Madhu Purnima Kishwar
01 June 2018
[The Sangh parivar and Narendra Modi in particular are not willing to go out of their way to assist Christian missionaries in harvesting souls – and that irks the missionaries]
As someone who studied in a convent school and whose mother also studied in a school run by Irish nuns in Peshawar, one could not help but have a benign view of the Christian community. Most middle-class people of our generation grew up believing that the Christian missions were sincerely committed to the spread of education and healthcare. However, even as a schoolgirl, I resented the subtle indoctrination inflicted on us by converting the “Moral Science” class into a Bible study class. Our Moral Science book had stories only from the Bible. There was no mention of Hindu faith traditions, leave alone study of the Bhagavad Gita, the Vedas or the Ramayana.
Though the overwhelming majority of students in our school were from Hindu or Sikh families, we were made to say the lord’s prayer not only during the morning assembly but also before each class and another Christian prayer after each class with due reverence, including crossing our hearts after each prayer.
Anyone who topped the class in monthly or weekly tests, got “holy pictures” by way of reward. Not surprisingly, possessing a large collection of beautiful Vatican-produced pictures of Lord Jesus, Mother Mary, the Holy Trinity and a whole range of Christian saints came to be seen as a prized possession. Since I routinely topped my class in every subject and won all the school competitions in debating, dramatics etc, I owned the largest collection of holy pictures in the entire school.
It is noteworthy that Hindu and Sikh parents, whose children studied in that or countless other missionary schools never objected to this daily dose of Christianisation and systematic attempt to inculcate “love of Jesus” in our impressionable minds. For the record, no pressure was ever exerted on us to “convert” because the school authorities knew that trying the conversion game with middle and upper middle class/caste families was bound to backfire. However, it was well-known that the same order of nuns ran special schools in Punjab villages and in urban bastis, targeting children of the poor and “lower castes”. These schools had been established mainly for the purpose of getting converts and “harvesting souls” for the Church. But in those innocent days, nobody seemed to mind or care, leave alone sense any sinister agenda.
Despite the horrors of colonial rule and the religion-based Partition, most Hindus still continued to chant the pious mantra of sarva dharma sam bhav. We were taught to believe that all religions lead to the same path and that if Christians gave good education to the deprived classes, they were performing samaj sewa (social service). Nobody paid much heed to the fact that the Christians and Islamists never reciprocated sarva dharma sam bhav. Instead, their entire strategy of conversion was based on defaming and demonising Hindu faith traditions because that is a core mandate of Abrahamic religions, for whom dharma, as Hindus understand it, has no value and their open agenda is to crush the dharmic civilisation of India.
Even as a schoolgirl, what bugged me most was that we were not only discouraged from speaking in Hindi or Punjabi — the mother tongues of most students in our school — but also punished for doing so. The punishment was of course not corporal. Every classroom had a chart with the name of all the students to rank the weekly and monthly performances. Those who excelled in various subjects and extra-curricular competitions got gold stars for each accomplishment, followed by red star, yellow star, green star. The dreaded black star proclaimed that you belonged to the bottom rung.
As an all-round topper, I invariably got gold stars for everything else but continually got black stars for speaking in Hindi, despite prohibition on the language even during lunch break. I kept defying the ban because even at that age I found it offensive to my national pride, though I understood its far-reaching implications only much later.
It is through one’s mother tongue or native language that we stay rooted in our culture and sanskars. By forcing us to become monolingual and English-dependent, we were being systematically deracinated. English inevitably brings with it disdain for Indic cultures and faith traditions and harbours the tendency to view the world through lenses of the imperial West, which is deeply rooted in Christian ethos. Sadly, this enslavement to English was made state policy under Nehruvian influence. Not surprisingly, elite schools founded and run by the brown sahibs of India are following the same pattern of intellectual enslavement set in motion by missionary schools.
No surprise then that a vast majority of India’s English-educated elite act as the intellectual warriors for Christian missions. They defend the right of evangelical organisations to convert Hindus to Christianity even while they use questionable means and rabid hate-Hindu propaganda to bring in converts. But they go ballistic when Hindu organisations try winning back Christian converts to their original faith. Abusing and demonising Hindu faith traditions is treated as proof of “liberalism” and defended as “freedom of expression”, but even modest questions raised against the means and methods adopted by evangelical groups and consequences of large-scale conversions to Christianity is treated as proof of a person being a obscurantist “Hindutvavadi”— with Hindutva (its plain meaning is “essence of Hindu faith”) being projected as synonymous with fascism.
In the initial years of Manushi, the human rights, women’s rights journal I founded in 1978-79, Christian organisations of all hues embraced it warmly and came to constitute a large chunk of our subscribers. I was often invited to speak at their events in different parts of India. Many of them translated reports from Manushi into regional languages. At that stage, I naively believed that just as the “Liberation Theologists” within the Church-led “progressive” movements in defence of human rights of black Africans, the Christian organisations of India were carrying forward that tradition by contributing their might to movements for social justice and women’s rights. But I was disabused of this notion when I found that when Manushi started defending Indic faith traditions from malicious attacks, Christian organisations — including those wearing the secular mask — began to not only distance themselves from Manushi but also started to work against it.
It is not a coincidence that during that very phase, Kancha Ilaiah came to be feted and celebrated by church leaders and organisations and catapulted into international fame after he converted to Christianity and wrote a rather pompous, malicious hate tract against Hinduism titled Why I Am Not a Hindu. It is based on willful distortions and clearly written for the purpose of ingratiating himself with rabid evangelicals. Before Ilaiah wrote this, he was neither an avant-garde academic nor a celebrated public intellectual. As soon as he published his hate tract, he was touted by Christian organisations as a leading global intellectual and radical reformer of the “decadent Hindu society”.
