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Reformation, Not Revivalism

Reformation, Not Revivalism

Jharkhand is all set to introduce an anti-conversion Bill, the seventh state to do so. I am sure it will have a smooth sail with even the Congress supporting it. One of the last states to enact such a law was Himachal Pradesh where the Congress was at that time in power. It’s a different matter that it did not help the party to win the next election. 

In fact, the first state which officially banned conversion was Madhya Pradesh when the party was ruled by the Congress. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru could do nothing against the MP initiative which is being followed by other states. 

After Jharkhand, it will be Maharashtra which will have an anti-conversion Bill. When it comes to religious issues, the Congress and the BJP are hand in hand with each other.

For instance, when Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar introduced a new law to increase the quantum of punishment for those who slaughter the cow and its progeny, he got a hug in public from Opposition leader and former Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda. 

One only has to remember Rajiv Gandhi launching the 1991 election campaign from Ayodhya in the company of Arun Govil wearing the same costume of Lord Ram that he wore in the mega-serial Ramayana to realise that there is little difference between the two parties when it comes to pandering to religious leaders.

Given this backdrop, the Bill would be passed unanimously or with token opposition from some MLAs, whose religious persuasion may be different from that of Jharkhand Chief Minister Raghubar Das. 

All anti-conversion laws are aimed at stopping conversion of Hindus and animists into other religions, especially Christianity. However, Hindu organisations are encouraged to convert Scheduled Tribes by teaching them recital of Hanuman Chalisa and other rituals.

What is noteworthy is that although Christians are accused of conversion, not one Christian has so far been punished for converting anyone by using force or fraudulent means in the six decades or so that the law has been in force in states like Madhya Pradesh. 

Yet, state after state is thinking of enacting the anti-conversion law. The Centre may even think of such a move, maybe once the BJP gets a clear majority in the Rajya Sabha. Why do the Hindu zealots feel threatened by the Christians, who are the most peace-loving community with the least representation in India’s prisons from Kashmir to Kanyakumari? Or, why do people convert?

Take the case of Kashmir and Kerala. These were the two states where religious obscurantism and ritualism were at its apogee and people belonging to the lower castes were not even granted civic rights like the right to walk on public roads forcing enlightened leaders, including TK Madhavan, K Kelappan and Mannath Padmanabhan, to launch the Vaikom Satyagraha. 

The result was that an overwhelming majority of the people in Kashmir converted to Islam and at least 50 per cent in Kerala to Islam and Christianity.

Why do people convert? Is it because of “force” or “allurement” as the Jharkhand Bill seems to suggest? As a journalist, I have also been curious about it. A few years ago I visited a few villages in Uttarakhand in the company of my friend, the late Dr John Koodathinal John, who loved Uttarakhand so much that he sold his property in Kerala to build a small house at Dehradun only to leave it incomplete. The visit was really eye-opening.

I met a Hindi-speaking pastor who is alleged to have converted a large number of people. He never saw a dollar bill or a Euro note. His financial condition was no better than that of the average Christian faithful in the area. How, then, did he manage his life? 

When I asked him this question, his answer was emphatic: “The Christians whom I serve give a share of their tithe (one-tenth of income) to me for my own subsistence.” 

While the rumour was that he paid “bribe” to the people to convert, it was the “people” who paid him to live in their community with his family. Relatively speaking, the Christians in the area were rich. How would the pastor explain their new-found prosperity, I asked. Actually, I did not need his answer because I had learnt it from many of the neo-Christians I met there.

I realised that the moment a person became Christian, his income doubled or tripled or quadrupled. How did this happen? The first thing that happened when a person became Christian in the area was that he gave up drinking. Liquor addiction was rampant in the area. Let me explain it in an easy-to-understand manner.

Sharad earns Rs 100 a day out of which he spends Rs 50 on liquor. When he stops drinking, the family income doubles from Rs 50 to Rs 100. This transforms the family. Now it has Rs 50 more to spend on food, clothes and education of children. Earlier, he would go to a liquor shop after work and return home in an inebriated condition. There would often be quarrels between him and his wife and she would even be beaten up. Now he returns home straight after work.

The wife is happy and the children are happier. In the evening, they attend a prayer meeting at a fellow Christian’s house and they return home late after a community dinner. Since he does not drink and eats good food in time, he remains healthier than before. In short, the family has become prosperous. The rumour has it that he is rich because he gets foreign money.

I have travelled in tribal areas from Jharkhand to Chhattisgarh to Madhya Pradesh to Odisha to Arunachal Pradesh and I can bet that an average Christian tribal is better off than an average Hindu or animist in terms of health, education and living standard. He is less likely to be a drunkard or a criminal. 

Once I wrote a column about Gujarat recording a negative growth rate in literacy and a senior Gujarat official blaming the presence of tribals in the state for the same. My question was, how come an almost wholly tribal state like Mizoram became the most literate state in India? Mizoram was nowhere near Gujarat in terms of economic prosperity but Gujarat was nowhere near Mizoram in education.

