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Evangelists in public parks
By Sandhya Jain
Instructing the Pandava prince about the duties and responsibilities of a ruler, the dying Bhishma avers: "Is the king responsible for the times, or are the times responsible for the king? You, Yudhisthira, should entertain no doubts about this: the king indeed is the cause of the times, it is he who gives rise to good or bad times" (Mahabharata, santiparvan, 69.79).
The injunction rose to mind recently when, strolling in the Lodi Gardens, one encountered a couple of families from north-east India, distributing evangelical literature to all evening walkers. The pamphlets, in good, sanskritised Hindi, published by The Bible Society of India, were being distributed by young five-year old boys and girls under the watchful eyes of their seniors, who were moving through the park with a guitar, pretending to be regular families at a picnic.
Quite apart from the sheer duplicity of this exercise—the use of virtual infants to evade public anger at the infringement of privacy for evangelisation—what struck me most was the audacity with which missionaries are operating in the heart of the Capital, among educated families known to frequent these lawns. Their growing temerity cannot but be connected to the presence in Delhi of a government whose de facto leader is a Roman Catholic from Italy, whose regime is privileging minority groups at the cost of national unity, and thus spurring on divisive social tendencies in the country at large.
There can be little doubt that Ms. Sonia Gandhi is the cause of administrative tolerance of the increased missionary activity in the country as a whole, whether it is New Delhi or the north-east, or the five southern states. That she has little respect for Hindu traditions and sentiments can be easily witnessed in her visit to the Tirupathi Tirumalai Devasthanam in 1999, when she arrogantly refused to sign the mandatory register for non-Hindus, even after her cronies had assured the temple trustees that this would be done. Last year, she again visited Tirupathi and failed to sign the register, and thus once again besmirched the maryada (honour) of the temple.
These actions betray Ms. Gandhi's non-Indian origins completely—not only has she refused to make the dharma of the people her rajdharma as a political leader, she has refused even to abide by the norms and traditions of the country's native faith, which in this case require that non-Hindus visiting the shrine sign a register expressing faith in the deity. Muslim politicians like Dr. Farooq Abdullah and C.K. Jaffar Sharief have routinely signed the register. It is only Sonia Gandhi who uses political power to circumvent basic decencies.
This is doubly unfortunate as Ms. Gandhi's Congress party is currently vitiating the politico-communal climate by emphasising religious identity as the only legitimate personal and group identity, and making it the basis of all secular politics in the country, a la the Sachar Committee and the Ranganath Mishra Commission. It needs emphasising in this regard that a government that privileges religious identity while tolerating increased evangelical activity in the country is actually making a statement against the religion being targeted in this manner. We are, thus, in a perilously semi-theocratic state-like condition.
The invocation of freedom of religion is utterly false. Missionaries are not denied the freedom to teach their religion to their own people. What they are doing amount to displaying hatred and intolerance of other world religions, which they seek to annihilate by imposing their own faith upon groups and communities everywhere. Some years ago, an AIADMK leader in Pondicherry protested in the State Assembly against a conversion drive in his constituency, Uppalam (New Indian Express, April 18, 2003). A. Anbalagan pointed out that married women were being prevented from wearing tilak, mangala sutra or flowers in their hair, the traditional attributes of married women in Tamil culture, all in the name of conversion; this was also impacting badly upon the social fabric.
Missionaries have upped the ante in Muslim-majority areas as well, thus belying the belief that they left Muslims alone because of fear of the fundamentalists among them. I have in previous writings noted the presence of evangelicals in disturbed societies like Pakistan and Afghanistan, which have regimes friendly to the West. Now it has emerged that they are equally active in the Kashmir Valley, from where Hindus have been driven out over the past two decades, while Christians have gained a foothold, taking their population from 650 in 1981 to 13000 at present, an increase of 5 per cent.
What is significant in the conversion drive in the violent Valley is the formidable presence of Western missions—the US, Germany, Netherlands and Switzerland—which reinforces my contention that conversion is an imperial game with an imperial objective. As a result, churches are slowly mushrooming in cities like Srinagar, which has a Holy Family Catholic Church, an All Saints Church, and many underground houses of worship where worshippers gather on Sundays. Already there is a Kashmiri Bible. That conversions affect the social fabric is evident from the recent murder of a Kashmiri convert-cum-social activist. If the Indian government is even formally committed to maintaining social harmony in the country, it would do well to closely monitor the issue of conversions and its impact upon inter-community relations.