ANTI-CHRISTIAN VIOLENCE IN PARTS OF INDIA In perspective
Christians form about 2.5 per cent of India’s presently-estimated population of around 950 million. The largest concentrations of them are in the State of Kerala in the South and in the States of Nagaland, Mizoram and Megalaya in the North-East. They are in a majority in these three States of the North-East . Sizeable numbers of Christians (Catholics) also live in Goa and Pondicherry. A much smaller number live scattered amongst the majority Hindu population in the rest of India.
The Syrian Orthodox church is the oldest in India. The other denominations came later. The Orthodox Christians constitute the largest single group in the Christian community of Kerala, with the Catholics following behind. Presbyterians / Baptists are in a negligible number in Kerala, but in a majority in the North-Eastern States.
The contribution of the Church and the various Christian organisations in India to the spread of education has been immense. Thanks to these organisations, Kerala has the highest percentage of literacy amongst all Indian States. In the other States, some of the best educational institutions are run by Christian organisations.
The majority of their students have always been Hindus. Colleges like the Loyola (Catholic) of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, the Christian (Protestant) and St.Joseph’s (Catholic) of Tamil Nadu, the St.Xavier’s (Catholic) of Mumbai and the St.Stephen’s (Protestant) of New Delhi have had a legendary reputation in India for the high quality of their educational standards and discipline.
Any Hindu student, who had the privilege of passing through the portals of these institutions (like this writer himself), would vouch for the fact that never once during their stay in these institutions was an approach made to them to embrace Christianity or even to read the Bible.
During the first two decades after India’s independence, the majority of the top 20 successful candidates in any Civil Service examination for recruitment to higher Governmental responsibilities were Hindus who had been educated in Christian institutions. The number has since declined due to the coming into being of other good institutions run by non-Christian organisations.
However, many of the higher educational institutions run by Christian organisations still maintain high standards and, in recognition of their objective evaluation of the students’ performance without being influenced by considerations of religion, caste, money, social status etc of the students, State Governments such as that of Tamil Nadu have given them the deemed university status, that is, autonomy in decision-making and evaluation.
In relation to their much larger number, the percentage of educational institutions run by Hindu organisations which have established a similar reputation for objectivity of evaluation without being influenced by extraneous considerations of religion, caste, language, money, social status etc is much smaller.
There is no discrimination against Christians in India in the matter of education, recruitment to the armed forces and civilian Government services and appointments to the highest and the most sensitive Government posts. The present Defence Minister of India is a Christian, who started his career as a priest, but later gave up priesthood and entered politics. Some of the pilots of the Air Force, who distinguished themselves for bravery during the Indo-Pak war of 1965, were Christians. Christians have held many senior and highly sensitive posts such as the Chiefs of Staff of the Air Force and the Navy , the head of the Central Bureau of Investigation, India’s equivalent of the FBI of the US, head of the division responsible for the Prime Minister’s security, member of the Election Commission etc.
The Indian Constitution and laws do not bar any citizen from aspiring to any office in India, however high or sensitive, because of his or her religion, caste or language. What is more, Indian public opinion has never exhibited prejudice against the aspirations of any minority group to occupy any post.
During 50 years of India’s independence, one Sikh and two Muslims have held the high office of the President of India. During India’s war with Pakistan in 1971, which led to the creation of Bangladesh, the officer who headed the Indian army was a Parsi, the smallest amongst the minority religious groups, the officer who led the assault on the then East Pakistan was a Sikh, and his No.2 was Jewish.
At the height of the Pakistan-sponsored insurgency in Kashmir in the early 1990s, the army and the Indian Administrative Service officers who, as Advisers to the Governor, co-ordinated the counter-insurgency operations were Muslims—one from the South and the other from the North.
The Indian Constitution and laws grant unrestricted freedom of religion and the laws except in Madhya Pradesh and perhaps Orissa do not prohibit conversion.
India has recognised the Vatican and allowed the Holy See to set up its diplomatic mission in New Delhi. The Indian Ambassador in Rome is concurrently accredited to the Holy See. India recognises the papal appointments of the high functionaries of the Catholic church in India.
