20,000 People? Pshaw!

21 Oct
Coz poor people don't matter

Coz poor people don't matter

In this week’s edition of Outlook, a story about the continuing anti-Christian violence perpetrated by far-right Hindu groups in the Kandhamal district of Orissa includes this fascinating little snippet:

…the parivar can’t understand what the fuss is about. “There are 8.5 lakh Christians in Orissa: only 20,000-odd are in camps,” says Dr Lakshmidhar Das of the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram. “Why are we being given a bad name for such a small number?”

Indeed, why so serious? All this fuss over 20, 000 people in a country of over 1 billion? How these lefty, anti-Hindu types do like to bitch and moan! I mean, just extend that logic and see how well it all works out:

Dr. Lakshmidhar Das presumably has four limbs. If I take a sledgehammer to his right leg, what is the big deal? He’ll still have three working limbs, won’t he?

Dr. Lakshmidhar Das presumably has two parents. If I kill one of them, what is the big deal? He’ll still have one left, won’t he?

Dr. Lakshmidhar Das presumably has a house. If I firebomb the top storey, what is the big deal? He’ll still have the rest of his house, won’t he?


It is not surprising that a leader of violent extremists can see nothing wrong with a little loot-and-pillage action. It is, however, surprising to read some of the comments that Indians scattered around the world have left on that story.

I have long since made peace with the fact that I am an unquestionably privileged citizen of a country where large swathes of the population are still struggling for access to basic amenities. Equally, I’ve come to realize that there also exist a number of Indians who hate to be reminded of this inconvenient truth.

Perhaps this is a leftover reaction to all those decades when the world was waiting with bated breath for India to fall flat on its independent face now that we ungrateful brown heathens had thrown out the civilizing influence of the all-powerful white man who just wanted to help us, really. Perhaps it is just our idea of patriotism. Perhaps we’re simply touchy that way.

Whatever it is, as the reactions to Aravind Adiga’s newly Booker-winning novel The White Tiger indicate in the same edition of Outlook, India at large remains arguably resentful of those who seek to portray the Indian nation as anything less than Paradise with a few dark corners that will eventually be swept clean as a matter of course because thus was our destiny written.

So maybe I shouldn’t be surprised when people write in to question the very idea of conversion or how it could possibly “help” the converts to do what they did. I shouldn’t… but I am.

Let us say, for argument’s sake, that conversion is not a matter of faith. That not a single Hindu in India has ever converted to Christianity because s/he saw something in that religion that completed them spiritually. That conversion has always been about coercion. Or – if that is too extreme a point for those of you on the Hindu Right who, broadly speaking, think there’s something shady about Christian proselytizing but aren’t willing to join the ranks of lovely people like Dr. Das – let us say that conversion as practiced in regions like Kadhamal are bogus.

This brings us to the one phrase that we see repeated over and over again in cases where Christians are targeted, be it the Graham Staines murder or these riots: forced conversion.

For those of us familiar with religious upheaval in Europe of the Middle Ages, “forced conversion” brings to mind the horrors of the Inquisition. And in fact, a particularly noxious form of it was indeed practiced in Goa, mainly in the 16th century, by the Portuguese. But it’s a been a good long while since anyone in India was forced to accept Jesus Christ at the point of a sword.

No, it turns out that when the Hindu Right talks about “forced conversion”, it means something more like “lured into conversion”. So what would “lure” a nice Hindu to convert to another religion? Consider the tale of this Dalit woman from Rajasthan:

A 29-year-old Dalit woman was allegedly gangraped in a Rajasthan village, not once but twice, with a span of one week. The second gangrape was “to teach her a lesson” because she “mustered the courage” to go to the police to lodge a complaint.

While the first gangrape took place at Harmada village on September 15, the second incident took place in the presence of her father-in-law. These allegations have been made by the woman in the Ajmer SP’s office. The arrests were made almost a month later following the intervention of senior police officers. She alleged that the rapists enjoyed the support of local police.

This is not something new. Now it’s not that non-Dalit women don’t get raped in India. But would they have treated her with such disrespect, would her attackers have been roaming free days after she complained, had she been an upper caste woman? If someone goes up to her tomorrow and offers her a better life as a Christian, what do you think she will do?

Yes, Dr. Ambedkar was the chief architect of the Indian Constitution. Yes, K.R. Narayanan was the President of India. And yes, even today, there are large numbers of Dalits in India who are still treated worse than animals, who live lives far removed from that of Ambedkar and Narayanan. To pretend otherwise is futile.

And yet, so many of us do. We read these stories about how we’re the next global superpower, and how many billionaires we have, and how we’re all buying Chanel now and how the Tatas own Jaguar… and we dismiss who we are as a people because it’s so much more satisfying to read about individuals.

