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Hate poisons the Narmada

Prompt legal and political action foils the Sangh’s conversion plans in Mandla

by John Dayal, 15 May 2011

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Communalism Combat, May 2011

Prompt legal and political action foils the Sangh’s conversion plans in Mandla

BY JOHN DAYAL

At the end of the day, the RSS and its daughter organisations could not have the ‘Ghar Vapasi’ they intended at the ‘Narmada Samajik Kumbh’ held on the banks of the Narmada river in Mandla from February 10-12, 2011.

Alarmed at the fears expressed by the Christian community in Mandla and indeed the rest of Jabalpur division, and the report of a fact-finding team which toured the Narmada valley areas in the district on the eve of the so-called Kumbh, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Madhya Pradesh petitioned the high court at Jabalpur even as the All India Christian Council approached the union government and the political spectrum in New Delhi and Bhopal to prevent the outbreak of violence against Christians. Faced with these developments, the state government withdrew its enthusiastic support for the Sangh’s plan and the police were eventually directed to ensure that there were no conversions of Christian tribals to Hinduism. These were obviously reluctant actions, as there was no effort to prevent the hate speech that dominated the Kumbh, emanating from a host of Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), Bajrang Dal and Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram leaders.

During the run-up to the event the sangh parivar had left no one in any doubt that the main reason for organising the Kumbh was to purge the region of “Christian missionaries” whom they accuse of carrying out large-scale conversions of tribals, mainly Gonds, in this part of the country.

This writer was part of the fact-finding team that toured the area together with Vijayesh Lal, a human rights activist and secretary of the Religious Liberty Commission of the Evangelical Fellowship of India. The team spent three days in the Mandla-Jabalpur region and met with the Catholic bishop of Jabalpur, Rt Rev Gerald Almeida, as well as over 200 Catholic, Protestant and Evangelical priests, pastors and church workers from the region. The fact-finding team also collected, or photographed, pamphlets, posters and hoardings, and were given copies of other printed material.

A part of the administrative division of Jabalpur, the district of Mandla, which is situated in the Mahakoshal region of Madhya Pradesh, lies largely within the basin of the Narmada river whose origins are in streams perhaps 100 kilometres upstream from Mandla town. The district covers a total area of 8,771 square kilometres, has a population of 7,79,414 (2001 census) with a literacy rate of 59.85 per cent. Official statistics say a large percentage of the population is Adivasi (tribals, who the RSS chooses to describe as vanvasis, or forest-dwellers, a term abhorred by the people). Mandla district sends one member to the Lok Sabha and as many as 12 members to the state assembly, making it, politically, a very important region. However, the state government admits that despite 60 years of independence, 11 five-year plans and millions of rupees spent on union and state projects, the district of Mandla “consistently” ranks among the 20 most backward districts in India. It is rugged terrain and barring the state highway, inner roads continue to be in a terrible condition. Even within sight of the highway, housing ranges from brick and cement houses to thatched mud huts.

The church has been active in the region, involved in education, health and development projects, many of which were begun in recent years. In addition to the social work undertaken by clergymen and women, the Catholic church runs a hospital, a girls’ school and a boys’ school as well as a home for retired Catholic clergy in the region. The Catholic population is spread thinly over the area, barring two villages which have a sizeable number of Gond Catholics. The Church of North India has a century-old church – which is of some historical and architectural importance – situated near the offices and residences of the collector and the police chief in the town.

Unlike the original Kumbh Melas, traditional Hindu pilgrimage festivals that are held at fixed locations and with a fixed periodicity, the Narmada Samajik Kumbh was part of a very recent series of religious festivals invented by the sangh parivar in furtherance of an ideological campaign to animate tribal populations in western and central India, especially in the Chota Nagpur region which is inhabited by some of the oldest tribes in the world. Heavily forested, the Chota Nagpur region has vast reserves of rare earths and minerals, including coal, and is one of India’s richest regions in terms of biodiversity.

