Conversion conflicts

Census data shows the outcry against Christian missionaries by Hindutva groups is propaganda

The bogey of evangelism is vital to the Hindutva mission of turning the majority community into a monolithic political constituency.

Theodore Mascarenhas, secretary-general of the Catholic Bishops Council of India, the apex body of Roman Catholics, recently appealed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi to curb the “spread of hatred by [Jharkhand] Chief Minister Raghubar Das”. Mascarenhas pointed out that a manifestation of this hatred was the advertisement the Das government issued in August, accusing Christian missionaries of converting Dalits and Adivasis to Christianity.

The advertisement was published just before the state legislature adopted the Religious Freedom Bill, 2017, which prescribes stringent punishment to those convicted of using force or allurement to proselytise people. It is hard to tell whether hatred motivates Das, but he is undeniably paranoid about Christians and Muslims outstripping Hindus in Jharkhand, which, according to the 2011 Census, is nowhere near facing such a threat.

Christians account for just 4.3% of Jharkhand’s population, Muslims 14.53% and Hindus 67.83%, according to the Census. If the figure for Hindus is relatively low in comparison to many states, it is because 12.84% of the state’s population counted themselves as followers of “Other Religions”, an omnibus category of local faiths in the Census.

In Jharkhand, followers of “Other Religions” are primarily those of the Sarna faith, who worship nature. For long, they have been campaigning to have Sarna assigned a separate code during the Census so that it is recognised as a distinct religion, instead of being subsumed in the category of “Other Religions.”

Despite Jharkhand having a minority population of 31.67% (including Muslims, Christians and Other Religions), Hinduism is the majority religion in 19 out of 24 districts of the state. Only Simdega is a Christian majority district, with 51.4% of the population following that faith. But Simdega is also the third least populated district. Topping the list of least populated districts are Lohardaga and Khunti, both of which have Hindus in the minority. None of these three districts has a population of over six lakhs. In addition, Hindus are also in the minority in Gumla and Paschimi Singhbhum, both of which have a population of over 1 crore each.

Except for Simdega, it is Sarna followers who are dominant in the four remaining districts in which Hindus are a minority. Sarnas account for 51.1% of Lohardaga’s population, 44.62% of Gumla’s, 45.37% of Khunti’s, and a whopping 62.96% of Paschimi Singhbhum. In contrast, Christians comprise just 3.63% of Lohardaga’s population, 19.75% of Gumla’s, a substantial 25.65% of Khunti’s and 5.83% of Paschimi Singhbhum’s.

It is obvious that after decades of providing healthcare and education facilities, apart from their alleged evangelism, Christian missionaries have not managed to convert Adivasis on a scale as is alleged.

Given that Christians in Jharkhand are also largely Adivasis, the leaders of the Sarna faith support the anti-conversion law, dismayed as they are to see their numbers dwindle. But the alleged propensity of Christian missionaries to covert Adivasis is just a factor in their decreasing population.

As Krishna Kant Toppo, a former secretary of the now-defunct Sarna Central Committee, told the Indian Express, “The best thing would be the Sarna code, which would enable us to get enumerated in the Census as a separate religion. Otherwise…some give in to the Church, others migrate, and a few of them get to recite Hanuman Chalisa in the morning.”

Spectre of conversions

For well over a century, India’s Census, conducted every 10 years, has been a crucial factor in bolstering caste and religious consciousness. This is precisely why Hindutva leaders are reluctant to support the demand for Sarna to be treated as a separate religion. They insist that those classified under the category of “Other Religions” in the Census are Hindu, on the basis of which they invent a Hindu identity for them.

They also raise the spectre of India turning Christian with a little help from the West. This was the rationale behind passing anti-conversion laws in a slew of states – Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Gujarat and now Jharkhand.

When the Census religion data of 2011 was released in 2015, newspapers carried alarmist stories saying that the Christian population in Odisha has grown by 478% and Muslims by 323% in the last 50 years, as against Hindus increasing by just 130%. Who would ever put out a headline saying that despite growing by 478%, Christians are just 2.77% of Odisha’s population today, rising from 1.15% in 1961. (Muslims are 2.17% and Hindus 93.63%.)