Compare this with the US, Germany, France and the UK. Even though their laws too do not prohibit any citizen by birth from aspiring to the highest office, US public opinion could not accept till 1960, almost two hundred years after its independence, a Catholic as the President; no Catholic or Jewish person would stand a chance of becoming the head of State of Germany; no Protestant or Jewish person would similarly stand a chance of becoming the French President; and if Prince Charles marries a Catholic, he will have to give up his right of succession.
No member of a minority group—and particularly no Afro-American—has ever been appointed to head the CIA, the FBI and the Secret Service, which is responsible for presidential security.
Compare India with the Islamic world (other than Malaysia and Indonesia). Religious conversion from Islam to other religions is banned in all Islamic countries, but not the other way round. No non-Muslim can be chosen under the law as the Head of State and can aspire to senior or sensitive posts. Pakistan has about 2 per cent Hindus, almost the same percentage as the Christians in India. Have you ever heard of a Hindu or a Christian holding even middle level posts in the Government, not to talk of senior posts? In the entire 50- year history of Pakistan, one Hindu rose to the rank of a Brigadier in the Army. That is all. He too was kept out of non-administrative, sensitive responsibilities.
Compare India with China. Beijing has refused to recognise the Vatican and its right to nominate the high functionaries of the Catholic church in China. The reason is partly political—the Vatican’s relations with Taiwan—and partly religious—the perceived need to maintain the independence of the Catholic church in China.
Can President Jiang Zemin name a single Muslim of Xinjiang or a single Buddhist of Tibet or Mongolia or, for that matter, a single non-Han from any part of China who has ever held any important or sensitive post either during the 50 years of communist rule or even during the pre-1949 KMT regime?
Beijing has imposed on the Tibetan Buddhists a State-sponsored Panchen Lama after arresting the legitimate Panchen Lama chosen by the Tibetan Buddhists in accordance with their religious traditions. And it is waiting for the Dalai Lama to die so that it could similarly impose a State-sponsored successor on the Tibetans.
In the Muslim majority Kashmir and in the Christian majority North-Eastern States, no person from outside the province from any other part of India can acquire land. This restriction has been imposed to protect the rights of the sons of the soil. Can anyone anywhere in the world cite a similar legislation under which a majority community, at its own volition, has imposed on itself restrictions on the right to acquire property anywhere in the territory of the country in order to protect the minorities?
Thus, nowhere else in the world have the Constitution, the laws, the political leadership and the public opinion been as generous to the minorities as in India.
Why then the alleged Hindu-Christian tension and periodic incidents of violence in some pockets of India inhabited by Christians? In some instances, the violence has been by some sections of the Christian population which took to insurgency against the administration as in Nagaland and Mizoram while in other instances the violence has been by some sections of the Hindus against the Christians as seen recently in some pockets of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Orissa.
In analysing this, one can straightaway exclude Kerala , which has had no history of Hindu-Christian violence.
Nagaland has been affected by intermittent insurgency since the 1950s and Mizoram was affected by a similar insurgency for 20 years since 1966, but peace has been restored during the last 10 years through a negotiated settlement between the Government of India and the Mizo insurgent leaders.
Recent incidents of violence in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Orissa have been projected and over-dramatised by the media, Christian organisations and sections of liberal intellectuals in such a way as to create a wrong impression as if anti-Christian violence was sweeping across India. Only the demonstrations by these groups are sweeping across India and not violence against Christians.
The violence against the Christians has been confined to some very small pockets in these three states and the violence has taken place not because Gujarat is ruled by the BJP or Madhya Pradesh and Orissa are ruled by the Congress (I), as the political parties in their urge for partisan advantage, are trying to make out. The violence has taken place because these provinces have a large number of tribals living in compact areas just as the majority of the population of Nagaland and Mizoram are tribals.
In analysing this, one has to keep in mind the nature of the tribal society ,the distrust evoked in the minds of sections of the Indian population by their perception, right or wrong, of the alleged role of foreign Christian missionaries in the large-scale conversion of the tribals of the North-East under British rule and in encouraging the insurgency against the administration and fears, real or imaginary, of a similar situation developing in the tribal belt of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Orissa, if one was not careful.
