Monday, January 16, 2012

Those That Shall Deliver... : Conversions in India - It is about a sinister and subversive strategy, hatched in the US


Introduction: But conversions in India, as they are happening today, are not merely about empowering the poor. It is about a sinister and subversive strategy, hatched in the US, backed by the Bush administration over the years.

Al Qaeda has "benefitted from a network structure that allows passionate and committed individuals and groups to contribute to a wider purpose (whether for good or ill) with a minimum of co-ordination and administration. Widely seen as an effective antidote to bureaucracy (the corporate equivalent of arthritis), the network has arrived as the organisational structure for a globalising, post-modern world… The persistence of the Al Qaeda network in the face of unrelenting pressure is a case in point."
  - Richard Tiplady, a church-planting strategist, in a paper presented at a conference organised by All Nations Christian College (September 2003) on 'Survive or Thrive? Is there a future for the mission agency?'

The irony is inescapable. Taking a leaf out of what Tiplady calls "Al Qaeda's operational mobility", American missionary organisations are, methodically and very scientifically, planting the Church and recruiting disciples, pincer-style. With George W Bush, a "born again" Christian as the President of United States, the missionary enterprise is in full gear, trying to "save (Indian) souls" and "reach the unreached".

The modus operandi for evangelical activities is simple, even if scary: Channel exorbitant funds through the eager Bush administration; circumvent the Indian law banning registration of new missionaries by sending "men of God" on tourist visas; use Indians already converted to convert fresh faithfuls. And yes, the underlying message: work relentlessly and patiently.

Indian missionaries now do 90 percent of the work in founding churches. All these missionaries are from the new age churches, most of whom owe allegiance to the Protestant sect. The fast springing new age churches are not only making inroads into memberships of other religions, but are also threatening the very existence of the mainline congregations, e.g. the Roman Catholic church.

Operation Worldwide

Local Indian missionaries are effective conversion weapons because they understand the language, the customs and the culture. Besides, the recently converted are often more zealous about adding to the ranks. A voluminous book title Operation World-published by the Christian missionaries' UK-based publishing house, Operation Mission-reveals the rapid strides made by the US-funded evangelical missions in India. The references to India can be found from page 273 onwards. Of the many shocking revelations in the book is the claim that Arunachal Pradesh is on its way to becoming the third Christian majority state in India, after Nagaland and Mizoram. In 1971 the Christian population totalled 0.8 percent of its population, and within a decade, it increased to 10 percent. In fact, the author of this book, well-known evangelical strategist Patrick Johnstone, says, "thirty percent of India's Dalits are considering a change of religion, and a growing number are finding Jesus."

So how do the converts find Jesus? In India, one of the most successful church planting networks is Operation Agape ('unconditional love' in Greek), which began in 1995 in central India as an "experiment" devised by Germany-based church strategist Wolfgang Simson and his Indian collaborator, Dr Alexander Abraham, professor of neurology and head of community heath department, Christian Medical College, Ludhiana. Its predecessor was the project of Prince of Peace, launched on January 1, 1989.

By the mid-1990s, when "spying missions" were despatched to India by US-based transnational missionary organisations (TMOs), it was part of the larger conversion mission, AD2000 and Joshua Project. Abraham's commentary in a film produced by Agape reveals that "by the mid-1990s, a growing realisation for the need for a systematic church planting effort covering the entire state was gaining momentum. We held a systematic grassroots level harvest force research in 1998 and the results were an eye-opener for us. There were 262 pin code areas in Punjab without any churches in 1998. In the next three years, however, all the 491 postal code areas in the state gained entry into the church map." This was possible due to the research and survey conducted by Brother Issac Dutta, research coordinator, Punjab, Operation Agape. "God gave me the burden of Punjab in 1997. I started my research in 1997. My team and I visited 1,100 Christian workers in the whole of Punjab, collecting data from them on who was working in different villages, blocks and districts," Dutta explained.

