By Vijaya Rajiva
On August 23 2008, in the district of Kandamahal in Bihar province (India) an 81-year-old Hindu Swami (holy man) and his four assistants, one of whom was a Swamini (a Hindu nun) were gunned to death by masked assailants in their Ashram.
A child who received injuries succumbed later.
The country was shocked. A revenge attack soon followed on the Christian community in Kandamahal since it was thought that the attackers were from that community. The police had no immediate leads but in the days following, the culprits involved in the murder of the Swami and his associates were apprehended and they were identified as Christian converts affiliated to the Christian missionaries of World Vision, an international Christian organization that specializes in work in Third World Countries. Christian missionaries have been active in India since the time of the British Raj and have been given a free rein in post Independence India, and their work, as in this instance in Kandamahal, has been primarily, though not exclusively, among the tribal population of India. Their work in northeast India has been subversive in that they covertly support secessionist movements, so it is alleged. It is widely believed that since the Swami was cutting into the missionary turf the motive for the murder was that it was time to eliminate the competition.
The Christian Church leaders in India condemned the attacks. But after the revenge attacks the 45, 000 Christian educational institutions in India closed down for a few days, in sympathy for the victims of the counter attacks. There were some after effects in the southern city of Mangalore where some right wing elements vandalized churches. The situation now has quietened down. And the indigenous Christian community has stayed loyal to the Indian polity throughout the country.
In order to understand what happened and why, it is essential to understand the personalities and issues that were involved both in the brutal attack on the Hindus and the counter attacks.
1. 81 year old Swami Lakshmananda Sarasvati had been in the region for several decades doing social work among the poor, establishing hospitals and medical clinics and of late countering the activities of the Christian missionaries among the tribes of Kandamahal. He was also associated with Hindu nationalist organizations. He had been attacked 9 times before and in this tenth one fatally so. His attackers were from the Christian converts from the tribes, in conjunction with self designated Maoists. If this alliance is genuine, then it is the first instance of Maoists entering into the religious fray, as one commentator has remarked.
According to the Hindu nationalists, however, this account of Maoist involvement was an attempt to conceal from the public the fact that Christian missionary activity had contributed to the tragedy. The Maoists have not claimed any involvement.
2. The Hindu nationalists can be subsumed broadly under 3 or 4 major organizations. First and oldest is the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh (RSS), then the Hindu Viswa Parishad (HVP) and Bajrang Dal (BD) and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which is an exclusively political party and won elections at the polls. And was the ruling party in India between 1999- 2004. They are considered to be nationalists who uphold the notion that India is a Hindu country and that the secular policies of the Indian National Congress favoured minority communities at the expense of the Hindu majority.
3. Christian missionaries, in this case, are those affiliated to World Vision operating from the U.S. These are financed from abroad. While engaged in some social services their collateral aim is to gain converts to the Christian faith. The nationalists view them with suspicion.
4. The Tribal population, which is not part of the mainstream Indian society and has been classified by the Government of India as Scheduled Tribes and Scheduled Castes, and are the beneficiaries of government’s affirmative action programs in education and employment.
We have here, then, an explosive mix of economic issues and religious conflict in one place. The Christian missionaries have found a fertile ground for their proselytizing activities amongst the tribes. Some genuine social work goes hand in hand with conversions, plus financial rewards and incentives to join the flock, food, clothing etc. Bihar being one of the poorer provinces in India, the material rewards go a long way.
The Swami made it his life’s mission to engage in social work among the tribes and many who were already Hindu remained in the Hindu fold. Many reconverted, despite missionary efforts. Economically, they were still classified as Scheduled Tribes and continued to receive government benefits. Those tribes who converted to Christianity lost their Scheduled Tribe status and government benefits. Many resorted to underhanded methods to continue the largesse and this already inflamed old animosities between the Hindu tribes and the converts.
The situation degenerated when last December, the Swami was attacked by assailants from the converted Christian tribes. After that, there were the usual counterattacks and both Christians and Hindus were killed. Hindu villages were attacked, churches were vandalized and so on.
The entire sequence of events is regrettable since there has been longstanding amity between the indigenous Christian community and the Hindus, all over India. Needless to say, there have been impassioned arguments, especially from the Hindu side, which believes that they are under attack from a variety of sources, after the frequent bomb attacks (unrelated to the Christian community) for which the Indian Mujahuddin has claimed responsibility.
At this juncture what the country needed least of all was what has been described as probably “the worst fighting between Hindus and Christians.” (1) Nevertheless, the problem with the Christian missionaries is not new. During the Raj, they were quite active in bringing souls to Christ. At the same time their social services via educational institutions and hospitals was genuine. Mother Teresa did good work, even though some of her beliefs were counterproductive, since she opposed any modern methods of contraception, not a wise move in a highly populated country as India.
Mother Teresa is in a category by herself. Presently, many of the educational institutions are no longer under missionary control. Most of the educational institutions, especially those of higher learning are non denominational, many are public and many are run by private management other than Christian. But in those that are Christian, especially in the schools, there is covert and overt proselytizing going on. And the missionary activity in Bihar was so active that government had to pass legislation that prohibited conversions where they were coerced or where money and material resources were used to convert individuals and groups, with the tribes being the most vulnerable, in this regard.
The caste system, the most obvious drawback of Hinduism is still a social reality despite the Indian Constitution that guarantees equal rights to all citizens and the RSS, the nationalist organization has opposed it as an evil. But attacks on the lower castes continue in certain parts of India, and these are not always connected with the nationalists. Poverty however exists, among many castes now, even among the Brahmins. In fact, in many parts of India they are disadvantaged in many ways. This overall poverty is the result of deregulation and privatization and pro neo-con policies of the Manmohan Singh regime, which has been successful in transforming India into an economic powerhouse, without the concomitant trickle down effect of distributing this wealth among the masses. The lower peasantry, the landless labourers, and many (though not all) of the former Untouchables (now called Dalits) are still poor. All communities are represented in this class, though the Hindu underprivileged masses are the majority.
In the midst of this deprivation that affects all communities, but especially the Hindu majority, the intrusion of foreign missionary activity therefore is seen as having a dual impact. Not only is the Hindu ethos under attack, but economically, the monetary sources coming from abroad are being appropriated by the upper echelons of the missionary ladder, both foreign nationals as well as Indian.
The third problem is the perception that in denigrating the Hindu belief system the missionaries are merely continuing the colonial tradition of denigrating the indigenous population’s way of life. The Hindu belief system and its social structures were successful in unifying the country during both the Occupations, the Muslim one which started in 1192 A. D. and ended effectively in 1803, when the last Mughal emperor was finally deposed by the British, and the British Occupation which began effectively since the establishment of the East India Company in 1600. The British Occupation ended in 1947.
It is feared, by the nationalists, that the missionaries are re entering and perpetuating Occupation by the backdoor. There are memories of the divide and rule policies of the British Raj. The Tribes are being divided and set against each other.
As noted above, the situation has calmed down and it is certain now that Government of India under popular pressure will take more stringent measures to regulate missionary activity. There will be more oversight on the monies received from abroad and how they are spent inside the country. And given the overall prosperity of the Indian economy, this may stimulate government to increase their affirmative action programs for the Scheduled Castes and Tribes.
One hesitates to say this but it may be true. In the end, the Swami and his entourage did not die in vain. Some good, rather than bad, may yet come of it. Certainly, the Christian community has reaffirmed its traditional loyalties to the country.
– Dr. Vijaya Rajiva taught Political Philosophy at university. She contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.
(1) Vijay Simha ‘In the Name of God, www. Tehelka.com vol.5, Issue 36, Sept.13, 2008.