Poverty in the conversions debate


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IT took a few days in cyclone-ravaged Erasama block in Orissa to bring the issue of conversions into sharp focus for me. Let me explain, beginning with a description of the situation there.

Erasama, in Jagatsinghpur district, was possibly the worst hit part of the state. It shot into the national spotlight about a week after a second, and far more powerful, cyclone struck Orissa in October. By then, the waters that had flooded Erasama had begun to recede and thousands of bodies were discovered all over the block. As they were found, official estimates of the number killed by the cyclone tripled overnight, to 10,000 and more.

I went to Erasama about a week later. The scale of the devastation was something I was totally unprepared for. Enormous trees were uprooted everywhere. Telephone and electric poles lay twisted. For mile after mile, standing paddy crops – only days from harvest – were rotting away. The fields themselves, inundated by the tidal wave that roared through the block, were saline and filled with stagnant water. Huts and more robust structures had been simply flattened. And even after several days of cleaning up, bodies – both human and animal – were easily sighted everywhere.

It was overwhelmingly depressing. But at least relief work was going on throughout Erasama block. Saroj Jha, the additional special relief commissioner stationed there, was coordinating it all. He had streamlined an unending flow of volunteers, crpf personnel, army regiments, doctors and various experts into a surpris-ingly efficient operation. Relief teams took supplies to affected villages. Doctors had set up clinics in remote villages, working day and night to treat everything from broken bones to severe diarrhoea. Volunteers were tramping to wells in the area, testing them for contamination, checking the incidence of diarrhoea, getting ready for a massive decontamination operation.

And there was possibly the worst job to be done: disposing of dead bodies, human or bovine. Teams had to gather enough scarce firewood in a pile, shovel the rotting body onto it, pour kerosene over everything, light a match. If there was not enough dry wood, or if the body was in the middle of a putrefying paddy field, it had to be buried. That meant an exhausting spell of digging and shovelling muck. It was nauseating, back breaking, tragic work under a fierce sun.

Yet in Erasama I met volunteers doing it enthusiastically, without regard to personal convenience or professed faith, with commitment, compassion, and a truly moving camaraderie and goodwill. There were telco employees, a pair of nuns in their grey habits, rss and Ananda Marg volunteers, theology students, an Islamic youth group, crpf constables, a team from Rourkela, army jawans, Youth Congress men, and frail women in white saris from the International Movement for the Prevention of Indecency.

The effort to cope with this vast tragedy – at least in Erasama – was humbling and inspiring. What brought these people here to give so freely of their time and energy? What made them throw themselves into exhausting physical effort? What made a young ias officer belie every stereotyped image we have of bureaucrats who wallow in inefficiency, corruption and red tape?



It was while tossing these questions around in my mind that I found myself also thinking about the subject I want to address in this article, the issue that the cyclone had pushed off the front pages in early November. Perhaps it seems far-fetched to connect a cyclone to conversions. But in some ways, that was precisely the point: the very distance of conversions from what really matters in India.

Two aspects of the calamity in Orissa, in particular, got me wondering about conversions, about how this came to be a national issue all of a sudden. One: Thousands of huts were just blown away by the cyclone, sending their inhabitants to certain deaths. In Orissa’s coastal areas – as in much of the rest of the country – people live in such huts because more solid structures are beyond their economic reach. (Actually, people in Orissa’s coastal districts were far wealthier than in the interior, but they still could not afford pucca homes). So the high death toll in this cyclone, like a lot of things in India, had much to do with the poverty that is possibly our greatest shame, our most urgent problem. With every day that passes, it grows more urgent.



Conscious of so many shattered lives in Erasama, conscious that the damage would have been significantly less had Orissa been less poverty ridden, the dust-up over conversions seemed almost obscene to me. What do they have to do with the way hundreds of millions of Indians live?

Two: I mentioned that the relief effort in Erasama was inspiring to see. As I watched selfless volunteers and jawans at work, it struck me that this must be what’s meant by that much-abused term, ‘nation-building’: these people doing work that needs to be done. Not getting sidetracked by conversions or old mosques or apologies to be extracted, but just getting on with the job. It was hard to avoid thinking that had we had 50 years of such dedicated, focused assaults on India’s problems, we would today be a powerful, respected country. Instead, our interminable wrangling over ancient trivialities means we are seen as a somewhat irrelevant nation, uninterested in addressing the issues that truly blight Indian lives. This, then, was the angle on conversions that devastation in Erasama put in my mind: their profound irrelevance to the way most Indians live, to the tasks we face as a nation.