The way I see it, this is a natural extension of how Indians cope with the crushing poverty that infuses the Indian scene. If you ignore it, it never happened. I can eat a meal that cost Rs. 5000 without a moment’s thought for that family of five that’s sleeping on the pavement outside the restaurant, simply because I am who I am. And if this is, indeed, your coping mechanism then as far as I’m concerned that’s cool by me – you feeling guilty as you shovel in your overpriced Gobi Manchurian at the Taj isn’t actually going to help anyone. Besides, as anybody who lived through the 70s can tell you, everybody living in poverty together isn’t that great of a solution to India’s problems.

My caveat comes at the suggestion that we should deny that there is a problem at all. If Christian missionaries – to take the Hindu Right’s word at face value – manage to “lure” all the silly tribals and foolish Dalits into taking their word for it that Jesus loves them all equally, then the fault lies with men like those two who raped that woman in Rajasthan, not the missionaries who gave the poor people of Kandhamal access to the kind of facilities – hospitals, schools, etc – that even the Indian state wasn’t able to provide for them.

You cannot systematically discriminate against your fellow citizen on the basis of your shared religion and then complain if he no longer wishes to be a part of that religion. Think of it this way – if the kids in your neighborhood park always pick on you and bully you, while the kids in another park ask you to join in their games, who would you rather hang out with? Multiply times a hundred, and you have your answer.

The Christian converts of Kandhamal may be poor, may be historically discriminated against, may be all mixed up with Maoists… but they know a good thing when they see it. And setting fire to their homes only reinforces their opinions.


And just for the record, Dr. Das’ 8.5 lakh number appears to have been a bit of a Freudian slip regarding the Parivar’s larger plans for Orissa (emphasis mine):

Over 22,000 of the 1.17 lakh Christians in the district fled to relief camps.

But hey, there’s more than 90, 000 left to appreciate the Parivar’s continuing portrayal of “Hindu tolerance”.


Posted by on October 21, 2008 in Life, News, Newsmakers, Politics


16 responses to “20,000 People? Pshaw!

  1. M

    October 21, 2008 at 2:25 pm


    heh – prepare to be crucified (pun not intended, but the word fits) for your views!

    I am not surprised by gundagardi-in-the-name-of-religion – only that anyone thinks this is actually about religion – I suspect the usual motive – political power – is behind this, and sadly, as always, it is those with the least resources who get targeted.
    Nowadays in India, it seems like it is *only* gunda-gardi that gets you anywhere…:(


  2. bollyviewer

    October 21, 2008 at 3:56 pm

    But Amrita, Dr. Lakshmidhar Das is a Hindu and he didnt betray his religion or sign up with the foreigners – why do you want to take his limbs or bomb his house? Got it, you’re one of the minority religion who is ruling the roost in India and making it impossible for Hindus to survive in their own country!!! 😉

    Yes, we all (urban middle class) see and ignore the problems of the poor and actively help their oppressors – its the class war and religion just gets dragged into the mix because it helps garner more support.

  3. Jayalakshmi

    October 21, 2008 at 10:05 pm

    You hit the nail on the head. the words are flying at me with force. Hope many right thinking people will read this blog and let the words take effect. God bless

  4. Hades

    October 22, 2008 at 12:18 am

    As usual, even this communal flare-up has an underlying economic reason to it, which is of course exploited by those on top and given a communal tinge.

    Foe example, communalism in pre-1947 Bengal was more a landlord-tenant thing, who just happened to be Hindus and Muslims respectively. This was of course given a communal tinge by the League and its mirror images on the Hindu side. And wala! We have wonders like the Great Calcutta Killings of ’46.

    The current violence was also due to some friction between caste groups with tempers flaring up due to one group allegedly taking “advantage” of their “backward” status.

    Enter the Bajrang Dal and we have a nice little communal flare-up.


    An apparent reason for this flare-up is the policy of the Indian government to deny reservation benefits to STs who “convert” to Christianity.

    Now, I find this policy to be very intriguing.

    Reservations are given, according to the govt at least, to compensate for centuries of exploitation and backwardness that these STs have faced. These reservations are meant to help them match up to the standards of the rest of the population.

    But apparently, the GoI has a lot of faith in Christianity, because as soon as a person converts to it, he apparently does not need these reservations. Or so the Govt thinks.

    Centuries of persecution and backwardness have been wiped out by one little conversion.


    Not that it justifies the violence in the least bit, but these missionaries are rather un-Christian in their methods.

    These organisations, funded largely by Americans, are run like a business organisation with a bottom line which reads ‘souls harvested’.

    But then you might say, what’s new? Aren’t all religions businesses? And I’ll have to agree.

  5. apu

    October 22, 2008 at 1:07 am

    whoooo! Amrita, prepare for a mega-attack!

