India With the BJP having come to power at the centre, and having emerged as a formidable force all over North India, Christians are now fast joining Muslims and Dalits as one of the principal victims of Hindutva terror. Recent months have witnessed a sharp escalation of attacks on Christian priests and nuns, and the destruction of churches, particularly in Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh. More recently, in Orissa, an Australian missionary and his two sons were set ablaze by a mob reportedly shouting “Bajrang Dal Zindabad”.
Christians account for a little less than 3 percent of India’s population, but their contribution to the development of the country, in the field of social service, education and health care, has been quite out of proportion to their numbers. Traditionally, Indian Christians have kept a low profile, preferring constructive social engagement to agitational politics. Their relations with other religious communities too have, by and large, been peaceful and relatively free of controversy.
What, then, accounts for the growing Hindutva fury against Christians? While it is true that Hindu communalists have always been stiffly opposed to Christians, preferring to see them as ‘anti-nationals’ and agents of Western powers, that does not explain the rapid spread of anti-Christian violence from the mid-90s onwards. There are many factors at work, one of the most significant being the changing orientation of the Church in India in recent years, due to which vested interests are feeling increasingly threatened.
Barring the Syrian Christians of Kerala, who trace their conversion to the first century AD and to St Thomas, one of the apostles of Jesus, almost all of India’s Christians owe their conversion to European missionaries—first, the Portuguese and the Dutch and then the English—who arrived in India in the wake of the establishment of European colonial rule in the region. Till 1947, the church in India was modelled completely on the European pattern, and missionaries saw the dissemination of European culture as inseparable from their task of spreading the Christian gospel.
After 1947, however, demands began to be made by Indian Christian leaders to make the church in India more authentically ‘Indian’. Not only were European missionaries and clergymen replaced by Indians, the Indian church also embarked, although for some, rather too hesitatingly, on what it called the process of “inculturation”. This meant making a clear distinction between the message of Christ, on the one hand, and its European expression on the other. Consequently, the Indian church increasingly turned its attention to addressing and responding to the Indian social context within which it was placed.
This shift in orientation manifested itself in two principal ways: firstly, in what was termed as the “Indianisation” of the Church, represented essentially by the use of art forms, architectural styles and ritual practices generally associated with the Brahminic Hindu tradition, and secondly, in a growing concern for assisting the process of the country’s economic development, by setting up a vast network of schools, hospitals and charitable institutions.
The late 1980s was the period which saw the dramatic upsurge of the dalit, backward-caste and tribal struggles all over India. However, this upsurge was accompanied by the rapidly growing strength of Hindutva, or Brahminism in a new garb. Meanwhile, there was the failure of the developmentalist ideology to effectively tackle the problems of mass poverty, unemployment and widening inequalities. That was when important sections within the Indian church began questioning its role in promoting, whether inadvertently or otherwise, the twin structures of Brahminism and capitalism.
Christian dalit ideologues, inspired by the Ambedkarite movement, called into question the continued discrimination against the dalits within the church, although they form almost 80 percent of the total Indian Christian population. Radical Dalit theologians, such as the late Rev Arvind Nirmal of Aurangabad, Rev M. Azariah of Madras, and Rev James Massey of Delhi, even accused the largely ‘high’ caste Indian church leadership of ‘Brahminising’ Christianity in the name of ‘Indianising’ the church. At the same time, influenced by Latin American ‘liberation theology’, many Indian Christian theologians also began critiquing the church’s conservatism and its connivance with the ruling elites—manifested most strikingly in its chain of English-medium schools that cater largely to the children of wealthy families, most of whom happen to be ‘high’ caste Hindus.
The emerging dalit and liberation theologies are today propelling significant sections within the Indian Church towards the path of radical social activism by challenging structures of oppression—religious, cultural, economic and political. Contemporary dalit and liberation theologians see Jesus himself as a revolutionary, a central concern of whose mission was to oppose the hegemony of the ruling establishment and to crusade for a radically new social order.
This new commitment to a socially engaged, radical Christianity is today inspiring many Christian priests, more so Catholics than Protestants, to engage themselves in the struggles of the poor, particularly the dalits and the tribals. It is this that has earned them the wrath of the vested interests and dominant elites—landlords, money-lenders, merchants and others—who see the growing assertion of the marginalised as threatening to them. As Father Cedric Prakash, coordinator of the Gujarat chapter of the United Christian Forum for Human Rights, explained in a recent interview, the continuing attacks on Christians in Gujarat owes directly to the fact that the Christian priests had helped “empower the Dalits and Adivasis [so that] they can stand for their rights and fight back”.
It is these ‘high’ castes, who have for centuries sought to legitimise their cruel oppression of the ‘low’ castes in the name of Hinduism, that also provide the backbone of support for groups such as the RSS, VHP, BJP and the Bajrang Dal. Attacks by Hindutva activists and their supporters against Christian priests and nuns working in various parts of India, sought to be legitimised in the name of ‘protecting Hinduism’ and ‘preventing conversions’, are thus nothing less than a declaration of war by vested interests on those who would help the oppressed.