The North India Harvest Network, also started by Abraham, used the 'Pin Code survey' conducted by the Indian Missions Association, Chennai, to generate ethno-graphic data in the North Indian states. The data has armed the US intelligence agencies for they now have unparalleled access to the remotest corners of India and are-again, pincer like-bringing areas into "the fold" by secretly unleashing pastors in different blocks and districts.

Operation Agape has, for example, been instrumental in producing over 3,000 'house-churches' in Madhya Pradesh in the last six years. Their conversion figure stands at a record number of "60,000 to 70,000" converts. "Our methods have become a model for churches all across India," says Abraham. "The house-church movement does not strive for buildings. We do not believe in buildings. Traditional churches are dying. The Anglican church in England is dying. The house-church movement is the spirit of God. Ludhiana is a city where the church has done really well. Now we are dreaming of a church in every colony. Fifty percent colonies in Ludhiana and 60 percent villages in Punjab have churches now," he told Tehelka.

Planting churches in India

Operation Agape is supported by Christian Aid, a US-based conversion-funding agency, run by Rev Bob Finley, a loyal supporter of President Bush. The mission headquarters of this operation is Agape Bhawan, located within the Christian Medical College in Ludhiana. Abraham was extremely evasive about answering questions on Operation Agape, but a video CD produced by AGAPE foundation, which is in Tehelka's possession, is explicit about the movement.

The film on Operation Agape interviews Rev C George, who claims to have begun the church planting movement in Punjab: "I had great concern for Punjab…Then the Lord very definitely, specifically asked me to go to the state of Punjab and do whatever possible so that the people will come to know that Operation Blue Star or Operation Black Thunder did not help, but operation of God's love will be the solution to the problem of Punjab."
Simply put, the strategy is to plant a church in every village and urban colony and notch up a figure of 100,000 churches in the state by 2010. "We cannot say we have any challenge here because Punjab is open. All religions are respected and we can go freely to everybody. The most difficult states to evangalise are Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh because extremist Hindus are there," says Simon P George, manager, Punjab Bible College, Hiran (near Ludhiana).

According to Alexander's own admission, the church planting movement is making rapid strides in Jammu & Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Orissa, Delhi, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Uttaranachal. The North India Harvest Network has launched Operation Rose of Sharon in J&K. Pastor training centres have been opened in Jammu and Srinagar. "The Lord has given J&K good workers and we know that He will lead the way," says Timothy, who is Operation Agape's J&K coordinator.

However, unlike in J&K, where Operation Agape has deployed 60 "good workers", in the neighbouring state of Himachal Pradesh, the slogan of "a church for every district, a church for every block, a church for every village people group by the year 2010" is still a slogan. Sam Abraham, a research coordinator with Operation Agape, says that in 1996, detailed research was carried out at the behest of US TMOs, but Himachal remains the "darkest state of India with the least percentage of Christians."

The only success story from HP is from Kinnaur district. Till 1994, there were neither believers nor any churches in this district. "Today there are 180 churches in this district alone with more than 6,000 believers. It has been very successful because of the tools and training they provide for church planters," says Randeep Mathew, Operation Agape's Himachal coordinator.

"They" are Operation Agape's American benefactors. There is another US-based organisation that is heavily involved in Himachal and other north Indian states. Gospel for Asia has planted a network of churches in North India called the Believers Church. Like true believers, they plod along, introducing new tools when necessary. Like Pastor Prakash Abraham of Believers Church told Tehelka: "We now have a Kangri radio programme broadcast at 6:15 on Saturday and Sunday mornings on 49Mhz (short wave). The use of modern media, like film projectors, e-mails and websites have tremendously increased our capacity to carry out evangelical activities."