    But seriously, while I have no sympathy with missionaries out to “harvest souls”, violence as a solution is intrinsically wrong. If the Bajrang Dal is so concerned about Hinduism, what prevents them from preaching their own faith and convincing people? It’s easier of course and gets more headlines, to burn and kill.

  6. sachita

    October 22, 2008 at 4:03 am

    Amrita, I have to thank you for this post. It disturbed me a lot. I spent pretty much the whole day with thoughts running in the background.

    This whole violence as an answer to anything that they (x,y,z = bajrang dal,rss, that thackeray’s party, Pmk in tamil nadu..) cannot tolerate scares the shit out of me. India has steadily seen raise of such incidents, The vote hungry politicians,… the seemingly easily excitable people with insecure minds. I keep recalling that taliban scene from Kite runner.And even after much thought, I don’t see how this trend is ever going to be reversed.

    But in this case, it seems a police intervention could have definitely helped. 22000 people procession for 150km in such highly tensed regions and scenario, were they mad?
    I am no cop, but haven’t they heard of mob mentality.

    And the regarding the caste, here it is STs(the hindus) against SCs. Both communities being at the worst receiving end of casteism, untouchables as per the caste hierarchy. they don’;t realize the anti-conversion squads is having a field day at their expense.

    Ps: i used to hate evangelists from an individual perspective, they irritate me, keep disturbings my sundays to tell me iam in sin and the only way i can be saved is by conversion. but i have put the evangelists in the annoying crowd, hate is for the perpetrators of violence.

  7. govind

    October 22, 2008 at 7:19 am

    It is indeed disheartening to see the sorry state of affairs in our country. There is just too much hate and the shrewd politicians just exploit this. We must come together and voice out differences,if any, rather than resorting to violence.

  8. Prasanth

    October 22, 2008 at 7:44 am

    The post pretty much says everything that’s left to be said but I have one issue with the direction of your post. I am not sure whether bringing in responses to Aravind Adiga’s recent dash to fame is particularly valid in the context of the rest of the post.

    It would seem you are suggesting that the motives that moved the criticism of Adiga’s work are in some (albeit distant) way, parallel to the responses that appeared in the Outlook on the Orissa issue. If that is so, I would disagree.

    While I have not read the book, I have followed the wave of criticism that has followed the award and most of it stems from the suspicion that Adiga has chosen the most convenient path to fame and renown-ie. being an ivory tower dissident whose work delights western academia and intelligentsia so that they can declare that we in the East have finally learned, in accordance with the most hallowed principles of democracy and ethics, to “expose” the poverty and misery of our developing society and aspire for universal human values that go beyond narrow patriotism.

    This stand however, does not come from the belief that India is perfect or that we ought to wait for some more time before judging India. Rather, the stand is often advocated by groups which are most attuned to the issues Adiga seems to talk about. These groups face a quandary every time an author publishes a book that deals with the realities of India. In a world where sincerity is difficult to measure, the key question is often what is the extent of the politics of the book. Is it a work that goes beyond mere portrayals of the dark misery and unfairness of Indian life or does it(despite its beautiful language) ultimately fit into the category of voyeuristic fiction.

    These issues are very difficult to resolve and the resolution is often a long-term process. I recall similar issues being raised with respect to Arundhati Roy’s novel as well. However it would be mistaken to indicate that the criticism of this kind is merely a refusal to accept the innumerable warts on the face of Indian society.


  9. bluejay

    October 22, 2008 at 9:09 am

    Though I completely agree with the blog, I think, its time we stop criticising attacks from a religious point of view (yes! I know its done in the name of religion..and No, im not some lame religious fanatic who supports one religion over the other!!!).. and stop letting these political parties take this to their advantage and add fuel to communal riots..while they sit in their plush bungalow homes.. its people like us.. our frends who get killed.. lets share this with frends, and stop violence..regardless of who or which religion that person might belong to.. that doesnt matter.. and all these political parties, sumtimes even commission people to start a religious strife…vote tactics.. how disgusting..and these are the people whom we trust our nation and our future and our childrens future with.. so..when anybody talks abt any other religion.. either in a derogatory way or praising sumthing..please put a stop to it and say that u beleive in independence of thought and right to free thinking..maybe the word will spread and ppl will stop involving themselves in such..and I think.. if ppl think that religion has such a powerful role to play. the heads of each religion should come out and support each other and stop this. if they are so fanatic about their religion.. they would listen to them right??

  10. Broom

    October 22, 2008 at 12:54 pm

    only 20,000? clearly there’s much work to be done.

  11. Amey

    October 22, 2008 at 3:30 pm

    I can’t say it is “our” idea of patriotism, as you will see this defensive reaction (particularly from external critics) almost everywhere. Plus, I guess coming after country of snakes and elephants, country of tech-support etc. it is hard to react “positively” to any negative comments.

