Date: Sat, 23 Jan 1999 18:51:52 -0600 (CST)
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Missionaries Threaten Hindu Caste Order
By Dev Raj, IPS, 19 jan 1999
NEW DELHI, Jan 19 (IPS) - When Indian Nobel laureate Amartya Sen prescribed higher literacy rates as a remedy for poverty, Hindu fundamentalists saw in it a foreign plot to promote Christian missionary activity in this country.
Although the charge made and soon after withdrawn by Ashok Singhal, leader of the fundamentalist Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) was dismissed by many as the ranting of a fanatic, it was a pointer to the current level of political dialogue in India.
Few can quarrel with the tremendous contribution made by Christian missionaries towards promoting education in a country where there is little investment in schools and half the population remains illiterate.
Nearly every member of the English-speaking Indian elite has acquired his or her education in missionary-run institutions and these include Home Minister Lal Krishna Advani and Arun Shourie, chief ideologue of the right-wing Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
While the ruling BJP has distanced itself from attacks on the church, it has done little to prevent sister organisations like the VHP and the Rashtriya Swayam Sewak Sangh (RSS) from running an often violent campaign against alleged forcible conversions.
After the year ended with an orgy of church demolitions in western Gujarat state, all that Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee could offer was a "national debate on conversions", thus falling in line with the fanatic groups.
Vajpayee has also gratuitously offered not to initiate any move to ban conversions although that would call for an amendment to the Constitution which guarantees the right to "profess, practice and propagate religion."
Conversions are not new in India. Nor are they surprising because the main religion Hinduism is the only one in the world that does not preach the brotherhood of people but actually gives sanction to a rigidly hierarchical, birth-ordained caste system.
Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism were in fact rebellions against Hinduism and the tyrannical caste oppression enforced for centuries by the Brahmin priesthood which sits atop the Hindu social order.
While Buddhism moved away from the country of its birth and Jainism and Sikhism remained marginal, the advent of Islam in the 11th century and Christianity during colonial times provided the first escape for millions in India from the bondage of the rigid caste system.
But the people the VHP and RSS say are being converted are in fact long-neglected tribals and indigenous people who stand outside the pale of Hinduism and suffer both social and economic deprivation.
How real are the charges of forcible conversion? The Archbishop of Delhi, Alan de Lastic, points out that while the church runs more than 6,000 educational institutions in India few students who have passed out of them ever get converted.
In fact, church-run schools (or convent schools as they are popularly known) are much sought after by the elite for the high quality of education they impart. "Those who do not like our system are free not to send their children," the Archbishop said.
Even in the Dangs district of Gujarat where some 20 churches were pillaged and half that number burned down in post- Christmas violence, Christians form barely 15 percent of the 200,000 tribal population - after a century of missionary activity in the backward region.
According to the census, the population of Christians have fallen from three percent of the population in 1951 to a little over two percent in 1991. On the other hand, Christians have visibly benefited from better access to education and through organisation.
Archbishop de Lastic thinks that the good work of the Church all over the country may have resulted in some jealousy and resentment building up against it. Besides, he said, the established social order in the villages is being threatened.
Professor of Sociology at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) here, T.K. Oomen adds that resentment against Christianity may also stem from its association with the colonial past - although the British did not encourage conversions.
There is, Prof Oomen points out, a similar resentment towards Islam, another "alien" religion brought to India through conquest, and has been the main target of of Hindu fundamentalism till last year.
But where the Muslims are a large minority, constituting 20 percent of India's population, the sudden attack on Christians may have to do with the fact that the Congress party, the main political rival of the BJP, is currently led by a Christian - the Italian-born Sonia Gandhi.
Gandhi who married into the Gandhi-Nehru political dynasty is currently engaged in restoring to the Congress party its former image of being all things to all people and essentially secular as defined by the Constitution.
Evidently Gandhi's strategy is working. The Congress resoundingly defeated the BJP in recent state assembly elections, capturing the important states of Delhi, western Rajasthan and central Madhya Pradesh.
"The BJP and its sister organisations like the VHP and the RSS can respond to the defeats in the only way it knows - by whipping up communal passions," says Congress leader in Parliament, Sharad Pawar.
Certainly the RSS weekly, 'The Organiser', its mouthpiece, has in recent issues been more stridently communal than usual about the "dangers to Hinduism". It for example describes Christian educational institutions as a "wolf in sheep's clothing".
There are signs that Prime Minister Vajpayee, acceptable as leader of the shaky 17-party coalition only for his image as a moderate, is increasingly uncomfortable with the fundamentalism of the RSS and its agenda.
On Monday, Vajpayee had announced the Bharat Ratna, the nation's highest civilian award for Amartya Sen who has not only been vocal against the neglect of education in India but also champions a multi-religious, plural society.
Origin: New Delhi/RIGHTS-INDIA/
[c] 1999, InterPress Third World News Agency (IPS)
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