Reaching all pockets

What is shocking is Pastor Prakash's admission that "some of the organisers (of Gospel For Asia) have set up their own radio broadcasting networks to reach the 'unreached' in different Himachali dialects. Operation Agape, too, has an evangelical radio programme that reaches areas difficult for pastors to access. If there are two organisations-Agape and Believers Church-working in the same state, it is not by accident. Territories have been neatly divided and the American TMOs are ensuring through their Indian outfits that there is no duplication of efforts in the task of the Great Commission. If Agape is working on conversions in Kinnuar, Believers Church is expanding in Solan. Both these organisations have access to top of the line research information. There is an extra-ordinary level of networking and coordination.

Pastor Abraham, a Malayalee in his early 40s (appointed as the overseer for Himachal Pradesh by Believers Church) came to Solan five years ago and has kept a strict eye on figures. "If we keep the same pace, in 10 years we may even see the Christian population rise to around 25 percent." he says. This would be quite an achievement for- like Haryana-Himachal is what they would call "tough territory." The reasons, in the words of Jagan Mohan Rao, principal of Believers Church, Solan: "Many places are still steeped in traditional tribal ethos and the tribals are animists. But Hinduism has a hold on them. They practice popular Hinduism."

Pastor Abraham is upbeat as well. "Four years ago, the Christian populace in HP was 0.9 percent in a population of 60 lakh. Now, unofficial estimates tell us that about 2 percent have accepted Christian faith. This is a significant increase. But most of them are not openly saying they are Christian," Pastor Abraham admitted to Tehelka. What they are working together to ensure are the numbers.

Richard Howell, general secretary, Evangelical Fellowship, describes this networked activity: "It's like making tea. Somebody brings in the water, another gets the milk and the third brings in tea leaves. The fourth brings in sugar and the fifth brews it." Emboldened by Bush's faith-based presidency, the TMOs running for network partnerships have acquired an urgency. There is a statement doing the rounds: "If we don't hang together, we will be hanged separately. Therefore, lets hang together," says Howell.

The US TMOs have adopted this approach because of two reasons: the ability to deploy local missionaries easily and in large numbers. The second: partnerships reduce overhead expenses. Jagan Mohan Rao, Principal of Believers Bible College, Solan-which is also the nerve centre of the Believers Church in Himachal-says that Bible colleges across North India are churning out well-educated church planters who then join the burgeoning ranks of US TMOs operating in India. "We run the biggest bible school in HP," he told Tehelka.

The demand for church planters is increasing, as is the pressure to meet conversion targets set by the US TMOs. Despite, the sluggishness of the conversion activities in Himachal, Rao says that "approximately a few thousand" have been converted. "Two years ago we had only five missionaries, but within two years their number increased to twenty-two. Coming year [referring to 2004] a new batch will graduate from our college. In addition, 20 new students will enrol this year." The Believers Church Bible college in Solan churns out 20 well-trained church planters every year, all locals. Across India, the Believers Church runs 200 Bible colleges. "Our main motto is evangelisation. After training, we send out the students to different parts of north India, especially to Punjab and Himachal Pradesh," says Simon George, manager, Punjab Bible College, Hiran.

The best way to reach Indians is to show them an Indian preaching the Gospel. So, the converted have become the converters. The flexibility that new missionary strategies offer has enabled missionaries from India and the US to team up. The volatile expansion of Indian missionaries not only adds numbers to the effort; it also cuts costs drastically. According to Christian Aid, a foreign missionary costs at least $66,000 or Rs 30.4 lakh a year to support. Native missionaries cost approximately $600 or Rs 27,600 a year. The running expenses for Believers Church Bible college in Solan is Rs 2 lakh a month. The Believers Church pays Rs 5,000 a month to an Indian missionary with a family in Himachal Pradesh. The North Indian Christian Mission-which carries out conversions in Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and J&K-pays its missionaries Rs 10,000 a month.

