Very few in the public arena know you are a Christian, and it is impossible to make out your religious identity from your name. For a person such as you, how has the attack on the Christian community impacted you at a personal level?
It has saddened me. There is no doubt that it is an organised attack. It has also been going on for a while. It is sad that some people don’t feel secure even when their community is just 2.5% or 1.5% of the Indian population. This is a sad comment on our political culture. The inability to accept diversity has now become a salient factor of Indian public life and politics.
I have seen many Muslims who are not devout become acutely conscious of their identity when their faith comes under attack. Do you see this happening with Christians in India?
I see this trend among Muslims in India. But I don’t think it has happened with Christians as yet. At least, it doesn’t seem so, as I haven’t seen any evidence of it around me. Nor have I come across any surveys or data which would suggest otherwise. I would be surprised if it were to happen – for, on the whole, Christians are a self-confident community. Also, don’t forget that in many parts of India, Christians are predominantly Dalits and the attacks on them might have other kinds of political consequences. For instance, it might further divide the Dalits.
Have you felt personally threatened with the targeting of Christians over the last nine months?
No. But then you can say I have been brought up in an atmosphere where attacks on Christians or even a campaign against them was unthinkable. In Calcutta, where I grew up, the Christian community is taken as part of the landscape and played an important role in defining the culture of the city. Bengalis, whether Hindu or Muslim, would have been shocked to hear about these attacks on Christians.
The RSS has portrayed Christians and Muslims as communities that don’t accept their Hindu cultural heritage. From your own experience during your growing up years, do you think it is possible for any community to be insulated from what is called Hindu influence?
I don’t think it is possible. For instance, my father was a student of Sanskrit and persuaded us to study Sanskrit. Only my third brother, who studied in La Martiniere, didn’t get to learn Sanskrit. My father was very proud of the fact that he knew Sanskrit. He was a good student of Sanskrit and his teachers loved him for that.
It is indicative of things that he was invariably called by one of his teachers Mleccha [barbarian]. In fact, whenever another student would fail to answer a question, the Sanskrit pandit would say, “Mleccha, you better answer that.” My father knew the teacher used the term Mleccha not as an insult, but as a term of endearment; he was very proud of my father.
Are you second- or third- or fifth-generation Christian, or is it that you don’t even know when your ancestors converted?
If you include my daughter, I think we are now fourth-generation Christians.
Considering it is impossible for Christians or Muslims to remain insulated from Hindu influence, why do you think the RSS insists the religious minorities describe themselves as Hindu?
The RSS is basically a western, colonial implant in India. The RSS categories are all European, beginning from Savarkar’s Hindutva, which is a perfectly European concept of the theory of state. That concept is one state, one culture, one nationality and nationalism – and the state the Hindutvavadis have in mind is a modern Westphalian European state.
To understand Savarkar’s worldview, people should read his futuristic novel,Kalapani, which is a rather silly description of an ideal Hindutva-based state – totally monolithic, terribly boring national community. In this community, according to Savarkar’s imagination, everybody speaks the same language, everybody is marrying inter-caste, so on and so forth. Fortunately, he doesn’t include the Christians and Muslims in this community and they should be grateful to him for that. I’d die of boredom living in a state like that.
Earlier, most Indians would have agreed with me. But it now seems there is a small group of young people, particularly NRIs in India, who, because they feel guilty about ditching India, have become very articulate in this matter. They shout themselves hoarse about the beauties of one state, one culture, one nation.
How do you react to the much-felicitated police officer Julio Ribeiro saying, “As a Christian, suddenly I am a stranger in my own country…”?
I think it is an expression of pain. If a person such as Ribeiro feels so pained, then there is something drastically wrong in our culture of politics. He is, after all, one of the icons of the Indian state. He doesn’t share my critique of the modern nation-state or development or secularism. However unjustified he might seem in saying what he has said, as some suggest or claim, it is a tragic comment on the present state of governance in the country that a person such as Ribeiro, who has been so central to our public life, should feel that way.
