For Christ’s sake

source: Daily Pioneer, September 7, 2008

Chandan Mitra

I am writing this from Orissa which, quite uncharacteristically,
dominated national news space during the last week of August for
altogether wrong reasons. Bhubaneswar, the State's neatly planned
post-Independence Capital, is tranquil enough but interior districts
are still simmering from the fallout of the heinous assassination of
the venerated monk Swami Laxmanananda, 80-year-old messiah of the poor
and downtrodden in one of Orissa's remotest and least developed
districts — Kandhmal.

 

To my surprise, I found passions running high even
in the Capital particularly over what people allege is the biased and
undeservingly negative publicity the State received in the aftermath of
the murder and the violence that predictably followed. It is a trying
time for the State's usually unflappable Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik
who appears set to be elected for a third straight term in office when
Assembly polls happen next year. The fallout has also been a test for
his coalition partner BJP, whose Hindu constituency is outraged by the
killing of the Swami.
 
Fortunately,
the BJD-BJP alliance is holding firm despite hotheads periodically
seeking to stir up trouble. The violence, which ominously affected
villages rather than cities — unlike the pattern of other communal
disturbances — is also simmering down. But the questions it has raised
dramatically all over again need to be addressed if recurrence is to be
contained in the future.
 
What
has agitated average middle class people in Orissa is the manner in
which a one-sided perspective is being peddled as fact in the national
media, to the courts and even among school children. There is
consternation over the one-day strike called by Christian organisations
that shut down many schools and colleges across the country. "The
Courts are quick to denounce strikes and bandhs everywhere. Political parties are even fined for calling a bandh. Why hasn't anybody condemned the enforced strike in Christian educational institutions?" asked an angry teacher.
 
Apparently, some school authorities even distributed a circular among students explaining why the bandh
had been called. The letter complained in a high-pitched tone about the
attacks on churches, priests, orphanages and ordinary Christian
villagers by rampaging mobs. The circular, admittedly also regretted
the murder of the octogenarian Swami, but only in a proforma fashion.
The purpose of the explanatory letter was not really to explain but to
condition young, impressionable minds into a particular line of
thinking.
 
A
parent told me about the following exchange with his school-going
daughter: "Why is your school closed tomorrow?" he had asked. Pat came
the reply, "Because Hindus are killing innocent Christians in Orissa."
When he persisted and queried why Hindus are supposedly doing that, his
daughter looked nonplussed and confessed she had no idea, but after
some thought added, "They did that to Muslims in Gujarat also, No?" The
brainwashing of children, especially in urban India, has acquired a new
dimension.
 
Sometimes
I get the feeling that a diabolical section of proselytising
missionaries are determined to milk the post-Laxmananand violence to
the hilt to further their cause. Significantly, as even diehard secular
TV channels have revealed, the violence in Orissa, unlike post-Godhra
Gujarat, was hardly one-sided. Christian-dominated villages persecuted
Hindus as much as vice versa and, in any case the disturbances
were confined to just two districts. And, by the way, no nun was burnt
to death; it was a Hindu woman who was unfortunately trapped in a hut
set on fire by vandals. No wonder large numbers of Hindus, especially
women, converged on a relief camp for Christians in Tiklabari in
Kandhmal last Wednesday, demanding that either everybody get official
relief or the Christians-only camp be shut. They told visiting
politicians and the media that they too had suffered in the violence.
Besides, the police was strictly enforcing curfew preventing them from
going to work to earn a livelihood. "Why are Christians getting all the
attention while we are starving?" the charged crowds demanded to know.
I am referring to this incident only to underline that the issue is not
as simple as the counsel for Christian organisations made it out in the
Supreme Court last Thursday.
 
It
is a measure of the efficacy of the Christian network that within hours
of the disturbances happening, the Pope issued a strong denunciation of
the "persecution" of Christians in India. Worse, the Italian Foreign
Office had the temerity to summon India's Ambassador in Rome to
admonish him and demand an immediate end to the harassment of
Christians in this country. Incidentally, both these actions have
contributed to the anger of people in Orissa.
 
I
was repeatedly asked why New Delhi had not issued a strong statement
telling Rome and the Holy Seer that Orissa is India's internal affair
and they should keep their mouths firmly shut. "Each time there are
some problems between Hindus and Muslims, Pakistan too makes gratuitous
noises about Muslims in India. But Delhi tells them to stay away from
our internal matters. Why does the Government lack the guts to do the
same with Italy?" asked an irate journalist, hinting that the reason
for being deferential towards Italians, resident or non-resident, would
not be very far to seek.
 
In
fairness, though, the venerable Pope, as spiritual head of the Roman
Catholic world, has a right to express concern if his co-religionists
face insecurity in any part of the world. But the pontiff would have
done well to appreciate the gravity of the situation and also
recognised the root cause of the friction. There would be no trouble
between Hindus and Christians, who are mostly a peaceful community
living in harmony with Hindus for centuries, but for the aggressive
campaign to "harvest souls", meaning, convert poor Hindus. It is the
influx of massive funds, mainly from Europe, to further a renewed
evangelical offensive in India that is the cause of mounting tensions
between Hindus and Christians in many parts of India.
 
An
Orissa legislator (not BJP) narrated some instances of glitzy
audio-visual campaigns by Christian missionaries in the State's
interiors. Although the State Government was forced to ban the entry of
foreign evangelists following protests some years ago, there's no
stopping the funds. Promises of good education, jobs and even careers
abroad are freely made, tempting many impoverished villagers.
 
Dispensing
with the usual paraphernalia of baptism, some priests apparently
preside over mass conversions whereby those willing to change their
religion need only to take a dip in the village pond to expiate their
past sins. As many independent sociologists have pointed out, new
converts in villages become particularly aggressive towards their
erstwhile community and the resulting social cleavage eventually spills
over into violence. This is probably the strongest argument for
enacting watertight anti-conversion legislation.
 
The
Government is required to preserve and promote social harmony,
rebuffing the Church's ambition to "harvest souls". In the final
analysis, however, Hindu society too is to blame for the steady
expansion of Christian missionary activity. Why are their so few Swami
Laxmananands among us? Why don't Hindu organisations work more
effectively in backward and tribal-dominated areas? That is the only
way to deny non-Indic religions a foothold in sensitive parts of the
country and thereby preserving social harmony.
 
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