As anticipated by leaders across the Hindu religious spectrum, Pope John Paul II has abused this country’s fabled hospitality and doggedly projected conversions as the Church’s sole agenda in India and Asia. Of course, he has made polite noises about our legendary religious tolerance, but it has been too scanty to disguise his contempt for Hinduism as a religion and civilisation, and his grim determination to annihilate it in its own land.
Annihilation is a strong word, but I use it advisedly, for the Pontiff unleashed a multi-pronged assault on India’s religious and cultural values, its foundational ethos. India’s unique spiritual genius, which has inspired respect from nations as far apart as Greece on one side and Japan on the other, is under siege. We must understand the nature of the threat in order to defeat it. Interestingly, as I shall discuss later, the Papal agenda directly conflicts with the United Nations precepts on human rights diversity, and heritage, and the Vatican is a member-state of the UN.
The Pope launched Mission India with the beguiling demand that freedom of belief must be respected, and asserted that conversions are a matter of human rights. He declared that for Christians, affirmation of faith is synonymous with making conversions, and exhorted bishops to spread Christianity across Asia, and even sink their cut-throat denominational differences in this endeavour (The Pioneer, November 7). His statements must be understood for what they truly mean, as they constitute a serious danger to genuine freedom of religion. They are also a thinly-veiled threat to disrupt peace and amity in the sub-continent till such time as the Church has its way, and it ill-behoves a religious leader and state guest to conduct himself with such gracelessness.
Beginning with the demand for freedom of belief and the right to convert as a basic human right, the Papal utterances are soaked in duplicity. For instance, the Hindu notion of freedom of worship means equal freedom for all religions to practice their faith. Hindus have created this freedom for persecuted communities – Parsis, Jews, Syrians, Christians, and Muslims. John Paul II, however, has little use for such catholicity. The freedom he seeks is to preach his faith to believers of other creeds without resistance, and to erase all other religions and belief systems from this land, and the world.
In this vein, the Pope his directed his bishops to spread the faith throughout Asia. Now Asia is no barren land waiting to be peopled by the bearers of the gospel, but a continent with large and populous nations such as India and China, with rich ancient and living civilisations.
Propagating the Bible here involves a direct, offensive, and even violent confrontation with these faiths, as I have argued in a previous article (The Pioneer, October 26). In India, it involves telling Hindus that their religion is a sham, their gods are false, and that they must convert to Christianity to save themselves from hell and damnation. And this odious tirade against the world’s most cultured tradition is termed a basic human right to choose one’s religion! The discerning reader may question whether Hindus, in turn, have the basic human right (sic) to choose to adhere to their own faith and tell the missionaries to go home. Of course they don’t. Because they worship gods who are not God, as the US Southern Baptists have stated with such refreshing candour.
Although logically it is educated people who can understand and make intelligent and free choices between different belief systems, Christian missionaries do not waste time trying to proselytise the rich and educated classes (perhaps because these are also the people who can tell them to get lost). From the time William Carey failed to save Raja Rammohun Roy’s soul, conversions have targeted the depressed and deprived, the soft underbelly of Hindu society. There is a double injustice here that the Government would do well to redress.
When conversions target poor, illiterate groups in isolated hamlets in far-flung areas (such as tribes in the jungles of Orissa), the latter become victims of undue influence, as they have unequal power to resist blandishments and inducements. Such missionary activity, backed by foreign funding and a muscular determination to convert the hapless tribal, is violative of human rights, freedom of religion and freedom of choice. We should no longer deny this truth. Investigations into the murders of Graham Stewart Staines and Father Arul Doss have revealed the deep resentment and anguish of tribal groups at their aggressive conversion methods, which denigrate and decimate tribal culture and beliefs. The point is that if a lamb is discovered to have fangs, may we not be justified in calling it a wolf? Christians who are quick to squeal about their minuscule numbers would do well to appreciate that in law, the fact that the bully is small does not exonerate him.
The most disturbing aspect of the Papal visit, however, is his call to Christian sects to collaborate in the Christianisation of India. He did not show this tolerance in the various Christian nations where he targeted denominations stealing his flock. Since it is inconceivable that he has changed his views, this appears to be a version of the White imperialists Open Door policy in China, where all countries were allowed a share in the Chinese pie on the explicit understanding that no portion of that country was to be left free. In our context, this means that India must be made Christian at any cost, no matter who undertakes the conversions in the first instance. It is a disturbing thought.
However, since such an ugly assault on Hindu civilisation at a time when it is undergoing a powerful renewal cannot but elicit an equal reaction, I believe the Pope’s visit will help crystallise issues that have been brushed under the carpet since independence. For instance, we need to consider how the Constitution can define minority without defining majority, when the two are inextricably linked. We need to ponder why minorities have been given the explicit right to protect their religious identity when it was not under any threat from the rest of society. Is this a tacit admission that religion is intrinsic to individual and community identity? Once we answer this question, we will realise the extent of the dishonesty Jawaharlal Nehru and his heirs have perpetuated in the name of secularism. President KR Narayanan’s characterisation of those fighting forced or induced conversions as a lunatic fringe is part of this anti-Hindu tradition. To say the least, it is highly unbecoming of a Head of State.
Fortunately, Hindus too can now take their battle to larger forums. Though not widely known, the United Nations is currently observing the International Decade of the World’s Indigenous People, which in India means our tribal population. Its objective is to focus on indigenous peoples’ contribution to the world’s diversity and their enrichment of the planet through their unique relationship with the earth. Acknowledging the suffering of indigenous peoples around the world, the UN Secretary General has pledged that “the next century will be different… we recommit ourselves to ensuring that these ancient traditions enter a new age an era not only of survival, but of revival”.
Hindu-Adivasi leaders can put it to him to redeem his promise and save them from Papal aggression and annihilation.
The Pioneer, 10 November 1999