In 2010 I visited The Missionaries of Charity in Kolkata to pay homage at Mother Teresa’s tomb. Along the road towards the building were swarms of the sick, disabled, disfigured, the mentally ill, the aged, and the homeless.A leper put his hand out. I took a coin from my purse. I meant to place it on his outstretched palm. But on leaning over, I cringed. I try to be kind, each day a little more, but I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t touch him. So I tossed the coin in his direction, avoided his reddened eyes and quickly walked away in shame.
I entered the Mother Teresa’s sober tomb and my shame worsened. While I shuddered at the thought of touching a leper, she had embraced those with the disease. She had given shelter to hundreds of destitute while living in austerity that was in deep disproportion to her fame. Only a person in possession of a great sense of service to others could have spent her entire life like this.
Five years later, RSS leader Mohan Bhagwat claimed that the primary objective of Mother Theresa’s missionary work was conversion.
Three weeks later a 71-year-old nun of a convent school was gang-raped near Kolkata by six men. It was one of India’s most shameful moments.
I have spent a big portion of my life around Christians.My school, Villa Theresa, was Roman Catholic and St Xavier’s, where I went for college, was run by Indian Jesuits. We sang `Jana Gana Mana’ in the morning, followed by The Lord’s Prayer. We went to the school church and sat on the pews listening in rapture to stories about Saint Francis of Assisi and Shivaji.We prayed to Lord Jesus and we prayed to Lord Shiva. Diversity was a way of life, not an effort at brainwashing or conversion.
The Christians in India are a small minority. At 2.5 per cent of the total population, they are significantly smaller than other minorities, like say the Muslims who are 14 per cent of our populace. And even in those small numbers, they have given India its most prized asset: Education.
And what is India giving back to them?
In recent months many acts of violence have taken place against the Christian community, including burning of churches, re-conversion of Christians to Hinduism by force, distribution of threatening literature, and defacement of Bibles. This week, around the same time as the nun was raped, a cross at a church in Haryana was forcibly replaced with a Hanuman idol.
The ongoing violence is a matter of great national shame, especially in our country that has a history of tolerance.Worse still, most of it is politically motivated. According to media reports, much of it stems from fringe elements of Hindu organisations such as the Bajrang Dal, Vishva Hindu Parishad, and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. They’re doing this to avenge Christian missionaries and their alleged `aggressive conversion drives’ which they think have forced good Hindus to covert.
Forced conversions? Look at our population figure. Does it look like we’re running out of Hindus? Read our law. Article 25 of the Indian Constitution guarantees freedom of religion. Conversion is an individual choice. If a person wants to convert their religion, their shoes, their refrigerator, it is their choice. It is not the business of the state to check whether someone is spreading their mat or crossing their heart or ringing a bell.
Yet, since December 2014 the VHP and RSS have been conducting re-conversion ceremonies of Christians to Hindus for their ghar wapsi (homecomings) campaign, and attacks on Christian institutions are becoming more frequent.
Instead of leading by violence, the first call of the weak-minded, why don’t fanatics lead by example? Make Hinduism a religion that attracts those in need of faith.Instead of disparaging dead saints and denigrating charitable work for the poor, look after your people by providing basic education, decent living conditions and selfless service to those in need.
These extremists are emboldened because they expect Christians not to react.After all, Christians in India are generally viewed as a peace-loving community. Christians don’t regularly attack our temples, bomb our malls or rape our women.
But against the power of evil, even the good fold into a Faustian pact. If such attacks continue then at some point the Christian community will react. At some point they will snap. Julio Ribeiro tells us that they’re already feeling under siege. So what will they do? It will be sad if Christians also become the bad guys. It will be shocking if Christians also start seeing violence as necessary in the name of a higher good. It will be even worse if they take back what they’ve given so generously to our nation: Their educational institutions that shape the brightest minds in India and give the youth a moral rudder, and their charitable institutions that provide selfless service to the needy. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.
Prime minister Modi, the finest thinkers of our nation have said attacks on Christians increase each time your party rises to power; back in 2003 and again since 2014.
You remember what it’s like when your government is accused of allowing sectarian violence, religious intolerance and bloodshed to spread?
We are happy that you are finally speaking out against these acts of religious fanaticism. We know that you are as concerned about extremism as we are. But that is not enough. You have to do something to stem the violence. You have to take punitive action. You have to stop the aggressors.
Don’t let this unconverted Hindu woman be shamed in front of her Christian friends. Don’t let the rights of religious minorities in our predominantly Hindu country be forsaken.
Stop this madness now.
If not you, Mr Modi, then who?
Meghna Pant is an award-winning author, journalist and columnist.