Till Christianity came to the North-East, the tribals did not belong to any organised religion. They were animists or nature worshippers. The tribals of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Orissa are similarly animists.
The tribal culture, whether of the North-East or of these three states or even of North Myanmar and Northern Thailand, is marked by four common features—a love of pork and alcohol, equality of gender relationship and a relaxed, permissive (the word permissive is not used in a pejorative sense) attitude to sexual relations.
Thus, Islam with its strict prohibition of all these features could never make any headway in the tribal societies of India, Northern Myanmar and Northern Thailand. In India, this left the field open for the advance of Christianity and Hinduism. Since Hinduism itself did not encourage conversion drives, the Western –mainly American--Christian missionaries, under British rule, undertook a systematic conversion of the tribals of the North-East, with official encouragement.
This conversion drive was not confined to the North-East. It was also extended to the Kachin State and the then Chin Hills Special Division of Northern Myanmar and the Karen-inhabited areas of Southern Myanmar. Between the two world wars, these areas underwent a total transformation from a belt of largely animists to one of Christians.
An interesting point to be noted is that though these conversions took place with British encouragement, most of the missionaries and funds came from the US. Even today, an objective analysis might indicate that most of the funds for Christian missionary and humanitarian work come from the US and, to a limited extent, from Germany. Contributions from other Western countries would, in comparison, be small.
Despite the long spell of British rule in India and the conversion drive in the North-East, the British Anglican church has little presence in the North-East.
One should resist the temptation to compulsively look for sinister explanations for this. A plausible and benign explanation is that the Americans as a people are more God-fearing than the West Europeans and give more generously for religious and humanitarian causes, whether they be in the US or outside. Possibly, their income-tax laws also play a role in this.
After the outbreak of the Second World War, this conversion of vast tracts of the animist belt into a Christian belt acquired, in the eyes of the West, a strategic importance as an effective way of stopping the advance of the Japanese towards India through the Karen, Kachin and Chin areas.
For this purpose, large sections of the tribals of our North-East, of Northern Myanmar and the Karen areas of Southern Myanmar were trained by the British in arms and ammunition and it is these trained Christian tribals who took to insurgency after the departure of the British from the area in 1947 (from India) and 1948 (from Myanmar).
Despite her charisma and determination, Aung San Suu Kyi has not been able to make any headway in her pro-democracy movement in the rural areas of Myanmar because the rural Buddhist population of lower Myanmar suspects that she has been propped up by Western elements and the Christian organisations which created the original divide between the Christians and the Buddhists. Even though she is a devout Buddhist herself, this perception of her dependence on these elements has denied her the expected support in the rural areas.
To understand further the distrust in the minds of sections of the Indian population about the role of foreign missionaries, one has to study the use of the missionaries by Western intelligence agencies before, during and after the Second World War.
After its creation in 1947, the CIA made extensive use of the American missionaries working amongst the tribals in the Yunnan province of China for intelligence collection and for organising a resistance movement against Communist rule. These missionaries used to co-operate not only with the CIA, but also with the KMT intelligence.
After the capture of Yunnan by the Communists in 1950, the KMT troops in Yunnan crossed over into the Shan State of Myanmar. By taking advantage of the absence of Myanmarese army control over Northern Myanmar, these troops, supplied by air by the CIA from bases in Thailand, continued to organise raids on Chinese army posts in Yunnan.
In this, they received valuable help from the Lisu tribes , who are found in Yunnan and in the Kachin State of Myanmar. American missionaries, who had been active converting these tribes to Christianity since the 1930s, played an active role in rallying these tribes in support of the KMT troops.
The PLA managed to defeat these KMT troops in 1967-68, after which these missionaries moved over to the Kachin State of Northern Myanmar. When the Myanmarese army, worried over their activities in its territory, tried to arrest them, they crossed over into the Vijaynagar area in the Tirap District of Arunachal Pradesh in India and then went to the Chiangmai area of Northern Thailand.
While these missionaries, who were already in their 70s at that time, are now dead, many of their children, who had married Lisu boys/girls and grand-children, who have also taken to missionary work, have since then been working amongst the tribals of Northern Thailand.
