Thursday, October 2, 2008

After Muslims, Indian Christians Under Siege

By Roger Alexander

[Note: I have resisted writing on this topic so far for fear of being labelled an apologist, given my name. I was only born in a Christian family and have been an atheist since high school. However, curious to know how a minuscule section of an ancient civilisation converted to an “alien” religion, I worked on ‘The Political Economy of Religious Conversions’ for my PhD.

I came across enough evidence to demonstrate that most Christians in Rajasthan (the area of the study) – and indeed the rest of the country with the possible exception of Kerala and Goa – are indeed ‘Rice Christians’ i.e. the marginalised sections, especially Dalits and Tribals who embraced Christianity in exchange for a more dignified and hunger-free life. Many upper-caste, educated Hindus also came into the Christian fold in order to boost their careers in the service of the British Raj.

As an aside, let me mention that if you come across a Christian with a westernised name like mine, 99 per cent of the times such a person is the progeny of some Dalit or Tribal convert a century ago. A Christian with an upper-caste surname like Singh or Sharma or even a Haidar Ali (like my wife) had well-off forefathers who served the Raj well in the hope of out-of-turn promotions or plum postings. Or as in the case of Goa, they were landed gentry who used the simple expedient of conversion to prevent their land being expropriated by the marauding Inquisition-driven Portuguese colonialists.]

Now that you have survived the lengthy intro, let’s get down to what’s happening today in Orissa, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Rajasthan – all NDA-ruled states – besides other parts of the country. The Sangh Parivar’s recurring theme is that Christian missionaries are “forcibly” converting Hindus, or offering “allurements/inducements” to win converts.

What is the reality? If there were so many thousands of conversions, as claimed by the Sangh Parivar, the number of Christians should have skyrocketed. The opposite is true. The Census of India shows a decline in the percentage of the Christian population of India vis-à-vis the total population: 2.6 per cent in 1971; 2.44 per cent in 1981 and 2.32 per cent in 1991, 2.3 per cent in 2001! This decline continues.

Besides, there is a disincentive to any Dalit to convert: those who convert forfeit the right to be recognized as a Schedule Caste and benefit from the reservation policy in education and government jobs.

Moreover, several states have passed anti-conversion bills. The first was Arunachal Pradesh in 1978, Gujarat in 2003, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh in 2006, and Himachal Pradesh in 2007. There exist very stringent punishments for conversions by force or allurement. Till today, not a single case of such conversion has been brought forward.

The fact that the even the NDA state governments have not been able to bring up even one case, is an indication that this charge is a fabrication. The very fact that a majority of secular Hindus, not to speak of the rabid right, vie to send their children to Christian schools for education is a sign that they do not really worry about conversion.

Indeed, even the likes of LK Advani and Bal Thackeray have testified that they are not worried their grandchildren studying in Christian schools might stray away from the Hindu fold. And we should not forget that come admission time, principals of Christian schools and colleges are threatened by these very same people of “dire consequences” if their children do not get a seat in Nursery and KG!

The attacks on the Christian community are not restricted only to Mangalore or Orissa, but have spread to other states like Madhya Pradesh, Kerala, Chhattisgarh and even the national capital. They are military-like operations, carried out with clinical precision and are brutal, with no discrimination - sparing neither clergy nor women and children. (Remember the brutal burning alive of Graham Staines and his two sons?)

Not only that, we are now witnessing the forced reconversion of Christians to Hinduism by Hindutva groups, especially in Kandhamal district of Orissa. Christian families have already suffered the loss of their homes, possessions and places of worship in sustained attacks by marauding mobs of Sangh supporters from August 24, and even now more than a month later they now cannot return to their villages unless they reconvert to Hinduism, reports Parvathi Menon of The Hindu from Ground Zero in Orissa.

In fact, there is now a sectarian movement that has not been experienced in independent India. August and September this year has witnessed a steady depopulation of villages of their Christian population who fled fearing for their lives. Now, if families wish to return, reconversion to Hinduism is the price they must pay.

“I am a tribal and my nephews are searching to kill me,” Father Lakshmikant, parish priest of the St Paul’s Catholic Church in Baliguda told Menon. In his testimony he said he had to flee from the mobs that were after him and spend days in the forest before he reached Bhubaneshwar.

Menon reports that thousands of Christian families in relief camps, who rejected the option of reconversion, have little hope of returning to their homes and villages that they left more than a month ago. In fact, Christian priests, pastors and nuns are unlikely to be able to return to their places of work in Kandhamal district in the near future. Some have been marked and get regular threatening calls.

Therefore, the most important question that has to asked is whether the reconversion or ghar wapsi programme of the Hindu fundamentalists fall under the anti-conversion law especially since gifts and incentives are given to people to return to the Hindu fold? Whatever happened to the anti-conversion law?

For the saffron brigade, Muslims have been fair game for long. But why are Christians – less than 3 per cent of the population - being targeted?

I’m putting together a cogent argument (hey, I’m the alleged expert). Watch this space tomorrow.

[Ends for the moment. But the debate continues! Pl post a comment. It helps me build up traffic that I need. Thanx] 


  1. It's nice that a non-Christian is writing about these issues. I was extremely interested in noting the topic of your thesis, but was disappointed with your conclusions. I'm no expert on Rajasthan, but in Mumbai where I live, I know of many slum churches, where Christians don't convert because of ration or jobs but because of spiritual reasons. They continue to stay in slums and continue to have financial problems. You don't need to look far to find such Christians. It's unfortunate that this tag called 'Rice Christians' is put on most Christians in India.