Since Christian organisations carry a lot of influence in Western universities, Ilaiah became a professional globetrotter, lecturing at the most prestigious universities in the West. Overnight he became a star speaker at high-profile international conferences, including at the United Nations. His views on India and Hinduism came to be treated as gospel truth. If a person of his intellectual mediocrity had said good things about Hinduism, he would not have been invited as a speaker even by a small-town Rotary Club. But abusing India and Hinduism brought him handsome monetary rewards and celebrity stature.
Ilaiah’s article “Disowning Hinduism” is likely to have been inspired by my controversial article “Why I do Not Call Myself a Feminist”, in which I explained how followers of all “isms”, including Indian feminists, ape the means and methods of Christian missionaries out to harvest souls and treat those who don’t adopt their ideology as sub-human species, who need to be saved from ignorance and perdition. That sealed my fate with Christian organisations and even foreign universities..
Until then, I was a very sought after speaker in universities abroad, especially universities in North America. But with that article, I began to get blacklisted, even though mine was far from a hate tract. It was a well-reasoned carefully-worded piece analysing how all ideologies are products of specific cultures, social contexts and historical phases, and therefore cannot be blindly applied to altogether different social contexts and timeframes.
Moral of the story: while I faced severe punishment for distancing myself from copycat feminism and all proselytising ideologies, Ilaiah became a global celebrity as a reward for Hindu bashing and open conversion to Christianity.
Modi’s Demonic Image
I personally woke up to the seriousness of the danger posed by Christian missionaries during my study of Narendra Modi’s tenure as Gujarat chief minister. As I explained in my book Modi, Muslims and Media (MMM), I undertook that study only because I wanted to check out for myself whether the evil deeds attributed to Modi and the demonic image painted of him by the Congress-Left combine in cohorts with select foreign-funded non-govermental organisations (NGOs), bore any resemblance to chief minister Modi and the impact his model of governance had on the ground. Since he was being accused of a genocidal bent of mind towards “religious minorities”, I made Muslim and Christian communities the focus of my study. A good part of the material I gathered regarding the Muslim community is already published in MMM, but I could not give space in the book to the interactions I had with the Christian community.
It all started with an hour-long phone conversation I had with V V Augustine, a Malayali Christian based in Thiruvananthapuram. During his tenure as a member of the Minorities Commission, Augustine had interacted with Modi on multiple occasions. This is what Augustine told me in our very first phone chat.
“Contrary to the propaganda that Modiji is supposed to be anti-minority, my experience is that Modi is a very minority-friendly person. When I was member of the Minorities Commission, the Christian community of Vapi district in Gujarat brought a serious issue to my notice. They number around 7,000. There are several churches in Vapi of different Christian denominations that include Catholics, Protestants and Syrian Christians.
“Since the last 40 years, they had been trying to get a piece of land for a cemetery. They had even approached the central government; and they were willing to pay for the land. But the administration kept dragging the matter on for decades. This caused enormous inconvenience because they had to take dead bodies 40 miles from Vapi for burial [I found later the distance was 18 km, not 40]. In order to lobby collectively, they formed a Vapi Christian Association and approached me for help as a member of the Minorities Commission.
“I asked them to write one more fresh application addressed to the collector of the district. When I went to meet the collector, he told me frankly, ‘this has to be a government decision because the local people have a problem with having a graveyard in their midst. Please approach the appropriate authority.’
“I therefore decided to talk straight to Modiji and explained the matter to him. He listened with full attention and said, ‘Yes, you have a genuine issue. Have you identified a piece of land?’ I told him that we have a place but the local people are resisting our acquiring it. Modi said, ‘that is not your problem; that’s mine. Just tell me where you want the land and I will call for a report.’ Within a matter of hours, he had the full report from the collector, who told him that since that particular piece of land was right in the middle of the town, the local people were resisting having a graveyard there.
“Modi then asked the collector to work in coordination with the Vapi Christian Association and identify another suitable piece of land. Within no time, the land was identified on the outskirts of the town and the Christian community was gifted one-and-a-half acres of land by the state government free of charge.
“I have interacted with him on numerous issues since then and have always found him extremely helpful and responsive. For instance, in the Dang tribal areas, there are settlements of neo-Christians. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) had become very active in the area, resulting in a lot of tension. When they planned to organise a big Shabari Kumbh Mela in that area in 2006, the Christians became extremely nervous and feared that they would be attacked. We went to Modi with our apprehensions. Christian organisations demanded a ban on the Shabari Mela.
“Modi did not ban the mela because that would have given the VHP an excuse to create a ruckus that Hindus were being put down at the behest of Christians, leading to more tension. He assured us that nobody would be allowed to indulge in any lawless behaviour and issued firm instructions to the police commissioner of the area. Indeed, the mela passed off peacefully, this despite the fact that, during 2002, non-Christian tribals had attacked Christian settlements leading to a great deal of mutual hostility and suspicion. Not surprisingly, most Christians vote for Modi. They have never complained against his regime.
“When I met Modi even on small matters, he supported all genuine demands. In another incident, there was a problem between Hindus and Muslims in a small village near Vadodara in 2004. He gave me a free hand to act as an intermediary. I called a joint meeting. A Muslim had killed a Hindu over a business issue and Hindus retaliated. They were not even on talking terms. We conducted peace meetings to bring in communal harmony. The collector was given instructions by Modiji to extend full cooperation.
“Gujarat newspapers gave prominent coverage to how the ‘Augustine Mission’ was successful. But the peace mission could not have succeeded if the administration had not been fully supportive. People who spread the canard that Modi is against minorities are reflecting their own political biases. My experience is entirely different.
“As a member of the Minorities Commission, I dealt with several states. The governments of Odisha and Madhya Pradesh have also been good. But no chief minister is as good, as strong and determined as Modi. Once he takes up an issue, he sees it through to its logical conclusion.
