The protests by the students of the Jawaharlal Nehru University possibly helped. As did the movement sparked off by the death of Dalit doctoral research scholar Rohith Vemula.
On February 13, at a national consultation, 300 key leaders of the Christian community took a little over three hours to reach a consensus that they would not be hoodwinked by the minatory political campaign of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh to join the Rashtriya Isai Manch (National Christian Front), an affiliate group the RSS proposes to create under the “guidance” of its leader Indresh Kumar.
The consultations were called by the United Christian Forum, an inter-denominational organisation that was set up a year ago by concerned citizens following the desecration of half a dozen churches in the National Capital Region. Bishops did not participate in the consultations, though they were invited. A couple of bishops who had attended an earlier meeting led by Kumar said they went for a Christmas gathering and came away before Kumar and his followers broached the issue of the Isai Manch.
Soon, organisations of Catholic and Protestant clerics are scheduled to meet at their own conferences and prepare documents showing their growing apprehensiveness at the developments in the country.
At the UCF consultations, a half-hearted attempt was made by an apparently pro-Sangh participant, who said over 40 lakh Muslims had a similar Manch created by Kumar for India’s largest religious minority. The argument died an instant death, however, when other participants asked him if he knew of any register of membership of the RSS. None exists, or has been revealed to any government agency.
Ideology of hatred
Delhi’s Christian community – a microcosm of India’s about 27 million Christian population – empathises with the country’s youth and women, with the adivasis and Dalits. And while it has not exactly been at the forefront of any movement protesting the violence against Muslims or the anti-Sikh pogrom, it has started looking at communalism in a different light since the 1990s, when violence against nuns, the clergy and Christian institutions first became painfully apparent.
The Christmas eve destruction of village churches in Gujarat’s Dang district in 1998; the murder of Australian leprosy worker, Graham Stuart Staines, and his sons Timothy and Philip in January 1999; and the massive carnage in Kandhamal, Orissa, in 2007 and 2008 – all these incidents made it clear to the community that its 50,000 or so schools, colleges, clinics and hospitals were not protection enough against the rage of political elements espousing the ideology of religious nationalism.
Whatever few doubts there may have been among Christians were put to rest since 2014. The death of Rohith Vemula, the lynching of an innocent Mohammad Akhlaq in Uttar Pradesh on the mere rumour of possession of suspected beef, and the crackdown on students on university campuses, have re-emphasised the agenda of the Hindutva right. Since the campaigning in the lead-in to the 2014 general election, the Christian community has held agitations protesting violence and desecration. Nuns, priests and laypersons have been hauled off by the police, many lathi-charged. This is apart from the now routine harassment and illegal confinement of pastors and worshippers in villages in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and several other states.
It’s not surprising then that the February 13 consultation lasted just three hours.
Renowned theologian TK John, a Jesuit scholar of Hindu philosophy and the sacred texts, summed up the mood of the discourse:
“The proposition, based on which the meeting was convened, was: Should the Christian community yield to the Rashtriya Isai Manch enticement? The agenda of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Sangh Parivar that backs it is a Hindu Rashtra. It is based on an exclusivist and divisive vision. Hatred of Christians and Muslims is their means, expressed through violence and intimidation. Theirs is a two-pronged strategy for realising this objective. At the international level, hoist a slogan of Development and present an Inclusive face. And at the national level, carry on with the objective and method of the RSS.”
A different dialogue
The principle on which the community based its decision are the four pillars articulated in the Preamble of the Constitution – that India is a Sovereign, Socialist, Secular Democratic Republic. In the Bible, Nathan, a subject, told David, the ruler and the perpetrator of a crime: “You have done it [committed the crime].” That was speaking truth to power. As John notes, the Christian rejoinder to the BJP is: “We do not subscribe to your vision ideology and strategy, as well as your method.” This, he said, is another form of Dialogue – a Dialogue of Defiance and Denunciation, meant to expose truth.
There was no voting at the consultation. There was no need for one. A string of speakers – after the keynote addresses by civil rights activist Harsh Mander and political scientist Ambrose Pinto – illustrated the Sangh agenda with ground reports from various states and the articulations of Parivar stalwarts, several of whom are in Parliament or in the Union council of ministers.
Notwithstanding the decision though, nobody is living in a fool’s paradise. There is little doubt that at some stage, the Sangh will indeed set up the Isai Manch. As the political outfit in power, it will entice the gullible and the ambitious with political offices – the sort of inducements it used to lure many into becoming “sarkari” representatives of their community. Other parties have done it too, of course. But such a Christian Sangh will have no credibility at any level in the community.
Indeed, this is what happened to the Muslim and Sikh groups set up by the Sangh – they offer arguments and issue press statements in an attempted counter to memorandums and statements of community groups, only to see themselves ridiculed and contemptuously dismissed.
And while the goons try violence, central and state governments have been ham-handed in their coercion. Many Christian NGOs, as also civil society groups, have been targeted using the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act. Some have been silenced. A few have indeed been “persuaded” to support the government and its leader as harbingers of a new age of prosperity and development, and representation of backward communities.
But the majority seem to agree with Nathan of the Old Testament: “You did commit the crime.” We cannot go with you.