    In any case, I don't see what is fundamentally wrong if someone wants to shares goodies with their less priviledged brtehren. I don't personally believe in inducements for conversion. In fact, I'd say that such people are not Christian, both who offer inducements and those who take them to convert. But if someone wants to share good things with less prviledges people, what's wrong with that. They're probably only fulfilling Christ's royal Law, "Love your neighbour as yourself." Didn't Christ commend the Samaritan who helped the man on the road and paid for his hospitalisation and stay? Didn't the early church in the book of Acts operate as one family, where the contributions of the each one were collected together and used for the needs of everyone. They were a community.

    It's unfortunate that all help is tainted with the wrong tag. Like I said earlier, both who offer inducements and those who take them to convert are not Christians to begin with.

  2. You're absolutely right about the current situation.

    However, the 'Rice Christian' tag dates to the colonial period. The so-called Rice Christians were a product of the great famines of the late 19th and early 20th Century when the State (especially the Princely states) was unable/unwilling to feed the orphans of destitute families who died of hunger.

    These kids became Christians after the missionaries stepped in to help them live with the proviso that they would be brought up as Christians.

    This was because even during the Raj, the missionaries were finding it difficult to win converts and their financial backers back home in Britain were demanding numbers (of Converts).

    So a strategy like this one was the best way out to not only to satisfy the funding parishioners back home but also a sense of fulfilment for the missionaries who had left home and hearth to come to India with the hope to preach the Gospel in India.

    As far as current conversions are concerned, there have been hardly any post-1947, in Rajasthan at least. In fact, I checked with my 80-year-old uncle from Jodhpur just yesterday if there had been any conversions in his parish, and his answer was: "Zero, since 1947!"

    The point I'm making is that conversions to Christianity are rare in post-independent since conversion to Buddhism offers a better route to the Dalits to cast off the yoke of caste discrimination while retaining their SC status to avail of Constitutionally mandated reservations in education in govt jobs, and rightly so.

    Pl remember, the greatest 'inducement' offered to would-be converts is dignity and entry into the temple (church)along with other believers(salvation comes later since every religion offers the same). But Dalits and Tribals, being landless, need jobs. And conversion offers access to education and healthcare that eventually gibes the converts a kick-start that the desperately need.

    It seems you are a Christian who belief is strong.But I hope you'll understand that spiritualism in never the sole criterion for abandoning the faith/religion you are born in!

    Let's keep the debate going. And bring your friends into it as well.

  3. Roger - your claim:
    1)"As far as current conversions are concerned, there have been hardly any post-1947, in Rajasthan at least. In fact, I checked with my 80-year-old uncle from Jodhpur just yesterday if there had been any conversions in his parish, and his answer was: "Zero, since 1947!"

    The point I'm making is that conversions to Christianity are rare in post-independent since conversion to Buddhism offers a better route to the Dalits to cast off the yoke of caste discrimination while retaining their SC status to avail of Constitutionally-mandated reservations in education in govt jobs, and rightly so"

    The first part sounds so derisive of the Hindu's constant search for God and intellectualism having absolutely no part in any Christian's conversion just because they are poor! They are not ignorant! They also are humans and they also think. You assume like all the nouveau riche that only people like you who have read books are knowledgeable and intellectual!! How retro!
    I know of many Hindu's who have turned around completely. Nothing to do with obtaining success or subsistence or of gaining a dignity. I know personally a hindu in Oman in 1998, having received understanding of Christ, allowed God to change his life. He started praying for his wife and family back in India and within the next month he received an aerogramme indicating that they had heard the goodnews and converted of their own. There was no prompting by the husband living far away, enslaving himself to the Omani’s for US$150 per month living in a shared dorm of 16 on a bunkbed. So what “rice Christians” are you so naively talking about? and Tehelka
    indicates the number of converts today who still have names that are hindu and are now professing and practicing Christians and the suffering wrought in their lives, strengthens them to remain in their new found faith. They have no homes and are in hiding. They have left homes and are not allowed to return, which indicates that they would rather remain Christians than stay Hindus. The fact that they stay and continue to pray to a living God remains a fact. There are those who have been forced to reconvert by "the brawn and the brash" and yet because in an organised church parish there are no converts, you conclude wrongly that there is no conversion!!
    a "bah!humbug!" attitude ?

    The Bible says, that its impossible not to believe in any God! There is an interesting article at the url on this topic....
    However purposeful you may be, to remain stagnant in your thought, the end is meaningless.
    The real truth is what you obstinately claim as “false conversion”. There are definitely those who have vested interests in jumping ships when it suits their purposes. I dont deny that.
    Its only when you realise man's impossibility to breathe, to exist to stay alive by himself that you will come to the conclusion of a meaningful God.
    The Israelites were slaves, without a God, without a status and being abused by the Egyptians and God brought them out and back into their land as a nation with a God they could follow through the wilderness DAILY subsisting on heavenly food for 40yrs. This is what it is today for almost all real Christians in both the First worlds and the Third of the world.
    I have no hope in the financial market, nor man’s ability to explain everything or control everything. Look at the mess the world is in now!!
    Man has to inevitably come to an understanding of his own insufficiency to explain absolutely everything (as SCIENCE has already proved) that - as one discovers something so profound and unarguably explanatory for "a no God" expostulation, than - hey! another amazing fact of creation confounds them of the MAJESTY of God's perfection in Creation!!
    Thank the real God for that!


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