
It is worth pointing out to the Prime minister that the best way to avoid such an impression gathering force is to make sure there is no violence, communal or bureaucratic, against the minorities and that there is an immediate end to the Sangh Parivar’s billion-dollar hate campaign against Indian Christians. It is also worthwhile reminding him that it was the Sangh Parivar which led the attack on the Minorities Commission when its then chairman, law professor Tahir Mehmood during 1999 slashed the BJP government for its anti-minority attitude.
But perhaps the Prime minister needs to be reminded, again, that it was he whose response after seeing with his own eyes the destruction of three dozen churches in the Dangs in 1998, was to call for an national debate on conversions. It is for him to introspect if he was callous towards the pain and tears of a minority community? His slogan was avidly picked up by his Parivar, and still resounds in most statements they make, whether at an academic seminar or at a street rally where they burn the effigy of Pope John Paul II for ‘abetting terrorism in Northeast.’
The Parivar, which has spawned a small-scale industry manufacturing anti-Christian literature, is not willing to look at objective truth, nor at statistics. It is of course incapable of understanding the nuances of human freedoms and constitutional guarantees.
To the Parivar, there is only one mantra. Stop Conversions, and everything will end. This is reflected in all their actions, and in all their moves.
When Law minister Ram Jethmalani responded to persistent community requests and said he would bring forward the Christian marriage Bill 2000, he did not publish the drafts that the community had given the government several times. He brought forth a draft reflecting the Sangh’s political and ideological compulsions. The draft took away the right of a partner to marry his or her Christian intended spouse in a Church ceremony. This was an ancient and established right in India, but Jethmalani’s draft took it away. When the church protested, the government sought to put the hierarchy against the women’s lobby, denomination against denomination. Its efforts did not succeed, but there is tangible fear that the government will press with its changes in the Marriage bill.
There are a few stray and innocent voices that have emerged saying there is no harm in a dialogue with the Sangh Parivar. After all, Christianity is all about dialogue, both within the church and outside.
Not many have understood what the Sangh means by a dialogue. It is not a seminar where BP Singhal of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad comes and makes a statement and a Christian representative makes a statement. Nor is it a television debate, which, irrespective of the result, is good publicity for the persons participating. Even in these debates on camera, Christian representatives have seen how the Parivar spokespersons keep on repeating the same old manufactured lies like a goebblesian zombie.
To the Sangh Parivar, a dialogue is a monologue in which it speaks its mind, and the other has to lump it. Whatever the other party says is not heard, and if heard, rejected to their face, and in very blunt language.
The Christian hierarchy knows it itself. At the height of the violence in December 1998, it agreed to a ‘dialogue’ held at the CBCI centre. The organizers of the dialogue were a Christian from the US and a bunch of persons representing the BJP and its wings in New York. Some local Christians were also roped in. BJP general secretary Narendra Modi came, accompanying KS Sudershan, then the main ideologue, and today the supremo of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh. They heard out the community and then spoke, briefly and bluntly, rejecting every thesis that was given of India’s plural heritage and the individual decision in a change of religion. They spoke with the arrogance of representing all Hindus, in India and in the world, and became quiet after it was pointed out that it was the majority Hindu vote that had kept the BVP from reaching a majority in parliament - that the average Hindu was against their communal thesis. The meeting ended with the organizers saying there would be more meetings in the future, but it was clear to us who participated that the Sangh Parivar was never interested in a dialogue. Dialogue and democracy are alien to the Parivar’s ideology. It has no scope for dialogue even within itself. There are no elections within the Sangh, nor any debate. It is an aadesh, an order, from the to which comes the holy word.
The Hindutva fascist thesis of One Nation, One People, One Culture is a xenophobic political ideology with roots in the Nazi-fascism of Europe of the early 1920s, and not a matter of religion, theological reflection and dialogue. The Parivar has targeted all minorities, Sikhs, Muslims, Buddhists and not just the Christians, by co-option (Buddhists and Sikhs) or violence (Muslims), and it can be countered only ideologically. If any single community, Sikh or Christian or Muslim, thinks it can reach a bilateral peace with the Sangh Parivar, it is only deceiving itself, and allowing the Parivar to buy time. The Sikhs have seen through this game, especially after the Sangh set up a new wing to carry on its subtle war on the Sikh faith, insisting it is only a sect of Hinduism. The Akali spectrum has come out against this, and the future predicts a growing protest in the Punjab against the Sangh. The Buddhists have long been victims of this cooption, and neo-Buddhists as well as Tibetans and others have had to go on record to say they do not see themselves as just a new variety of Hindus.
The Sangh is cleverly suing for dialogue with the Church hierarchy to stave off an international rebuke, which will affect international funding, and have other repercussions for the cosmopolitan image that the Parivar is now trying to project internationally through its spokesmen in the Indian diaspora.. If they are sincere, the government and the BJP should give up their hate and seek a national dialogue and forgiveness from all communities, not just Christians, and discuss steps to further strengthen the freedom to profess, practice and propagate one’s religion, rights that were won in the dialogue that the Constituent assembly had, and whose results are amply reflected in Articles 25 and 30 of the Constitution.