Fund collectors in the US-like Rev Jim Rutz, founder of Open Church Ministries, Colorado Springs-solicit funds through vigorous writing campaigns. In his article, 'Where Should Your Offerings Go Now?' he writes: "House-church planters are ridiculously under funded, often walking long distances just because they don't have bicycles or mopeds. What a waste of trained talent!" The Open Church Ministries is one such missionary organisation that works in tandem with Christian Aid, Charlottesville, Virginia, to collect funds for evangelical operations in India. "The bottom line: mopeds are $700-900. Bicycles are $40. Gospel literature is very cheap. Every dollar works overtime in India. Will you consider the work in Madhya Pradesh as part of your new pattern of giving?" This is the message that goes out to American churchgoers. In the US, contributors can directly fund evangelical operations in India through Christian Aid Mission by marking their cheque for "Operation Agape, Madhya Pradesh". All such contributions are tax-free.

Foreign funding

Though foreign funding to missionary organisations should technically be reported to the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) under the FCRA (Foreign Contribution Regulation Act), it is likely that such funds are under-reported. "Every organisation is receiving foreign funds," says Rao. "Lots of foreign funds are coming in right now. Approximately 75 percent of our activity is foreign funded. If foreign funding stops, the movement can also stop.

According to MHA figures, the funding for Christian mission agencies have shown a regular increase. Also, over 80 percent of the voluntary organisations receiving foreign funds are Christian Mission agencies. (see Table-Religious Organisations registered under FCRA)
What should have by now been picked up by the government is the fact that only a fraction of the total money flowing into the country is reported. (see for a detailed funding list). "They (funds) do not come here directly. There are many different offices in South India. The funds come directly to those offices and from there it is distributed. For example, funds meant for Himachal Pradesh pastors are forwarded from offices in AP, Tamil Nadu and Kerala," Rao told Tehelka. Apart from TMOs, Christian NGOs are also part of this network. For instance, World Vision, the world's largest Christian NGO ministry, fuses evangelical activities with development work. "World Vision is mainly focusing on social work. Through social work, they are doing an excellent job. Through social work they are able to share the Gospel," says Rao.

Sharing the Gospel is a sunrise industry in India. It has attracted Christian professionals from all walks of life. Some are short-term missionaries and many have given up on their professional lives to engage in evangelism. These missionaries are called the 'tentmakers'.
Joseph Vijayam, a tentmaker and CEO of Olive Technology in Hyderabad, believes that a secular Christian missionary worker is important because he helps the Gospel transcend "socio-cultural or political barriers. He also helps take the Gospel across what may be called the poverty barrier." In an article titled 'Kingdom Business', he cites Mahatma Gandhi: "Recall Gandhi's famous saying, 'To the hungry man, bread is God'."

If bread is God, can his call go unanswered? The former director of Christian Medical College, Ludhiana, Dr Victor Choudhrie, gave up his prestigious job along with his wife Bindu Choudhrie, also a doctor, to take up the reins of the Operation Agape ministry in Central India. Choudhrie is considered to be the pioneer of house-church movement in India. "New house-churches are coming up. Prayer groups are being formed and Bible society groups are being set up. India needs to be bathed in Holy Spirit. So the eyes and ears are open, so people can hear the gospel and their hearts can be changed," Choudrie says.

His special focus is Uttar Pradesh. The goal of the Agape movement in UP is the same as in Punjab: one million house-churches and 100,000 church leaders by 2010. With a population of over 174 million people, UP has a miniscule population of Christians: 0.1 percent. "I look at the UP mission simply as a model for what can be done… together we can start such a powerful movement inspired by the Holy Spirit to take this nation within our generation," says brother Mohan Phillip of AGAPE UP mission.

Exposing the church planters

Tehelka's undercover operation resulted in the unearthing of many church planters. Rev Don Scribner of the US-based Joshua Project revealed that Dr Raju Abraham coordinates the North India Harvest Network from Delhi and is also in charge of Operation Agape's Uttar Pradesh mission. He strategised the evangelical operations in UP by dividing the whole state into 83 districts, 1,000 administrative blocks each with 100,000 to 150,000 people and 100 to 150 villages. "A team of two persons adopt each block. The state is witnessing an unprecedented woo of God and thousands of churches are being planted." The goal, of course, is the same as has been outlined for all the North Indian states.

