Many would have heard of the horrific incidents of vandalism involving two churches in Delhi in the last few weeks. While the first church was clearly a victim of full-fledged arson, the second had some of its window panes stoned. Being in Delhi at the time of these two incidents, I was very upset. What was also appalling and egregious to note was that the ‘national’ media and public intellectuals were slow in reporting and condemning the incidents. I naïvely expected ‘national’ outrage. But, as we know, nothing of that sort happened.
Fortunately, the Archbishop of the Delhi Diocese, Fr. Anil Couto, minced no words. To quote from a news report, “Archbishop Couto said that the arson in St. Sebastian’s church was condemnable not just because it was an act of sacrilege and hate against the community and its faith, but [because] it could happen in the national Capital which is recovering from a series of communal incidents. Also distressing is the sense of police impunity [that is, impunity seen in police inaction]. Long hours were lost, and possible evidence destroyed, before the police finally came”.
Once I reached Goa after the winter break had commenced at my University, I declared to my friends on Facebook that while I was glad to be back in Goa, I was also relieved to be away from a city that burns and stones its churches. Kaustubh Naik, one of my friends, pointed out quite astutely that although I was away from a city where churches were being burnt and stoned, I had come back to a place where people were happily signing petitions against the church. He was referring to an online petition asking the Prime Minister of India to send the mortal remains of St. Francis Xavier back to Portugal (as if Xavier had been a native of Portugal) and the exposition stopped permanently, for it constituted a grave insult to the Indian nation. The petition rather uncritically linked Xavier with “inhuman crimes” of the Inquisition, and further argued that India had always preached and practiced ahimsa. I realized that the relief I had felt in being back in Goa was rather misguided.
To be very honest, it did not occur to me even then that these two episodes, in Delhi and Goa, were linked. To me the people who drafted the petition and those few who signed it were at best angry at the loss of Hindu cultural purity. Thinking about these events now, I am convinced that they are intimately linked. In fact, we need to view the arson in Delhi and the petition in Goa as a continuum that includes other events of the last three or four weeks involving Christians and Muslims in various parts of India.
Hindutva has of late stepped up its attacks on Adivasi, Christian, Dalit, and Muslim communities. Starting from November, the online news portal scroll.in reported how VHP and Bajrang Dal workers under the garb of ‘ghar wapasi’ were working hard to forcibly convert the Adivasis of Bastar in Chhasttisgarh. These Adivasi communities would frequent evangelical churches in the hope of spiritual healing. These evangelical churches or ‘prayer groups’ provide other amenities such as health care and education that successive governments there had failed to provide. What is important here is to note that originally these communities were never Hindu, but followed various different Adivasi faiths.
In December, the RSS presided over the ‘ghar wapasi’ of some 57 Muslim families and also threatened that come Christmas day, they would also (forcibly) convert 5000more Muslims and Christians. As if this was not enough, there was more salt waiting to be rubbed on the wounds of communities like the Muslims and Christians. The central government just a week or so before Christmas issued a circular to CBSE (and all its affiliated schools) to observe Christmas day as ‘good governance day’ in order to celebrate the birthdays of former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Hindu Mahasabha leader Madan Mohan Malaviya. Students were required to attend school on Christmas, the circular demanded. Although the circular was retracted soon, following some outrage in the press, the message conveyed was very clear: non-Hindu and ‘western’ practices are not welcome here. To put it very simply, they wanted to take away Christmas from all people of India, irrespective of religion.
The link in this whole tale of two and more ‘churches’ in various parts of India is the problem that Indian nationhood has with conversion. I would like to go a step further and suggest that if there is a rapid increase in vandalizing churches and oppressing shudra and untouchable Christian and Muslim communities in India, it is due to the failure of the secular-liberals in understanding the history and potential of conversion. Throughout the history of modern India and particularly the national freedom movement, conversion to Christianity and Islam was viewed as violating the very soul of the Indian nation. One does not need to go far, but look at the rhetoric that animated the Konkani language agitation and the MoI controversies. Always lurking beneath the surface was the accusation that Christianity was illegitimately westernizing people. It is this understanding that today legitimizes violent acts like the ‘ghar wapasi’. After all, the RSS and its affiliates claim that ‘ghar wapasi’ is necessary to wean people away from non-Indian cultural practices.
Throughout the last few decades the secular-liberals failed to see that Christianity and Islam had an innate promise of allowing one an escape from caste, whereas rituals like the ‘ghar wapasi’ tries to extend the stranglehold of caste. While I acknowledge that caste persists in both Islam and Christianity in India, what needs to be recognized is that the theological systems of these faiths uphold the equality of believers in principle. Thus, even though caste prejudice may exist, these prejudices can be attacked from within the theological framework of these faiths, unlike Hinduism. At the risk of stretching my argument ad absurdum, I think part of the problem of why the Delhi churches were vandalized, and why the response of the ‘national’ media and public intellectuals to this was slow, might lie in the faulty understanding of conversion to Christianity and Islam. Secular-liberals in India have never given any serious thought to how churches and mosques (and even dargahs) could pose an effective challenge to the power of Hindutva.
So, on Christmas eve, let us sincerely hope and pray that in the years to come fewer and fewer Adivasis, Christians, Dalits, and Muslims are oppressed in India and the emancipatory potential, both from caste and Hindutva, that these structures represent be recognized.
Have a joyous and blessed Christmas!
(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 24 December, 2014)