Hindu Vivek Kendra
Annexure A

Christians Awake!
by Hansel D'Souza
The Secular Citizen, June 1995

With the recent sociopolitical upheavals triggered off by the Babri Masjid demolition and the riots that followed, the status of minorities in India has come under review. While allegations of pampering the minority vote bank have been levelled at the ruling party, the Muslim minority itself has felt let down by them.

This, however, has served as a point for introspection for the Christian community in the country.

To begin with, Christians in India account for less than 4% of the total population and hardly command the attention that the Muslims have in post-independence history. Besides, this population is widely dispersed except in Mizoram where it constitutes the majority. In "highly concentrated" pockets like Goa and Kerala where Christianity took roots and flourished, the Christian population is barely 25-30% of the total populace.

Why, then, have Christians become the target of attack by forces represented by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and other groups of the Sangh Parivar? The Question is best answered by first finding out what the sore points or main areas of conflict are. Without going into a detailed analysis, I could list from my experience and dialogue with groups that subscribed to the Sangh Parivar's ideology the following areas of suspicion:

  1. Conversions by Christian missionaries.
  2. Denigration of Hinduism by Christians.
  3. Cultural alienation of Christians in India
  4. Political turmoil in areas under missionary influence.

A plan to tackle each of these points separately. The objective of this exercise is not to either defend the Christian point of view or attack the Hindu perception, but to look within and search for means to overcome majority of our countrymen. One clarification is necessary and that is that neither do the Sangh Parivar's perceptions represent those of the majority of Hindus nor do my own represent those of the majority of Christians.

Conversions by Christian missionaries

To the average reader, this might seem a non-issue and might hardly warrant serious thought. Yet, to my mind, this has been the major bone of contention and rightly so.

One need not delve into history-books to find out the circumstances under which 'Missionaries in India.....' will serve as a ready reckoner of the growth of Christianity during the colonial era. While I strongly recommend reading this scholarly work, I do not agree in toto with his analysis and interpretations. There have been reactions in the press from both Christian and non-Christian writers. While expectedly, Christian die-hards condemned him outright, the contributions by Khushwant Singh and Mani Shankar Aiyer warmed the cockles of Christians hearts with their stout defence of Christians and their work in India. In any case, to smugly accept their standpoints would be akin to falling prey to flattery. Arun Shourie has done service to the Christian community by bringing forth a bugbear that seethes in many a mind and warrants clarification.

To convert or not convert? This seems to be the question o the day! To begin with, it might seem redundant to state, but important none the less, that besides the Constitution, every philosophy holds that like all human beings, every religion is equal. Religious belief is a matter of the mind and heart, and to every human person, his own belief is probably the dearest, most pristine and perfect. The word 'convert' itself is a term of aggression and connotes a kind of intellectual assault on an individual's philosophy. When this is coupled with force, coercion, bribery or blackmail, it becomes a despicable act that any self-respecting person - Christian or otherwise - can only condemn.

If one were to peruse the documents of Vatican II, one would come across an unequivocal endorsement of this very thought made some three decades ago by the Church. In fact, as recently as a few months ago, Pope John II in a letter to Roman Catholics said that the Roman Catholic Church must mark the year 2000 by acknowledging its sins over the past 2000 years, including intolerance in the name of religion and complicity in crimes against human rights. He mentioned the "acquiescence given, especially in certain centuries, to intolerance and even the use of violence in the service of truth". What greater apology can by preferred than this, from the Pontiff of the entire community?

Why then does the suspicion still exist? Is it that the missionaries in India wilfully go about this business of conversion with single-minded purpose? Or is it a bogey raised by a section of Hindu fundamentalists? In any case, the first positive step would be for the CBCI and the Church in India to call a blanket ban on dubious conversion activities. It is time for us to come clean on this issue and express the sentiments of the vast majority of the Catholic laity that lives in India. Let not the misguided zeal of a fanatical few sully the fair record that the Christians in India have built over the years.

We then come to the point of evangelisation. "Go forth and make disciples of all nations..." is the favourite quote of crusaders in defence of their cause. To begin with, I will desist from debating or interpreting quotes from the Testament or for that matter the Gita, Koran or Torah. This is the refuge of cowards who would like to hide behind passages of the past to justify their own nefarious ends. Just as the proof of the pudding lies in eating it, the veracity and relevance of Scripture lies not merely in its words but in the practice of it. Over the ages, the Bible has meant a million things to a million men and no single person can claim authority over its interpretation.

As we see it today, evangelisation can hardly be convincing a man against his will of the superiority of one's own point of view. However backward, poor and marginalised a tribal may be, it would be foolish to assume that he lacks the intelligence to discern the motives of an ardent missionary and for a bowl of rice or a yard of cloth relinquish his beliefs of centuries. In fact, the only condition which would motivate a man to abandon his precepts for another would be if he bore a deep hate for a system that subjugated him and his tribe for centuries condemning them to a sub-human existence. Human dignity stands tall over all other values and this should be a point for introspection for our Hindu brethren.