Muthu Govendar, a missionary from South Africa, affirms that thousands of grass roots level leaders are being trained at Bible schools across the North Indian states. "I have been here from 1999 and I really went to every corner of Punjab. I met the people, I met all the pastors, I met the churches and I saw the Believers. I ministered in every corner of Punjab." Govendar must consider himself lucky because foreign missionaries are not given visas by the Indian government. In response to an unstarred question (Number 969) in the Lok Sabha on February 27, 2001, the minister of state (Home) Vidyasagar Rao, responded that according to the data available as on December 31, 1999, the "total number of foreign missionaries registered in India are 1,375. He said "no new missionaries are allowed after 1984. However, short term visas are being issued to foreigners who are coming only in administrative capacity, to review working of their organisations etcetera."

Nityanandan, a Sri Lankan missionary who has been active in India since 1998, admitted to Tehelka that foreign missionaries do come to India on tourist visas. He even volunteered information about the arrest of a US missionary, Joseph W Cooper, in Kerala for evangelical activities. Not too worried about meeting the same fate, he was candid, saying: "We need to usher Jesus into the scene. We know this country … it is oppressed by Satanic powers and spirits. Demonincally… people are being bound. Many are demonically possessed. It is so hard to penetrate to the Gospel. Our plan is to teach and build every believer to be an intercessor."

Like Nityananda, many foreign missionaries have criss-crossed Indian states in the last three years. Tehelka's investigation has revealed that visiting US missionaries have personally ministered conversion rituals in various parts of the country. In the course of its undercover operation, Tehelka came across conversions being carried out by the North Indian Christian Mission (NICM) in rural Punjab. Pastor Deepak Dhingra, a Punjabi pastor, has 20 evangelists in the field and runs the NICM through them. He admits that every year foreign missionaries meet him and visit the places where NICM is active.

Clad in a blue T-shirt, track pants and a baseball cap on his head, Dhingra was sprawled in the expansive living room of his bungalow in Panchkula near Chandigarh. Five servants hovered around him as he recounted his story to Tehelka. Twenty-six years ago, Dhingra converted to Christianity. He claims that his father, an IAS officer, asked him to leave home and died without seeing his son's first child, a daughter. Dhingra, of course, had other plans: "I moved to Australia, Canada, US, New Zealand… thinking that now I am a Christian, I should go and live in Christian countries. When I lived in USA, my wife and I decided that those countries are not for us. We returned to India six years ago from America. Then we started preaching amongst all kinds of people." Dhingra, has three kids and his wife, Simmi, is from a Sikh family.

Dhingra's journey back to India, however, was not the result of an innocuous decision. He and his family returned in 1997 along with a juicy partnership with a benevolent patron, the US (Indiana) based Eastview Christian Church. He runs the North Indian Christian Mission (NICM), which has an aggressive church planting strategy to build its church in every district over the next few years. But he knows it's a tough ask. NICM is active in Haryana, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir.

Conversion is risky business, and Dhingra has survived murderous assaults. The last one was eight months ago in Rajpura, Punjab, during a conversion convention. But the faithful are not deterred. It is not easy business, and while some states are slow in yielding results, there are others that are far more responsive. Abraham told Tehelka categorically and it's on tape: "In Andhra Pradesh, hundreds of Muslims are coming to the Lord. Islam does not appeal to their mind, especially after September 11." Operation Agape's estimate is that across India, "150 million Dalits and around 150 million from the other backward castes (OBC) are coming to the Lord."