“Now, even Muslims realise that Modi is good for them because a riot-free Gujarat and a resurgent economy with new opportunities have provided them avenues of upward mobility. I admire Modi and I want him to be the prime minister. I always go by factual accounts. Those who are obsessed with injustice done to minorities should ask: Who has given full rights to the minorities? It is the Hindu majority! Who wrote the Constitution? Mostly Hindus! We must appreciate Hindus for this and give them their due credit.”
This glowing tribute came as a very pleasant surprise for me because for years one had heard John Dayal, Teesta Setalvad, Aakar Patel, Father Cedric Prakash and other Christian activists talk of Narendra Modi as though he was the devil incarnate out to cleanse Christians and Muslims from the state of Gujarat. Cedric Prakash in particular had been at the forefront of the international campaign against Modi to get him blacklisted “as a mass murderer” and denied visa to America and European countries. What is worse, Cedric Prakash along with Islamist groups had lobbied with the US Commission for Religious Freedom to get India blacklisted as a country which crushes religious minorities — notably Christians and Muslims. To quote from one of his interviews referring to Modi’s Gujarat at the Berkeley Centre for Religion, Peace and World Affairs:
The people that follow Hindutva are fascists; they are the equivalent from (sic) the American context of the Ku Klux Klan, and they draw inspiration from the apartheid of South Africa and Nazi ideology. The basic ideology asks for one nation, one language and one people.
December 2, 2010
But Augustine had painted such a glowing picture that I decided to go personally to the Christian pockets of Gujarat in Dang and Vapi to check what the church leaders there had to say about Modi.
I had expected that at least the Vapi Christians would endorse Augustine’s version and display goodwill towards Modi. But I was taken aback when I found most of them reluctant to utter even one good word about him. Since I had informed them of my visit in advance, half a dozen pastors from various Christian institutions had gathered in one place. Since they knew that Augustine had given me his firsthand account, they could not altogether deny the sequence of events nor paint Modi in the demonic light that Father Cedric Prakash, John Dayal and their associates among the human rights NGOs routinely do. But their demeanour and the hints one got from their guarded sentences and body language spoke volumes about their innate hostility towards the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) and Modi, which had nothing to do with what Modi actually did or failed to do.
For instance, Father Jose Dali from Kerala, who has lived in Gujarat for 36 years, attributed their success in getting land for the graveyard to the “power of the lord”, and the fact that all Christians were “praying together”. To quote him, “we believe in a living god. We believe that he is a god who is able to do miracles, even if the government is against us. We believe in the power of the lord. It is a special faith of the Christians. People all around the world prayed together and because of that, the lord worked on the hearts of the magistrate as well as the leaders.” In other words, they presented to their congregation the success in getting the graveyard land as yet another miracle of Christ.
Their reluctance to give credit to the Modi government either for securing free land for them or for ensuring that even minor skirmishes don’t take place among Christians and non-Christians tells its own story.
They also tried to convince me that the Modi government discriminated against tribal areas with regard to development programmes and that in the interior tribal villages, road and other infrastructure was not as good as in non-tribal areas. To quote Francis Fernandes: “in tribal areas, if they are pockets of Christian faith, they will not get certain facilities”. When I asked to give him concrete examples, he couldn’t give me any.
I found that charge baseless because I had travelled to the remotest tribal areas and had seen that the quality of roads was no different. True, medical services in villages near big cities were better than in interior villages. But there was no difference between tribal and non-tribal villages in this respect. The difference is more to do with doctors and nurses not willing to work in villages far from major urban centres.
Thereafter, they complained that the sarpanch of that area had refused to sanction a power connection for the graveyard. Since burials don’t take place at night, I was a bit surprised that they needed a power connection for the open ground. Even so I decided to check whether this charge had any substance.
I met both the current as well as the previous sarpanch of Paldi taluka panchayat. Both were categorical that the pastors had never applied for a power connection so there was no question of refusal. I called the most voluble among of the pastors from the sarpanch’s house and put my mobile phone on speaker mode. Now, the pastor, who had claimed that he had personally gone and applied for the power connection, came up with a lame story that a long while ago he had gone very early morning to the house of the sarpanch(not the panchayat office) and since the sarpanch was not at home, he left the application with an unknown person who opened the door. I asked him whether he had followed up on the matter. The answer was, “no, we didn’t follow up since we knew they would not sanction the connection.”
This was a clear case of building a victimhood narrative out of a situation where the Modi government had gone out of its way to help the Christian community in more ways than one.
The Truth Behind The Victimhood Narrative
Father Francis Macwan, one of the senior pastors of a missionary school on Ahwa Road, where Shabari Dham is situated, had told me that their school and their mission had received all possible help from the Modi government. When I asked him to provide concrete examples of “help”, he described how the district administration had been instructed to provide as many free school textbooks, children’s notebooks, stationery, school bags and uniforms as demanded by missionary schools, even though as privately-run schools, the state government is not obliged to provide such support to church-run institutions, especially considering that the mission schools set up in tribal areas have the express mandate to win over converts to Christianity.
Thus, when any state government provides free books and other educational materials to mission schools, it is in a way furthering their conversion agenda since free education and related benefits are one of the primary incentives offered by the Church to tribals and other poor communities. And yet the Modi government, as perhaps several other state governments in India, provide this as a goodwill gesture towards the Christian community.
But barring a few individuals like Augustine, the hostility of church leaders, especially the aggressive evangelical variety, towards the BJP in particular, and Hinduism in general, has only exacerbated instead of abating. The reason for this came out through their own narrative.. For the Christian missions in India, “freedom of religion” promised as a constitutional right means essentially one thing — unchecked right to convert people to Christianity, through fair means or foul.
In my case study of Bishrampur village in Sasaram district of Bihar published
in February 2018, I have described the blackmail tactics, including violence on children used by Christian bigots to force children from poor families to adopt Christianity.
