Debating India

COMMUNALISM

Targeting Christians

Venkitesh RAMAKRISHNAN & Sukumar MURALIDHARAN

Friday 1 January 1999, by MURALIDHARAN*Sukumar , RAMAKRISHNAN*Venkitesh

Article paru dans Frontline, vol.15, n?26, Dec. 19, 1998 - Jan. 01, 1999.

The current offensive against the country’s minuscule Christian community is part of a well-charted-out plan to ensure the ascendancy of the forces of Hindutva.

in New Delhi

THERE have been few precedents for the nationwide day of protest that the Christian community observed on December 4 to convey its sense of alarm at the attacks on its members, which have been taking place with increasing frequency and vehemence in recent times. Christian institutions, including schools, remained closed for a day on a call given by the United Christian Forum for Human Rights. Members of the Forum expressed their dismay at the increasing currency of the propaganda that the community is intent on pursuing an aggressive campaign of proselytisation. The menacing overtones of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s slogan of "One Nation, One Culture and One People" were now becoming a practical hazard of life for India’s Christians.

A Forum delegation met Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee on the day of protest. While deprecating the incidents of violence against the community, the Prime Minister strongly refuted any suggestion that his party may have been involved in them. This is a plea that is unlikely to stand scrutiny in the light of known facts from States such as Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and Karnataka. Where direct involvement is unproven, there is little question that the atmosphere of intolerance that the BJP has fostered in league with its allies in the Hindutva constellation has been the principal cause of the recent events.

In one of the declared objectives of Hindu nationalism - to establish a native religious tradition as the foundation of a "national church" - the influence of medieval Western models of religious organisation is apparent. Critics have argued quite accurately that Hindutva introduces an alien proselytising element into Indian traditions as a defensive reflex to the supposed inroads other faiths make. That however, is at the level of principle. In its practical details, the current Hindutva offensive against the minuscule Christian community reflects all the visceral animosities of the paranoid fringe.

Activists of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Bajrang Dal in Gujarat have in recent times conveyed their intents and purposes through a chilling slogan: "Pahle Kasai, Phir Isai" (First Muslims; then Christians). The slogan serves a dual purpose - it seeks to smear an entire faith by equating its adherents to a traditionally stigmatised occupational grouping in India, and then to threaten it with extinction. (Kasai in Hindi means ’butcher’ and the same word denotes Muslims.) In the sense of cultural hostility it embodies towards all faiths, the slogan is of a piece with all that was seen during the peak of the Ayodhya movement.

The slogan also encapsulates the strategy of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and its affiliates towards what it terms "social cleansing". The strategy formulated in concrete terms in the 1960s clearly states that Muslims are the principal enemy and Christians a close second. The third identified enemy is the so-called Indian elite, which is influenced by "foreign isms, fashions and ideologies".

According to RSS records, the strategy was formulated in concrete terms in the Mumbai conference of Hindu religious leaders in August 1964, which led to the formation of the VHP as the militant vehicle of religious propagation. The tasks assigned to the VHP included the "consolidation and strengthening of Hindu society", the "protection and dissemination of Hindu spiritual and ethical values", and the "establishment of links among Hindus living in different countries". The proposed method was to build an ecclesiastical order, complete with its own liturgy, scripture and institutional hierarchy. Diversities were to be ironed out in cultural homogeneity, individuals manning shrines across the country were to be coopted into the network of VHP sponsorship. In another conscious reversion to the medieval model of religious organisations, VHP activists, themselves drawn to a great extent from the RSS, were designated as a lay order which would impart the necessary momentum for social consolidation on religious lines.

Social scientists characterise this process as one of stigmatisation and emulation. A perception of threat from an alien cultural influence is created in the minds of the members of the target population, who are then reclaimed by the native and indigenous culture through methods that were in others’ hands decried as a mortal danger to the national culture.

Records of the 1964 conference show that the VHP, to achieve its objectives, was asked to take on systematically the Muslim clergy and Christian missionaries, who had launched "intensive activity to convert Hindus, especially the Scheduled Castes and Tribes, in various parts of the country". The conference identified Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Gujarat as areas of heightened Muslim activity. Christian missionaries, the conference observed, were dangerously active in the northeastern region, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu and Kerala.

