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”.