But finally they let it out that the real issue bothering them was with regard to government policy over conversions. To quote Jose Dali: “actually, what the government feels about conversion and what we believe are different. Conversion will take place within the heart. We are not converting anybody. Those who are truly believing and personally accepting Christ as their saviour and after confessing by themselves publicly, we will accept them. Baptism is not a sign of the conversion. Baptism is a part of the faith. Those who are converted will be baptised as per the Bible, Gospel of Mathew.”
Father Francis Fernandes added: “conversion and baptism are not the same. What the pastor is explaining is that there is a change of heart in a person. The change of heart is when the person is ready and the person says, I want to join this way of life. Then only we initiate him in the field. He is saying ‘yes’ and we are acknowledging that ‘yes’, that is baptism.. By seeing the way of life, by seeing the faith of the people around, by seeing that Jesus is there, god is there, then this person comes and says, I want to receive baptism. It is not that we are going and forcing people.” He justified Father Cedric Prakash’s virulent opposition to the Modi government on the ground that “we are not free in our own country, in our own state. Why are our constitutional rights being curtailed? I have the freedom to believe in any god as per the Constitution and after my confession, any time I can follow the principles of the faith.” In other words, the government not allowing support to conversions made them feel India is not a free country.
Another charge made by these pastors was that there are restrictions on building churches. To quote Father Francis Fernandes: “this is our freedom curtailment. As an active member of the Christian faith, we are not free in our own country to call our own place of worship which is called internationally a church.” At the same meeting, Father Mathew told me, “in South Gujarat alone, there are hundreds of Christian institutions.”
Several IAS officers, including those working as district collectors, confirmed that there is no blanket ban on building churches. But the problem arises when evangelicals want to plant a church in the middle of a Hindu settlement where there are no Christians, or position it right next to an important Hindu temple. That invariably gets resisted by local communities. But evangelicals have got used to the administration riding roughshod over local sentiments under pressure from Christian missions to give them endless special concessions they claim as a “minority”. They succeed often because they have both the monetary clout as well as political backing to get the government to do their bidding. The fact that under the Modi government, they could not bulldoze the administration with unreasonable demands was provocation enough to join not only with the conversion-friendly Congress party but even rank Islamists in running an international campaign to present him as devil incarnate.
Jose Dali belongs to a Protestant group called Brethren Assemblies, which is spread all over the world. In response to his litany of complaints, I asked him if he had presented the complaints to the district collector. His response was a giveaway: “we don’t want to make allegations. If there is some problem, we won’t go to the police station or outside. We believe that maybe God’s plan will work things out.” But that didn’t prevent them from taking their imaginary complaints against Narendra Modi to the US Senate, the European Union and various UN platforms.
How do they justify the virulent campaign to get the US and European governments to deny Modi visa for a whole decade? To quote Father Francis Fernandes: “maybe when our Indian Penal Code or Indian court is not giving you proper justice, you appeal to the international level. That is how Cedric Prakash must have gone to that extent. When my children are not fed in my own house, they will go out to beg, borrow and eat. So that is what is happening. If they have taken this step, that means something is wrong with my own house.”
Father Francis Macwan, the most reasonable and straightforward of all the pastors I met, from the Jesuit order, summed up the nature of the conflict candidly: “Father Cedric Prakash is a social scientist and an activist. His view is different from ours because we are staying in the midst of people. So my experience is different. Cedric is also in touch with Protestant groups, who go for conversion and faith formation. I have a very positive experience in working in Gujarat under Modi. We Catholics are not directly aggressive in conversions. But for Protestants, the main activity is conversion. So their experience is different.” It is noteworthy that he could speak his mind, though very diffidently, mainly because I chanced to meet him alone while all others met me as a group.
Meanwhile, the Church has tried to adopt Hindu nomenclature, rituals and vocabulary for Christian myths and church rituals, to make Christianity appear less alien. As elsewhere, so also in the Vapi church, the statue of Mother Mary was dressed in a Gujarati-style saree. Father Francis Fernandes explained they have named her “Our Lady of Velankanni” after a place in Tamil Nadu where Mother Mary allegedly “appeared” to several persons in her bodily form. That place has become a Christian “pilgrimage centre”. Such miracle mongering is a standard technique of evangelicals to attract converts. Adopting local Hindu names, rituals, aarti, bhajans are also part of the strategy to make Christianity appear rooted in the soil of India instead of being an alien imported religion.
I also saw for myself how the local Hindu population, especially the youngsters, routinely visited the big church compound in Vapi for relaxing in its vast garden and often went and prayed inside because they found the atmosphere peaceful. For some youngsters, it has become the most convenient dating place because Vapi does not have many such pleasant gardens with beautiful shaded trees.
The lack of hostility of the Hindu population to Christian institutions is evident from the fact that out of 1,800 students in Father Mathew’s school, the vast majority are Hindu. Only 1 per cent of children are avowedly Christian, and only 10 per cent are tribals. However, they run a separate residential school only for tribal children, which is where there is a heavy dose of evangelical brainwashing to convert them to Christianity.
For the benefit of “secular Hindus”, the pastors describe their evangelical agenda in highly sanitised terms: “we propagate the love of Jesus Christ, we propagate the gospel, and we are teaching everyone to become a good human being so we propagate Jesus Christ and his love. We never try to convert anybody. Message of Christ is the message of love. It is a very open message.”
However, the Joshua Project, of which all these Protestant missions are a part, makes no secret of the communities it has targeted for conversion. This is what it says about communities that are the soft targets in the tribal-dominated Dang district:
Almost all of the Central Bhil practise ethnic religions that have been highly influenced by Hinduism. Shiva is considered the supreme god. Ancestor worship (praying to deceased ancestors) is also quite popular. Shamans (priests) are also called upon to offer sacrifices to the many gods and mud idols.
