YS Rajasekhar Reddy’s (YSR) attempt to spread Christianity in AP


The first point to note is that the popularity of YSR among the minorities in AP has in no way compromised his pull among upper caste as well as dalit Hindus in AP. Rather than just looking into the allegations about his encouragement for evangelism and his supposedly anti-Hindu policies related to management of temples, and the use of Hundi collections for ‘secular’ purposes, it will serve us better if we try to understand the issues involved in a little more detail.

Frequently Asked Question : Has there been a tremendous rise in evangelism/forced conversions after YSR became the CM, and if yes, how much of this can be attributed directly to the CM?

Before answering this question, a look at the historical situation in AP first.

YSR is a third-generation Protestant Christian. It was his grand father Y.S.Venkata Reddy who came under the influence of British missionaries and converted with his entire family. The conversion angered the fellow Reddys of Balapanur village and Venkat Reddy had to undergo almost a social boycott. However, in time, more people, both from the Reddy and Dalit communities in Kadapa district took to Christianity.

The promise of free education, especially in English, good medical facilities for free in mission hospitals, the availability of foreign funds to start schools and colleges, and in case of many dalit families – the opening up of an alternative, and influential career path as pastors and nuns etc., helped drive the conversions.

The evangelical program was largely unorganized till the 1980s, with dozens of denominations seeking to harvest souls throughout AP, and meeting with particular success where ever the domination of economic opportunities and education by the upper castes left the ‘Mala’ caste and some Backward Castes looking towards Christianity.

Since the 1990s, the scale and scope of the evangelist movement in India, with focus on states like AP has changed drastically and become more organized with even Inter-denominational Pastor Associations networking to influence political outcomes. This can not entirely be laid at the altar of Joshua Project, though the availability of American millions has surely made it possible for many massive healing meetings.

What then, could be the other factors?

One obvious factor in the context of AP is the rise of second and third generation political leaders from among the converted Christians. The confidence that comes from some one of your kind being a people’s representative is enormous, even if the MLA in question benefits from the vote bank and doesn’t do any thing else apart from occassional Church attendance.

The other, under researched question related to the rise of evangelism is the ‘dual benefits’ that went to dalit Christians for over 50 years. The first benefit is Constitutionally assured reservations for SCs, BCs and STs. This enabled several families to rise out of utter poverty and low social status to move into lower middle class and then middle class in two generations. Complimenting this benefit is the assistance from the Church. Most people equate Church assistance with monetary aid. This is only part of the story.

A Christian community finds the Pastor useful not just in providing spiritual succour (much needed because mainstream Hindusim has neglected the spiritual needs of these people for hundreds of years). The Pastor in a village is also usually some one who reads and interprets national and international socio-political and economic events for them. Even if they have Cable TV, they wouldn’t be found watching NDTV or CNN-IBN. They would rather watch filmi programs. It is the priest/pastor who through the sermons in the Church and prayers at individual homes, shapes a good bit of their world view.

For upper caste Hindus who tend to think of dalits as in a sterotyped manner and do not proceed beyond the ‘they all hate Brahmins’ construct, it would indeed come as a surprise to know that these fellow Indians have formed certain world views that are parallel to what we (urban Hindus) have developed, over the past 50-60 years.

The other benefit that accrued to these communities relates to the Churches themselves and how they are managed. Though there are head quarters for each denomination, and a certain hierarchy, the local management of the Churches is highly decentralized. The records and measurement against key success factors (conversion rate for example) are sent to the HQ so that effective use of funds can be monitored.

But most of the Churches attain self-sufficiency after a few years because the adherents pay small donations several times a year, among other revnue streams such as baptisms, marriages and funerals. More importantly, the Church will have a committee formed from among the congregation. In a sense, the stakeholders for a local Church are primarlily the followers in that region. This sort of develops relationships between people, a certain ‘help my brothers and sisters at the church’ mentality, which in my observation has addressed the ‘social needs’ of the converts. Mainstream Hinduism had these elements too, but they vanished long back.

By the 1990s, one could find a good number of dalit Christians in government jobs, PSUs, government schools etc, apart from private missionary schools, hospitals and so on. The unifying effect of having Prayer Meetings in an office, or university campus, or a PSU township can not be under stated. And when people think of themselves as a community, it becomes easier to invite others from the same socio-economic strata to join the group and/or to act like a cohesive vote bank.

It is quite easy to be lazy and ascribe all this to an international conspiracy of American Baptists or the Vatican. But I think that is a factor only at the initial, venture capital stage, and when successive rounds of funding for expansion of a particularly successful denomination are required.

