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January 18, 1999


E-Mail this story to a friend Vir Sanghvi

A case for conversion

Why have those of us who pride ourselves on our secular instincts been so slow to react to the violence against the Christian community? Christians have been complaining of attacks for four months now. And yet, it is only recently that we have paid any attention to their complaints.

There are two answers to this question. The first is the pat response. The attacks struck us as being isolated instances and it wasn't till sections of the extended Sangh Parivar stepped up the pace of assaults in the aftermath of the assembly election that we realised that there was a pattern or a conspiracy behind the attacks.

But there is also a second, deeper answer to the question. To see the attacks as part of a campaign against Christians would be to miss the point. Of course, Indian Christians are the ultimate target but as of now, the campaign has been packaged not so much as an anti-Christian movement but as a campaign against foreign missionaries who engaged in conversions.

This is why it has failed to generate the kind of secular outrage that it should have. Because the truth is that most Hindus, no matter how secular, are ambivalent about missionaries and hostile to the concept of conversions.

Our relationship with Christian missionaries is the most complex. Many of us have been educated at convent and Jesuit schools and continue to send our children to such schools. But, at some subliminal level, we resent the fact that such schools require children to sing Christian hymns, say Christian prayers and -- at least in the case of the Jesus school I attended as a child -- make the sign of the cross every morning.

We resent also that many such schools (again judging by my own experience) refuse to seriously entertain the possibility that Jesus Christ's way is not the only one or to confer Indian faiths with any respect. Some even require children to spend their lunch breaks raising money for missionary activities.

For many years, the Indian middle class -- both Hindu and Muslim -- has coped uneasily with the more Christian aspects of education such schools provide. A friend of mine, the daughter of a prominent (and entirely secular) Bharatiya Janata Party leader recalls going to a temple when she was a child. "Beti, prarthana karo (daughter, say your prayers)," said the pujari . At this, the poor girl launched into the only prayer she knew: "Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name..." Needless to say, there were embarrassed faces all around.

But even those Hindus who have minded the overtly Christian nature of education have not dared withdraw their children because they know that, whatever their drawbacks, such schools provide an education that is generally superior to that offered elsewhere. And once you choose to let your children remain in a Jesuit or a convent school, then you lose the right to complain. (In my own case, my father withdrew me after two years when he wearied of my making the sign of the cross each time I was upset and objected to my saying "Amen" at the end of every sentence).

Nevertheless, though Hindus accept that those who voluntarily choose to send their kids to such schools must accept the whole package (hymns and all), they remain resentful. This is why Kalyan Singh touched a chord in the heart of a many parents when he asked whether Muslims who objected to Vande Mataram would now withdraw their children from Catholic schools as well.

When it comes to conversions, Hindus are even more resentful. Try arguing with any secular Hindu about conversions and after five minutes of political correctness, you end up against a stone wall. Try explaining that our Constitution guarantees freedom of religion and that this must include the right to preach your faith as well as the right to change your religion, and you will get nowhere. Point out that most liberal democracies -- including Christian countries -- allow conversions, and you will be met with disbelief. Explain that nobody in England penalised the mullahs who converted Cat Stevens to Islam or that the US allows the Hare Krishna movement to convert Christians at will, and these examples will be dismissed as being of no consequence.

Worse still, such is the arrogance of most Hindus that we seem to actually believe that no Hindu ever converts of his own volition. The conversions, we decide, are either forcible or achieved through inducements. The reality is that there are many people at the margins of Hindu society -- dalits, tribals, lower castes and so on -- who have no reason to cling to a faith that oppresses them. But even when such persons convert, this is seen as a conspiracy by fiendish foreign missionaries.

(One measure of the resentment was available when dalit Christians asked for reservations. Almost to a man Hindu society jumped up and blew a raspberry in their direction. "Now that you've converted, why should you get the benefits we give our dalits?" was the refrain. When the hapless Christian pointed out that there was caste prejudice within the Christian community, the Hindu delight was palpable: "Serves you right! Serves you right! And you thought you'd be better off! Ha!")

The brilliance of the Sangh Parivar's campaign is that it taps into these Hindu resentments. If the Parivar said that it wanted to beat up poor Mr Gomes down the road because he was a Christian, most Hindus would be outraged. Instead it says: we are targeting Father Fat Cat and the foreign funds he uses for conversion. And while Hindus do not exactly cheer the Parivar along, they are less outraged.

The modus operandi is familiar. The Parivar pulled exactly the same routine during the Ayodhya agitation. The attack was directed at the Muslim leaderships which refused to abandon a discussed mosque even though it marked the birthplace of Lord Rama. Why, asked the likes of L K Advani, should Muslims bother to compromise when they have been so pampered by the secular establishment? The Shahi Imam wants the Shah Bano judgment reversed; he gets his way. Syed Shahbuddin wants The Satanic Verses banned; he gets his way.

If the attack had been framed in terms of ordinary Muslim, it would have been less attractive. Had the Parivar said it was targeting Ali, the peon in your office, Hindus would have had nothing to get agitated about. But once the attack tapped into existing resentments and targeted Shahbuddin and the Shahi Imam, it found many supporters.

Of course, as the Ayodhya agitation demonstrated, once the movement gets under way, it is never the ostensible targets who get hurt. The Shahi Imam is as well off today as he was 10 years ago. It is poor Ali the peon whose house has been burnt. And with relations between the communities set back 20 years, Hindus have suffered nearly as much as Muslims.

The anti-Christian agitation will probably go the same way. Father Fat Cat will take a plane out. Poor Mr Gomes will get stabbed. If we are to avoid a repetition of the trauma of the Ram movement, then three things are necessary.

One: Hindus must recognise that their resentments against missionaries and conversions are basically irrational. Two: Indian Christians should not be carried away into making common cause with foreign missionaries. And three: the State must act to nip the violence in the bud.

Otherwise, we can expect more Toyota raths, more madness, more mayhem and more murder.

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