Historical Analysis, Political Dimensions & Diplomatic
There have been many attacks on Christian
groups in India in the past year, ranging from rape of nuns to burning of Bibles.
With the recent killing of an Australian missionary and his two young sons in a remote
village in Orissa, this problem has now assumed center-stage even while pro-Hindu groups
have become more belligerent in calling for a ban on religious conversions. The rise in
anti-Christian voices and activity has opened a new political front for the Vajpayee
government: his own allies have threatened to withdraw support unless something is done to
control this lawlessness, India is making negative news once again in the international
press, and foreign governments have expressed acute concern. In this special report,
we analyze the history, politics and dynamics behind the controversy over religious
British Rule, and Suspicion of Western Values: The genesis of the problem
between Hindus and Christians lies in Indias colonial history. Towards the turn of
the century, British rule in India became more a contest between two elites, two societies
and two civilizations, rather than an armed clash between the oppressor and the oppressed.
Indians, particularly Hindus, were constantly reminded (more by British attitude than
action) of the inferiority of their system and values. Even repeated conquests by Islamic
rulers over centuries did not shake Hindu self-confidence as much as British rule did.
Consequently, the independence movement in India was closely tied to the Hindu social
reform movement of the late nineteenth century, was as much a struggle to win back
self-respect as it was to win back land, and it was waged more through symbolic means than
anything else. Songs and odes on Indias ancient glory were composed, foreign
products were boycotted, English education was seen as a ploy to separate Indians from
their social institutions, and many Hindu political leaders, who were normally at ease
with western clothes, reverted back to local dress. Many things associated with British
values came to be shunned or viewed with suspicion, including Christianity.
Privileges to Anglo-Indians fueled Communal Separation: During British rule,
there was also a feeling among Hindus and Muslims alike that Christians enjoyed more
privileges, specially in education, jobs and social mobility. This was due to an erroneous
confusion over identities: Hindus thought that all Christians were Anglo Indians, a people
of mixed European and Indian parentage who formed only a tiny percentage of the larger
Christian population, and who were favoured by the British. Anglo Indians had special
schools, special rights to own firearms (which was denied to other Indians), special seats
in provincial councils, and an easier path to government jobs. For the most part, they
also mixed very rarely with other communities. At one time, Anglo-Indians (who comprised
less than half of one percent of the total Indian population) held almost twice as many
senior government jobs as Asiatic Indians, especially in the departments of
post, telegraph and railways. Over time, this ratio came down sharply as both Hindus and
Muslims entered education and government fields. Times have changed, and a shrinking
Anglo-Indian community has contributed significantly to Indian society, including
well-known writers, broadcasters, and even a Naval Chief. But old misperceptions persist
till today, especially in northern India. Some Hindus continue to believe till this
day that Christians in general have been a favoured and un-Indian lot.
Anger and Debate over Conversions is Not New: Even though the RSS/VHP combine
is at the forefront of the current controversy, the fact is that conversion of Hindus to
Christianity has been a sensitive issue for a long time and at least since independence.
The debate on whether, and how, to curb these conversions is older and wider than the Hindutva
campaign of the RSS, and the Congress has fueled this debate as much as anyone else. For
instance, even during drafting a new constitution for India, many Congress leaders wanted
to remove the right to propagate religion, but this demand was later dropped. Since then,
many respected Indian leaders, even those otherwise opposed to RSS ideology, have
questioned Christian missionary activity, and have supported some restraint on
conversions. One such person was Vinobha Bhave, a revered social worker and next only to
Mahatama Gandhi in the hierarchy of modern-day Indian saints. Another person was KN Katju,
Indias Home Minster under Nehru. More recently, C Subramanium, who served as Defense
Minister under Indira Gandhi, said "..the right to propagate religion must not be
used to run amok and promote conversion through attractive packages...."