Should then Christians be allowed to propagate their faith in any part of the country they choose? I would like to delineate here the concepts of propagation and proselytism. Very recently, Pope John Paul II was quoted to have stated in Colombo "the Church firmly rejects proselytism." If this is true, then the Holy Father has indeed lead the way for us to follow. A critic would then quote in answer Matt. 28:29. Does the Pope then negate Scripture?

The essence of Matt. 28:29 is the command to spread the Good News of redemption by preaching and professing the values taught to us by Christ. One of the foremost of these values is a genuine respect for one's neighbour. Would Christ have condoned the Inquisitions, the rape of the Inca civilisation by missionaries and conversion by bribery and deceit? Can one justify any one of these heinous acts by quoting Scripture? Fortunately, the Holy Father himself has answered the question.

What, then, should our response as Indian Christians be? While upholding the right to practice, preach and propagate our faith, we must be conscious of our responsibility to respect the faith and beliefs of others. Every school of thought and philosophy propagates itself in various ways. Only bigots do it by attempting to destroy others. It is time that the Church in India followed in the foot steps of the Holy Father and stated publicly its official position on the matter. It is in the interest of the entire Christian community that a directive be issued to all missionary orders in the country to view sternly any attempts by its members to flout the code of ethical propagation. In fact, the Church would do well to lay down strict guidelines in matters of acceptance of new entrants to the Faith and formulate a code for ethical propagation of the faith.

It would be interesting to ask Mother Teresa and her Sisters of Charity, how many people they have converted during the course of their work. I wouldn't be surprised if the answer is none. Yet, she has become a shining example of how to live the Christian faith for the world to see. It is in the interest of harmonous relations with our fellow Indians that we must realise the need to act with maturity and promptness in this regard after due consideration and debate.

Denigration of Hinduism by Christians

The history of colonial missionary activity in India is rife with examples of calumny heaped upon indigenous faiths by European missionaries who came here ostensibly to preach the Word of God. Without going into details of the circumstances under which this was done, today we cannot but help agree that this was improper and most undesirable.

The epoch however was different and understanding of the faith was restricted to certain schools of European opinion which followed the exclusivist approach that believed there was no salvation outside the Church. The wheel has turned a full circle. The Exclusivist thinking gave way to the Inclusivist approach that acknowledged salvation through other faiths but through Christ's influence though not knowing or acknowledging it. Today, the post-Vatican II thinking is Pluralist - that accepts that other faiths are in themselves sufficient for salvation.

With this approach, denigration of another faith, destruction of an indigenous philosophy or assertion of the, superiority of one's own faith is not just superfluous but offensive. It is definitely not wrong to believe that one's own faith is the best, but to wilfully show disrespect to another does not just contravene the teachings of Vatican II but is anathema to the basic teachings of Christ.

Under the tutelage of European missionaries, it became fashionable to condemn Hinduism as idolatry and mythical nonsense. Today, I understand that a study of the Bhagwad Gita is compulsory in seminary training, not with a critical objective, but with a desire to imbibe the best from one of the finest philosophical works the world has known.

Given this background, the Catholic Church in India has no choice but to accept that the calumny of the past was a grievous error on the part of over-zealous crusaders for the Faith. Today, while bearing a genuine feeling of remorse, the Church must make amends by inculcating in its young adherents a genuine respect for the tradition, faith and beliefs of the millions of our countrymen.

For a Catholic living in a pluralist society like India, it is an entirely different experience from that of the Catholic living in almost a mono-theist western nation. Our approach to different faiths cannot be governed by global compunctions but should be a conscious effort on our own, not only to understand but to accept and imbibe the rich philosophy of religions like Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism have to offer.

To the fanatical few, this might seem like an attempt to dilute the teachings of the Church and erode the principles on which Christianity was founded. On the contrary, the Christian faith has weathered many an onslaught and has stood the test of time. Today, as basic Christian values become more and more apparent, there is a burning need for the church in India to rectify the mistakes of the past and embark on a mission to live the Christian values of respect for others by word and deed.

Desecration of Hindu temples, destruction of idols and condemnation of tradition were attempts by colonial agents with a misguided zeal of "civilising" the colonies. While accepting this as wrong, the Church needs to set the record right and project in the right perspective its role of being an instrument of change in this society that is living with the ghosts of the past. By being responsive to the needs of the people, the Church can fulfil its mission of bringing solace to the struggling sections of our society.

Many Indian missionaries are today involved in the day to day struggle of our people for justice, dignity and a better way of life. It is by identifying themselves with the people's needs that they have given witness of their faith and have won the appreciation of the milieu in which they work. This is a sterling example of living Christian values without being offensive about another's faith and belief.

To quote our Prime Minister, "to exist (as a nation), we must co-exist". Though India is described as a secular country, it is in fact a country of many faiths. Only when we learn to live with genuine respect for each other's faith can we grow.

Cultural alienation of Christians in India

To understand many of the problems we live with, it is essential to go back in history. Though Christianity came to India as early as 52 A.D. or thereabouts through St. Thomas (as some believe) or traders from the East, it only flourished and spread with the influx of European missionaries under the patronage of our colonial rulers.