I have travelled in Mizoram and I have found poor boys and girls selling cut and whole pineapples on roadsides but I did not find anyone begging there. This is true about the whole of Northeast where people are more straightforward than in the Gangetic plains. 

Someone may say that I am generalising and that I am blissfully ignorant of the drug habit among the youth there. Yes, there are social evils and they need to be addressed and not encouraged.

As a Christian, I am called upon to love this country and obey the law of the land. I cannot support a traitor who is offered kingship for betraying his brother as in a holy book. When I die, my body is to be buried in this country so that it becomes manure for trees and plants. 

My God is the God of all and He does not distinguish me on the basis of my colour or familial status. I am not a Christian if I do not love my neighbour, who may be a Hindu or a Muslim or an animist or an atheist. All my church-going and prayers would be useless if I cannot be of use to my neighbour when he needs my services.

It was to serve the poor and the needy in the remote areas of the country that Christians went. Once in Jharkhand, someone told me, “It is easy to distinguish a Christian tribal from a non-Christian tribal. The former would be wearing a leather footwear and his dress would be cleaner than that of a non-Christian, though they may both be poor”.

In the Northeast, some tribals were known as head-hunters. Headhunting was a passion for them. Today I meet the grandchildren and great grandchildren of the same headhunters working as air-hostesses and stewards in airlines like Indigo. 

You may wonder why I mention this. That is because the draft Jharkhand law says that anyone who seeks to reform all practices based on faith is guilty of conversion and can be given four years of imprisonment with a fine of Rs 100,000.

The Bill says, “Indigenous faith means such religions, belief and practices, including rites, rituals, festivals, observance, performance, abstinence, customs as have been found sanctioned, approved, performed by the Scheduled Tribe communities of Jharkhand from the time these communities have been known”.

Widow-burning, child marriage, infanticide etc were part of traditions and practices in the country. Untouchability and unapproachability were also part of India’s traditions. There were social reformers who sought to abolish such practices. Take the case of Raja Rammohun Roy. Many people do not know that he was influenced considerably by the Baptist missionary William Carey, who did wonders in this country.

It was their team work and their influence on Governor-General William Bentick that resulted in the abolition of sati. When there was a fear that the abolition would be rescinded, Roy went to London to plead with the British government not to fall to persuasions from the rich and the powerful in India. Alas, he died there.

The epitaph on Roy’s tomb says, “A conscientious and steadfast believer in the Unity of Godhead, He consecrated his life with entire devotion to the worship of the divine spirit alone, to great natural talents, he united through mastery of many languages and early distinguished himself as one of the greatest scholars of the day. 

“His unwearied labour to promote the social, moral and physical condition of the people of India, his earnest endeavours to suppress idolatry and the rite of suttee and his constant zealous advocacy of whatever tended to advance the glory of God and the welfare of man live in the grateful remembrance of his countrymen. This tablet records the sorrow and pride with which his memory is cherished by his descendants. He was born at Radhanagore in Bengal in 1772 and died at Bristol on September 27th 1833.”

After Roy’s death was born Sri Narayana Guru of Kerala. He was also a great social reformer. He started a Sanskrit school to which he gave admission to all, irrespective of caste or creed. He stood against the prevalent social customs of the time.

Robin Jeffrey, a Canadian professor who specialises in the modern history and politics of India, quotes the wife of a Christian missionary, who wrote in 1860 that: “A Nair can approach but not touch a Namboodiri Brahmin: a Chovan [Ezhava] must remain thirty-six paces off, and a Pulayan slave ninety-six steps distant. 

“A Chovan must remain twelve steps away from a Nair, and a Pulayan sixty-six steps off, and a Parayan some distance farther still. Pulayans and Parayars, who are the lowest of all, can approach but not touch, much less may they eat with each other”.

Another great social reformer was Swami Dayanananda Saraswati who founded the Arya Samaj. He questioned many religious superstitions and spoke and wrote against idolatry. He was against holy bath and all ritualism. 

Swami Vivekananda was also a reformer in many ways. He also questioned many religious practices. He encouraged women to read the Vedas. If the four were living in Jharkhand, all could have been arrested without bail and given four years of imprisonment and a fine of Rs 100,000 for preaching against the indigenous faith of the tribals of the state.

Christianity was not any different. There was a time when the people were prevented from reading the Bible and knowing the word of God. The Puritans struggled against it in the 16th century and the Press was born. The religion was reformed when Martin Luther set the process of Reformation with these words in 1521:

“Since your majesty and your lordships desire a simple reply, I will answer without horns and without teeth. Unless I am convicted by scripture and plain reason -- I do not accept the authority of popes and councils for they have contradicted each other -- my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise, God help me. Amen.”

Instead of reformers, we have Yogis who encourage their followers to take the law into their own hands against those who have a different dietary habit. Instead of books, they give them trishuls to stick into the bodies of their rivals. They also revive rituals which were abandoned  many many years ago. Who is there to tell them that we need Reformation, not Revivalism?

The writer, a senior journalist, can be reached at  ajphilip@gmail.com

(Published on 07th August 2017, Volume XXIX, Issue 32)