In the history of wars, very few have been more terrible than World War I, even at the distance of a century. First of only two global wars, World War I, fought from 1914 to 1918, killed or wounded nearly 25 million people. But even in those times of violent and barbaric monstrosity, there were odd moments of joy and hope. And one of the most remarkable moments came during the first Christmas of the war in the trenches of Flanders and France, when for a few hours men from both sides on the Western Front laid down their arms, emerged from their trenches, and shared food, carols, games and comradeship.
Their truce – the Christmas Truce of 1914 – and the suspension of hostilities, even for a few hours, was truly magical and led the Wall Street Journal to observe: “What appears from the winter fog and misery is a Christmas story, a fine Christmas story that is, in truth, the most faded and tattered of adjectives: inspiring.”
Cut to 2017, long 103 years since the famous Truce in the icy trenches where the World War was suspended to soak in Christmas spirit. In the rugged terrain of the north of India, a fringe group has declared all-out war on Christmas.
The Aligarh chapter of the Hindu Jagaran Manch, an affiliate of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, wrote to schools in the city asking them not to celebrate Christmas. In a circular, the outfit has warned schools if they observe any traditional Christmas celebrations, “it will be at their own risk”. And why all of this hatred, you may ask. It’s because, to the Hindu Jagaran Manch Christmas is a ploy used by Christians to lure and “force” children to convert to Christianity.
The inanity and absurdity of this remark is not lost on this writer, who for the better part of her student life studied at Christian institutions and had more teachers and classmates from other religions than Christianity itself. And, believe me, none of them were forced to convert to Christianity. In fact, this rather ridiculous idea never crossed the minds of neither the founders nor the management. These institutions were founded on the bedrock of the Christian spirit of giving and were borne of the desire to raise year after year students who went into the world striving to realise their dreams and bring glory to their nation.
This is not the first time that Christmas has come under threat. Over the years and more specifically since the Bharatiya Janata Party came into power, Christmas has ceased to be the season to be jolly. In the first year of BJP rule in India, it was the season of Good Governance. Such was the government’s insistence on disrupting Christmas festivities that it cancelled holiday on December 25 for government employees. That year, Christmas day became Good Governance day. Having faced considerable flak for trying to appropriate the religious festival of a minority community, the BJP downplayed Good Governance day celebrations in 2015. In the following year, the BJP, keeping in mind the quest for vote, tweaked its political strategy and rolled back Good Governance day in the North East alone to appease the Christian majority states.
This Christmas time alone, there have been many isolated incidents of attacks on carol-singing groups and people of the Christian faith. A right-wing mob barged into a community centre in Pratapgarh, Rajasthan to disrupt a Christmas event. The mob claimed the event was a religious conversion programme. Earlier this month, in Madhya Pradesh’s Satna, a group of two priests and 30 seminarians from St. Ephrem’s Theological College, who were conducting a routine Christmas carol-singing programme, were detained by an unruly mob identified as the Bajrang Dal and handed over to the police. Shockingly, a group of eight priests who later went to enquire about the situation were also taken into custody.
This incident occurred just two days after M. Venkaiah Naidu, Vice President of India, at a Christmas celebration event organised by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, emphasized, “Religion is personal, culture a way of life.” Further, Mr Naidu lauded the Christian community as a peace-loving one that has worked with the government, both at the Centre and in the States, “to promote people’s welfare”. Yet, the so-called religious police had the gumption to have a go at the carol group.
Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis’ wife Amruta Fadnavis was trolled for lending support to a Christmas-themed charity event. BJP MLA Ashish Shelar got into the wrong side of the detractors after he posted an invitation to a local Christmas celebration programme on his Twitter handle.
A century ago, Christmas was the reason for peace between two warring factions. But today, Christians in India have enough reason to fear. Pictures on Facebook of carolling scenes are accompanied with a subtle remark, “Thank God we were not attacked.” The attacks and the threats have not dented the Yuletide spirit of Indian Christians. But for how long are they going to be looked upon as foreigners in their home country?
Indian tolerance has been given such a wide currency that it takes events such as these to shock us out of our sleep. It’s a tap on the shoulder and a punch in the face. The centre of religious tolerance and inclusivity has all but vanished. We as a country have reached a dangerous new low point and are more divided than we ever have been. We are a society that was forged more by thought and humanity. However, as things stand now, threat and force by fringe groups are polarising us in a way the Divide and Rule policy of the British once did. Unifying values, around speech and civility, freedom and fairness, are shredded by the fringe fury. And as we have a Central power for which division is not just a strategy but a skill, we face enemies who are intent on dividing us further, by strengthening authoritarian systems and weakening democratic ones.
How we deserted the common ground is not known. What, however, is known and understood is it will take a massive amount of introspection to find out what has made raving hound dogs out of some of our fellow countrymen. A country is built on the solid foundation of a healthy democracy, which, in turn, depends not just on armies and the GDP numbers but also on discussions and arguments and dialogue. We need a government that takes responsibility for both the safety and actions of its citizenry. We need to bring people on the table who would not otherwise be talking and ask the hardest questions we can, with nothing off-limits. We can begin by: What makes you think Christians are proselytising by force? Do you have any eyewitness accounts or solid numbers on forced conversions? How are the festivals of Christians any different from those of other religions? Within the secular framework of this country, what makes you think yours is the only religion that should survive?
The pace of change from tolerant to intolerant is accelerating. It is essential that we are nimble and fearless in keeping up to have any hope of finding a common ground, which honours common sense, in pursuit of the common good.
When five churches were attacked in two months in Delhi in 2015, the Christians in the Capital city gathered in front of Sacred Heart Cathedral, Gol Dak khana to peacefully protest the government’s apathy. What followed was an unwarranted attack on the gathering – brutal lathi charge and picking up and bundling of people in buses that dropped them off at an undisclosed location. Chaos ensued and people were hurt. In all this atrocity, a Sikh man, with a turban on his head and a poster in his hands that said “Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian – We are all brothers”, stood steadfast next to his Christian brethren. It is the tribe of such men that we want to see more in our country. That, to my mind, seems to be the only panacea. The more people see through the farce of religious policing, the better our country shall be. Let not religion be the Grinch who stole Christmas.
Merry Christmas, folks!
(Published on 26th December 2017, Volume XXIX, Issue 52)