  12. Amrita

    October 23, 2008 at 3:16 pm

    M – you think? I think they concentrate on the group sites and leave folks like poor little me alone. Anyway, I figure if those people can take their houses being burnt down, I can handle a little flaming troll action. And yes, it seems to be a lot more about land than religion.

    Bollyviewer – bingo! It took me a while to cotton on to that because I really did think it was a cultural/religious divide… but that’s a whole another post.

    Jayalakshmi – thank you.

    Hades – I was initially going to start off with a Swami Vivekananda quote that I read in paul theroux’s Ghost Train to the Eastern Star in which he basically breaks down the MO of all religions but can’t seem to find it anywhere. Anyway, the point is, I’m on the same page as you (and so many others here) as far as missionary work is concerned but there is a reason why evangelicals are making huge strides in the poorer parts of the world. Its because the secular govt has let them down and now God seems to be the only one who even gives a fuck. So I don’t blame them.
    And the whole affirmative action thing is ridiculous on so many different levels, I could go on about it for the next several days.

    Apu – And, God, have you seen some of the coverage? What seems to have to escaped these happy “patriots” is that they’ve just played into the hands of every single news outlet out there that wants to portray india as a land of savages. Yay Hindu pride. Blech.

    Sachita – I’m currently reading this book called Red Sun… wait till I review it. This is merely the sideshow, the real act is something else. It makes me sick. As for the police, we seem to have to reached a point where we’re almost apathetic about it – as though violence is the price of Indian citizenship.

    Govind – To put it in their terms, it’s anti-national.

  13. Amrita

    October 23, 2008 at 3:31 pm

    Prasanth – Thank you, you gave me much to think about! 🙂 I’m planning to read Adiga’s book sometime next week so I’ll have a better handle on it then, but from what I understood from the reviews, the prose is strictly functionary, it’s the story that’s grabbed everyone. I dont know if that’s true, but if it is, then it’s a big break from the previous Booker winners, at least the Indian ones.
    As for your larger point about the exoticization of poverty – well, my entire writing schtick as an Indian writer is anti-exoticization so it’s hard for that not to resonate with me intellectually, but I will say that that is a pretty tenuous line. For one thing, writing a literary novel about India in English, even if it is Indian English, is automatically exotic in some respects, whether or not the author thinks of it that way because most Indians not only speak but THINK in multiple languages and translation of any kind is bound to reflect on your prose.
    Secondly, writing about poverty, the kind we experience in India, that is an exotic (and I don’t mean that in a complimentary manner, obvs) subject in and of itself, because there aren’t a lot of countries out there who live it the way we do in India.
    Third, I think it deserves to be addressed by as many writers as possible in as many ways as possible because it is something that we as Indians have allowed to fade to the background and don’t notice any more. One of the functions of literature as I see it, is to shine a torch in the dark places.
    K, this is growing into a post 🙂 but as you said, it’s not an easy line to walk. However, I’ll keep your words in mind when I read Adiga.

    Bluejay – Amen.

    Broom – burn baby burn!

    Amey – well, that’s true 🙂 Tech support on elephant back in the middle of a high rise jungle with monkeys running everywhere while women burn on pyres!

  14. sachita

    October 23, 2008 at 5:31 pm

    I have been thinking about being touchy about the books on India, since I am one of them.

    Let me state this, I don’t see any difference between the way the Indian books cater to the western audience and bollywood directors cater to the Indian audience.

    When I read R K Narayan, his stories do cover poverty, yet they cover the Indian life providing a complete picture.

    I have only seen Pather Panchali of Ray, which had poverty as a central theme yet you can see a life unfolding there.

    On the other hand, Arundhati roy and so many others sound like they are writing for a theme contest, where they were given three words, poverty, casteism, india. Today an RK Narayan wouldn’t probably be recognized by a Western agent simply coz she will not take the book which doesn’t have the usual chatters about it.

    In my head, Arundhati roy fakes it. Just like how I was bought up under rhetoric about mera bharat mahan, AR sounds to me as someone who has bought up under rhetoric india – poverty, caste. She repeats teh rhetoric without ever providing an Human insight.

    I also feel its a moo point today, since it really doesn’t matter to me what the west/east perceives of India as a nation. That that nation has to worry their their problems.

    Ps: I do agree that the impact of liberalization on rural India is zero compared to Urban where it might be 300%. One just has to step out of Madras in Tamil nadu and see things are ketp exactly the same as they were 10 years ago. Except that I don’t see it as a problem
    due to liberalization more as an indication that we have to somehow channel the efforts in a way that will benefit every area.

  15. kela

    October 31, 2008 at 3:39 am

    Where’s the porn ? is supposed to be an indian porno site according to some youtube videos.

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