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By birth Indian, by culture Hindu, and by faith Christian

By       Message Prakash Kona     Permalink
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The late Arulappa, Archbishop of Hyderabad, made the following statement, which was quoted in newspapers after his death in 2005: "By birth I am an Indian, by culture a Hindu, and by faith, I am a Christian." Since Christians in India by and large do not have a distinct subculture of their own with identifiable parameters except for very local traits as in Goan Catholics being different from Malayali Catholics, they tend to blend culturally with the majority way of life, thus making them largely indistinguishable as a community.

That is the context in which we need to take the point of the late Archbishop that Christians are culturally Hindu and not as a politically correct statement or a statement of fact for that matter. As a conservative society this might be true of believers of any religion in India or South Asia for that matter -- which is that there is a common value system that could broadly be termed "Hindu" for practical purposes and which is shared by a large section of people cutting across community borders.

However, considerable discussion has been generated on Christian minorities owing to the recent vandalizing of churches in New Delhi along with rather strong responses from well-known faces among Christians such as Julio Ribeiro, who says that in his 86th year he feels "threatened, not wanted, reduced to a stranger in my own country." Prior to Ribeiro's statement came what President Obama noted in February 2015 of India's poor record as far as religious tolerance and women's rights were concerned.

In his article "Almost 2,500 Now Killed by Covert US Drone Strikes Since Obama Inauguration Six Years Ago," Jack Serle observed that "there have now been nearly nine times more strikes under Obama in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia than there were under his predecessor, George W Bush." With a record for killing innocent civilians (which includes, women, children and people who do not subscribe to the President's own religion) that competes with that of George W Bush, I seriously don't know what moral authority President Obama has to talk about almost anything. He could say what he did without being shamefaced about it only because he is in a third-world country like India that is a stooge of American interests and is willing to bend over backwards to serve those interests.

The view that Ribeiro takes as Christian, and as someone who has occupied a position in the government as an honest and upright police officer for a good part of his life, is a slightly serious one to say the least. The ex-navy Chief Admiral Sushil Kumar, who also happens to be Christian, expressed a more or less similar view as Ribeiro.

The patronizing dismissal of minority fears by the official news media, which tends to be a mouthpiece of majoritarianism, is tragic to say the least. Majoritarianism is not about individuals (mother nature in her wisdom has wisely put good and bad people in equal proportion in all social groups of the world without anyone having an exclusive monopoly on either rogues or decent people) but about the politics of intimidation through the use of mobs pre-orchestrated specially for the purpose of creating a sense of fear.

This is true both of the Sikh killings following the assassination of Indira Gandhi as well as the Gujarat riots in which primarily Muslims were the target. An important section of wealthy upper-caste Hindus, mostly powerful business communities and owners of corporations with high stakes in the media, has a deep vested interest in targeting minorities and keeping them outside mainstream economy. They also enjoy the support of a group of upper-caste intellectuals who promote the view of minorities as paranoid and parasitical, accruing benefits from the state that members of the majority group, in this case the Hindus, are deprived of.

Fear is a sensation and people experience fear for various reasons. Perceptions are built on the experience of fear. You cannot give logical reasons for what is basically intuitive. When it happens as a community, people are looking at the past experience of other minorities in similar situations for them to arrive at certain conclusions. The collective memory of minorities is filled with frightening images of what happened to Muslims of Gujarat in 2002. Christians have every reason on earth to panic as a social group, given the background of how things could go against their favor. That is where we should locate the statements of Christians such as Julio Ribeiro who feel like outsiders, because they are not imagining it.

Usually I don't take economists seriously. Lack of imagination is the least of their crimes. Among the social sciences, it is economists along with scholars in international relations that I've found to be supporters of the worst kind of establishment politics. No wonder these programs enjoy public as well as private funding. I am amazed and amused by men like Prof. Jagdish Bhagwati who, when they make statements, have no clue as far as reality on the ground in concerned.

