Vijayesh Lal analyses how Hindu nationalism targets Christians with anti-conversion laws
Four days before India’s 70tht Independence Day celebrations a controversial advertisement by the Jharkhand Government’s Information and Public Relation department has caused widespread anger within the Christian community.
The advertisement was released on the day when the Jharkhand government was supposed to table the controversial Anti-Conversion law in the legislative assembly. The Jharkhand government had given a cabinet nod to the draft of the act, titled Jharkhand Freedom of religion Act, 2017 on 1 August.
The advertisement was carried in most Hindi newspapers in the state and displays a photograph and the below quote in Hindi, attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, the father of the Nation:
“If Christian missionaries think that a person can get salvation only through converting to Christianity, then why don’t you start this work beginning with me or Mahadev Desai (Gandhi’s Personal Secretary)? Why are you emphasizing religious conversion of these simple, innocent, ignorant and poor Dalits and Tribals? They can’t even differentiate between Jesus and Mohammad and are not even capable of understanding your religious teachings. They are as mute and simple as a cow. These innocent and illiterate Dalits and Tribals whose poverty you are milking and are making them Christians; they do not become Christians because of Jesus but because of ‘rice’ that is for their stomach.” (Translated)
The advertisement also carries the photograph of the Chief Minister of the state, Mr Raghubar Das who has been outspoken against Christians, even claiming that separatist forces outside the country want to turn India into a ‘Christian state.’
It is a deliberate attempt to malign the Christian community through levelling baseless allegations by exploiting an alleged Gandhi quotation, out of context, to vilify the Christian community and erase their contribution in education and health, in order to justify a politically motivated bill banning conversions in the state. At a time when hate-crimes and violence in the name of religion are increasing in the country, this advertisement comes across as irresponsible and reeks of malicious political one-upmanship.
The advertisement has the potential to aggravate the targeting of the Christian community in the state. That the Chief Minister practices the tenets of a religious nationalist political philosophy which had led to the assassination of the Mahatma, brings out the cynicism and irony of this deliberate act. It adds insult to injury.
Wooing the Tribals
The advertisement begins with the words, “Step taken to fulfill the dream of god Birsa Munda and Late Kartik Oraon.” Both Munda and Oraon are major Tribes found in the state and the advertisement seemingly attempts to reach out and assimilate them in the government’s attempt to protect “poor innocent Tribals” from the clutches of missionaries.
Birsa Munda was a freedom fighter and is a much-revered figure in Jharkhand. He combined religion and politics in his struggle against the British empire and is considered a god by his followers. A Christian in his earlier life and educated in a Christian school, he left midway and joined the Munda tribe struggle against the British. In 1894, he declared himself a god, and led the revolt against the British control of the Chota Nagpur region.
Kartik Oraon was a senior tribal leader and a three-time Congress Member of Parliament from the region who rose to become minister for aviation and communication in the Government of India under Mrs Indira Gandhi. He had demanded the removal of tribal Christians from the Scheduled Tribes (ST) category.
His book Bees Varsh Ki Kaali Raat (The twenty-year long night) claims that Christian converts were infringing on the quota benefits meant for Tribals. The RSS and its offshoot Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram and its alleged affiliate Janajati Suraksha Manch revived the demand raised by Kartik Oraon by relaunching his book in January 2009 and have been since then reinstating the demand that tribal converts to Christianity and Islam should not be given the benefits of the ST quota. The Manch, however, predictably on the lines of the RSS, does not consider Tribal conversion to Hinduism a problem, since Hinduism according to them, is a geographical identity and not a religion.
Hindutvaization of the Tribals
Both Birsa Munda and Kartik Oraon have been absorbed and portrayed as Hindutva heroes by the RSS and its affiliated organizations and they use them to counter the Christian presence in the state which at the same time helps the RSS and its arms expand in the area. This is similar to what we see in other tribal areas of India as well in the form of an increased Hindutvaization drive of the Tribals. This serves not only to increase the vote bank of the BJP in the tribal regions, but also fractures the Tribal society opening the Tribal areas and especially their natural resources to possible exploitation.
While absorbing Kartik Oraon, the RSS has conveniently chosen to ignore the fact that he himself never identified as Hindu. He even wrote a booklet titled “Indigenous people are not Hindus” (Adivasi Hindu Nahi Hai).
Hindutvaization of Tribals also strengthens the RSS claim of India being a Hindu Rashtra (Nation) and the Aryans being the original inhabitants of India, because the Tribal is a constant reminder to the RSS that it is the Tribal and not the Aryan who is the original inhabitant of the land. Not surprisingly the advertisement issued by the Jharkhand Government also uses the word that RSS uses for Tribals i.e. ‘Vanvasis’, meaning ‘Jungle Dwellers’ instead of the official word ‘Adivasis’ which literally means ‘Dwellers from the beginning’.
Kartik Oraon who has been invoked by the Jharkhand Government had opposed the term ‘Vanavasi’ and writes in his booklet, “There is no place for Hindu gods and goddesses in the Adivasi community. Hindus are deists while Adivasi’s worship nature,”. He goes on to cite the judgment of the Jabalpur High Court which had held that Adivasi’s are not Hindus before commenting, “Hindu missionaries disrespect Adivasis by referring to them as Vansasi Hindu.”
