Nehru, Secularism and Dalit Christians. By Dr. John Dayal


The brief, if checkered, history of the struggle of Christians of Scheduled Caste origin for justice is, hopefully, coming to a fruitful conclusion with the Justice Rangnath Misra Commission having given its report and the Supreme Court expected to take up the matter by resuming hearings in July on the clutch of Writ Petitions before it, filed not just by the Dalit Christians, as they call themselves, but also by their brothers in the Muslim community and Civil society.

It is time to take stock -- and to wonder why did the crisis arise, and the circumstances in which it may become possible once again for Muslims and Christians converted from India`s submerges castes to hope to enjoy the same benefits that the Constitution of India gives their brethren professing the Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist faiths, mending injury caused not by religion and philosophy but by the same, common social milieu in which this malaise thrived, and to some extent, continues to prosper.

Jawaharlal Nehru, builder of modern India, whose complex relationship with Babasaheb Ambedkar is the weft and waft of the fabric of argument and speculation wherever political scientists and Constitutional experts meet, must both take credit for the environment in which there will be a solution, but also to an extent for not having acted on their own apprehensions to ensure that the taint of religious bigotry would not touch the Indian Constitution they had together nurtured with such care.

Conversions, another word for freedom of faith, are a preoccupation not just of the RSS but of an entire stream in Indian polity which fought an unceasing war with the great Jawaharlal Nehru. Ever since 1950, there has been a systematic effort, through Parliament, courts and largely through the administrative machinery, to curtail the freedoms guaranteed in the Constitution, and none more aggressively than the Freedom of Faith.

The Presidential Order of 1950 on the affirmative action for Dalits effectively banned their freedom to choose their religion, retaining them firmly in the Brahminical stranglehold. The Niyogi commission was
set up to malign the Church, and was followed by the so called Freedom of Religion Bills in Madhya Pradesh, Orissa and Arunachal.

Not surprisingly, both the Centre and several of the states have tried many times in the past three decades to bring forward more such laws. Courts have interpreted freedoms under Article 30 and have put severe restrictions on minority institutions in matters of administration. In the states curbs are sought to be placed on schools, orphanages and other institutions. The list is unending if one sits down to identify
the erosions that have taken place in the implantation of the Constitution since 26th January 1950 when the document drafted by Ambedkar in the Constituent assembly was promulgated as the law of the land.

The demonisation of the minorities, which we have seen in the post Durban and Post New York World Trade Tower attacks, is inevitable. Their first response has been to say that Buddhism is nothing but another sect of Hinduism, much as they said Sikhism is just another sect. The Sikhs protested when their identity was sought to be hijacked, and so have the Buddhists, maintaining that they are distinct religions with their own way of life, their own identity, and their own cultures. The Sangh Parivar and the Congress have not commented so far in the mass conversions in Mumbai recently when over 50,000 Hindu Dalits converted to Buddhism under the glare of television lights, even though the same cameras had a month earlier shown two Karnataka pastors being beaten up in Kolhapur on suspicion of converting a family to Christianity.

A clever response has been to try to bind the Church into disowning freedom of faith at a mass scale. In their several encounters with religious heads of several Churches, who they cornered into dialogues through the self appointed champion of the BJP government, the then National Commission for Minorities, the Parivar almost forced them into denouncing conversions and foreswearing any future activity. Many Congress leaders by their words and deeds seem to agree with the Sangh Parivar, and even Mulayam Singh Yadav, recently deposed as the Muslim- loving `secular` Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, is known to frown on Christian mission activity. Conversion of one type - to Buddhism -- is Okay, says the Sangh, but not of another, to Christianity or Islam.

Many political parties have agreed with this argument. Even Mayawati, riding to power on a religious political matrix that includes Brahmins, Muslims and Dalits, could neither find a Christian candidate in India`s largest State to fight an Assembly seat on her Bahujan Samaj Party ticket, she has even nominated one. And for the record, she has not found the courage to say she will never bring about an anti Conversion Bill which her neighbours Himachal and Madhya Pradesh have, and which her northern neighbor Uttarakhand threatens to bring any day.

The academic fraud perpetrated on the secular discourse in India by Sangh intellectuals in coining such words as `Indic" religions and "Non Indic Faiths` has very quickly found its way into the vocabulary of even self-described secular teacher and writers. That also includes men and women in he media who have studied in Western universities and are today anchor persons in the popular television news channels/. One has only to see and listen to these screaming young men and women harangue Christian and Muslim guests on their channels even as they meekly and very tamely allow a Thakarey here and a Singhal there foul- mouth religious minorities who share a common motherland.

Letters to the Congress leadership over the new Bill passed in Himachal which reminds us of the Sangh Parivar`s conversion-fixation, it is imperative we remember that if it were not for the ethos that Nehru created, almost single handed at the conclusion of the Freedom Struggle and the Birth of the New Nation, and the Congress party under Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi decided to follow in the face of extreme opinion in their own party, the entire campaign by Dalit Christians would have met with a stone wall.