Have you experienced the kind of pain Ribeiro seems to have felt?
I don’t. First of all, I have always considered these people [who are carrying out this campaign] as a semi-literate, somewhat stupid and marginal segment of Indian society. They have always been there on a small scale, only they have become more noisy now, because they feel they are in power They forget that they have acquired this power with just 31% of the national vote. In India, the Opposition is always in a majority. I don’t take them seriously, nor do I take their slurs seriously. I am proud that I have never replied to them. Never means never.
But as a Christian, do you identify with your community?
Yes, I do, even though I am not a believer. I have been a nonbeliever from my teens, much to the sorrow of my parents, who were devout Christians. But I am a product of the Bengali Christian family and culture. I identify with it. I don’t disown it, particularly because it is such a small community. I do not belong to the majority community, which is 82% of the country’s population but some of them still feel and behave like a minority. [Laughs]
How do you look upon the current conversion debate?
The debate itself will lead to more divisions and perhaps to more conversions too. This is because the debate automatically draws a clear line between communities. Earlier, the lines between communities were always fuzzy. I remember the woman who worked as our domestic help for 25 long years at our home, in the Civil Lines, Delhi. It was only when her daughter was to get married that we came to know that she was a Christian. She was a Christian working in a partly Christian home, and seen people coming to wish us on Christmas, and yet she never told us that she too was a Christian. She would dutifully accept gifts from us on Diwali and Holi. Only when her daughter was getting married, we asked her about the ceremony and she said, “Padre aaye ga.” So for marriage and child-birth and death, the rituals followed were those of Christians. This is how we have lived in India.
So what you are saying we Indians lived in a way that there was a blurring of line among communities?
Yes, there was always a blurring of the line among the communities. Buddhists are in a huge majority in Thailand, yet next to the palace of the king, there is a small settlement of Brahmins whose ancestors had gone from India many hundred years ago. Their only function is to preside over the coronation, death, birth and marriage ceremonies of the royal family. Till 1947, I am told that many Muslim aristocratic families in Punjab would have nikkah, but in addition to that, for the sake of their friends and neighbours, as also for reasons of prestige, would have a Brahmin perform Hindu ceremonies.
So the conversion debate will make people more conscious of their religious identity?
Yes, and it will also lead to clearer boundaries around communities. You can’t beat Semitic faiths, particularly Christianity, on this count. Frankly, in matter of conversion, I agree with Gandhi’s position – he didn’t believe in conversion. Many people from the West came to Gandhi as if he was an Eastern guru. But Gandhi made it clear that he was no Eastern guru. He would advise them to read their own religious texts, and find in them the values they believed in and fight for them.
Also, some of the Semitic creeds – Christianity, for sure – have the concept of suffering and martyrdom. In fact, the idea of suffering for Christ and Christian values is a very major strand in Christianity. This is how the great Christian saints have been defined – that they suffered and endured physical torture for Christ and courted martyrdom. This concept is there among the Shias, too.
The point I am making is that the conversion debate, and the violence accompanying it, as also the line being drawn around communities, will push proselytisation underground. People will not publicly or openly disown Hinduism, but do so clandestinely. Even in Islam this tradition is there. It is there in Judaism, too. In other words, when people belonging to Semitic creeds feel persecuted, they will invoke their religious tradition to adhere to their faith secretly.
What are your reasons for opposing conversion?
First of all, I don’t believe in hierarchy of faiths. You can’t create a hierarchy of spiritual traditions. You can’t even say your spiritual tradition is superior on the claims that yours is more tolerant than other traditions, like many Hindus have begun to do now. They say they have always believed in diversity, that all religions are paths to the same end, but also add in the same breath that they are more tolerant than others – and, therefore, they are better. I think Buddhism have as much claim to tolerance as Hinduism. This is also true of Jainism. I don’t think there is any record of Jains being intolerant of others. I am not a believer and, therefore, I don’t have to subscribe to the idea that salvation comes through only one faith.