Instances of Hindu-Christian armed clashes are also not new, and
occurred regularly in the 1950s and 60s in Madhya Pradesh and Orissa, both Congress-ruled
states at the time, and many Hindu tribals and new-converts were killed. In 1954, the
Congress government in Madhya Pradesh set up a committee to study this issue, which in
report accused Christian missionaries of creating a state within a state
and observed that "the philanthropic activities of Christian missionaries are a
mask for proselytization." These events were local in nature, and were
overshadowed by Hindu-Muslim animosity, and so they went largely unreported in the
national media. However, local anger against conversion was strong enough to force both
states to soon pass a law requiring that government has to be informed prior to any
planned conversion. This law was subsequently upheld by the Supreme Court.
1960s Was the Turning Point for Foreign Missionaries: During the 1960s and
1970s, Christian churches became the target of government suspicion over possible support
to secessionist groups in north-east India. One Rev. Scott was specifically implicated,
and literature encouraging Naga tribals to launch a separate "Christian country"
was found on him and a few other missionaries. The local press covered these events
prominently. These were stray incidents, disconnected to mainstream missionary activity,
but the Christian Church nevertheless earned a bad name. Relations between the Indian
government and missionaries also turned sour when the USA terminated PL 480, its food aid
program for India. The cancellation of PL 480 was due to larger geo-political
developments, and worsening India-US relations, but the then Congress government (under
Indira Gandhi) blamed Christian organizations in the US for lobbying against India. In
retaliation to both these events, India began denying visas in the late 1960s to foreign
missionaries, a policy which has continued for many years under successive regimes. Many
Christian priests, educationists and social workers who had virtually dedicated their
whole life to India were uprooted. Foreign Christian missionaries numbered over 6000 in
the 1960s, but now only about 500 are left.
New-Age Evangelists v/s Hindu Fundamentalists: The vacuum left by the
departure of foreign missionaries -- mostly Catholic, Anglican or Orthodox -- has been
filled by many new Protestant evangelists. They are Indians, but funded by Christian-Right
and other orthodox groups in the US and elsewhere, such as the Grace Community Evangelical
Church (Arizona), Solid Rock Ministries (Colorado), and Korea Evangelical Holiness Church.
They have brought a new kind of Christian culture to India: aggressive
proselytisation, faith healing and TV gospel hours. Most ordinary Hindus in small
towns and villages are at best used to the older, genteel version of European
Christianity, but the evangelists have now upset this delicate balance of inter-religious
distance and uneasy acceptance. The evangelicals act and speak more provocatively,
as shown by their literature available on the internet:
"Many people live on the edge of starvation in the
nation of India. These poor people have a natural capacity to put their trust on almost
anything. They are not dogmatic. This has always been the "entry point" through
which we can easily enter. So we must go to where the fish are found, where the fish bite
the bait on the hook...."
"Wherever there are pagan links with Indian cultures
and customs, deculturisation might become necessary...."
"The poor people who migrate from villages respond
to the Gospel more readily than the middle class or the elite. It is our mission to
evangelize every village and town. So, we march on faithfully towards the goal of a 1000
churches by AD 2000. 800 churches have already been planted. Christ is exalted. Satan is
This sort of fierce and purposeful language is an integral part
of the Christian Right everywhere, not just in India, and even Catholics are privately
uneasy with these messianic evangelists. But pro-Hindu groups lack the sophistication to
make these distinctions and in their eyes it is yet another attempt by the Christian world
to target and demoralize Hindus. Also, conversion to Christianity is often
accompanied by a change in name, dress and customs, and this is further interpreted as a
threat to local traditions. Hindu fundamentalists have accused missionaries of using
"cultural violence" and have even called Christians as "un-Indian."
This language is as extreme as that of Christian evangelists, but there is some
genuine resentment behind it.
Politics of Tribal Land and Votes: Since their arrival in India, evangelical
groups have set up a large number of churches and bible schools -- "church
planting" as they call it -- in tribal districts of Bihar, Orissa and Madhya Pradesh.
The BJP has also been trying to make inroads among tribal voters, and it has made major
gains. The BJP won more parliamentary seats from lower caste and tribal areas in the last
elections than either the Congress or any other party. So, both sides have been targeting
the same population, and are in direct conflict with each other: Hinduized tribals are
unresponsive to proselytisation, and Christianized tribals are unlikely to vote for the
BJP. Thus, tension between pro-Hindu groups and Christian evangelists has been in
the making for some time.
