India Focus

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Vol 4, No 1

January 1999

Politics    •    Business        Economy    •    Society        Culture    •    Diplomacy

Anti-Christian Agitation

Historical Analysis, Political Dimensions & Diplomatic Implications

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 conversions.

British Rule, and Suspicion of Western Values:
The genesis of the problem between Hindus and Christians lies in India’s 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 India’s 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, India’s 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 defeated...."

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 groups.

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 BJP’s 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 India’s 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 India’s 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.


Other Sections in January 1999 Issue

Industry Forecast: Part 1

Consumer Goods
Pharmaceutical & Health Care
Industry Forecast: Part 2

Oil & Gas
Industry Forecast: Part 3

Tourism & Aviation
Mining & Metallurgy
Ports & Highways
Political Trends Anti-Christian Agitation
Analysis & Implications
Economic Summary
(including Budget Forecast)

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