In spite of their traditional beliefs, there have been interesting manifestations of god’s spirit among the upper caste Bhagat gurus. They now worship light and ‘the word’, singing prophecies of the future, such as the coming sinless incarnation. At the turn of the century, one guru warned his disciples that there would be a great famine, after which they should look for teachers from the north and west who would teach them the true way of salvation from a book, free of cost. They would teach about the true god, and about a sinless incarnation, who was born of a virgin. The guru also said that they should worship this sinless, invisible god, turn away from stones and idols, and live blameless lives. A famine occurred in 1899-1900, soon after the guru’s death.
The Joshua Project thus admits that the Bhils are steeped in Hindu faith and that their agenda is to wean them away from attachment to their “false gods” and adopt the “true god” but they also admit to using devious strategies including natural calamities as a way of making in-roads among the unsuspecting tribals.
Modi And Conversions
The BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in general and Narendra Modi in particular become objects of hate and are perceived as threats not because they want to smash churches and attack or kill Christians or shut down schools. They are hated because, unlike the Congress and Communist parties, the Sangh parivar is not willing to go out of its way to assist Christian missionaries in harvesting souls. Modi became the bête noire of the Christian community despite being very liberal in yielding to the reasonable demands of Christian organisations, and seeking a relationship of cooperation with them and not confrontation. In the very first year of his tenure, his government passed a law entitled Gujarat Freedom of Religion Act, 2003. As per this law, anyone who wants to change his/her religion has to first report to the civil authority, namely the deputy commissioner of the district.
This provision is meant to prevent conversions through fraud. Even though seven states in India already had such a law, the Gujarat law came to rankle the Christian community all over India because Modi took its enforcement somewhat more seriously, whereas almost all Congress governments either turned a blind eye to conversions — whether fair or foul — or even actively assisted in the planting of churches in areas favoured by Christians through free land grants and other overt and covert forms of assistance.
During British times, churches of various denominations came to occupy the best and the most premium tracts of real estate in every state of India. But even after Independence, the Indian State has been generous in patronising missionary activities, making available countless stretches of prime land as virtual gifts, or at best charging a token amount.. In that sense, the combined real estate of various churches in India may well place them among the biggest land owners in India. The growth in planting of churches has also proceeded at frenetic pace in recent decades, especially after the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) came to power and Sonia Gandhi became the all-powerful authority figure at the Centre as well as for state governments under the rule of the Congress and/or its allies. To quote Dr Ralph F Wilson, writing on the website of the Joyful Heart Renewal Ministries:
“The truly exciting thing is that the percentage of Christians has increased substantially from 2.5 per cent a decade ago to about 5.8 per cent today. That represents a huge increase in the growth rate. Something is happening!
“Mycologist and church growth expert C Peter Wagner has been receiving reports that the percentage may actually be 25 per cent Christian — at least in parts of this large country — most of the growth coming in the past 10 to 15 years. And the growth may not all be in traditional churches. A substantial part may come from Jesus-follower groups within the Hindu culture.
“In this huge and very diverse country, it’s difficult to get accurate statistics regarding religion, but anecdotal stories indicate exciting changes. According to Christianity Today, Operation Mobilisation, one of India’s largest missionary groups, has grown to include 3,000 congregations in India, up from 300 in less than a decade. A hospital-based ministry in north India has seen 8,000 baptisms over the past five years after a decade of only a handful.
“Everybody knows about the massive scale of growth among Dalits,’ says Operation World’s Jason Mandryk. Somewhere between 70 per cent and 90 per cent of Christians in India are Dalits, low-caste groups, so that many higher-caste Hindus view Christianity as a low-class religion, worthy of contempt.
“’Now we see signs of growth in the middling castes and among the under-35s,’ Mandryk says. ‘There’s a new dynamic for the urban, educated generation….’ Wagner writes, ‘it is becoming more and more common for whole villages or other people groups to all decide to follow Jesus Christ together at one time.’ There are reports of both new churches and traditional denominational churches seeing signs and wonders in the spirit.”
Church organisations also manage to secure a big chunk of corporate social responsibility (CSR) funds as well as grants from various central government ministries and departments and state governments for their activities.
As described in my article
on Bihar, it is not as if tribals and Dalits are desperate to convert. In most instances, missionaries use fairly dubious means to bring people into the Christian fold. Missionaries are also not just content with Hindus accepting Jesus as their saviour. An essential requirement is that they begin hating their original faith, disown their ancestral culture and break off ties with relatives who refuse to convert.
During Modi’s regime in Gujarat, the district administration had been advised to keep a close watch over conversions, not because Modi hated Christians but because the virulent hate campaigns against Hinduism and the indigenous faith traditions of tribal communities often led to clashes between Christian and non-Christian tribals, leading to law and order problems in areas targeted by evangelicals.
Missionaries also seemed resentful of the fact that the Modi government took on the task of improving road connectivity and provision of civic infrastructure to backward regions, including tribal pockets, on a war footing. With high quality all-weather roads reaching the remotest regions, along with 24×7 power supply, internet and mobile phone connectivity, safe drinking water, functional primary health centres, systemic improvements in state-run schools and one of the best ambulance services in the country just a phone call away — the space for missionary work began shrinking. Christian missions and evangelical activists thrive only so long as communities remain poor, illiterate and deprived of means of social and economic advancement. Congress, during its long tenures as the ruling party, had not only left the field free for conversions by its callous neglect of tribal areas but also by facilitating the activities of the church. But the Modi government made a special effort to mainstream neglected tribal communities. This appeared as a palpable threat to the evangelicals.
During Modi’s tenure as chief minister, Hindu groups also felt emboldened to report to the district administration all those meetings where tribals were invited for baptism even while the pastors decribed those meetings as community gatherings, not conversion melas. But they gave the game away by repeatedly asserting that the Modi government was tampering with the freedom of religion of tribal communities to accept Jesus as their lord and saviour. The logic is bizarre. Tribals are most comfortable continuing with their ancestral belief system. It is the evangelicals who tamper with their religious freedom by pressuring them to convert — that too through hate propaganda against the native faiths.
