The fate and fortune of Indian Christians
Since 1998, the media, both in India and abroad, reports various incidents of attacks against Christians by the Hindu communalists (word used in India for those who show extreme attachment to one’s own religion in view of making economic and political gains). Even though the Sangh–Parivar (term used to designate the Hindu militant movements, which tries to establish a Hindu-rashtra in Bharat. The head of these movements is Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh: RSS) disqualify them as false propaganda, it remains a fact that the Christians, their institutions and missionaries often become victims of violence in the country. All those who have heard about the non-violent methods of Gandhi wonder how such atrocities can take place in a country known for tolerance. They don’t find any reason to blame the Christians for these conflicts as the latter form merely 2.34 % of the population and as they do not engage in any terrorist activities. In this context, the social observers ask the following question: why Christians are targeted in India? This article is an attempt to understand the reasons behind Sangh Parivar’s vehement attitude towards the Christians.
First of all, we can say that targeting Christians is part of RSS’ strategy of ‘constructing against others’, which is a tactic often used by the communalist organizations to flourish rapidly. It consists in identifying the friends and enemies of a group and inviting its members to organize themselves against the imagined enemies. M.S. Golwalkar, the ideologist of Hindutva in his famous book, Bunch of Thoughts, explains about three internal threats of India. They are Muslims, Christians and Communists. The RSS and its associations have increased their support among Hindus by propagating calumnies against any of the above said enemies according to the favorable contexts in the country. One of the primary missions assigned by Dr. Hedgewar – the one who founded RSS in 1925 – to swayamsevaks (title given to the ordinary members of the RSS. It indicates those who offer voluntarily their life for the service of the nation) in the early period of the movement was the protection of Hindu pilgrims. When the Muslims once attacked the visitors to a temple at Nagpur during the festival period, the swayamsevaks made an efficient counter attack. This gave the impression to the Hindus that the RSS is an organization in their interest. The further history of RSS also shows that the consolidation of the Hindutva consciousness has won to a great extent through various social conflicts that are pre-planned by the Sangh Parivar against its enemies.
The combined effort of BJP-VHP-RSS since 1985 in favor of the construction of Ram Janma Bhoomi temple at Ayodhya, a small town in Uttarpradesh, falls in line with this strategy of uniting Hindus against minorities. As a means to consolidate the Hindu consciousness the Sangh-Parivar selected religious symbols which are dear to Hindus and Muslims. According to the Puranas the Hindus are attached to Ayodhya being the birthplace of Lord Rama. The Babri Masjid in the same town evokes for Muslims the souvenir of their glorious past in India. The Hindu communalists interpreted the presence of this Muslim institution as a shame and threat for independent India. It aroused anti-Muslim feelings among the Hindus. They conducted various yatras (processions) and pilgrimages all over the country in order to collect the bricks needed for the construction of the temple. Distribution of medals, icons, stickers and calendars of Hindu gods like Ram and that of the temple could arouse a “we-feeling” among Hindus. The broadcasting of Hindu Puranas like Ramayana and Mahabharata was also intended to forge unity among Hindus who are divided into various fragments. This way of playing with religious symbols brought grand political success for BJP in the elections. It could increase its strength in the Lokasabha from 4 in 1984 to 119 in 1991. Sangh-Parivar’s opposition to the Christian missions and the recent demand of the RSS-chief towards Christians to cut off its foreign affiliations and to construct a National Church are new forms of applying the above-explained strategy of strengthening Hindu unity against minorities. Through these controversies RSS pictures Christian community as responsible for all the problems in India and advises Hindus to be alert in watching over the activities of Christians.
It is true that RSS earns support among the Hindus by uniting them against Muslims, communists and Christians. When we study the attitude of Sangh Parivar associations to these enemies we notice that its opposition was mainly towards Muslims in the past. But since 1998 they project Christians as the main threat of the nation. Why this shift in selection of the enemy? This may be partly due to the rise of Sonia Gandhi in national politics. As Sonia took the leadership of Indian National Congress, the Hindutva movements were afraid that she might come to power at Delhi. To avoid such a probability they wanted to give a communal image to Sonia. She was presented as the convoy of Pope and the defender of Christians. They propagated that missionaries were converting massively Hindus with the support of Sonia and that if she would become the Prime Minister, India might be once again colonized by the western powers. Such propaganda got random, as Sonia is foreigner and Christian by name. To enforce their argument, on the one hand, they instigated their followers to harass the missionaries and on the other hand they put the responsibility of such crimes on the shoulders of the missionaries. They interpreted that Hindu attacks were provoked by unjust missionary activities. As a result the BJP could win the vote-bank of Hindus in Gujarat during the election of 1999.