The advertisement allegedly quotes, Mahatma Gandhi, the father of the nation, and accuses the Christian community of indulging in conversions through inducement.
Professor Apoorvanand in his brilliant article titled ‘Jharkhand Government Is Misusing Gandhi, Public Funds to Fuel Anti-Christian Hate’ published on 12 August 2017 in ‘The Wire’ says, “..it is dishonest and even criminal of the Jharkhand government to have put this word in the mouth of Gandhi.”
Having done a thorough analysis, Professor Apoorvanand shows that the so-called quote is actually ‘a distorted version’ of Gandhi’s conversation with the Nobel Peace prize winner, John R Mott, who was also the Chairman of the International Missionary Council.
Did Gandhi really think that conversions were a threat to Hinduism? The following quote from ‘Gandhiji on Religious Conversions’, published by, Mani Bhavan Gandhi Sangrahalaya, Mumbai, proves otherwise, “Hinduism is passing through a fiery ordeal. It will perish not through individual conversions, not even through mass conversions, but it will perish because of the sinful denial by so-called savarna Hindus of elementary justice to Harijans. Every threat of conversion is, therefore, a warning to the savarnas that if they do not wake up in time, it may be too late!”
Gandhi had his own views on conversion and missionaries, but we must remember that his struggle against the British also helped aggravate his attitude towards organized Christianity. His experiences, particularly in South Africa, hardened him. To soften that up he began to make a distinction between Christ and Christians which is an artificial construct, for one does not follow Christ because of Christians but because of the person and work of Christ Himself and the implications of that on one’s faith and belief.
What he said about conversions and missionaries is contextual to his upbringing and political exposure where it was easy to say that Christianity and missionaries were part of the establishment, which he was fighting.
But Gandhi, as Apoorvanand writes, was very clear that ‘his personal conviction cannot be made the law of the land.’ We need to remember why Gandhi, even though he had many shades to his personality, as anyone can find out by reading his autobiography, is called a Mahatma (great soul). He led a popular revolution that resulted in the freedom of India and he stood almost alone at Noakhali working to restore peace and communal harmony, and paid the price for that by being shot by Nathuram Godse of the RSS.
Using the father of the nation, who lost his life for communal harmony, to divide the nation, is what should worry and anger us. The deliberate misuse of Gandhi, to set people against people and to divide the tribal society between Sarna and Christian and using that to grab the resources of Jharkhand is something that should trouble us all. It is not surprising that the happiest people in this whole chain are the corporates.
Anti-Conversion laws in India
The divisive advertisement was a prelude to the tabling of the controversial Jharkhand Freedom of Religion Act, 2017, at the Legislative Assembly in Jharkhand during its Monsoon Session. The tabling of the bill was done in a hurry, a day after the advertisement came out, and the same was passed ignoring a demand by opposition parties to send the Bill to a select committee first. Now the passed Act will go to the Governor of the State for his assent and then the rules may be framed.
Once the rules are framed for the Act, Jharkhand will be the sixth state in India implementing the Anti-Conversion law, as these laws are commonly known. Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat are the other five states which already have them. Arunachal Pradesh passed a law in 1978, but so far, the rules have not been framed. The state of Rajasthan passed a similar law in the year 2008, but the same is awaiting the assent of the President of India. The state of Tamil Nadu passed the law in 2002 but later repealed it.
The ruling dispensation headed by the BJP has never hidden its intention of bringing a pan Indian anti-conversion law. M Venkaiah Naidu, India’s newly elected Vice President and a BJP politician spoke on the parliament floor, about the wish of the BJP to bring about an anti-conversion law in all states in December 2014.
The laws mentioned above are also quite vague. They do not ban conversions per se but make conversions by “force, allurement, inducement or fraud” illegal. It does not help that the terms force, allurement, and fraud have not been defined properly. Assurance of heaven, can be easily misconstrued as allurement or an inducement, and force has been defined to include the ‘threat of divine displeasure’ in both Orissa and in the new Jharkhand Act. Hence the ambiguity gives the state and by extension non-state actors, a sanction by which the Christian community could be targeted.
Anti-Conversion laws have a long history even prior to the independence of India with princely states enacting the laws, starting with the Rajgarh State Conversion Act 1936. Even after independence attempts have been made in 1954, 1960 and in 1979, to bring about such laws on a national scale. A variety of political parties including the Congress, have been behind these attempts both at the national level and at the states.
It is however, interesting to note, that not a single Christian has been convicted so far as a result of these laws in these states in spite of a legacy of more than half a century of these laws being in existence. Forcible conversions to Christianity in a country that is de-facto a Hindu nation, are impossible. And fraudulent conversions are even more because they are an insult to the common sense of the people. For example, how can pastors (who are mostly poor), force someone to convert to Christianity in an area where the Police Inspector, the Member of Legislative Assembly, the Member of Parliament, the Judge, and the Panchayat Pramukh (Head of the village Council) are all Hindus?
The Christian community is not worried about these anti-conversion laws per se but their misuse to target, harass and cause violence on poor pastors and nuns found all over India doing their works of service as an expression of their love for God and His people.
Rev. Vijayesh Lal is the General Secretary of Evangelical Fellowship of India. Views expressed in the article are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Evangelical Fellowship of India or Global Christian News.