Between 2001 and 2011, Odisha’s Hindu population dipped by 0.72%. In 1961, they constituted 97.57% of the state’s population. They are nowhere near being swamped. All districts in Odisha are Hindu majority. The Christian population has crossed double digits in percentage terms in only three of them. These are Sundargarh (18.39%), Kandhamal (20.31%) and Gajapati (37.98%). The category of Other Religions constitutes just 1.14% of the state’s population.

In Chhattisgarh, for all the talk of missionaries converting Adivasis, the state’s 18 districts at the time of the 2011 Census (nine new districts were carved out in 2012) have an overwhelming Hindu majority. Christians comprise just 1.92% of the state’s population, Muslims 2.02% and Hindus 92.25%. Only Jashpur district has a Christian population of 22.26%. None of the remaining 17 districts has a Christian population of more than 5%. In fact, in 11 of these, Christians comprise less than 1% of the population.

In Madhya Pradesh, judging from the stories of missionaries being nabbed while converting Hindus, it would seem that the Christianisation of the state is well underway. In reality, however, Christians comprise just 0.29% of the state’s population. According to the 2011 Census, 48 of Madhya Pradesh’s 50 districts (the 51st district was created in 2013) have less than 1% of Christians, and the remaining two less than 4%. These are Jhabua (3.75%) and Mandla (1.18%).

Himachal Pradesh has 95.17% Hindus, 2.18% Muslims and just 0.18% Christians. Eleven of the state’s 12 districts have Hindus in the majority. Hindus are in the minority in Lahaul and Spiti, where Buddhists account for 62.01% of the population. Himachal Pradesh is the only state where an anti-conversion law was passed by a Congress government, in 2007.

Similarly, in Gujarat, where an anti-conversion law was enacted in 2003 under the chief ministership of Narendra Modi, Christians comprise just 0.52% of the state’s population (Muslims are 9.67% and Hindus 88.57%.) According to the 2011 Census, its 26 districts (seven more were carved out in 2013) are all Hindu majority. Barring Tapi with 6.77% and The Dangs with 8.77%, the Christian population does not exceed 2% in any other district in the state.

These figures testify that either Christian missionaries are not particularly zealous about proselytisation, or are terrible at their mission, or people are not as amenable to conversion as Hindutva ideologues think.

Hindutva propaganda

Indeed, the outcry against missionaries is just propaganda designed, as Mascarenhas pointed out, to mobilise people for the Hindutva cause. The mobilisation is based on spreading hatred against Christian missionaries and dividing Adivasis on the basis of their faith. It also prevents Adivasi assertion, required to ensure they do not unite to oppose mines, the setting up of factories and exploitation of forests. As the only party to bait religious minorities, the Bharatiya Janata Party hopes to gain from the polarisation between Christian Adivasis and those who have been Hinduised or follow local faiths.

Fathoming the pitfalls of such polarisation, Sarna leaders in Jharkhand said they would study the provisions of the state’s anti-conversion law and, simultaneously, demanded a separate religion code for Sarna. But Hindutva leaders, including Raghubar Das, have been silent on this demand. This is because to accept it would undermine Hindutva’s very idea of uniting non-Christians and non-Muslims under an overarching Hindu identity and counting them as adherents of Hinduism.

Then again, if Sarna is recognised as a separate religion, as Buddhism and Jainism are, then what about the claims of Lingayats who say they are not Hindu? Or, what about the Ravidassias, who declared themselves as a separate religion in 2010? Recognising Sarna as a separate religion could very well trigger separatist tendencies in Hinduism.

Stirrings for a separate religious identity are suppressed by propagating that there is a conspiracy to convert Hindus into Christianity or Islam. Intermittent violence against these minorities helps to consolidate the Hindu community. After all, communities, like nations, tend to forget their differences in the time of conflict. This is vital for Hindutva’s mission of turning the 80% Hindus in India into a monolithic political constituency.

This is also precisely why Hindutva has raised the bogey of evangelism by Christian missionaries, never mind that there is no possibility that the land of Adivasis will transform into Christendom at least for the next few centuries.

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