While the late Swami Lakshmanananda Saraswati was evangelising the Kondh tribals of Kandhamal in Orissa – later the scene of much violence against Christians – his colleague in the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, Swami Aseemanand (variously called Swami Ashim Anand or Asheemanand), invented – with similar heavily Sanskritised rhetoric and ritual – the “Shabri Kumbh” in the Dangs district of Gujarat to initiate a political and ritual campaign against local Christians and church workers. Ashim Anand had become a terror in South Gujarat which first saw serial violence against Christians around Christmas time in 1998 during which over three dozen village churches were torched. He is currently in police custody, being investigated for his part in “Hindutva” terrorist attacks against religious minorities.

The Indo-Asian News Service (IANS) quoted the Hindu Jagran Manch and other co-sponsors based in Surat as saying that the decision to shift the congregation away from the Dangs was taken in view of the heightened surveillance by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). The event was first christened ‘Maa Narmada Samajik Kumbh’ but this was changed to Narmada Samajik Kumbh after some tribal groups objected and threatened to hold their own festivities to challenge it.

The ‘Kumbh’ venue was spread over an area of 14 square kilometres to accommodate about 20 lakh people. The government initially allotted Rs 140 crore for civil works, tentage, roads and other arrangements for the event but official funding eventually crossed Rs 250 crore.

Even before the new year began, groups of sadhus and Sangh activists had been touring the villages in Mandla as well as villages and towns across the state, going from house to house to tell people about the Kumbh and to collect money for food and arrangements for the devotees. We were told that such teams of fund collectors had been active even in Jabalpur, the second largest town in Madhya Pradesh and the seat of its high court.

Pastors and social leaders in Mandla spoke of the threatening nature of the Sangh propaganda: Much of the threat was oral, conveyed as the groups moved through villages, briefing people about the “activities” of the “missionaries”, or Christian pastors. Group leaders openly stated that they would wipe out Christianity from the region and convert the region’s Christians to Hinduism through ritual cleansing in ‘Ghar Vapasi’. Slogans on one set of posters accused Christian missionaries of duping the local people with their educational and medical services. The main slogan was that the “church will do anything for conversions”. Some of this propagandistic material bears the signature of the “Dharma Jagran Samiti, Maharashtra”.

It is more than evident that the state administration went out of its way to patronise the Kumbh. On December 6, 2010 the police superintendent issued orders instructing churches, and others, that they should close down their schools and other institutions which would be used to house the visiting dignitaries, policewomen and other officials. The school officials told the police that it would be impossible to close down the schools for such a long period of time. The police superintendent subsequently claimed that he had not signed any such order but the fact-finding team managed to procure a copy.

The Mandla police have always kept close tabs on the local Christian leadership. The police issued a notice to Sister Olga Lucas of the Deenbandhudham Convent, which stated that they were investigating complaints and wanted the convent to provide a list of the nuns serving in the convent along with details of their bank accounts, the landline and mobile phone numbers used in the convent as well as details about other inmates. Going to ridiculous lengths, the police even asked for full details of the patients who were undergoing treatment in the hospital and clinics, details of the administrative structure of the congregation and the addresses and phone numbers of office-bearers and superiors. Similar notices were also issued to other Catholic priests and Protestant pastors.

A book entitled Ha Hum Hindu Hain (Yes, we are Hindus), a Hindi translation of the original in Marathi, was released at the Narmada Samajik Kumbh by RSS leaders Mohan Bhagwat and Suresh Soni, the chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan and a host of sants. In his speech, Bhagwat said that the leaders who had spoken before him had proffered ample advice (on how to tackle conversion) but he did not elaborate further. Swami Hariharanandji Maharaj said some insects (keet-patange) had entered India 2,000 years ago and, in the name of offering services, took to conversion. “Take a vow that non-Hindus are made to flee India,” he urged. The main pandal (marquee) at the event was named after Swami Lakshmanananda, the VHP leader who was shot dead in Orissa in 2008.

There is little doubt that the Hindutva campaign has vitiated the atmosphere and seriously impacted on human relationships between Christian and other tribals in the hamlets, villages and townships of the Mandla region. The penetration of hardcore Sangh activists and their cells in this area may have long-term repercussions on the freedom of religion in this region and may seriously impact on the continuing social work of the church, including the running of schools and medical centres.

(Dr John Dayal is a member of the National Integration Council and secretary general of the All India Christian Council.)