But would you still have the right to preach and propagate one’s religion as one of the fundamental rights guaranteed to the country’s citizens?
Yes, I will, because everyone preaches anyway. Even those who say they don’t do so. Some don’t convert, yes, but they don’t shout about it from the hilltop. For instance, Parsis have a clear-cut definition who isn’t a Parsi and who isn’t.
Will you like some restrictions to be imposed on conversion?
Gandhi said, God comes to the poor in the form of bread. When a poor person takes money to convert, then, by that definition, one can say that he comes closer to God through conversion. This is my belief as a nonbeliever. However, as a nonbeliever, conversion doesn’t make a straw of difference to me. I am respectful to religion. I don’t believe in secularism because I think it is an ideology, a faith, like religion. That is a simple argument. I have offered more serious arguments in my writings and I don’t want to repeat them here. I have written against secularism because it is insensitive to what religions do or don’t do. It is theoretically and philosophically flawed. Secularism sets up a new hierarchy, where the poor man’s tolerance is not called secularism, but the modern Westernised Indian’s tolerance is labelled secularism, a term which most Indians don’t even understand. Only 2.5% Indians know English, and out of this probably only 1% can spell the word secularism. Secularism as a concept has emerged from the European Enlightenment and invokes a secularised, de-mystified or de-magicalised world.
India is a country of communities, so we must learn to respect one’s own community as well as those of others. This is good enough. All those personalities in history who are described as secular had never heard of the word secular. Ashoka was a Buddhist and that is why he respected other faiths. So is the case of Akbar too. He was a believer and his tolerance of other faiths came from Islam. I respect those principles with which ordinary people have lived over for centuries. They didn’t need to be taught to secularism. Our intellectuals have been too idle to find out the appropriate terms and the language used by the likes Nanak, Kabir and Lalan and use them.
RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s comment that Mother Teresa’s motive behind her work was conversion was severely criticised. What does this remark tell you about Bhagwat and the criticism about India?
Naturally, there has been criticism of the comments. There are people in the Bharatiya Janata Party who have written on Mother Teresa and adore her. That only shows that Bhagwat has been bypassed by time and is basically fighting a losing battle on the basis of deracinated Hindus and deracinated Indians, who are not in touch with real India. The middle-middle class and the lower-middle class Indians who are media exposed and semi-westernised, who are neither modern nor traditional, are trying to take us back to the 19th century. Basically, they are trying to establish 19th century state in the 21st century. Even BJP leaders who have ruled India are fully aware of this, but they cover their awareness of this fact by verbiage.
Yet the BJP has become stronger. They are in power on their own.
That is because there is no opposition. The Congress has lost credibility, it is lethargic, direction-less, and perhaps has served its historical purpose. It consists of different types of people who try to give it a semblance of ideology to hold it together. The Congress is no longer what it was, its mission is not clear, and it has become a money-making machine.
For months, Prime Minister Narendra Modi remained silent on the attacks on churches, Christians and the ghar wapsi programme. Following the drubbing of the BJP in the Delhi assembly elections, he spoke against it. Do you think he interpreted the loss in Delhi as a vote against religious extremism?
I wouldn’t know. Politicians wear many masks. He might knowingly say it even though he doesn’t believe it. Or he might have said it because he genuinely believes it. I will have to wait to see what concrete actions are taken. People like Sakshi Maharaj, Adityanath and other make fool of themselves in public, saying one thing today, apologising tomorrow, and then saying another thing the third day. It is neither here nor there.
Do you think it is a wrong strategy of political parties to have allowed the BJP to appropriate the religious realm, that there is no Gandhi in the contemporary political class who could challenge an interpretation of religion that is narrow, exclusivist, and spawns hatred?
Yes, it is true. The BJP’s use of Hinduism is absurd. Their use of Hinduism is secular – they can sell their mothers for winning an election, what to speak of Hinduism and Ram.
Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist from Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn,published by HarperCollins, is available in bookstores.