Former Lok Sabha Speaker and Nationalist Congress Party leader Purno Sangma has made a rather startling allegation that the Congress president is responsible for the recent attacks on Christians. In an interview to a Shillong newspaper, Sangma said: “Christians were never attacked in India, but people reacted sharply when Sonia Gandhi expressed the desire to become Prime Minister” (quoted in The Hindustan Times, September 25, 1999). BJP vice president Kishan Lal Sharma expressed a similar view, pointing out that the attacks began only when Sonia Gandhi appeared on the political scene and that the killings (of four Christians) look place in a Congress-ruled state.
While making allowances for the fact that these accusations have been leveled by the Congress’ political rivals, it would be unwise to dismiss their deeper implications out of hand, since disturbing undercurrents are already discernible. The crux of this argument is that the Congress has always benefited from communal violence against the minorities. For instance, communal riots have always compelled the Muslim community to vote for the Congress, a fact that helped sustain it in power for nearly four decades. The fall of the Babri Masjid, however, broke the spell and left the Muslim vote open to the Samajwadi Party and others, and sent the Congress into political diaspora.
The moot question, therefore, is whether and to what extent the Congress can be said to have benefited from the violence against the negligible Christian minority in some parts of the country (we shall leave the issue of who is behind the incidents to competent authorities). Even more important are the related (and unfortunately neglected) issues of the Congress’ attitude towards conversions in the face of stiff tribal resistance; and the Congress’ disposition towards attempts by western powers to stoutly promote conversions in the name of religious freedom. The questions acquire a special urgency since the Congress has a non-Hindu family at its helm, the head of which is an Italian-born Roman Catholic, whose citizenship and other accomplishments (if any) are the subject of frenzied national debate.
Hence, these are issues we can ignore only at our peril. For one, they have profound and immediate consequences for the polity and the society. But even more important, by uncovering Congress’ unhealthy relationship with the minorities, they expose its attitude towards the Hindu community and the civilizational ethos that underlies our national unity.
For over five decades now, the Congress has taken the lead in dishonestly using religion to adulterate the polity, espousing secularism while dividing communities in the name of protecting minorities, with consequences that are there for all to see. The current Hindu assertion, which is giving sleepless nights to the so-called secularists, no doubt began as a reaction to this deceitful use of religion to secure political ends. Mercifully, this reactive phase was short-lived, and peaked with the dramatic reclamation of the Ram Janmabhoomi in Ayodhya.
Today it continues as a positive struggle to give the spiritual-cultural aspirations of the people a legitimate space in the public arena. I may hasten to add that this does not mean legislating India into a Hindu Rashtra; it merely involves recognizing the civilisational ethos of the Hindus as the foundation of Indian society. This is why the BJP could shelve the contentious aspects of its manifesto with ease; the larger national perspective demands that it first redefine federalism by reflecting state aspirations in the Union.
Returning to the Congress, however, there ia little doubt that the party’s fortunes have taken an upward turn since the unexpected rape of four nuns by miscreants of the community in Jhabua, MP, and the prolonged low intensity Hindu-Christian conflict in Dangs, Gujarat. With the political agility of a deer, it blamed the BJP associate – Vishwa Hindu Parishad – for the incidents, and since the latter responded with the speed of a sloth bear, Congress almost carried the day in the bar of public opinion. Only the arrest of Christian youths in MP and the forceful declamations of respected Gandhians in Gujarat cleared the picture.
By then, however, Congress had registered its presence on the communal stock exchange. The gruesome murder of Australian missionary Graham Staines and his sons earlier in February merely brought things into the open, viz., that the Muslims (the principal minority) are willing to deal with a Sonia-led Congress. One has only to recollect the joint rally by Christian clerics and Jama Masjid’s Naib Imam to establish this fact. Thus, the violence against Christians has not only brought the coveted communal vote back to the Congress’ kitty, but has also focused the ire of the western (Christian) world on the BJP-led alliance. And despite the clean chit given by the Wadhwa Commission to the Sangh parivar in the Staines’ murder case, Christian leaders continue a high profile tirade against the parivar for alleged atrocities. Their campaign is frankly communal, and must in fairness be described as an unhealthy mix of religion and politics.
This brings us to the Sonia-led Congress’ viewpoint on missionary activity in tribal areas, as well as its standpoint on western, especially US, interference in this regard. As with most issues of critical importance, the Signora has maintained a shroud of secrecy on these questions. As I anticipated in my previous column, she did not touch the Christian issue until she reached Orissa and the Christian-dominated north-east, and then only to make political capital out of the tragedies. So she naturally developed amnesia about the Orissa nun’s medically disproved rape some months ago, not to mention more serious concerns like the tribal resentment at the missionary assault on their way of life.
This point merits serious attention. Contrary to the claims of those who have made the cultural dismemberment of the country their lives’ goal, in ancient times the forest-dwelling tribal communities were an intrinsic part of the socio-economic-cultural spectrum. They were respected as reservoirs of culture and tradition; not condemned as ‘pagans’ or ‘animists’ in the manner in which western Christians despised (and decimated) indigenous peoples in the countries they conquered. This is why Indians do not accept the view that tribals are non-Hindus; that their culture is intrinsically inferior; and that Christians, Muslims and Hindus have an equal right to ‘offer their religion to them,’ as Minorities Commission chairman Tahir Mahmood once claimed.
My point is that they do not. No one has the right to presume the superiority of his faith and barge into a peaceful community, uproot (a section of) it from its traditional culture and mores, and create religious conflict. Father Arul Doss, for instance, was murdered while making converted tribal families celebrate the Nuakhai harvest festival ahead of the tribal calendar. Previously, there was tension in the region as missionaries provoked the converts to plough the land during the sacred Rajo festival when it is believed that the living earth has the religious right to rest. I may add that the idea of the earth as a living goddess is a fundamental Hindu belief.
Ironically, the US wished to send Robert Seiple, its ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom, to India to promote (sic) “reconciliation in those areas where conflict has been implemented along religious lines.” This is a classic instance of the white man’s duplicity, and we must read Sonia Gandhi’s silence on the issue as complicity.
The Pioneer, 28 September 1999