This explains the growing number of Christians in the North-east, Odisha and Dang, all developmentally weaker regions neglected by successive governments. As a case in point, it would be worthwhile to recall the Dang experience of 2000. A tribal-jungle district near Surat spread over 1,764 sq km, Dang was thrown into the throes of communal riots at the turn of the millennium. A desecration of a holy cross on Christmas Eve kept the district on the front pages for a week even though not a single life was lost.
On the face of it, the Christian missionaries and the Bajrang Dal appeared to have drawn swords. While the missionaries claimed to be cowering, a bombastic Bajrang Dal warned of a face-off to remember. The 300-plus towns and villages of Dang district are populated by Konkana Bhil tribals. They speak a mixed dialect of Marathi and Gujarati that is unintelligible to most journalists. The media therefore was generally banging out stories from Surat based on hearsay. The troubling media coverage about mutinous Hindu outfits made me probe deeper. Taking along a local who understood the tribal lingo, I went to the forest. What we found was revealing.
To understand what had happened, some background is important. After having lived in harmony for centuries, the tribal community was finding itself on the cusp of an ethnic divide. A sizeable number of families — a fifth of the population — had turned Christian. Within families too, some had converted and some had not. The converted children would not endorse a cremation, making others in the family resentful. However, the core of the issue was more sociological than religious. The converts no longer joined communal rituals and refused to shell out the mandatory contribution of about Rs150 per household to the annual community feast, driving a fissure of discord. There was the added insult of the converts’ superior behaviour on account of their being Christian.
Tapping into this discontent, Swami Aseemanand, a Hindu activist and founder of the Madhya Pradesh-based Vanvasi Kalyan Parishad, began bringing the converts back into Hinduism. Encouraged by his presence, the seething tribals began venting their angst through scattered protests. A minor skirmish between the tribals and converts on Christmas Day brought the simmering tension to a head. It was played out in the media as an all-out war between Hindu zealots and Christian converts. Dang was painted as a place where no converts dared to step out of their homes and where the foreign missionaries were living with 24/7 security.
What we saw was very different. People were moving around freely in the vast jungle terrain. My queries about the “heightened tension” drew a blank from most of them. The missionaries — including a foreigner who had set up base here to alleviate the lot of the tribals — were going about their business with ease. One of them lived in a big, lavish bungalow, which looked surreal in the thatched-hut-and-parched-earth setting.
The door to the bungalow was open, with a relaxed police guard sitting at the opposite end, his back to the entrance. When I rang the bell, nobody answered. When I stepped in and called out, the missionary materialised at leisure from the first floor, all smiling and happy to tell me how he feared for his life, and how he was holed up at home. Strangely, I ran into him again at another place in the next couple of hours, chatting up colleagues over tea.
As an English speaking journalist, I was drawn to identify more with the effusive missionary than mild-mannered Swami Aseemanand, who lived in a minimalistic environment, sat on the floor, and was anyway too reticent to speak beyond a few words. But the story told itself.
Pounding through tribal homes and hospitals was an education. At every home with an ailing member, a “father” would magically appear and promise a full recovery. In return, he would want the family to surrender to Jesus Christ. Medicines would be supplied and once the said recovery was achieved and the family converted, the charity visits would cease. Many converts said they got no help from the “father” during subsequent illnesses. Many other tribals converted through children studying in missionary schools.
For all the hype over Dang, each household that we spoke to said it would happily accept the converts if they contributed and participated in the community feast, conversions notwithstanding. Odisha has a similar pattern of woe. The scale of operation is larger, and inter-community relations more tenuous. Among the north-eastern states, Nagaland, Mizoram and Meghalaya have turned about 90% Christian. The others are still holding out, but perhaps for some more time. An internal study done by a government agency in the new millennium found a ten-fold rise in the number of Christians over a ten-year period in Arunachal Pradesh alone.
In the true Indian tradition of saam (advice), daam (price), dand (punishment), bheda(exploitation), conversions continue to be a part of India’s complex politico-religious narrative. The difference in the ‘ghar wapsi’ furore is perhaps the pitch at which it is being sold and the tacky way in which it is being done. Given the measly numbers being reconverted, they should not even be noticed, let alone hog the headlines.
This acrimonious tussle for dominance seems to affirm J Krishnamurti’s take on religion: “Religions, with their beliefs, dogmas and creeds, have become tremendous barriers between human beings, dividing man against man, limiting him and destroying his intelligence.” He had also said, “There must be conflict so long as there is an ideal, … so long as the mind is concerned with the future, with what should be, it is not concerned with what is.”
The author is a senior journalist based in Mumbai.