The mid-1980s and 1990s also saw the dozens of well trained Evangelical speakers all over India, and in AP, the likes of K.A.Paul are dime a dozen. Mass mobilisation for prayer sessions became a regular sight. The 90s were also the times when Church communities saw tussles between factions within for control of the Church properties, mostly located on prime real estate in towns across AP.

Today, as per some estimates, the actual % of Christians in AP population is between 10-12 %. The figure in the census is only 2.4%. If the proposed bill for conferring SC status on dalit Christians (and Muslims) becomes an Act, it is likely that we will see the real numbers of practicing Christians available.

With all this background, let us look at the last three CMs AP has had – YSR, CBN, and NTR. All three of them being forceful personalities, with major differences in how they perceived the religious divide from a political and personal angle.

NTR – as Brahmanical as one can get in terms of learning, but with a socio-religious reformer’s mind set. He despised the caste system, but could not get away from indulging or at least allowing a preferential treatment to his Kamma community. In some instances, he was even blind towards upper caste atrocities on Dalits. In some quarters, he was known as a Brahmin-hater, but in my view he hated the symbols of caste system more than the brahmin community. Regarding the minorities, NTR was a constitutionalist, and went by the rule of law, but never displayed any special affection towards other faiths. He had a large number of Muslims as his fans, and he was probably instrumental in several well-off Muslims in AP entering the political scene as well. Till his time, the TTD funds were largely ignored by the State Govt. NTR, for the first time, saw that TTD has enormous excess funds, and he wanted that money to be transferred to the state exchequer or at least put to use for non-religious purposes if necessary.

Chandra Babu Naidu – Truly secular in the sense he projected an image of neutrality though like all politicians, he tried to appease the minority vote bank as much as he can. The misuse of TTD funds and the politicisation of TTD board was quite high during his tenure though.

YSR – Most people who accuse YSR as the evangelist CM of AP ignore the fact that he was the third Christian Reddy CM of the state, and not the first. Kasu Brahmananda Reddy (KBR) during the late 60s and mid 70s, and Nedurumalli Janardhan Reddy (Jaani) during the late 80s were the other two.

I could not find any reference to KBR being anti-or that he favored evangelists in any way, except in a case filed against him for election mal practices. KBR apparently promised Lutheran Christians in Firangipuram that he would build a big Church for them in return for votes.

Regarding the suave Mr.Janardhan Reddy, his rise from being a teacher to the owner of several educational institutions, and the generous funds he received from Christian organizations in UK and US, have been reasonably well documented. Neither KBR orNJR have ever been accused as being anti-Hindu though.

So, then, back to YSR. The list of accusations is so long, that I better give an external link. Some of these events can not be denied, but that is not the only or the best way to look at the issues.

There is another side to YSR-bashing. Many among the Christian right accuse him of being too defensive about his religious beliefs. They also maintain a list of his blasphemous utterings and bemoan YSR’s obsession with mythological Gods such as Siva, Venkateswara Swamy, Narasimha Swamy and Bhadradri Sri Rama. ‘How can he, a good Christian, enter a Hindu temple and offer prayers, goes the refrain.’ An anonymous commentor left this link on my previous post.

I once teasingly asked a Christian friend if YSR can be considered a true Christian and the answer was a serious ‘No’.

Reason: YSR had vedic homams done at his place, he carried the diamond crown on his head and entered Tirumala temple before doing a Saashtaanga Pranaam to the deity, YSR’s statements on festive occassions praying to Hindu Gods to take good care of AP people, his sporting of tilak on the forehead on important Hindu festival days, and above all, his belief in ‘Varuna Yaagam’ bringing timely rains to AP, so on and so forth. My friend asked me in an agonised voice: How would you feel if a Hindu politician credits Jesus or Prophet Mohammed for the rains ? My reply was the usual – ‘religion is a personal thing’ and if YSR feels devotion towards Venkateswara and Siva in equal measure as Jesus, it means he is a Hindu-Christian, like most Indian Christians can be, if they chose to.

Leaving such rhetorical arguments aside, I would like to posit some points to help evolve a finer understanding of YSR’s religious beliefs or lack thereof, and the impact on his image.

It is well known in AP political circles that while NTR was a scholar in Ramayana and some of the vedas, YSR’s speciality was Andhra Maha Bharatam.I have no evidence for this, but some low level Congressmen told me in amazed voices how YSR seems to know all the lesser known and apt stories from Maha Bharata, including verses from the Gita. I think YSR’s telugu idiom is derived from such sources.