According to Balraj Madhok, who as a leading light of the Jan Sangh had a ringside view of these events, Muslims were identified as the principal enemy on account of two factors. First, Muslims account for a much higher proportion of the population than Christians. Secondly, the geographical proximity - and in one case, overt hostility - of Islamic countries such as Pakistan made it easier to play upon a sense of siege within the Hindu psyche.

Apart from these two reasons, RSS politics is premised on the perception that Hindu opinion is best mobilised in an adversarial relationship to Muslims rather than Christians. As a senior leader of the VHP puts it, memories of Partition evoke strong anti-Muslim feelings among large numbers of Hindus, which the Sangh combine has successfully managed to tap. Despite this, Madhok adds that even while making the gradation between the levels of threat faced from the two faiths, the leaders of the Sangh Parivar did perceive that Christianity was a greater menace in the "battle to influence young minds", since Christian missionary activity concentrated on "developmental activities", which provided immediate and tangible benefits such as education and employment.

Shiv Shankar Apte, the first general secretary of the VHP, had at its foundation conference specifically referred to the activities of Christian missionaries in northeastern India and stated that "if the area along the Brahmaputra river in northeast India is culturally alienated from the Hindu mainstream, all Hindu activity would be threatened." Against this background, the VHP launched a significant set of activities in northeastern India during the 1970s, by establishing schools, orphanages, medical centres and religious organisations. Similar activity has also been under way in the tribal areas of Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh.

The operational manoeuvres to take on the supposed threat of Christians and Muslims were not confined to these "developmental activities". Open aggression in the form of intimidation and physical violence was always part of the Sangh combine’s tactics. According to former Bajrang Dal chief Vinay Katiyar, who retains a leadership position within the VHP, "the Muslim and Christian evil" needed to be tackled not only through "peaceful and creative activities but also by using might, as that is the only language that these divisive forces understand".

The operations on this front involved assaults on Muslim and Christian organisations with the objective of stopping their activity, "liberating" land and property from the hands of Muslim and Christian missionaries and "cleansing Muslim and Christian population from specified areas". In some places the minority population is socially ostracised. Towns such as Bahia and Bardoli in Gujarat, where the VHP has given a call to the Hindu community to boycott Muslim autorickshaw drivers, are cases in point. According to VHP activists, the show of might and the threat of force have produced significant success in many towns and villages in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Gujarat. In towns such as Ayodhya, Kanpur and Etah in Uttar Pradesh and Bahia, Kappadang and Bardoli in Gujarat, many areas have been completely cleared of minority population. A number of riots have taken place in these towns during the last two to three decades and every riot has seen the displacement of a section of the minority population.

The threat of force is generally tailored to the gradation of threats made by the VHP foundation conference, with Muslims being the primary target and Christians the secondary target. According to a senior VHP leader, apart from the gradation made at the Mumbai conference, the 1981 conversions of Scheduled Caste Hindus to Islam at Meenakshipuram in Tamil Nadu had also facilitated the organisation’s campaign to demonise Muslims as the principal threat to the nation’s culture. The Ayodhya agitation again contributed and perhaps consolidated the image of Muslims as the principal enemy.

ASSAULTS on Christians have in recent times become more frequent and vehement. By all indications, this is related to recent political developments, which include the emergence of Sonia Gandhi as the undisputed leader of the Congress(I). Sonia’s ascendance has given rise to two perceptions within the Hindutva combine. First, there is a perception that the rise of a non-Hindu leader endowed with an element of dynastic charisma might impel the minorities to rally round the Congress(I). Secondly, Hindutva strategists sense that this could be converted to their advantage by bringing to the foreground the Sangh combine’s unique status as a vehicle for Hindu aspirations.

According to insiders of the Sangh combine, sections of the VHP and the Bajrang Dal are of the view that the latter objective could be served by provoking the Congress(I) into a strong reaction against attacks on Christian missionaries. The fervour of the response could then be converted by Sangh propaganda into a badge of dishonour - evidence that the Congress(I) was solely concerned with the well-being of alien faiths. While these are the perceived political gains, at the local level the operations convey a more mundane material benefit, in the shape of control over land and property. It is this dialectic between localism and nationalist vainglory that is pushing the Sangh combine into a course whose logical outcome seems to be increasing social anarchy and chaos.

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