It goes to the credit of the Hindustan Times that its December 24 edition had a full page dedicated to the Church. It was all the more significant that the story — collection of inputs from the HT reporters in Kerala, Orissa, Assam and Maharashtra — came out on Christmas Eve. One can easily argue that given the constraint of space in a newspaper, the reporters had to limit themselves to commenting on a few aspects that are newsworthy. And, of course, what could be more eye catching than the ‘ills’ that the Church has wrought on the people in these regions and the rest of India — perhaps even in the rest of south Asia?
There were descriptions of such ‘maladies’ like owning and administering education, health institutions and land in Kerala; conversions of gullible tribals and Scheduled Castes in Orissa; uprooting of the northeastern tribals from their ancestral religions; and the wooing of Christians for building vote banks in Maharashtra. Of course, the coverage of the Church cannot be complete without an overt or covert reference to the Pope who was in the news recently for his alleged anti-Muslim comments.
While giving the reporters their due for highlighting the Church from a particular perspective, it is equally important that the public is also exposed to an insider’s view on the Church — not an apologetic one, but a realistic one. Because going by the universally accepted standards of jurisprudence, the accused should also get a chance for fair trial before any sentence is pronounced on him/her.
Firstly, the Church in India is not a rootless wonder: it is 2,000 years old in the southern part of the country. During these long years, the Church in Kerala responded to the growing needs of its members, and accordingly developed education, health and other institutions. If they own many institutions today, it is not out of anybody’s largesse; it is the fruit of their own sweat and blood. When others were unwilling to come forward to put in their men and means, the Church pledged everything it had to meet the needs of the society. If, the instance, Kerala as a state boasts of total literacy, much of the credit should go to the Christians who began schools in their churches, popularly known as Pallikkudam.
When one travels to the northeast, a region largely unknown to the rest of India, one realises that much remains to be done before it can be brought on par with the rest of India. Nearly 100 years ago, when Christians reached this part of India, there was no education or modern health care system there. The Christians introduced modern education, health care and other development programmes in northeast India. Consequently, today a good number of the tribals of northeast India are well educated and are getting absorbed into mainstream Indian society.
Northeast has a sprinkling of various Christian groups as it was rightly reported in the paper. It is the result of the historical development: different Christian groups went over there and began social development work among different tribal communities. Each tribal grouping is so unique in language, customs and traditions that it was only natural that they also adopted the traditions of different Christian groups that worked among them.
If diversity of Christian groups in the northeast of India is a fact to contend with, it is the case in the rest of India too; for instance, in Kerala one finds several Christian groups co-existing very well.
Diversity of is not limited to Christianity alone. You have any number of sects and traditions in Hinduism, besides the caste system. Similarly, Islam, Buddhism and Jainism have their own divisions. Why pick on Christians?
Whenever the social situation of the northeast is discussed by the powers-that-be in India what invariably comes to the fore is the insurgency prevailing in the region. It has never been the only area to be rocked by insurgency. Besides, it has to be underlined that insurgency does not perpetuate itself; it feeds on the disenchantment of a section of people over certain government policies — or the lack of them.
It is quite ironic to see how a section of society that is less than 1 percent of the population in Orissa can be a serious ‘threat’ to the rest of the country. And yet some vested interests continue to chant ad nauseam the refrain of proselytisation much to the chagrin of those Christians working in Orissa’s still inaccessible and neglected tribal areas. Burning an Australian missionary who was working among lepers was, according to the late President KR Narayanan, one of the blackest days in Indian history. What is worse is the attempt of some spiteful elements to portray the perpetrators of such a heinous crime as models.
The comment on Maharastrian Christians as being a ‘vote bank’ is quite intriguing given the small percentage of the population in an otherwise large state. Except for a little more than half-a-million Christians in Mumbai, their presence in the rest of Maharashtra is so meagre that it can hardly form a vote bank for any party in the state. In Mumbai, as has been pointed out in the piece, not many Christians are actively engaged in politics; consequently, they are not adequately represented in civic bodies. This can also be viewed as the community’s refusal to be ghettoised.
While it is laudable for a newspaper to focus on any section of Indian society and its concerns, it should not be done with an intent to create a wedge between communities; rather, an attempt should be made to draw them closer to mainstream society. By picking on any one community, a newspaper serves no useful purpose except to provide ammunition to those who pursue the agenda of sectarianism.
It is not that Christians in India are all perfect and beyond reproach, but it is a matter of magnanimity to acknowledge what they have contributed towards the development of this nation.
(The writer is the spokesperson, Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India.)