'The Constitution allows me the Right to Freedom of Speech and Religious Freedom. But this is not religion... this is spiritual discourse,' says IAS officer C Umashankar, who is being prosecuted in the Madras high court for hurting the feelings of Hindus. A Ganesh Nadar/Rediff.com reports.
Policemen stand guard on a road that leads to a prayer hall in the busy town of Sivakasi, popular for its firecrackers, in Tamil Nadu. They are posted there to protect Indian Administrative Service officer C Umashankar, who is leading a prayer meeting.
Umashankar is being prosecuted in the Madras high court for violating an order prohibiting religious discourses and 'hurting the feelings of Hindus.'
The prayer hall is packed. The congregation includes several college girls who have come from far-off Srivilliputhur to hear Umashankar speak.
The discourse lasts three hours and the attendees are served rice, vegetable and sambar at the end of it.
Umasankar welcomes me to a small room to tell me his side of the story.
"I am a Hindu and I love Jesus. Today is a holiday and in my free time I am free to do what I want. The Constitution gives me the Right to Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Religion. But this is not religion. I don't belong to any denomination. This is spiritual discourse"
"Switch on your television in the morning and you will find many bureaucrats giving discourses on the Bhagawad Gita, so why can't I preach?"
Speaking about the incident that led to a case being filed against him, he says, "A Christian man had been beaten up by some people. I had gone to comfort him. After meeting him I was walking back to my car when another man requested me to visit his home and pray for him."
"I did not want to hurt his feelings, so I agreed to pray for him at his doorstep. I said a small prayer and was about to leave when the police arrived."
"They said I did not have permission to conduct a prayer meeting on the road. I told them it was not a meeting and I had prayed alone for a single man."
"I was the collector of Thiruvarur, which has the second biggest temple in the state. There were incidents of people drowning in the tank at the temple. I got it cleaned and put a grill around it."
"I was the first to draw the temple chariot for two years. I was given that honour as I was the collector. Why didn't anyone object to my participating in a temple event then? Why are they protesting now? I am not doing anything wrong."
"They cannot harm me. I will answer their false allegations in court. You heard my discourse. Did I insult anyone? Did I hurt anyone? Did I speak ill of anyone?"
Outside the prayer hall, CDs of Umasankar's discourses are being sold.
"In the morning a few RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) workers came here. They were shouting slogans against him (Umashakar). They said as a bureaucrat he could not go around preaching. They left after shouting for a while," says a man who had come to hear Umashakar.
West Paracheri is a small village in Kanyakumari district in Tamil Nadu. The petition against Umashakar was filed by a labourer named M Jothi from this village two years ago. Jothi alleged that the IAS officer had visited his village to conduct prayer meetings to promote Christianity.
"I filed the case on behalf of my villagers. The lawyer told me that if I did not sign the papers, there were others ready to do it. I am not scared of anyone, so I signed," says Jothi.
A group of villagers gather around us as we sit at the steps of the village library.
The villagers say that 15 years ago the hamlet only had Hindus. The government then built a colony for poor people on the border and housed people from various parts of the district. A small number of immigrants were Christians.
They visited the church in the next village, but later started having prayer meetings at home.
Trouble first erupted after a death in the village and the Christians did not allegedly abide by the custom of shutting places of worship.
This led to a skirmish between the two communities and cases being filed.
There was also the case of a Hindu boy marrying a Christian girl. A case of child marriage was filed against 13 villagers. Incidents like these have led to bitter relations between the two communities in this village.
In 2012, the Christians complained to Umashankar that they could not hold prayer meetings in the village. He promised to help and held a prayer meeting at Mankuli village.
Some villagers petitioned the tahsildar, collector and the superintendent of police against Umashakar for holding prayer meetings, but no action was taken.
The villagers also approached now Union minister and Bharatiya Janata Party leader Pon Radhakrishnan. A rally and rasta roko were held. The villagers say the administration did nothing, and so they approached the high court.
The last time Umashankar was in the news was when he took on Dayanidhi Maran.
Image: IAS officer Umashakar speaks at a prayer meeting in Sivakasi, Tamil Nadu. Photograph: A Ganesh Nadar/Rediff.com