The dividing line between culture and faith being so thin, it was only natural for adherents to the Faith to adopt the culture that introduced the faith to them. Thus, the early Christian being influenced by the educational institutions set up by the early missionaries adopted the culture he was taught to accept. This is hardly a strange phenomenon when one considers the influence on both religion and' culture that the Dravidian civilisation had on the Aryans. Even the Moghals left an indelible mark on Indian society during the course of their rule.

While the influence of other civilisations has been accepted and assimilated in Indian society, the western influence on the Indian Christians is still looked upon with suspicion. One of the main reasons being that westerners ruled us as recently as 45 years ago and there exists a strong feeling of resentment against the British with whom all western influences are identified.

There are many sections of the Christian community that live in Kerala, Mangalore, Tamil Nadu, the North-East and even Bombay who have retained strong bonds with Indian culture and yet profess the Christian faith. But, it is fashionable to deride Christians as behaving as al lens in our culture.

Language is a very strong vehicle that not only perpetuates but contributes to the growth of a culture. The strongest surviving traditions can be linked with languages with rich literary works, art, dance and music. Unfortunately, a large majority of Christians in India being products of missionary schools have severed ties with the indigenous art forms and culture as a whole.

This, to my mind, led to the cultural alienation of Christians from the rest of the country. By way of example, take any Hindu student from an urban English medium school. Chances am that he would find Indian culture as alien as his Christian counterpart. In fact, the contemporary Indian student is so influenced by the communications boom in the country that one can see a steady erosion of Indian culture in the mind of the new generation. So is it fair then to blame Christianity or the Church for this cultural alienation? Obviously no. But if not by commission, then at least by omission is the Church guilty of being party to this trend. Through its educational institutions, the Church has hardly contributed to the development of at least in interest in the Indian art forms and culture on the whole. Again, there is no such thing as a composite Indian culture, but the indigenous practice and tradition is what needs to be nurtured in its own spheres of influence. Has there been any conscious effort to promote and propagate indigenous tradition?

As early as the 16th century, De Nobili attempted to amalgamate Christian faith with Indian tradition. These attempts are being looked upon with suspicion today as a masquerade to convert the local populace and make Christianity more "acceptable". What De Nobili's real objectives were is hard to tell, but the fact remains that a certain section of Indian, society felt perfectly at home with professing the Christian faith while retaining their indigenous culture.

It is ironical that Jesus Christ himself was hardly an European. In fact, he and his first followers were as Asian as we are. Perhaps, that is why there is no dichotomy between the cultures of the Kerala Christians and Kerala Hindus. Another example is Buddhism. Was the Buddha a Chinese, Tibetan. Indonesian, Malay, Burmese, Korean or any other South-East Asian? And the fact is that a large majority of original Buddhists live outside the land of the Buddha's birth-India! What then is the answer to this allegation of Indian Christians being culturally alienated from patent of the prototype of the perfect Indian? Is nationalism the preserve of the chosen ones ordained by the divine powers?

Political Turmoil in Areas Under Missionary Influence

In the recent past, missionary activity in India has faced flak from the Sangh Parivar on a New front. Quoting examples from the North-East, Jharkhand and Madhya Pradesh, the allegation is that Christian missionaries in these areas are wilfully promoting political dissent and are contributing covertly to the turmoil faced in these areas.

To assess the truth in this statement one will have to analyse the socioeconomic situation in these pockets. To begin with, the common factor that exists between the people in all these areas is that the majority of the population in these geographic segments were triabals and their economic condition has been backward since centuries. Did the Christian missionaries then, as part of a planned effort, fish in troubled waters? Or, did they choose to work with the most underprivileged in the country in order to live the Christian ethic of bringing solace to the poorest of the poor? The answer most likely depends on which end of the political spectrum one subscribes to.

But, without picking nits, one can say that the outcome of this activity has been a polarisation of forces in these treas. Today there exists a great awareness among the people of their rights, their strengths as a group and an enhanced quality of life. This obviously has led to increased tensions between the ruling elite, landlords and traders on the one hand and the tribal folk who are no more subservient as they used to be. The missionary has naturally opted to support the group he has worked with all these years. Though the missionary has always been primarily concerned with the socioeconomic uplift of the tribals, the dividing line between this activity and the political equation at the local level is too fine to define.

The surprising part, however, is that groups of the Sangh Parivar have been quick to denounce missionary activity as being 'anti-national'! Is it anti-national to opt for the poor and marginalised? Is it anti-national to challenge the ago-old hegemony of the landlords and traders? Is it anti-national to demand development of a particular area even if it means asking for a separate state within the Indian union or a new demarcation of boundaries for local development? Obviously, the RSS would say yes, considering that they have traditionally represented the cause of the ruling elite in their pursuit of extreme right-wing idealism.

However, looking at the problem objectively, this allegation of fomenting anti-national sentiments needs to be treated with the contempt it deserves. Without going into whether it is right or wrong for Christian missionaries to involve themselves in the struggles of the people, one can clearly see that there is no covert or overt effort on their part to subvert the constitution and the polity of the Indian nation. This involvement may be construed as adopting a position opposite to right-wing ideology, but this can definitely not be construed as being anti-national.

Contents Page           Back to Home