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April 1, 1999


E-Mail this column to a friend Varsha Bhosle

Old habits die hard

One is most confused. Actually, one has been confused since quite a while now. First there was the atrocious bit in Gujarat, then the outrageous bit in MP, then the ghastly bit in Orissa, and all of it, of course, pointed to a charted effort by the Sangh Parivar against a hapless minority. QED. But then, the contradictory pieces began to trickle in from the vernacular papers: About priests involved in land-grab; exhumations and murders which never were; contravention of Article 25 (1) by missionaries; the beating up of conversion-resisting tribals; desecrations of Hindu idols; a forced exodus of non-Christians...

None of which items were/are investigated or debated or published by the "mainstream" media. Instead, there's only more of the uneven coverage: Inconvenient details are systematically ignored; there is no retraction of bogus "news"; and there's the hard sell of an angelic Christendom suffering under a barbaric Hindutva. That there is, heavens! unanimity within the English-language media, makes me uncomfortable: At the editorial level, this kind of consensus can only be an engineered one -- here and abroad...

In The New York Times of March 23, under the title "Shiva vs Jesus: Hindus Burn Homes of Christians", Celia W Dugger wrote fervently about the arson at Ranalai, Orissa. Ms Dugger had investigated the case so thoroughly that she datelined her report "Analai". Excerpt:

"The dispute began on the night of March 8. Someone climbed Kharam Hill carrying a bucket of whitewash and turned the Christian cross [painted on a large boulder] into a trident, symbol of the Hindu god Shiva, by painting a horn on each end of the horizontal bar.

"The next day village elders formed a peace committee of six Christians and six Hindus to resolve the problem. They met under a mango tree in front of the small schoolhouse and agreed they would let the cross be slowly cleaned by rain. The Christians would no longer give it a fresh coat of whitewash.

"But the morning of March 13, villagers awoke to find that someone had washed away the horns that had made the cross a trident. Tensions festered for two days. Then on March 15, Christians called the local police to report the problem. Three police officials came to the village that day and another peace committee meeting was held.

"This time the Christians -- 200 to 250 households -- and the Hindus -- about 50 households -- agreed that Hindus would whitewash the boulder, obliterating both symbols.

"As evening fell and the meeting ended, men from the two communities shook hands. The police, confident of a successful resolution, did not call for reinforcements. Late the next morning, about 150 Hindus gathered at the boulder, whitewashed it and then came back down to the village through the sultry, hazy heat.

"The police say someone threw a rock that hit a Hindu on the forehead. Rumors of attack began to spread. Sanjeev Marik, the divisional police chief, said events cascaded out of control. The Christians say they believe that what happened next was planned in advance.

"Rocks began to fly. People were screaming and yelling. Some Hindus pulled out homemade guns and shot three Christians in their legs. Drawn by the hullabaloo, Hindus from nearby villages began converging on Ranalai. Kamison Karado, a Christian villager, said he saw Hindus pouring gasoline on the thatched rooftops of Christian homes, then throwing matches. They shouted, 'Victory to Lord Ram!' another Hindu god."

Very nice. But, since when is Shiva associated with horns...? Horns can be keratinised outgrowths or antlers or bird crests or sound-making instruments or drinking-vessels or arms of waterways or the crescent moon's extremities. A trident has PRONGS. For instance, a prong-horn is an antelope with pronged horns -- the words aren't synonymous. And Ms Dugger -- a nominated finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in journalism -- would most certainly know the difference...

Is that mere semantics? But what if it isn't? Picture it: one, single, vertical prong on each end of the horizontal crossbar... Why wasn't there a third "horn" on the vertical bar...? And if a trident-head was painted horizontally along the bar, why would it have only one "horn"? What if there were, indeed, horns drawn on the cross? Did the local Hindus validate the artwork? All that Indian newspapers mention is "desecrated" or "vandalised" -- and not a word about Shiva... But never mind, let's give the celebrated scribe the dubious benefit of the doubt...

The next thing that struck me was: How come there were 200-250 Christian households against the 50 Hindu? The dorks on Rediff had taken great pains to establish that the Christian population of India has fallen... So I did what I do third-best: burn the midnight oil on statistics. However, before I reel those off, let me set this down: The last India census was in 1991. Christian evangelism in India went full-throttle in 1990 -- when the Vatican's Evangelisation 2000 project took off. Today is a decade thence. And when the next census results will be published -- in 2001 -- you're in for some jolly surprises.