Prof. Bhagwati says something along these lines: "Like if I, passing by a church, throw a stone through the window. That would be vandalism, right? And it could also be an attack on a particular Christian church." I have no idea why someone would throw a stone through the window of a church in the first place. The psychological dimension to the vandalism needs to be looked at in addition to the nature of these attacks and the responses of people to these attacks. Acts of vandalism may not in themselves signify a communalized majority. But seen from a minority point of view there is enough to cause legitimate fear that these attacks have the tacit support of the majority. To dismiss the whole thing as an act of imagination is a bit too much on the side of being insensitive not to mention discriminatory towards an entire social group, in this case the Christians.

The highlight of the interview is the statement that Prof. Bhagwati took pride in making through the reference to the Spanish Inquisition of 1492, which expelled Jews from Spain especially under the notorious Grand Inquisitor Toma's de Torquemada. Prof. Bhagwati adds: "I urge these Christian leaders to go and look at their own history of conversions and so on and say look we are into conversion, often forced conversion historically." The Spanish Inquisition happened in imperial Spain. I have no idea on earth and heaven what this has to do with Christians in India. Christianity in India to a large extent comes to us packaged with colonialism not very different in my view to how it came to Latin America or Africa.

Christianity in Europe and North America is intertwined with the history of racism, slavery and colonialism. The slaves and the colonized might subscribe to the same religion as that of their ex-masters but they are not the same people. They are peoples with different histories and different social and political backgrounds. Christians are being persecuted in the Middle East and in Pakistan. The persecutors in those places conveniently equate the history of those Christians with that of Europeans. The persecutors are ignorant and barbaric men who are not professors of economics and law at Columbia University. I would expect Prof. Bhagwati to be aware of the simple point that religions do not have a history independent of the believers of the religion.

Pakistani Christians are Pakistanis just as Indian Christians are Indians. The history of Pakistani Christians is the history of a minority group in Pakistan. Likewise, with Indian Christians! They have nothing to do with what happened in Spain during the Inquisition and what happened in Jerusalem during the Crusades. They have nothing to do with the drone attacks and nothing either to do with American foreign policy. What is this appalling display of ignorance by someone of Prof. Jagdish Bhagwati's stature! If this is the view of a professor from Columbia University what can you expect from illiterate men coming from deprived backgrounds who go around shouting slogans on the streets and committing acts of vandalism against one group or the other!

The ignorant not to mention inhuman and primitive abortion laws of a "Catholic" country like Ireland, which led to the death of the Indian dentist Savita Halappanavar in October 2012, highlights the point that religion in itself is not the issue. Something like that could be expected from a poor, underdeveloped country and not from a country that is a member of the European Union. The point is: people are the issue and how they interpret religion is the issue. In that sense, Christians (if you would take a cross-cultural view of a people) are guilty of excesses like any other people.

When we talk of a minority group we have to look at the specific context in question. Christianity and Islam are proselytizing religions. No one denies that. As people of the Book, part of the social program of these religions is about convincing non-believers of what is good about their religion. Conversion, either through argument or example, is perfectly alright in my view. If I were to give a starving man a loaf of bread and asked him to convert, don't forget he still has the choice to starve, though it might not be such a great alternative. The question I would ask is why is that there is a starving person in the first place.

Forced conversion is one where people are converted at gunpoint. The government has every right to remove the "gunpoint" but not to falsify reality and start a campaign that the majority of Hindus are literally "forced" to change their religion. The Ghar Wapsi program (or homecoming), which is about reconverting Christians and Muslims back to Hinduism, is a political program with state support. As a program it shares something in common with the Spanish Inquisition in terms of intellectual backwardness and fanaticism, in fact much more than whatever the Christians of India might be doing. Though there is nothing like a homogeneous group called Indian Christians, we can safely say that as a minority they are actively involved in education and healthcare, which is where we find their presence conspicuous.

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Prakash Kona is a writer, teacher and researcher who lives in Hyderabad, India. He is currently Professor at the Department of English Literature, The English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU), Hyderabad.


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