The reported statement by RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat that conversion to Christianity was the real aim of Mother Teresa is hardly new. RSS ideologues have said this repeatedly over the years, not just because they want to provoke a controversy but also because they firmly believe it to be so. Mother Teresa — like Christian missionaries in general — has been in the organisation’s sights for decades and periodically someone reiterates this long-standing view. Yet, it is worth asking why someone of Bhagwat’s stature in the larger Sangh parivar, whose utterances are more or less policy statements for all its members, has seen it fit to bring up the subject at this juncture.
Before speculating on his motives, it will be worth considering the Sangh parivar’s antipathy towards the Christians, who, after all, were just about 2.3% of the country’s population according to the 2001 census. (Figures from the 2011 census are yet to be officially released). Surely they are no threat to the 80% or so Hindus of the country. The RSS does not see it that way.
Guru Golwalkar, the highly influential sarsangchalak of the organisation for nearly three decades, had identified three ‘internal threats’ to India — the Muslims, the Christians and the Communists. He further writes about Indian Muslims and Christians that: “Together with the change in their faith, gone are the spirit of love and devotion for the nation. Nor does it end there. They have also developed a feeling of identification with the enemies of this land. They look to some foreign lands as their holy places.”
For the RSS, the Christians, more than the Muslims, remain a more sinister influence in some ways. The reason for that is simple. The Christians have made deeper inroads into two areas that worry the RSS the most — religion and education. The RSS is alarmed by the work of missionaries in remote areas, especially among tribals — hence the attempts at ghar wapsi to bring them back into the Hindu fold. Second, the presence of Christian schools all over the country, which, in the opinion of Sangh members, has created large numbers of deracinated Indians who have moved away from the Hindu ethos. These Indians — identified as English speaking Macaulay putras — are seen as highly influential, allowing the Christians to punch above their weight. Anti-Muslim prejudice runs deep in the country; Christians, however, are seen as the ‘good minority’, educated, gentle and service-oriented. This frustrates the RSS.
Mother Teresa is the most potent symbol of that frustration. She is criticism proof, given her international reputation as well as the deep admiration for her among Indians. Even if some Indians think she was doing little more than saving souls for Christianity — i.e. ‘converting’ them — the fact that she picked up lepers and the terminally sick from the streets and looked after them till their death is seen as selfless service of the kind others don’t do. For all their pieties, no Hindu organisation can match up to her work. That has not stopped the RSS from periodically attacking her. In 2003, an article in the RSS mouthpiece Organiser demanded that the Indian government not send any representative to her beatification ceremony. Bhagwat has thus merely reiterated a long-standing position.
The timing of his statement cannot be coincidental. On February 17, at an event organised by a Christian church, Narendra Modi condemned the series of attacks on churches in the capital and declared his government would not allow any religious intolerance. This was his strongest statement on the subject so far, and was immediately seen as a determined effort to put down the hate mongering by members of his own party as well as those belonging to the various groups who owe their allegiance to the Hindutva cause. Just days before that, United States President Barack Obama had spoken about growing religious intolerance in India; Modi’s speech was seen as a response to that criticism.
Bhagwat couldn’t have liked this kind of ‘minority appeasement’ by Modi, who, after all, has come up through the RSS ranks. Was the RSS chief, in his capacity as chairman of the Sangh parivar board, letting everyone know that it was his word that was final, whatever the prime minister may say? Within hours BJP spokespersons were out in public defending not their PM but Bhagwat’s statement. This should leave no doubt about the power hierarchy. Modi critics claim that this is all a fixed match, a kind of ‘good cop bad cop’ strategy arranged between the PM and the RSS. But his supporters are dismayed that the RSS is tripping up the government’s focus on economic growth with these extraneous issues.
Modi’s stated resolve is not going to stop the anti-minority tirade. For the RSS and its affiliates, ghar wapsi is not a gimmick, but a crucial activity to somehow reconvert all those who have been converted by Christian — and also Muslim — proselytisation. That decades of missionary preaching or education has not turned India into a Christian land is something that escapes the notice of the RSS — it thrives on creating a sense of victimhood among the majority.
The latest bashing of Mother Teresa and conversions is also a signal that more attempts will be made to introduce an anti-conversion Bill in Parliament. Modi’s speech shows that he understands that he needs to reach out to minorities — his own old rhetoric in Gujarat will no longer work. But with the RSS chief making it clear where he — and therefore the rest of the Sangh parivar — stands, will Modi be able to resist the pressure?
(Sidharth Bhatia is a senior journalist and author. The views expressed by the author are personal.)