The Modi government merely kept a vigil over conversion activities. And yet these pastors termed it as a crackdown on Christianity even though they were free to practise their religion and run Christian schools and hospitals. This is how they tried covering up their real agenda: “The xyz gathering we planned was only meant for baptism, not conversion. If people come to us after an inner awakening of the love of Jesus, how can we turn them away? We don’t ask them to convert, it is they who came to embrace Christ. So how can they charge us with conversions?”
They had no answer when I asked how they could say “baptism” was not conversion and whether as per law, they provided the list of those seeking baptism to the district administration. If seeking baptism was a genuine individual choice, why hide it from the deputy commissioner?
The Story Of Shabari Dham
That Christian leaders of Gujarat had got used to the government of India bending over backwards to keep them happy becomes evident when we consider how aggressively they responded to the presence of the Ramakrishana Mission, social workers of the freedom movement, Hindu sanyasis and Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram social workers in the tribal areas of Gujarat. This aggression was more pronounced in the pre-Modi era, and extended even towards Gandhian social workers sent by Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel in the late 1940s to undertake the work of tribal uplift through spread of education and to set up village industries.
This was narrated to me by 1924-born Gelubhai Gulabbhai, a devoted follower of Mahatma Gandhi. He described to me his first-hand experience with Christian missionaries when he moved to Dang in 1948 after completing his education and made it his home and karmabhoomi. Sardar Patel had handpicked him and his brother for social work among Bhil and other tribal communities of Dang. He settled down in Ahwa.
At that time, the area was considered the backwaters of civilisation. Since they had no place to stay, the district collector helped him and his brother to rent a small dwelling within the local mission compound. Since they had come on behalf of the Mahatma Gandhi-initiated Khadi Gramodyog Board with the aim of introducing craft industries among the tribals to enhance their economic status, within no time the news spread by word of mouth that “Gandhi manas (men), the men of swaraj” had come to Dang. Within days, thanks to the magic of Gandhi’s name, people started visiting their khadi centre from all over the district. Apart from promoting spinning and khadi production, the two brothers began moving from village to village helping people resolve their problems with the administration in addition to starting educational work in tribal villages. They set up student hostels and elementary health services. As a result of their selfless work, the brothers became fairly popular.
As per Gulabbhai’s account, since local communities began to gravitate towards Gandhi-inspired social work, the Spanish missionaries of the time became resentful and tried to get the two brothers thrown out of the area. They first asked them to vacate the rented premises and pressured the administration to banish them, alleging that the presence of these social workers was inimical to tribal welfare. Gulabbhai and his team refused to buckle under this pressure and the local administration also supported them, since khadi promotion was part of state policy of that period. However, in order to escape harassment by missionaries, they set up their own “Dang Swaraj Ashram” so that they did not have to live as tenants of the mission. The two brothers have devoted their entire life to the Gandhi mission. Even for this, they faced strong opposition from Christian leaders.
Gulabbhai recounted how during the 1980s, Modi, as an RSS pracharak, used to move around in this area on a bicycle. He tried cultivating good relations with the church leaders, saying, “if your aim is to uplift the status of tribal communities and our mission is also the same, why can’t we work together towards our common goal?” As per Gulabbhai, this was obviously not acceptable to the missionaries whose real agenda was conversions with education and health services used as mere baits. “They were hostile to the Gandhi ideology because they felt that Gandhi was himself rooted in the Hindu faith. Therefore, spread of Gandhi’s ideas would only strengthen the Hindu ethos.Faced with such hostility, we too decided to strengthen our ecosystem by inviting prominent Hindu saints like Murari Bapu and sadhus of Swami Narayan sect for discourses in this area.” Murari Bapu is known for promoting communal harmony and bridging divides. He did stellar work to heal the wounds of the 2002 riots. Similarly, the Swami Narayan sect is also not known for violent or aggressive activities involving counter proselytisation.
But the presence of even these peaceful Hindu preachers upset the missionaries, because Hindu faith leaders were able to establish easy rapport with local people speaking to them in their very own idioms and built on their local faith traditions instead of asking them to disown their own ancestral faith. Gulabbhai describes the absurd tricks used by missionaries to convince tribals that they were worshipping false and evil deities:
These missionaries would try to convince Bhils that Hindu gods are weak and fake whereas the Christian god is true and all-powerful. To demonstrate this, they would take a metal plate with the name of Ram written on it. They would put that plate in water. It would naturally sink.
Then they would take a similar looking plate of wood with the name of Jesus written on it. Naturally, it would float. The missionaries would then gleefully offer it as proof that Jesus alone could save their souls while Hindu gods condemn them to perdition. In order to blast their devious narrative, we started challenging them in their meetings. We would insist that they write the name of Ram on the wooden plate instead of putting it on metal. Everybody could see that the wooden plate floated, no matter whose name you wrote on it, and the metal plate sank even if you wrote the name of Christ on it. We had no choice but to expose their lies because they were creating religious strife. Our mission was tribal development, not conversion. We spoke to tribals in their own idiom, therefore they took to us.
The Bhil tribals have an age-old tradition of Ram bhakti because of the iconic story in the Ramayana where Lord Ram, Lakshman and Sita rested in the hut of a Bhil woman named Shabari during their 14-year exile from Ayodhya. Shabari was so overjoyed at the presence of Ram that she gathered wild berries (ber) from the jungle to feed her beloved Ram. In her anxiety to ensure that Ram ate only sweet and ripe bers, she tasted each fruit before offering it to Ram who ate them with joy and respect as an offering of love. This loving encounter between the Raghuvanshi Ram and a humble bhilni explodes many of the deftly crafted prejudices against the “evils of the caste” system and the “the curse of untouchability” associated with Hinduism through two-and-a-half centuries of missionary propaganda.