And yet, while I take such irrelevance as a truism, I also know that it is not enough to dismiss conversions on that basis alone. There are those, not politicians either, to whom conversions are deeply relevant, deeply disturbing. It is to them that I want to address the rest of this article. I cannot pretend to understand the insecurities that make conversions seem so threatening. But perhaps we will all benefit by putting them in some perspective.

To begin with, how many conversions are happening anyway? I really don’t know. But it takes no more than a look at Indian census figures to realize that however many they are, they are not having much of an effect on the fraction of India’s population that Christians represent. In 1971, India had 14.2 million Christians (2.6 per cent of the population); in 1981, 16.2 million (2.4 per cent); in 1991, 19.6 million (2.3 per cent). The simple story these figures tell: the Christian share of India’s population is steadily decreasing. Natural reproduction plus conversions together have not been able to stall that.



What purpose does it serve, then, to turn that on its head and claim that the Christian fraction is actually increasing? For this is a bogey that many have become adept at stringing up. In late October, it was the turn of the Shankaracharya of Puri’s Govardhan Math, Swami Nischalananda Saraswati. He was widely quoted expressing worry about the impending visit of the Pope to India. Why? Because his visit, the Swami said, ‘would be a victory of the forces aiming to convert India into a Christian nation by the end of 2000 AD.’

Give this some thought. Let’s assume that by ‘Christian nation’, the Shankaracharya means half of India – not the whole country, just half – will be Christian by the end of 2000. To accomplish that, the mysterious ‘forces’ he mentioned will need not just an about turn in the Christian population growth trend. They will need a ludicrous fantasy to come true. I will spare you the calculations here, but this is how ludicrous: there would have to be 13 conversions every single second until 31 December 2000. Now all of India produces about one baby a second today. The Swami’s bogey gallops along at 13 times that speed.

However many conversions are happening in India, they are clearly not happening at that rate. It is senseless to pretend they are. Yet, a major religious figure does exactly that. Why? Does his unfounded paranoia get us any closer to resolving this whole argument?



It is easy to dismiss statements like the Shankaracharya’s as just rhetoric. But the truth is that such rhetoric is used in various insidious ways, taken very seriously indeed. For example, in Anand Patwardhan’s stark film ‘Father, Son and Holy War’, the Shiv Sena leader and once-Maharashtra chief minister, Manohar Joshi, is seen speaking at an election rally. He exhorts the Hindu women in the audience to bear eight children each – eight children! – to combat the spectre of a rising flood of Muslims. In an already densely populated country, what must we think when a to-be chief minister, a man who is now a Union minister for heavy industry, makes an irresponsible appeal like this?

Of course, when challenged, the argument about Christian population growth swiftly mutates. It is not the overall population we’re talking about, proponents will say, but only that in certain areas. Like the North East. Nagaland and Mizoram are nearly fully Christian, they will say, and look what’s happened there: separatism has taken root. The implication, and this is the impression the proponents truly want held widely, is that Christianity breeds separatism. Thus all Christians in India can be assumed to be silent fifth columnists. Vishwa Hindu Parishad leaders like Ashok Singhal have been diligently spreading this tale for public consumption. Christians and Muslims, Singhal has often pronounced, have ‘extra territorial loyalties.’

Now this goes well beyond rhetoric. Section 153B of the Indian Penal Code says: ‘Whoever by words either spoken or written makes any imputation that any class of people cannot, by reason of their being members of any religious group, bear true faith and allegiance to the Constitution of India ... shall be punished with imprisonment to three years or fine or both.’ Could there be a clearer violation of Section 153B than Singhal’s claims that Christians and Muslims have ‘extra-territorial loyalties’? I don’t need to add that Singhal has not had Section 153B applied to him.

Violating the law is one thing. The ancient tactic of identifying targets to heap calumny on, to turn the faithful against, is quite another. If all Indian Christians and Muslims can suddenly be labelled traitors, Hindus can be united, if by nothing else, by getting them to suspect the loyalties of followers of these other faiths. And such unity, if it can be achieved, spells powerful political potential.



Yet the tactic begs so many questions. What happened in Telengana in the ’60s: was that Christian separatism? What about Tamil aspirations to self-rule, the whole Dravida movement? Were the Christians who fought alongside their fellow Goans for independence from Portugal closet separatists? And consider a different set of questions. If Christianity tends to damage the country, what of the crimes people like Narasimha Rao, Rajiv Gandhi, H.K.L. Bhagat, Sukh Ram and Jayalalitha are accused of? What about L.K. Advani and his rath yatra; Bal Thackeray and his stoking of riots in Bombay?