The following figures have been declared by the Census Commissioner of India. The last religion-based statistics were published in Census of India 1991, Paper 1 of 1995, overseen by Dr M Vijayanunni; those exclude Jammu & Kashmir and, in some cases, Assam. These stats are included in the database of the US Bureau of the Census. The Christian headcount:

  • 1961: 10,728,086
  • 1971: 14,225,045
  • 1981: 16,165,447
  • 1991: 19,640,284
The decadal *growth* rate figures of 1981-91:
  • Buddhists: 35.98 %
  • Muslims: 32.76 %
  • Hindus: 22.78 %
  • Christians: 16.89 %
  • Jains: 4.42 %
Did someone say the Christian population had fallen...? And there's another interesting detail which I laud the VHP for noticing: The org recently demanded that converted Christians must use, well, Christian-sounding names. Seems wacko, on the surface of it. The reality is, there has been conversion to Christianity of lower castes and tribals on an extremely large scale -- and these people use their Hindu names to register themselves as *only* SC/ST/OBCs. The next census already stands screwed...

Back to Ms Dugger, back to Ranalai, and back to further bafflement: Tell me, why did tensions fester *after* the "villagers awoke to find that someone had washed away the horns that had made the "cross a trident"? Had the Christians developed a devout attachment for the horned trident...?

Next, if the perpetrator painted the horns using "a bucket of whitewash," and since "the Christians would no longer give [the cross] a fresh coat of whitewash" -- which colour was the cross and which colour were the horns??? Infrared technology...?

Then, the Hindus agreed that they'd whitewash the boulder, "obliterating both symbols." Eh? But hadn't tensions previously festered because there were no horns on the cross anymore...? And then, the Hindus whitewashed the horns off the boulder! What's this, THE MAD HATTER'S TEA PARTY?!

Well, this is what it is: On March 19, Ms Dugger had written another article in NYT, under a three-column headline "157 Homes Burned in Religious Clash in India" datelined Bhubaneswar. After ruing the Staines murders (which occurred in Kachisahi), she added: "Christian villagers interviewed by television reporters blamed Hindus, who they said shouted 'Victory to Lord Ram,' a Hindu god, as they set the fires... Officials said tensions in the village... developed after someone painted a trident, symbol of the Hindu god Shiva, over a Christian cross on a boulder..."

Tch, tch, tch... the Pulitzer nominee shouldn't have datelined her subsequent story, er... Analai. Nice touch that, about the mango tree and hazy heat, though...

Naturally, Ms Dugger would find the correct bottom-line: "Church officials and opposition political parties say the problem has worsened since the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party became the head of a national coalition government a year ago... The state police blamed a mob that they said was led by a man from the Bajrang Dal, a Hindu nationalist youth group that belongs to the same family of Hindu nationalist organisations as the Bharatiya Janata Party."

Oh how silly of me. I forgot, Ms Dugger's an old hand at Hindu nationalist orgs. Here she is in the NYT on August 30, 1998: "The crusade for a temple to Ram here in Ayodhya on the very place where the mosque once stood has been central to the political ascendancy of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, which now leads the Indian government. And it has posed one of the gravest challenges ever to modern India's 50-year tradition as a secular nation committed to treating people of all faiths justly."

Question: What occasion warranted a long, six-years-later piece on Ram Janmabhoomi when even its "anniversary" was 4 months away? Have you heard the term "agent provocateur"...?

Ms Dugger writes: "Indian government officials said there have been 238 registered attacks on Christians in the last 20 years, 60 of them in Orissa. The number of attacks on Christians in India rose to 86 last year from seven the year before."

Well, what I'd like to know is, who are all these "officials" weaving in and out of her stories? From which government agency? Or is this too, like the "Victory to Lord Ram," via another agency like Murdoch's telebaby or an in-house source like Tunka Varadarajan...?

What kind of journalist is this Celia W Dugger? Hmmm... I found one pointer in the archives of FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting), a media watch group that scrutinises media practices. It is an open letter to NYT -- from 1991:

"My name is Renita Steeley; I am the 'vacationing' homeless woman in the story, 'Families Seek Out Shelters As Route to Better Homes'. I do not remember saying that I considered my stay at a city shelter a 'little vacation'... my words have been twisted to support Ms Dugger's preconceptions about homeless people... I know that Ms Dugger spoke to many people, including my neighbor who slept in Penn Station for a week while pregnant with her child. Why didn't she print that?... I want to set the record straight here and now because Ms Dugger's carelessness has cost me my credibility here at the shelter. Suddenly I am the enemy, not because of anything I did or said, but because a young reporter needed to twist my words to support inaccurate and unfair allegations. I think Ms Dugger came here to find things she thought to be true..."

Old habits die hard...

Tailpiece: The fact-finding team of the National Commission for Minorities has held the Hindu nationalist BJP responsible for the Ranalai incident. It has dismissed CM Giridhar Gamang's and the police's statements on the first stone being cast at a Hindu. It, naturally, believes the villagers -- the Christian majority -- of whom "none had seen how he was injured."

So what else is new? Nothing. Except this: Now that Hindus are eligible to receive a minority status in six states, and since "secularists" have doubled their efforts to ensure that we receive the benefit at the national level, along with a Bawa Singh and a James Massey and a Tahir Mahmood, may we, pretty please, have a self-respecting Hindu in the NCM to investigate areas where Hindus are a minority...?

Varsha Bhosle

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