The targeting of Christians is also due to the realization that Muslim community is a dangerous enemy to accommodate with. The destruction of Babri Masjid followed the Hindu-Muslin riots and bomb blasts in different parts of the country and thousands were killed. Since the Muslims form almost 12 % of the Indian population, enmity towards them will destroy the harmony and peace of the country, which is decisive for the economic prosperity at present time. The inter-religious conflicts will retract the foreign industrials from investing money in India. The same way Sangh Parivar knows that opposition to the Muslims in India will irritate the Gulf countries on which India depends at large for its economic growth. Daily India exports huge quantity of spices and vegetables to Gulf countries and imports the oil, which is terribly lacking here. A serious attack on Muslims will adversely affect the financial situation of India.
On the other side, RSS knows that the situation of Christians is quite different from that of Muslims. They are a petit minority here and even if they make a counter attack on Hindus, it can be easily controlled. Moreover Christians are generally non-violent people. The gospel does not promote terrorism. They have to follow the command of Jesus to love their enemy. So whenever they are persecuted they won’t retaliate. They would express their resentments through peaceful methods like processions, fasting, etc. and not through rifles and bombs. At the same time the wide spread presence of the Christians in the country and their affiliation with foreign countries make them a symbol of suspicion and fear among the Hindus. In short, targeting Christians is not at all dangerous, but is advantageous to the Sangh Parivar in bringing unity among the Hindus.
Another element, which influenced the Sangh to turn against Christians, is their conscientization work. In the beginning of this epoch, the Christian missionaries were mainly concentrating on education, health and employment. They established schools, colleges, hospitals, clinics, orphanages, small-scale industries, etc. all over the country and all Indians irrespective of casts and creed benefited out of them. Slowly the missionaries realized that such kind of social works would bring only an immediate relief to the poor. They can not change radically the poor situation of the people. The unjust social set up produce millions of poor every year in India. Unless and until these evil structures are destroyed India will remain always as a poor nation. They felt the need of educating the downtrodden classes about the evil structures. In these endeavor they were influenced by the notion of human rights which is one of the basic moral principle of the human society today. They were also influenced by the liberation theology i.e. theology originated in Latin American countries and later spread all over the world according to which Christianity has to be primarily a liberative force in the society since Christ was the liberator of the poor. The missionaries left the huge institutions and went to the poor villages, where they lived with the people and fought with them against the injustice.
These fights against unjust structures turned to be an attack on the high caste Hindus in the particular situation of India. In the northern states of the country a few landlords possess the land and the majority of the people are peasants. These peasants have to depend upon the landlords for their livelihood. They are condemned to work for the whole lifetime as slaves for minimum salary. The missionaries educated the untouchables and the low casts to oppose the system of the bonded labors. The children started going to the missionary schools. The missionaries opened evening schools also for the adults. The self-help programs, which worked as cooperative banks, gave certain autonomy to the villagers in the economical field. The poor stopped borrowing money from the high casts. Today they demand just salary for their work. They are slowly becoming a self-sufficient community. As the result of the conscientization work of the missionaries, the high casts are obliged to share their political and social rights with the poor. They are annoyed with this new social set up for which the missionaries are highly responsible. Since they can not accuse the missionaries for their liberative works, they misinterpret their service as a new method of proselytization. The missionary attacks are nothing but the reaction of the rich landlords towards the efforts that are taken by the Church to develop the poor people in India.
The above reflections lead us to a further question: how should the Christians respond to the growing Hindu communalism? The scope of this article does not permit us to deal in detail this important issue. We can state merely a few guidelines in this regard. Hindu communalism is a very complex phenomenon having multiple causes and faces and so the Christians should also adopt diverse strategies to face it.
RSS is primarly a reaction of the Hindu intellegentia against the humiliation it underwent during the period of colonization. Christians are responsible to a certain extent for creating a wounded psyche among the Hindus and so they have to understand Hindu feelings with great sympathy. An approach of dialogue will be useful in this respect.
At the same time there are extremists among the Hindutvawadis who keep a hidden agenda against Christians. They apply different methods systematically and strategically to weaken the Christian strength in India. Christians must be vigilant towards these types of movements. Basing on the fundamental human rights and the freedom granted in the Indian Constitution, they have to struggle for the maintenance of religious freedom in the country.
Among the Sangh Parivar one can also find people who have nothing to do with the religion. They have merely economic and political motives. They refer to religion only to gain power and money. They manipulate the illiterate and poor Indians by inculcating in them religious animosity against the minorities. Christians must fight against the communalists in alliance with the secular political and social organizations.
In this fight against Hindu communalists Christian can not adopt violent methods because it is alien to Christian message. The same way they have to take care not to give the impression that all Hindus are communalists. The majority of Hindus is still secular in India. Only 24 % of the people vote for the BJP. Christians may try to get the support of the tolerant Hindus and thus they can isolate the communalists in the society.
Finally the challenge of Hindutva gives to Christians an occasion for self-examination. The Spirit of the Lord who is at work in this world may speak to Christians also through their enemies. Hindu communalists can also play a prophetic role in India. Oh Indian Catholics of Houston please pray so that Christians in India be able to improve the quality of their witness by accepting positively the criticisms made by the RSS.
November 2000 Vincent Kundukulam, Mangalapuzha Seminary,
Aluva, Kerala 683103