These men and women have arguably caused more damage, des-truction and death to India and Indians than decades of separatism in Nagaland and Mizoram have managed. My point is not to wave off the troubles in the North East. It is instead to ask: Is India served by ignoring the complex web of problems that drive people to desperate methods as in the North East, focusing instead only on their faith? Is India served by pointing fingers solely at a tiny minority? Is it served by allowing demagogues and criminals to escape scrutiny because they are not Christian?



But then there are those who are outraged that Christian missionaries work only in what they like to call ‘poor, illiterate and innocent tribal areas.’ You don’t see them in Bombay’s posh Malabar Hill, or in ‘the Brahmin-dominated ward of Mylapore in Chennai.’ (Quotes from an article in The Times of India by M.V. Kamath, 13 October 1999). Why ever not? I would like to answer that by quoting a letter to Outlook magazine (25 Octo-ber 1999) by Ravi Pratap, who calls himself ‘a native of a tribal-dominated district.’ According to him, ‘Christian missionaries are providing better education, better healthcare and even employment to the most backward.’ Better, that is, than they have ever got from ‘the government and their existing religious leaders.’ This is why some of these ‘poor, uneducated tribals’ choose Christianity. Besides, and quite naturally, missionaries go where the need is greatest. Poor and illiterate tribal areas are, I suspect, in greater need of healthcare, employment and education than Malabar Hill and Mylapore.

Of course, the outrage over the activities of missionaries in these areas is wider still in scope. For missionaries are accused of converting poor tribals by offering them ‘bribes’ and ‘inducements’. What might such bribes be? In a report in The Sunday Observer a year ago (20 December 1998), Sunil Poolani wrote of a tribal in Gujarat who was offered ‘a white powder’ by nuns from the Church of North India. They told him it was ‘God’s prasad’ and could ‘cure any illness’. That, and some catechism classes, convinced the man to convert.

This miraculous prasad, Poolani later learned, was nothing more divine than powdered Crocin. The motive of the cni nuns was clearly nothing more divine than more numbers added to the fold. No wonder Poolani reported that this tribal’s brother is now ‘seriously thinking’ of reconverting: a Hindu group told him that ‘they would give us more benefits than what the church does.’ After all, it takes very little to promise ‘more benefits’ than powdered Crocin.



This is how mindless and cynical the whole conversion and reconversion business can be. But this entire episode raises a dismaying question. If there are Indians so miserably poor and illiterate that handing them a powder is enough to persuade them to profess Christianity, and some other trinket suffices to make them recant, what is the greater crime? The conversions or their poverty?

Or is it the education and health-care that constitute ‘inducements’? And if they do, if in a half-century-old India there are those who consider such basics ‘inducements’, it seems to me that we have some serious problems indeed.

An aside I cannot resist: this reminds me once again of the Shiv Sena’s redoubtable Manohar Joshi. As chief minister of Maharashtra, he appeared in May 1997 before the Srikrishna Commission inquiring into the 1992-93 Bombay riots. According to him, the fundamental reason for the riots was that the Congress had spent the years since Independence ‘appeasing’ Muslims. And what examples of such ‘appeasement’ did Joshi offer the Commission? ‘The lack of any effort on the part of the government to educate [Muslims] and ensuring that they remained impoverished.’

When denying Muslims education and keeping them poor is ‘appeasement’, I suppose powdered Crocin must constitute a ‘bribe’ for poor tribals; education, healthcare and employment must qualify as ‘inducements’. Discussing poverty in the context of conversions, I find I am back to where I began this article. In Erasama as in ‘poor, illiterate and innocent tribal areas’, in city slums as in villages across this country, poverty is reality for hundreds of millions of Indians. It is the single greatest cause of suffering among Hindus, as also among every other kind of Indian. Yet those who raise the alarm about conversions, arguing that they are a threat to Hinduism, seem entirely nonchalant about the immense danger poverty poses to Hindu lives. To Indian lives.

Isn’t it time we turned our full attention to this danger? Isn’t it time we focused, as the Erasama volunteers were doing, on the urgent priorities we face as a country?



When I wrote a considerably shorter article in this vein in The Times of India recently, an article in response referred to my ‘spirited defence of conversions’. It startled me, because nothing could be further from the truth. I couldn’t really care less about conversions, would be happy if there were none, even happier if everybody gave up religion altogether.

No, whether in the Times, here, or elsewhere, I am hardly defending conversions. I am suggesting: there are far more important things we must worry about.