YSR’s family are devout Christians. And yet, one constant complaint from them used to be his unavailability for Sunday mass even on occassions like Easter.Well, he is a politician, isn’t he? He would rather meet people than spend time in a Church or Temple, I suppose.

It is true that YSR did more than any other CM in trying to appease religious minorities.I would put this down to his vote bank politics than him being anti-Hindu. In his belief that all religions need appeasement, YSR even tried giving sops to Hindus, though such measures (Subsidy for Manasarovar Yatra for example) did not receive publicity.

The appointment of an ex-Marxist Bhumana Karunakara Reddy as TTD Chairman raised the hackles of many a Hindu rightist in AP and elsewhere. I would attribute that appointment to nepotism (Bhumana was almost like a brother to YSR) than a deliberate ploy to Christianize Tirumala. It is possible that Bhumana and his team pilfered what they can from the TTD funds. We need an enquiry into the allegations. But what can’t be argued against is that it was only during Bhumana’s tenure as TTD chief that a number of pro-Dharmic measures were taken by TTD.
Dalita Govindam – a program to take the God to the colonies of dalits, and bring them into the Dharmic fold
Kalyanamastu – mass vedic marriages cutting across all castes, targeting especially the Hindu poor in AP
-Starting of Sri Venkateswara Bhakti Channel, to propagate Hindu Dharma more effectively
-Grand celebration of 600th jayanti of Annamayya, and installing a 108-feet statue of Annamayya at his birthplace Tallapaka in Kadapa district
-Taking TTD into the electronic age by allowing interested people to webcast the Brahmotsavams, among other things

But we can’t ignore the allegations of corruption in TTD, including the disappearance of temple jewellery, and the appointment of a liquor baron like Audikeshavulu Naidu as a successor to Bhumana Karunakara Reddy.

Especially the issue of allowing evangelicals to preach on Tirumala hill and the move to take over five out of the seven hills for building resorts, commercial complexes, a rope way etc. There has been a lot of hue and cry (and justifiably so) about the sharp increase in the number of Christian employees in TTD, the issue of a certain Christian VC of Sri Padmavati Mahila University removing the photos of Venkateswara and Padmavati from her office and replacing them with a portrait of Jesus and so on.Also, the question of arranging TTD buses for girl students to attend Church on Sundays.

The important thing to note is that as soon as locals and devotees started agitating against some of these activities, a fact finding committee was formed and they provided a detailed report to the TTD.And the High Court disallowed the Govt move to commercialize the seven hills area.

It is quite possible that a Christian CM at the helm, with the CM’s family itself involved in evangelist activities, acted as a catalyst for the various denominations formulating plans to evangelise in places sacred to the Hindus such as Tirumala, Simhachalam etc. But with Hinduism not being an organized religion, though the efforts by concerned Swamijis and other devotees did stop these proselytization activities, it did not impact the image of the CM among the Hindu masses at all. The Reddys continued to see him as a Reddy, and the Christians as a Christian.

This then is the problem for Hindutva forces who wish to consolidate the Hindu votes, not in the name of a dharmic manifesto, but simply to use the religion card to gain political power within the current adharmic status quo.If YSR’s evangelical connections were an issue for state BJP, how did they reconcile this with G.Janardhan Reddy, a minister in BJP’s Karnataka Govt, being the business partner of Jagan?

Personally, I feel that if the Hindus consolidate as a vote bank on dharmic principles, it could bring a positive change in governance. But to simply argue that YSR was trying to convert AP into a Christa Pradesh is to bark up the wrong tree, and avoid doing what needs to be done.

YSR could play the appeasement cards successfully because people let him do so. YSR, like Naidu, or any other Indian politician was not averse to using any and all the cards available to him. A very cynical manipulation of minority sentiments, whilst taking advantage of the divisions within Hindu society. As I said in my previous post, YSR threw a buffet. He seemed not to care ‘who did what’ as long as it benefited him politically.It would have been possible for Hindu outfits also to gorge at the buffet spread he laid out. The Hindu outfits were not organized enough to even read the situation this way inspite of the many signals his administration gave them.

So, in conclusion:

YSR did encourage the use of tax payer money for appeasement of all narrow interests, including, and especially evangelical interests. As these interests had successfully infiltrated his personal circle, certain measures were rather more obvious and unapologetic.At the same time, his approach has been castigated by the extreme right on all sides (Hindu, Muslim and Christian), whilst the common people saw in him what they wanted. A very successful politician who understood the impact of symbolic acts, and in the final analysis, was probably not very interested in religion. His personal faith was politics.

This ends the series on YSR. Next post: The succession issue – Jagan as CM- will mark the end of my posts on AP politics for now.


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