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November 20, 1999
Church-Sangh Parivar are daggers drawn in northeast
Nitin Gogoi in Guwahati
The Pope has come and gone, but in the northeast, the debate over conversions and the right of the church to preach Christianity continues. On Wednesday, senior Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh leader K Sudarshan indicated in Tripura's capital Agartala that the organisation in collaboration with its affiliates like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad will launch an "anti-conversion" movement in the region.
Sudarshan, speaking at a rally in Agartala, charged Christian missionaries with helping and encouraging militancy in the northeast. "The church is playing a pivotal role of American imperialism," he told the rally. He stressed the need to launch a "vigorous" movement against attempts to convert "innocent" tribals to Christianity by offering inducements and allurements.
The RSS rally was held to demand the release of four of its senior pracharaks, allegedly kidnapped by the militant National Liberation Front of Tripura in August. The RSS maintains the four RSS workers were abducted at the instigation of Baptist missionaries. The militants have refused to release the four RSS workers and have demanded Rs 20 million as ransom.
Although it is the first instance of a direct confrontation between the militants and the Hindutva brigade, the battle between the VHP and the Christians has been going on in the northeast for some years now. But it is a battle in which the Hindutva brigade finds itself on the defensive.
Elsewhere in the country, the VHP may feel dominant because the majority of the population is Hindu, but in the northeast, at least three states (Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland) have a Christian majority. The fourth, Manipur, has a substantial 34 per cent Christian population. The Christian religion is deeply embedded in these four states and the missionaries have been around for more than 150 years here. In this respect at least, the VHP and its sister organisations are at a disadvantage. Also the network of the Sangh Parivar in the northeast is not as widespread as it is in other parts of the country.
This has, however, not prevented a bitter war of words between the VHP and the church in the region. As the Archbishop of Guwahati, Thomas Menamperampil, says: "We are worried about the increasing inflammatory and aggressive tones used by the VHP leaders while speaking against the Christian community. It vitiates the atmosphere and creates unnecessary tension among the people."
He blamed the leaders from outside the region, coming here on short visits, for the state of affairs. "We have cordial relations with the local leaders but it is the people coming from outside who make provocative statements," the Archbishop said.
The archbishop was apparently referring to VHP leaders like Ashok Singhal who had made a statement in Guwahati in late 1997 accusing the Christian missionaries of having a hidden agenda to turn the northeast into a theocratic state. Even Acharya Giriraj Kishore, another frontline VHP leader, feels that funds from abroad are used for converting gullible tribals into Christians.
The VHP has its own reasoning over the issue. Says Arvind Bhattacharyya, the VHP's organising secretary for the northeast: "We are opposed to forcible or induced conversion methods adopted by the Christians especially among poor Hindu tribals. In most cases, the church people offer inducements like financial help, free education etc in return for adopting Christianity. In many areas like the hill districts of Manipur, the National Socialist Council of Nagaland not only collects taxes from Hindu tribals but forces them to adopt Christianity.''
The VHP, which, by Bhattacharyya's own admission, has only about 400 full-time workers in the northeast, as compared to 4,000 Christian missionaries, has a plan to increase its activities in the region manifold by 2000. The VHP convention at Jaipur last year apparently resolved to add about 10,000 new full-time workers. The northeast, being a Christian-dominated area, would therefore have a special emphasis in VHP's plans, Bhattacrayya said.
The Christian organisations in the region are also looking at the VHP plan to re-convert Christian tribals back to Hinduism with suspicion. As Reverend V K Nuh, general secretary of the Council of Baptist Churches in Nagaland, says: "We will not remain silent spectators to any forceful conversion plans."
The RSS on its part accuses the church of acting as agents of foreign powers and working actively towards destabilisation of the region. "The Christian missionaries help secessionist and anti-national forces like the militant organisations in the region," Professor Birinchidhar Buragohain, the RSS chief in Assam, says. Leaders of the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, an organisation working for the tribals, say several tribes in the northeast face torture and humiliation for refusing to adopt Christianity.
Some tribals, say VHP activists, want to return to their old ways. Indeed, as Bhattacharyya reveals, about 14 Rabha families in Assam's Boko area have reconverted to Hinduism. Some tribal leaders however have objections to the Sangh Parivar worldview that talks about one religion, culture, one race. "People from the mainland have always failed to reconcile themselves to the Mongoloid race that dominates the northeast, hence this conflict," says a social scientist.
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