Chairman of the National Minorities Commission Hamid Ansari, who has been ambassador to Iran, Vice Chancellor of Aligarh Muslim University and was once Chief of Protocol of the Government of India, wrote to every State government to tell the Commission the number of cases of forcible and fraudulent conversions they had ever reported. Barring one state which says it has had a couple of cases, the other states either have remained silent, or has the courage to say they have not seen any such case at all to merit such a draconian law.

And by the way when senior Congressmen questioned the Himachal Congress leadership and specially it chief minister, Mr. Vir Bahadur Singh as to why they had passed a Freedom of Religion Bill when Mrs. Sonia Gandhi had opposed a similar Bill in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, the sly answer was "we thought why should we not have it if others had it." And yes, Himachal too has not seen any case of fraudulent and forcible conversions to Christianity. One must Congratulate the Central government over reports that its Attorney general, Mr. Milon Bannerjee`s, has unequivocally trashed the Madhya Pradesh governments efforts to impose a harsher version of the old anti conversion or Freedom of religion Act which successive congress governments, quite correctly, had put deep in cold storage.

Nehru had seen it coming He knew what harm gossip does, and how hate campaigns are generated. The Sangh Parivar`s mouthpieces, and their gullible friends in the India still make nee to be reminded of what Jawaharlal Nehru said.

In his September 2001 letter to Chief Ministers of all States in his circular letter dated 17 October 1952, he said: "I have sometimes received complaints from Christian missions and missionaries both foreign and Indian, about the differential treatment accorded to them in certain States. It is said that there is some kind of harassment also occasionally. Some instances of this kind have come to my notice. I hope that your Government will take particular care that there is no such discrimination, much less harassment.

"I know that there is a hangover still of the old prejudice against Christian missions and missionaries. In the old days many of them except in the far south, where they were indigenous, represented the foreign power and sometimes even acted more or less as its agents. I know also that some of them in the north-east encouraged separatist and disruptive movements. That phase is over. If any person, foreigner or Indian, behaves in that way still certainly we should take suitable action.

"But remember that Christianity is a religion of large numbers of people in India and that it came to the south of India nearly 2000 years ago. It is as much a part of the Indian scene. As any other religion. Our policy of religious neutrality and protection of minorities must not be affected or sullied by discriminatory treatment or harassment. While Christian missionaries have sometimes behaved objectionably from the political point of view, they have undoubtedly done great service to India in the social field and they continue to give that service. In the tribal areas many of them have devoted their lives to the tribes there. I wish that there were Indians who were willing to serve the tribal folk in this way. I know that there are some Indians now who are doing this, but I would like more of them to do so. It must be remembered that the Christian community, by and large, is poor and is sometimes on the level of the backward or depressed classes.

"We permit, by our Constitution, not only freedom of conscience and belief but also proselytism. Personally I do not like proselytism and it is rather opposed to the old Indian outlook which is, in this matter, one of live and let live. But I do not want to come in other people`s ways provided they are not objectionable in some other sense. In particular, I would welcome any form of real social service by anyone, missionary or not.

"A question arises, however, how far we should encourage foreigners to come here for purely evangelical work. Often these foreign countries raise funds on the plea of converting the savage heathens. I do no want anyone to come here who looks upon me as a savage heathen, not that I mind being called a heathen or a pagan by anybody. But I do not want any foreigner to come who looks down upon us or who speaks about us in their own countries in terms of contempt. But if any foreigner wants to come here for social service, I would welcome him." There is a sharp rebuke to aggressive evangelists, and they are going against the Bible too.

But Nehru`s admonition is to the Indian State, and to the various communities too. Do not fall into the trap of the Sangh Parivar. There is place in India for us all, and it is only if all of us are in India that she becomes the nation which we so love.

There are several serious questions before the Indian Church Will faith and mission be overawed by the fear of sponsored terror? Will we be co-opted once again by the establishment, as happened during the rule of the BJP`s National development Alliance? How far is India`s Dalit Church ready to go in obedience to its own solidarity with the Poor and the Dalits. Post-Durban, is it ready to respond to the Dalit request that our schools cater not to the elite of Mumbai and new Delhi - who treat us like we were teaching shops and therefore have no qualms in persecuting the Church - but for Dalits in rural areas. Not Low Cost Schools for Low Caste People, but real, high quality English medium schools which will allow Dalit children to find their place under the sun in the modern age? The answers are now being given. The declaration by St Stephen`s College, Delhi, that it will give seats in the elite institutions to Christians of Dalit origin has stirred a hornet`s next. The Dalit Bishop`s declaration that he is open to even more seats to all Dalits, irrespective of their religion, is being looked askance as if he has committed a sin. The so called meritocrats, who are not averse to nepotism and buying seats in medical colleges, are crying hoarse over the decline of august institutions. They need to cry. They will now have to compete harder with their peers for the seats they want - and not get a walkover by defeating the Dalits in loaded interviews.

God bless. And God bless the memory of Jawaharlal Nehru as we continue the struggle for secular India.

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