The Shabari-Ram connection has stayed an integral part of the cultural and spiritual ethos of the Bhils; the stones on which the two sat have since time immemorial been objects of worship in Dang. Morari Bapu proposed a grand memorial be built to honour the memory of Shabari. Consequently, a picturesque temple named Shabari Dham was constructed in 2004 on a hill named Chamak Dungar, near Subir village on Ahwa-Navapur Road.. This is believed to be the spot where Lord Ram met Shabari.
This memorial became a matter of great pride for the tribals while Hindu leaders began promoting it as a pilgrimage site by planning the first Shabari Kumbh in February 2006. Lakhs of tribals and members of Scheduled Castes were brought for puja at Shabari Dham, which has a murti of Shabari offering juthe ber to Ram in the sanctum sanctorum. Another important ritual connected to Shabari Kumbh involves a dip in the nearby Purna river as a symbol of equality and oneness of all within the Hindu faith, irrespective of caste, class, tribe or creed. However, at the very inaugural day of Shabari Dham, Hindu leaders, as well as chief minister Modi made no secret of the fact that this temple was a symbol of their commitment to combat conversions by evangelicals.
With the construction of Shabari Dham, the Christian leaders felt so aggravated at Hindu leaders embracing tribals and setting up residential schools and other facilities for them to counter conversions to Christianity that they began a systematic slander campaign against Hindu saints and social workers, accusing them of promoting religious strife and bringing in “fascist” terror to crush Christians. As a result, Hindu organisations started becoming more militant, especially after VHP and Bajrang Dal entered the scene and Swami Aseemanand of RSS became a leading presence in Dang. They were not inhibited by Gandhian civilities and unconditional commitment to non-violence. They had come ready to battle in order to stop conversions and prevent the missionaries from making the Dang region into a “Nagaland of Western India”, meaning a call for total Christianisation. Consequently, attacks and counter-attacks and ethno-religious conflicts became fairly common. In a few instances, Christian churches were attacked by Hindu tribals who took to militant resistance once they found support from Hindu organisations.
It is not as if missionaries were merely hapless victims. Their methods of conversion had always been questionable and wherever strong, they too did not hesitate to use outright violence and vandalism against their opponents. Moreover, their very ideology of treating non-Christian faiths as satanic amounts to a declaration of war against Indic faiths. They use all manners of subterfuges to convince people that Jesus alone can save them and that by rejecting Jesus they would be inviting permanent perdition and roast in hell fires for all eternity. I have experienced this first-hand how Christianised tribal girls from Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, etc are taught by church leaders that they should refuse to participate in Hindu pujas and rituals while working and living with Hindu families.
They are indoctrinated into believing that if they participate in the traditional pujas of their ancestral faith organised by their own close relatives, demonic forces would overpower them and they would be stricken with fatal diseases. Their exclusionist ideology leads to breaking up not just village and community solidarity among the Bhils of Dang (as they do everywhere they plant their churches) but also tearing asunder families. This had led to plenty of strife among tribals because most of those who gravitated towards Christianity did so to avail of educational opportunities and not to disown their culture and family bonds.
Faced with militant resistance from Hindu Bhils, the missionaries unleashed a national and international campaign to project the VHP and RSS presence in the area as evidence of rising “Hindu fascism”. Shabari Dham was demonised and defamed as an assertion of Hindu aggression. While in the Hindu imagination, Shabari is a revered figure, the missionaries gave it a bizarre twist to project it as a misogynist story. To quote the foremost “intellectual leader” of Christians in India, Cedric Prakash, who set up an NGO with a Hindu name “Prashant” to project church activists as defenders of “human rights” in the international arena with frenetic lobbying against Hindu organisations in the UN and with the US government:
Many Hindu groups take some kind of religious sanction to negate the girl child, as well as women. For example, in our textbooks there is a myth about Lord Rama. It says that when Rama came to Gujarat, he found a place that was very clean. He wondered who was cleaning this area and then he realised that there was a tribal woman called Shabari who was working to keep the place clean. Lord Rama looks to her as an ideal woman and a great disciple because she kept this place so clean in case he decided to visit. This story then becomes a trope about the place of women in society. The boys are taught this type of stereotyping in school, that their mothers and sisters should be at home and clean the house…
Now there is group in India, a council formed by community elders called Khap that belongs to a certain feudal mindset. They have passed a law in Gujarat that unmarried girls cannot have a telephone.
The mischievous intent behind the narrative is evident from not just willful caricature of the Shabari story but also gratuitous reference to Khaps which exist only in Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh; Gujarat had no acquaintance with Khap panchayats. Moreover, no Khap has the power to enact laws. They can at best pass resolutions on issues of common concern, that too if there is total consensus. And nowhere in India have girls been prohibited by law from carrying mobile phones.
The Christians not only defamed Shabari Dham through church networks but also used “secular” NGOs, many of whom are secretly funded by the church (and now even by Islamist groups), to declare war on Shabari Dham and the annual Shabari Mela simply because it resonated well with tribals.
The War Over Shabari
So long as the Bhils and other tribals remain poor and marginalised, they remain easy targets of conversion drives. But the moment they feel part of mainstream Indian society, missionaries can’t prey on their isolation. The Christians therefore began frantic efforts to pressure the central government to ban the Shabari Mela, with secular NGOs and Left-leaning mediapersons leading a concerted attack against Hindu organisations embracing the work of tribal welfare to wean them away from Christianity and its divisive agenda. The Christians argued that since there were no historical antecedents for this mela, Hindus should be prohibited from holding it.
With the Congress-led UPA government at the Centre, they got full backing and support in demonising Hindu organisations. Missionary- backed secular fronts such as Indian Social Institute, Medha Patkar-led National Alliance of People’s Movements and even People’s Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL) and People’s Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR) acted as foot soldiers for evangelicals in opposing Shabari Mela and endeavours of Hindu organisations to persuade tribals to assert their own faith traditions. Despite their democratic pretence, both PUCL and PUDR have been for long used as proxy fronts by Maoists.
