As the Christian clergy and laity in India prepare to meet on February 13 to discuss the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s attempts to reach out to them to form a Christian outfit affiliated to the Sangh, I’m reminded of the first time I met the Sangh leadership outside the limited opportunity journalism gave me and Narendra Modi, the man who would be Prime Minister.
This was in 1998, a traumatic year for India’s Christian community as it marked the beginning of a period, which is yet to end, when it found itself at the wrong end of a violent interface.
There were 24 documented incidents of violence against Christians in 1998, and more were to come. These included the destruction of two and a half dozen small churches in the Dangs district of Gujarat and the burning alive of Australian leprosy worker Graham Stuart Staines and his sons Timothy and Philip in January 1999 in Orissa by Bajrang Dal activist Dara Singh.
At that time, the RSS leadership in Nagpur and the leaders at its Delhi office in Jhandewalan made the first of many overtures to hold a "dialogue" with the Christian community. I had a close encounter with Modi at the first such event. This was before he was parachuted into Ahmedabad as the Sangh’s choice as chief minister. He had accompanied the late KS Sudershan, who was then RSS chief, to the offices of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India in New Delhi to meet a Christian group led by Archbishop Alan de Lastic, the late Archbishop of Delhi who was the head of the Catholic church in India at the time.
This was not a structured “formal dialogue”, but the Archbishop was persuaded to meet them after several intermediaries including a US-based Christian scholar who claimed he was doing a doctoral research study on interreligious dialogue, pressed him to do so. The man did not explain why the dialogue was fixed with the RSS chief and not with the several Shankaracharyas and heads of various sects or “mutts” in India, or even with the Ramakrishna Mission with whom the Church has regularly been in touch through its interfaith dialogue commissions for years.
The archbishop insisted that the talk be held at his headquarters in New Delhi and not at the RSS offices, or even a “neutral” venue. He chose a delegation of clergy, women and some laypersons, including me, to join the meeting.
The meeting was the disaster that the archbishop had anticipated. Modi spoke very little but Sudershan was articulate in his Opposition to Hindus converting to Christianity, which he implied was not by their own volition but by some fraud by Christian priests. He wanted the Church to stop conversions immediately.
Archbishop Alan tried to explain to him the theological underpinning of conversion, a change of heart and mindset. I do not think Sudershan was listening. The Sangh sees conversions as a cultural war against Hinduism and "Bharat Mata" funded by the evil West. Sudarshan said no one converts as a matter of choice, a concept of which he was perhaps ignorant. One of the women in our delegation, a social worker and communications expert from Nagpur who was an official of the Church of North India, told Sudershan that she was the daughter of a Hindu upper caste family who had converted to Christianity of her own volition. Not expecting this explanation, from a woman at that, Sudarshan kept quiet. That was the end of the meeting. It did not change a thing.
A national debate
After the Christmas violence in the Dangs, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who as prime minister at the time, was persuaded to survey the area. He saw the destruction and promptly called for a national debate – not on communal and targeted violence but on conversions to Christianity and the need to curtail or curb them.
There have been a few more close encounters between the Church leadership and the Sangh since then. The biggest was in Bhubaneswar after several cases of murder, arson and rape against Christians in Kandhamal district of Orissa in 2007 and 2008.
One hundred and twenty people died in that violence and as many as 56,000 persons were displaced. Many women were raped and 6,000 houses and 300 churches were also burnt down. Though the deaths were not in the same league as Nellie in 1983, Gujarat in 2002 and Delhi in 1984, Kandhamal ranks along with these horrific incidents because the violence targeting religious minorities had an element of state impunity and complicity.
The Bhubaneswar dialogue also ended in failure with the RSS harping solely on a ban on conversions and refusing to put on paper its acceptance of communal harmony.
The urge to talk
Now, the Church – Catholic and Protestant – loves dialogue. It is a tenet of Catholic teachings and various Popes have propounded on the need for continuous dialogue. It lays special emphasis on dialogue for peace, against terrorism, and for the welfare of people.