The Dalit angle

According to Abraham, the social oppression institutionalised in the Hindu society is the main reason why Dalits converts. "Now they are becoming educated. They are becoming conscious of their rights mainly because of the Christian influence. These people have now started questioning the hierarchical system in Hinduism and are actually literally rejecting it. The high castes have been treating them as slaves. They [the higher castes] don't want them to be educated. They do not want them [Dalits] to come up in society. There are so many atrocities against Dalits in India. There is a revolt and there are quite a number of Dalits who have mentally rejected Hinduism," Abraham told Tehelka. But the Dalits are part of the conspiracy to keep silent. "They [Dalits] know if they all suddenly become Christian, there were would be a backlash," says Alexander.

However, Christian missionaries are deeply conscious of playing the numbers game. Richard Howell, general secretary, Evangelical Fellowship of India told Tehelka that the church growth has been substantial in North India. "I am against the number game. Giving projections in terms of numbers in dangerous," he says. "But the reality is that the numbers are increasing," says Howell.

According to him, the rich and the educated are also converting to Christianity. "It is a change of heart. We are not here to change culture. We have to change the heart. I am a Hindu. I was born a Hindu. No one can change my Hindutva, but I am a Christ follower. I am a Christian, but I cannot change my religion, you know. I am not here to change religion. I have changed my heart. Before I had Wahe Guru in my heart, now it is Jesus guru. I am preaching Jesus to others. I am not preaching culture. I am not building churches," explains Pastor Dhingra. "We need to reach out to the top people of this country. The day Chandigarh's governor or SSP or DSP come to know the Lord, thousands will become Christians. In my satsang, we have a doctor, a police inspector, an IAS officer," he adds.
But it is not the rich that the Indian evangelicals are targeting. The conversion of the rich to Christianity is a bonus. The colonial model that once served Christian missionaries from Europe and the United States has disappeared, replaced by an attitude of cultural sensitivity. The world of missionaries is not as easily divided as it once was into those who spend their time proclaiming the Gospel and those who are involved in social work, disseminating their beliefs more by deeds than by words.

According to the Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI), "the 300 million Dalits in India are considered to be less than human through the Hindu caste system. They have been oppressed, marginalised, and persecuted by the caste Hindus. The Dalit leadership has called the people to reject Hinduism. As Christians, we support the movement [to convert] as a human rights issue," Howell states. "People have the freedom to choose. We are in solidarity with them because this is an issue of justice and of resisting oppression. As God's people we stand with the issues of equality of justice, human dignity, identity, and the right to be treated with respect and equality. Therefore the church is involved."

The EFI says that the Dalit leadership has invited its member churches to become "agents of change and transformation in the communities. They've asked for education needs to be met, for medical help and for income generation projects to enable gainful employment to begin. Therefore, as evangelicals, we have mobilised our member bodies. As believers who belong to the Evangelical Fellowship of India we are involved heavily in this moment." The EFI is a member of US-based World Evangelical Fellowship (WEF). Through its network of 115 national and regional evangelical fellowships, WEF represents 160 million evangelicals worldwide and spearheads the global conversion campaign.

Missionaries are also finding that some of the traditional mindsets need to change if they are to meet the challenges of a new millennium. Most Christian missionaries no longer go out into the world as Christian soldiers, but as "brothers and sisters in Christ." Many modern missionaries feel a sense of guilt about the heavy-handed tactics employed for centuries by missionaries from Europe and the United States. Indian evangelists have played a crucial role in influencing a rethinking about "the words, metaphors and images evangelicals use to communicate about the missionary mandate and endeavour-within our own circles and to the world at large."

Biblical metaphors

Howell was one of the participants at the US Consultation on Mission Language and Metaphors at the School of World Mission, Fuller Theological Seminary, held from June 1 to 3, 2000. At this consultation, leading US evangelicals who head missionary transnational corporations, decided that they must try to refrain from using militaristic words to avoid adversarial confrontation. The statement that emerged out of this consultation was an admission of the kind of communication that missionaries have used and still use to denigrate other religions. The question that was debated by Howell and others was: "Are we willing not to use language behind the back of unbelievers concerning their culture and location that we would not use face to face in sharing the message and love of Christ?"
Three months after this meeting, a statement was issued by Howell and Dr Augustine Pagolu, Honorary Secretary of the Theological Commission of the Evangelical Fellowship of India, at a national consultation on Mission Language and Biblical Metaphor at South Asia Institute of Advanced Christian Studies, Bangalore. Representatives of all the evangelical organisations in India attended it.

