The violence against Christians in Orissa, Madhya Pradesh and now in Karnataka should be seen at various levels — from the economy of conversion to the historical roots and real meaning of conversion.
First, funding. Nobody seems to know exactly how much money the VHP receives from abroad. The only figure we have is $1.7 million from the India Development and Relief Fund (IDRF) that raises money from individuals and corporations in the United States (including Cisco and Sun Microsystems) to distribute them among a plethora of Sangh parivar agencies, some of whom work for ‘tribal welfare’.
On the Christian side, thanks to the Foreign Contributions Regulation Act, the Home Ministry is in possession of the Annual Report on Foreign Contributions for 2005-06. It lays out in minute detail the funds received by churches and Christian organisations in India. We know, for example, that the top donors are church-based or Christian-inspired organisations from the US, Britain, Germany, the Netherlands and Italy. We also know that a greater part of the funds — Rs 7,785 crore — goes to mainly Christian and church-based organisations in India. According to the Home Ministry’s analysis, the major part of the fund are spent on disaster relief and establishment costs. Welfare of scheduled tribes gets only Rs 25 crore and welfare of scheduled Castes only Rs 9 crore. The rest of the money goes into social work — building of schools, colleges, hospitals, etc. Nowhere is the word proselytisation mentioned. There are also no records of mass conversions.
Hence, the Sangh parivar’s argument that Christian charitable and social work is a disguise to convert ‘innocent, illiterate’ tribals and Dalits is a lie — at least as far as the records go. The Home Ministry report also tells us that the bulk of the money is spent in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Delhi — not in Orissa or Gujarat.
Now to come to the violence at Kandhmal in Orissa. The man, Laxmananda Saraswati, whose murder had sparked off the latest round of violence, was a VHP sant who was at the forefront of the VHP’s ghar wapasi (‘home coming’) movement that consisted of reconverting tribals and Dalits who had been converted by the Christian missionaries.
At one level, the violence that followed Saraswati’s death was a result of a century-old conflict between the tribal Kandhs and the Dalit Pano. The former accuse the latter of stealing their land, aided by missionaries who, on their part, continue to occupy land that belongs to the state. The Panos who have converted to Christianity in large numbers are clamouring for Scheduled Tribe status because their conversion has not mitigated the effects of caste prejudice against them. As a Scheduled Tribe the Panos hope to preserve their religious identity and also be eligible for reserved government jobs. This infuriates the Kandhs as well as the VHP.
Conversion has two dimensions to it. In the first place, it is an intensely personal affair. It is this individual realisation occurring over a period of time that makes the conversion of entire communities a slow, painstaking and laborious process. It is also this individual repudiation of Hinduism that rattles the VHP beyond measure. It means that the tribal or the Dalit in question is no longer bound by any fate or destiny, but is, in fact, a free agent who can transform his life by changing his value and belief system.
The second dimension of conversion is that it is a political act. When, over a period of time, an entire community is converted, it has revolutionary implications. What does it mean for a Dalit to convert to Christianity? To know that, one has to understand where the Dalit is coming from. He lives beyond the pale of ‘caste Hindu’ society — even his shadow is considered polluting in some regions of this country; the jobs that he does are considered the most filthy — dealing with animal hides (chamars), disposing of the corpse after cremation (doms) and cleaning the night soil (bhangis). He does not have the right to use a mechanised transport, wear nice clothes, or jewellery. His house is frequently burned, his women are routinely raped. He lives in a night without end.
Then, he finds a God who, like him, suffered excruciating pain, who chose his disciples among the poor and the wretched and gave his own life so that others could find salvation through his suffering. The Dalit also understands that, in the light of Jesus’ story, the Hindus do not seem to have a moral order, that the only thing that counts for them is ritual purity and impurity. Instead of good and evil, Hinduism deals in the categories of ritual cleanliness and uncleanliness. The community, fortified by its realisation that the Hindu world view is only one among many others and not even of the most superior kind, gradually revolts and crosses over to Christianity.
Thus what began as a conversion of an individual ends as a collective revolt against the oppression, the brutality and the inhuman humiliations of caste society. That is what the VHP and the Sangh parivar do not want. They want to crush this revolt.
Soumitro Das is a Kolkata-based writer