The PUCL, which started off as a save-democracy organisation following the Emergency, turned into an obedient ally of evangelical groups and went so far as to file an intervention petition in the Supreme Court in 2006, supporting the Christian demand to ban Shabari Mela and put restrictions on ghar wapsi endeavours of Hindu organisations. This, when the Shabari Kumbh was being attended by lakhs of people from different parts of India of their own volition. Fortunately, the court refused to yield and the Shabari Mela was not banned.
But this campaign clearly revealed that Christian missionaries and the self-appointed guardians of civil liberties — PUCL and PUDR — joined hands to clamp down on the religious freedom of Hindus in their own homeland. They argued that Shabari Mela was being used as a platform for “communal propaganda to Hinduise or Brahmanise” adivasis. The charge is bizarre beyond belief. On the one hand, Christian missionaries don’t tire of attacking Hindus in general and Brahmins in particular of being exclusivist. On the other hand, any signs of inclusiveness is condemned as “Brahmanising” or Hinduising them, as though both these represent an intrinsically evil force. To Christianise tribals is “progressive”, even though it means making them disown and hate their ancestral faiths and cultures. But bringing them closer to upper-caste Hindu culture is dubbed “fascism”.
The missionaries have worked with zeal to drive a wedge between Hindu society and various groups erroneously designated as “tribals” simply because they were forest dwellers and therefore remained outside the varna vyavastha.. The core belief system of groups designated as tribals consists of ancestor worship and nature worship. Hence they are termed animists. But both these are core beliefs of Hindu faith traditions as well, even while rituals involving these two beliefs might differ from one group to another. The big chink in the tribal armour exploited by missionaries is that they don’t have a written history or literary tradition because most of their languages did not have well-developed scripts. Therefore, missionaries have used that vulnerability to invent a whole new history for them on the lines of the Aryan-Dravidian divide theory used with fair degree of success in the South.
Two men were specially targeted by church leaders — Narendra Modi as chief minister of Gujarat and Swami Aseemanand of the VHP.
The work of Hindu organisations suffered a major setback when Aseemanand, the prime mover behind Shabari Kumbh, was arrested by the UPA government on the charge of being part of “Hindu terror” groups engaged in the Ajmer Sharif bomb case in 2007, and the Samjhauta Express blasts.
Recently, the entire bogey of “Hindu terror” has been exposed to have been invented as a counter-blast strategy by the Congress leaders to deflect attention from Pakistan’s ISI-backed terrorist groups mushrooming all over India. Assemanand was acquitted of all charges on 18 April 2018.
During my long interviews with Narendra Modi in 2013, he provided me valuable insights into the games being played by missionaries in crafting a narrative of victimhood in order to defame India globally and put the Indian government and political leaders on the defensive, so that they dare not challenge even the patently illegal and subversive activities of missionaries.
Right from the inception of Shabari Dham temple, Modi as Gujarat chief minister was put under pressure to ban the entry of Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram and VHP preachers in the area. Modi told me that he assured the Christian leaders who met him that he was willing to guarantee their safety and ensure that no attacks would take place on any church or any Christian home but that he could not possibly shut down the Shabari Dham or ban the Shabari Kumbh since that would amount to depriving Hindus of their religious freedom. Thereafter, Modi instructed the deputy commissioner and senior police officers of the area to ensure that not even a pebble was thrown at any Christian home or church nor any tiff allowed to flare up.
In the process, Modi invited the wrath of the radical fringe of Hindu preachers because they too were put on close watch. Modi told me he took a firm stand not just out of concern for the safety of Christians — which he took seriously as his constitutional duty — but also because he was well aware of the intent of a section of the missionaries, especially those who belong to the bigoted Baptist sects.
Often, they themselves would provoke a fight with the well-thought-out purpose of blowing it up out of proportion — even a minor skirmish which would be made the basis of an international smear campaign that the government of Gujarat was on a genocidal mission vis a vis Christians. He added that after his firm instructions, the district administration ensured that no group was allowed to take liberties with law and order.
Modi’s explanation sounds logical: “the fact that not a single Christian needed even first aid at a local dispensary on account of inter-faith violence indicates how Christian leaders had exaggerated the threat of violence from Hindu organisations. Had there been serious attacks, at least some persons would have suffered injuries worth an FIR to the police or gone for medical treatment.”
I too got the impression that the missionaries didn’t seem happy with the administration becoming firm about ensuring law and order. Modi could see clearly that missionaries thrived in a situation of conflict because that enabled them to unleash campaigns defaming Gujarat as a fascist, intolerant state that endangers the rights of minorities. If they are deprived of the opportunity to create even small skirmishes that can be exaggerated beyond recognition through friendly media, they get more desperate. That is why, despite cessation of attacks and counter attacks in the Christian tribal belt, the church leaders remained in the forefront of the anti-Modi brigade, backed by the Congress and Left parties. Father Cedric Prakash, John Dayal and other Christian activists addressed countless meetings in the UN, in the European Parliament as well as in leading universities of the West to ensure that the international communities treated Modi and BJP as untouchables.
It is ironic that liberal educated people in India go ballistic and hyperventilate their outrage towards ghar wapsi but take a very benign stand when successive Popes openly proclaim their wish to “witness a great harvest of faith” in India. Imagine the Left liberal outrage in India if a Hindu leader expressed something close to what Pope Paul Francis declared in 15 March 2013 while addressing the College of Cardinals:
Let us never yield to pessimism, to that bitterness that the devil offers us every day; let us not yield to pessimism or discouragement: let us be quite certain that the Holy Spirit bestows upon the Church, with his powerful breath, the courage to persevere and also to seek new methods of evangelisation, so as to bring the Gospel to the uttermost ends of the earth (cf. Acts 1:8). Christian truth is attractive and persuasive because it responds to the profound need of human life, proclaiming convincingly that Christ is the one Saviour of the whole man and of all men. This proclamation remains as valid today as it was at the origin of Christianity, when the first great missionary expansion of the Gospel took place.