Yet, Tehelka came across an excessive use of warfare terminologies during its undercover field investigations and in the documents in its possession. Words such as 'soldier', 'advance', 'mobilise', 'campaign', 'conquer' and so on are commonly used. In fact, the literature of the American TMOs use descriptions that could be considered incendiary by people of other faiths. For instance, Bush's closest ally, Pat Robertson, has described Hinduism and Islam as Satanic religions and the worship of these religions is akin to 'devil worship'. Others have described Varanasi as the "seat of Satan." In fact, Varanasi is considered an important 'beachhead' by US evangelical organisations because it is "India's holiest cities".

Eventually, the EFI hopes that Indian and foreign missionaries will come up with a less offensive language as it takes the cross to the remotest corners in India. What gives dynamism to this movement is the constant effort to rethink strategies.
The US-funded evangelical missions have succeeded in putting in place a loosely tied network of Indian and international evangelical missions that operate with their blessings and support, but which cannot be easily traced directly back to them. Probably, it is this loose structure that has enabled the US-funded evangelical missions to operate in India, without attracting attention of the intelligence and police agencies.

It is the setting up of this network that facilitated the launch of the Great Commission in India, nearly 2000 years after Jesus challenged His church to make disciples of all nations. The inspiration was more akin to the times-Coca Cola's well-publicised goal to place "a Coke in the hand of every person on the earth by the year 2000." If a mere corporation could reach the entire world with a soft drink, why couldn't Christ's own church?

Census figures show that the total Christian population in the country is still a miniscule percentage of its total population: around 2.46 percent. That, legitimately, raises the questions about the efficacy of the pernicious and enormously well-funded missions to proselytise the marginalised sections of Indians. It raises a far important question: is the heat and dust raised by the issue of conversions a bogey after all? The answer is provided by People India Research and Training Institute in Ayanavaram, Chennai. "There are approximately 5,000 Indian people coming to Christ everyday. However, 55,000 Indians are born everyday." This assertion by People India is made on the basis of its continuous streaming in of field research information from all over India.

The massive evangelisation operations, which started in the early 1990s has, in fact, not breached this equation; the ever-increasing Indian population has ensured that the total Christian population remains more or less stagnant. But statistics have a way of being duplicitous. It can be twisted to suit any perspective.

Low-profile campaigns

But Mission agencies working in the Dalit pockets of India have been instructed not to tom-tom numbers. Simply because number crunching could result in retaliatory violence by the Hindu fundamentalists. This realisation came after the brutal murder of Australian missionary Graham Staines in the late 1990s.

Even as Indian missionaries play down numbers, People India produces books and generates crucial intelligence evangelists working in India. People India is a registered "Christian, trans-denominational research group serving Indian missions and churches in publishing current data on the Indian mission field." It is the resource base for Indian and foreign churches, transna-tional evangelical missions and intercessors. Its mandate is to do the following: "To systematically collect information on the Indian harvest field, harvest force and people groups; to make this information available to Indian missions and churches in a useable form; to share this information with individual and prayer groups (an euphemism for evangelical groups) inside and outside India; to make India visible to all."
Tehelka has copies of the Harvest Field Handbooks written by Tony Hilton, director of People India and a well-known evangelical strategist. The information in these books is sourced from various government of India publications and is updated regularly. By breaking down publicly available information (like the Census of India and The Gazetteer of India and many other sources), these books guide evangelists on where to focus their work. It has ready-to-use-information at the levels of village, block and district for all the states in the country. Here is an extract on 'Strategy' from a Harvest Field Series handbook for Himachal Pradesh:"A Western support team must never pre-determine the needs of the People Group and create a plan or programme based on those perceived needs. After doing the necessary research, it will always be most effective to work with the national leader, or a team of leaders from within that People Group to set a plan or programme they approve and can participate in." (Here, 'national leader' refers to a Dalit community leader or tribal leader, in other words, the headman of a community).