It does not see dialogue as capitulation to evil, violence, or to moral issues contrary to the values taught by Jesus Christ. This is perhaps why many in the church still look askance at some of the actions of the Church during Hitler’s rule in Germany.
But many in the Church love dialogue perhaps because it gives them access to those in power, or allows them to declare their “nationalism” and roots in Indian culture. The Sangh and the BJP have played on this psychology with great finesse, teasing and enticing various denominations especially in Kerala.
Thus, Christian votaries of dialogue don’t really attempt to fully understand the “other” but close their eyes to the reality of that entity, its history and track record. This is perhaps why the history of the RSS record vis-a-vis the Muslim community does not seem to matter for the religious leadership of the Christian community who are open to dialogue.
The anticipation of a dialogue, and a planned move against it by a section of the Christian community, came amid reports of a proposal to start a Rashtriya Isai Manch along the lines of its other organisations for Sikhs and Muslims (never mind that these bodies remain mostly on paper with a few minority representatives heading them for the occasional show at election time). The manch’s purported aim is to build goodwill among both communities and the proposal is spearheaded by Indresh Kumar, a member of the RSS’ national executive, who has been accused of instigating communal violence in Orissa.
No one knows what will be the terms of reference of any such dialogue. What will the Christian community even seek in such a dialogue? Will the Christian leadership want to be left alone or seek a certificate from the RSS that it is a "good Christian community"? Will it give up its activities, including preaching about Jesus Christ? Will it agree to confine itself and its rituals behind closed doors? Will the Christian leadership promise that it will run its schools, colleges and hospitals in India as mere social work or commercial establishments and not reach out to the poor, the Dalits and tribals and other marginalised people?
Perhaps there also needs to be a dialogue within the Sangh Parivar on how they want to see religious minorities who have inhabited the motherland for centuries. Do RSS supremo Mohan Bhagwat and Indresh Kumar, the Sangh pointpersons for religious minorities, see any contradiction in setting up Sikh, Muslim and Isai manchs? Have they read the foundation documents of their own group, those honest works of Veer Savarkar and MS Golwalkar? Do they denounce these or the more recent pronouncements of scores of their top leaders including members of Parliament?
Bhagwat should recall his own words:
“They went away [to another religion because of some allurement and thus there is nothing wrong in bringing them back to original fold. It is like a thief who steals our valuables. The chief is caught and we will get our valuables back. They are ours.”
Referring to Teresa of Kolkata, Bhagwat said that her “service to the destitute, since she was converting them to Christianity, devalued… a noble cause”.
Indresh Kumar is equally forthright in his speeches and writings. He wrote an open letter to Pope Benedict XVI saying:
"Conversion to Christianity in the pretext of service, health, education and co-operation is an insult and devaluation to the service itself and a crime against humanity. It proves that your services are selfish motivated and expansionist as well as intolerant. Wherever the Christian missionaries are active and powerful, the hatred, crime, social unrest, separatism, addiction are on the increase and the environment of peace, harmony, brotherhood and happiness are fading away."
The tonsuring of pastors who are put on asses and paraded, cases of ghar wapsi in North and Central India, and routine violence against churches – some 250 or so recorded incidents take place in an average year – provide the backdrop of the proposal to set up a Rashtriya Isai Manch with the help of the Christian community in India.
Should Christians or any other community even seek bilateral treaties with various groups in India? This suggestion is fraught with serious consequences for the unity of the country. All communities have to live together, and this can happen only if they swear common allegiance to the Constitution and the rule of law. We shudder to think of a situation when two or more communities gang up against a third. This has happened in some nations which have been rent asunder by civil strife.
Yes, dialogue is good. We need to hold dialogues with other spiritual traditions. We need to hold dialogues with different Christian denominations. In the Catholic Church, there must be a healthy dialogue between the laity, the religious and the clergy. This is essential for a healthy church. So let us begin with this essential dialogue and let the RSS learn more about India and its Constitution.