08 January 1999

Christianity as Crime

8 January 1999
The Times of India

Christianity as Crime

Nailing Citizenship to the Cross

By Siddharth Varadarajan

THE most disturbing aspect of the anti-Christian
terror campaign being waged by various political formations linked
to the ruling BJP is not the violence itself but the attitude of
the Vajpayee government towards it. Bucking the general wave of
revulsion that has swept through India, senior BJP leaders
continue to prevaricate and dissemble, adulterating their criticism
of the violence with toxic sermons on the evils of Christian
missionaries and religious conversion. Listening to them blaming
the victims for their misfortune, one is reminded of a famous
exchange which took place in an English courtroom. ``Did you kick
the prisoner in his face, sergeant?'', a policeman was asked by
the prosecutrix. ``No I did not, ma'am'', he replied. ``What
happened was that the prisoner kept banging his head against my boots
with great force''.

`Forced Conversions'

Even as he made a show of condemning the attacks on
Christians in Gujarat, for example, I&B minister Pramod Mahajan
``accused'' Christian missionaries of indulging in conversion under
the garb of service to the poor (TOI, 31/12/98). How a minister
-- who has sworn to uphold a Constitution in which religion plays
no role in citizenship whatsoever -- can presume to question a
citizen's right to convert to Christianity is something the Election
Commission or some other competent body should look into.
Other BJP leaders have been more circumspect, reserving their
fire for ``forced conversion''. Listening to the number of times this
phrase has been used recently, one could be forgiven for thinking
India is being put to the sword by Baldwin of Edessa or Richard
the Lionheart.

For the past few weeks, we have been told that ``urgent
steps'' are being taken to bring the situation under control. A
`fact-finding mission' of the Union home ministry went to Gujarat
but, curiously, refused to meet any Christian or civil liberties
organisations. Not surprisingly, the sangh parivar's
low-intensity-conflict against Indian Christians continues with the
Christians of Nashik the latest to fall victim.

So fervidly does the parivar believe Christians are
foreign to India that it is only the fear of adverse publicity abroad
which finally goaded the BJP into a more forthright condemnation of
the violence. In its drive to appear moderate and inclusive, the
Vajpayee government is now considering declaring 2000 as the
`Year of Christ'. One really has to marvel at the magnanimity and
courage of the men who think of such bold steps.

The secularism of the Indian state is indeed a peculiar
construct. One year, it watches over the massacre of Sikhs, another
year over lavish celebrations to mark the tercentenary of the Khalsa.
It can declare the Prophet's birthday a national holiday at one time
while at another it can look on benevolently while the Babri
Masjid is demolished. As far as the `Year of Christ' proposal is
concerned, however, some senior BJP leaders are opposed even
to such bromides because Christianity is not `native' to India and
because they feel this will encourage conversions.

The reason why religious conversion and the provenance
of religions are subjects of so much political controversy in India is
because the BJP -- and most of our political parties -- do not
believe in the concept of citizenship. They do not subscribe to the
notion that a citizen in a democratic state is defined by the rights
and duties she or he shares with other citizens and not by any
other criteria. For most political parties in India, however, an
Indian is defined by her or his religion, caste and language. It is
precisely the ghettoisation of the polity into `Hindu', `Muslim', and
various caste-based votebanks that has allowed these parties to
get away with violating the rights of all Indians these past 50

Defining an Indian

As we go in to the 21st century, we must decide what it
means to be an Indian. Is the term to be defined in relation to
membership of the polity or in relation to a person's religion, caste
or language? If India is to be a modern, democratic polity based on
the sovereignty of its people, Indianness can only be defined on
the basis of common participation in the body politic known as
India. To say somebody is an Indian, then, will be to say that that
individual enjoys common political, economic and social rights.
The only notion of majority and minority in the political sphere of
such a society is what emerges from the democratic
decision-making process. Such a democratic body politic would
have no room for religious or caste-based definitions of `majority'
and `minority'. Nor would it allow political parties to play the kind
of divisive and self-serving role they are today.

Such a modern definition of citizenship would mean that
in India the polity would not recognise categories like `Hindu',
`Muslim', `Christian' etc. If I were to say more, I would say that
India as a body politic would remain the same even if all its citizens
were to become Christians, Hindus, Muslims or atheists. It might not
be the same culturally but then national cultures constantly undergo
change in one direction or another and it is fallacious to posit a
unidirectional and unidimensional link between religion and

Tribal Culture

At any rate, it is often forgotten that Christian
organisations are not the only ones conducting missionary activity in
India. In most tribal districts, Hindu missionary organisations are
also active. Often, organisations like the Ramakrishna Mission and
others proselytise with the assistance of the state, while Christian
missionaries are harassed. Some anthropologists argue that at a
time when the culture and identity of tribal societies is constantly
being undermined by `secular' forces such as the government's
forest and land acquisition policies, and exploitation by state
officials, contractors and moneylenders, the activities of Hindu
and Christian missionaries can further weaken their capacity to
resist. This is especially true of the more aggressive proselytisers
like the Gayatri Parivar, the Brahmakumaris, the various
RSS-linked outfits and the Evangelicals.

While it is legitimate to entertain doubts about the
desirability of any and all forms of proselytising activity, it is
totally unacceptable for ministers and politicians to express
misgivings about the spread of one religion. Even more unacceptable
is the subtle rationalisation of the attacks against the Christians.
The anti-Christian campaign might well be the handiwork of an
extremist fringe of the sangh parivar but by equivocating on the
issue, the ruling BJP has not done itself any credit. It has
demolished the myth of its supposed moderation. In a variation of
Gresham's Law, the `bad' communalists have driven out the `good'.

© Bennett, Coleman & Co. Ltd. 1997.

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