The crucial point here is that People India is guided and funded by US based Christian Missionary organisations. For instance, by Bob Waymire, president of Light International; John DeVries, president of Mission 21 India and founder of Pray India; and Dr Gene Davis, President of Foreign Mission Foundation. Davis is popular with the Banjara nomadic tribe of India. The Banjaras call him Gene Naik. He has 'adopted' the 'Banjara people group' for many years. In other words, he is spearheading a campaign to convert the Banjaras to Christianity. Tehelka has a document that vividly highlights the evangelical strategy to convert the Banjaras. Sri Lankan missionary Nityanandan of the Insititute of Church Growth, Chennai, corroborates: "Last year in the Banjara community 11,000, baptisms took place in Nalagonda, Kamam and Krishna districts in Andhra Pradesh."

Intelligence gathering network

In fact, according to the documents in Tehelka's possession, foreign missionaries have played a stellar role in organising the intelligence gathering missions. Vander Berg, co-director of Pray India and Mission analyst with Mission 21 India, has wide "missionary experience" in India and has worked as a pastor in many places. Another notable Christian scholar, an Australian who has married an Indian, is credited with having turned around two US-based evangelical mission agencies-Frontier Mission Center and Youth With A Mission-into formidable research organisations. Hackworth is considered within the international and Indian Christian evangelical circles as the "only man who knows all the Peoples Groups of India at the district level."

After setting up such an elaborate network, church groups in India are understandably disappointed over a recent Supreme Court ruling (September 1, 2003) that there was "no fundamental right to convert" someone from one religion to another, and that the government could impose restrictions on conversions. This was in response to the petition by the All India Christian Council (AICC), challenging the validity of the controversial Freedom of Religion Act that became law in Orissa in 1999.

The law now mandates that a person wanting to change faiths has to declare to the district magistrate that this decision was made "of his own will". The magistrate then forwards the declaration to the police to see if there is any objection before permission for the conversion is granted. Any religious leader intending to perform a conversion has to indicate the time and place of the ceremony to the magistrate in advance, and violating any of the regulations could lead to imprisonment and a fine. In fact, last year Sister Ekka was convicted for converting 96 people without following the procedure laid down by law. Most missionaries, however, simply proceed without informing the district authorities.

"I think that this is curbing the liberties of an individual, the natural rights, the unalienable as they are called. The government or the state cannot control my convictions. That's a matter of personal choice, which should never be taken away. So I would also say, the freedom of religion Bills, the focus is against the scheduled castes and the scheduled tribes. In the Gujarat Bill and also in the Tamil Nadu Bill they have used the word. So the target is again the marginalised and the poor for them to stay there," says Howell.

Conversion is a highly sensitive issue in some parts of India, including Orissa, where in recent years Christians have been victims of violence, including arson attacks, and two missionaries have been slain. Australian missionary Graham Stuart Staines and his two sons were burnt alive in January 1999. Later, the Rev Arul Doss, a Roman Catholic priest in the Balasore diocese, was killed in a remote region. Howell explains that the violence against Christians is because the "the church is empowering the poor."

The reality is that India's marginalised communities are indeed powerless. Independent India has failed to empower Dalits and tribals. The church has stepped in to provide them development services, which really fall within the government of India's ambit.
But conversions in India, as they are happening today, are not merely about empowering the poor. It is about a sinister and subversive strategy, hatched in the US, backed by the Bush administration over the years.

The question is: does the Indian establishment know or is it pretending not to?

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