Ironically, both sides are funded from similar sources: the
evangelists, from churches in the US, and pro-Hindu groups, from overseas Indians, mainly
from the US. Locally, there is also fight over land, especially since most tribal areas
are rich in natural resources. It is relatively easy in India to grab community land, or
buy it cheap from the government, on religious consideration. Hindu and Muslim Mafia have
often abused this in the past, and as per local reports, even the current problem started
in Gujarat as a localized clash over community land between rival Hindu and Christian
Anti-Christianity Campaign has little Urban Support: Despite
historical and local factors, a hate campaign against Christians has very little support
in the middle class -- most people in this category have greatly benefited from missionary
schools and hospitals -- and NGOs and the media (as representatives of urban values) have
spoken out strongly. There may be some lingering cultural unease with Christianity, but
also admiration for its social contribution to India. The most common association with
Christianity is the image of Father Thomas or Sister Theresa teaching English, not of
Brother Graham teaching the Bible.
After Vajpayee, Allies Unlikely to Tolerate RSS: The killing of an
Australian missionary and his two sons, and verbal attacks on a revered figure like Mother
Teresa, have now become a defining moment, and Hindu fundamentalists have been undone by
their own extreme rhetoric which scares and shames even Hindus. By association, the BJP
has also lost some urban support. However, moderates led by Vajpayee, have distanced
themselves from this hate campaign, and have adroitly used this controversy to further
edge themselves into moral leadership of the ruling alliance, at the cost of RSS
hard-liners. Previous rumours about a secret deal between the RSS and BJP allies, in which
Vajpayee was to be eased out in a palace coup, now appear extremely implausible, and most
of BJPs allies have indicated that their support is to Vajpayee, and not to the BJP,
much less to the RSS. But this also means that in future, in a post-Vajpayee era, it will
be difficult for the BJP to evolve successful coalitions, and it could possibly be with
fewer allies in the next general elections. Meanwhile, the Congress has regained support
among minorities, at the cost of the Third Front, but Sonia Gandhi, a Christian, cannot
afford to hurt Hindu feelings by overtly siding with Christian groups. Many Third Front
constituents are in conflict with evangelists over social mobilization of lower castes,
and most UF parties have therefore stayed relatively quiet during this controversy.
Thus, even opposition parties are constrained by current caste and religious politics from
openly aligning with Christian groups.
Foreign Reaction Has Been Restrained: Unlike at the time of
Indias nuclear tests, foreign reaction has been moderate and balanced, specially
after seeing strong local opinion against attacks on Christians. Also, in recent months,
there have been anti-Christian incidents in other countries, like Indonesia and Pakistan.
And so, this controversy is unlikely to become a major diplomatic liability for India in
the near term, unless anti-Christian agitation take a dramatic turn. But, in the short
term, there could be problems for India-US relations. Bible-belt Congressmen may call for
sanctions against India (similar bill against China is pending), thus complicating the
atmospherics of current dialogue on disarmament. Also, the BJP regime appears fragile, and
the US is very worried that any change of regime at this stage, which we think is
unlikely, will make it that much more difficult to get Indian signature on the CTBT by the
deadline of September 99. On the other hand, Vajpayee is aware of all these
dynamics, and is keen to take diplomatic & economic initiatives in order to send
positive signals to foreign governments. But these attempts, such as celebrating 2000 as
the Year of Christ, will not be easy for him, since both Congress and RSS, for different
reasons, are unlikely to support him.
FINAL WORD: This whole issue is more complex than
imagined by foreign observers, and Hindu fundamentalism is only one factor. Other causes
are purely sociological, including Indias struggle with its plurality and history,
which will cause this problem to fester over the medium term. While it may
serve for some years as a convenient political tool for right-wing Hindu groups to
mobilize support in the interiors of village India, the existence of a critical mass of
liberal minded people, alert civic institutions and an increasingly activist
judiciary in India will stop this from degenerating into officially sponsored or condoned
religious bigotry. In fact, as India draws closer to the West through
economic, educational and cultural links, we expect that much of the current appeal
of fundamentalist voices will be significantly diluted.