Amongst the reasons why insurgent groups of our North-East prefer to use Thailand and the Philippines as a base for their activities are the easy availability of arms and ammunition in the smugglers’ market in Thailand and Cambodia and their ability to remain in touch with the American missionaries in Northern Thailand and the Philippines.
Some of these missionaries help the insurgent leaders by getting them foreign travel documents and hospitality, meeting the expenses on their travels to Geneva, New York and other places to draw international attention to their grievances and arranging meetings with officials of international organisations.
The use of sections of US journalists and missionaries in many countries by the CIA came to notice during the post-Watergate enquiries into the functioning of the agency. Non-Governmental opinion in the US strongly criticised this and called for a ban on such use.
President Carter, thereupon, banned the use by the CIA of US journalists and missionaries for its operations. While the ban in the case of the missionaries was absolute with no exceptions, in the case of the journalists, the CIA Director was empowered to use them on a case by case basis, if there was no other way of protecting vital US national interests. The CIA has been using this relaxation in Iraq, Iran, Libya, North Korea and Cuba. Even in the case of the missionaries, the ban is only on the use of US and not non-US missionaries.
Of the other intelligence agencies, the French agencies were extensively using Catholic missionaries in Indo-China and Francophone Africa. The MI-6, the British external intelligence agency, was allegedly in touch with Rev.Michael Scott, who was active amongst the Nagas, and with the late Phizo, the Naga insurgent leader, during his stay in exile in the UK. There have been allegations of the involvement of Anglican missionaries from the UK in supporting the Christian militant groups in southern Sudan and of the Portuguese missionaries in backing the insurgents of East Timor.
India’s experience with the undesirable activities of foreign missionaries in the North-East and their suspected contacts with Western intelligence agencies, fears of a similar transformation of the animist tribal belt of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Orissa into a Christian belt and of the exploitation of this belt to encourage feelings of alienation against the administration impelled the then Governments of the Congress headed successively by Jawaharlal Nehru, Lal Bahadur Shastri and Indira Gandhi to take notice of these dangers and formulate a policy response which, while preventing any dangers of a repetition of the North-East in the tribal belt of these three States, would at the same time maintain communal and inter-religious harmony.
The policy response consisted of the appointment in Madhya Pradesh of a commission with one of its members chosen from the Christian community to enquire into the undesirable activities of foreign missionaries in the State’s tribal belt, the enactment of a law in M.P. banning conversions under certain circumstances such as paying money in return for conversion, a close monitoring by the security agencies of the activities of the foreign missionaries and of the way they spent the funds received by them from abroad.
While there have been foreign missionaries who have done excellent humanitarian work amongst the tribals, there were also others who had an axe to grind against the Government of India and encouraged feelings of a separate identity amongst the tribals. Whenever such negative instances came to notice, the Government used to call the missionary and politely ask him to leave the country, without publicising the action.
Thus, concerns over any undesirable activities of foreign missionaries, particularly in the tribal belts, have always been there and are not a figment of the imagination of the present Government in New Delhi. What was new was the way the present leadership and its party cadres articulated the concerns in unwise and even provocative language and, instead of continuing to discuss and handle this sensitive issue professionally at the highest levels of the administration, took the issue to the streets and let it be articulated and exploited for partisan purposes in a deplorably crude manner.
This has created a public hysteria in certain pockets of the country, particularly in the tribal belts, and led to cruel acts of violence against innocent Christians and their places of worship and to the horrendous murder of the Australian missionary who had been doing excellent work amongst tribals afflicted by leprosy and two of his three teen-aged children.
Instead of further poisoning the atmosphere through allegations of international conspiracy against India etc, it is high time we take this issue out of the streets and resume dealing with it as in the past—professionally at the highest levels of the administration in a discreet and low-profile manner. Undesirable temptations to exploit such issues for partisan political purposes could further damage communal harmony in the society.http://www.southasiaanalysis.org/%5Cpapers%5Cpaper31.html
(The writer is Additional Secretary (Retd) of the Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India, and presently Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai.
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