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January 5, 1999


Veteran Gandhians demand ban on conversions

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The controversy over the recent communal clashes in the tribal Dangs district of south Gujarat took a new turn today with two veteran Gandhians describing the incidents as a "reaction to conversion" and demanding an immediate ban on proselytising.

Sarvodaya leaders Ghelubhai Nayak and Chunnibhai Vaidya will submit a memorandum to this effect to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee during his proposed visit to Ahwa, the Dangs district headquarters, in the next few days.

A meeting of Sarvodaya leaders at Savarkundla, Amreli district, yesterday, authorised Vaidya to take the lead in the matter.

At his Dang Swaraj Ashram in Ahwa, Nayak said even Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, independent India's first home minister, had suspected that Christian missionaries would create problems in the area and so sent him (Nayak) and his brother Chhotubhai to start social work there in 1948.

In Ahmedabad, Vaidya said Dada Dharmadhikari, a member of the Constituent Assembly, had proposed a constitutional ban on conversions. But some others opposed it, saying it would make re-conversion difficult. "It is due to this failure to ban conversions that re-conversion is now taking place in the Dangs, which has sparked off the recent clashes," he said.

Vaidya, 82, who spent 12 years in the North-East at Acharya Vinoba Bhave's instance in the 1960s and 1970s, said some of the missionaries are using "unethical means" to achieve their ends.

He cited the infiltration of a missionary into the Sabarmati Ashram, Ahmedabad, carrying a book titled Gandhiji's Favourite Bhajans which had no Gandhian reference except on its cover page, and contained only Christian psalms.

According to Nayak, some missionaries even tried to induce him and his associates to embrace Christianity. "But when we rebuffed their overtures, they tried to evict us from the house where our office was located in the Missionpada area at Ahwa."

Vaidya, a staunch opponent of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and its offshoots, said Sarvodaya leaders, including Narayan Desai, son of Gandhi's private secretary Mahadev Desai, had condemned all sorts of violence in the name of religion and expressed concern over the developments in south Gujarat. They too had favoured a ban on conversions. Gandhi too had always opposed conversions.

Quoting from Vinoba Bhave's book on the subject, he said the Bhoodan leader had held that a ban on conversion would not militate against secularism. "Conversion is wrong as it concentrates on increase in numbers, not religiousness, which cannot please the founders of the great religions," he had argued.

Until 1950, according to Nayak, who has spent the last 50 years in the Dangs, the missionaries did not succeed in enrolling new recruits to their faith. Then they brought in 500 Christians from other places to settle in the area, in a bid to create an "atmosphere" for conversion.

But even that did not succeed as, by now, Gandhians and Sarvodaya leaders were leading the 12-year-long movement for inclusion of the Dangs in the proposed Gujarat state instead of keeping it in Maharashtra. These repeated failures then led some of the missionary groups to take to "unethical means and even cheating" in their attempts to convert the people.

The 75-year-old Gandhian said it was because of these "unholy" tactics that he and his associates wrote several letters to the then Congress governments, warning them of the shape of things to come and urging them to ban conversions. "But no one listened to our pleas due to vote-bank politics. The missionary schools even punished their students for wearing the Gandhi cap."

Pointing out that the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and its associates hardly have a presence in the tribal-dominated district, Nayak said the incidents since Christmas are not the beginning of the problem, but its climax.

As a result of the sustained efforts of some missionaries, Nayak said, the district, which had just 500 Christians brought in from outside in the 1950s, now has nearly 40,000 Christians. In most cases, half the family members remain animists while the converts try to impose their newly acquired beliefs and culture on them, leading to fights. "They are now fighting even on whether to bury or cremate the dead in their families," he said.

Regretting the 'telephone journalism' of a section of the press, which, he said, had worsened the problem with its one-sided reports, Nayak said the reality in the district warrants an immediate ban on conversions.

While condemning the violence since December 25, he charged the missionaries with inciting the non-converts. "In the last five years, nearly two dozen idols of Shiva and Hanuman, revered by the tribals, have been desecrated in the district and their ancient beliefs have been mocked at openly to browbeat and harass them into submission," he said.

But the December 25 incident was rooted in the alleged attempts of some missionaries in November to force a nephew of an ex-king of the Bhils into marriage with a Christian girl in an attempt to evangelise him. When the nephew refused to oblige, he was beaten up. "The victim filed a report with the police to which I was one of the signatories," Nayak said.

Nayak, who won the prestigious Gram Sewa Puraskar on January 1 awarded by the Gujarat Vidyapeeth, Ahmedabad, founded by Mahatma Gandhi, pointed out that the tribals' anger had been simmering for a long time and merely came to a boil on December 25 when the Christians, who had earlier staged a rally on December 7 protesting against the alleged atrocities against them, stoned the rally of the Hindu Jagran Manch, founded by former Congressman Janubhai Pawar.


The Christian attacks row

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