Can Hindutva Survive the Persecution of Christians in India?
A personal analysis and some recommendations.
Interpreted literally as "Hindu-ness" but increasingly implying a radical vision of a Hindu nation, Hindutva may be at risk as the democratic party embodying their vision loses a parliamentary vote of confidence. This document was written just days before the vote, where the BJP coalition lost by the narrowest of margins. An open letter to Indian Christians, it foreshadows events that came to pass just days later and casts a hopeful eye toward the future. For the broader Mission Frontiers' audience, the profound significance of the document makes it well worth plodding through details that are clearly India-specific. The Hindutva movement may well have overplayed their hand. The Gospel may have never had such a clear opportunity to demonstrate the blessing it offers to all of India as today.
I am grateful to all of you who prayed for my hectic travel and lecture schedule in India and UK during the past few weeks. The response, everywhere, was overwhelming. My engagements concluded today with a long TV interview on persecution of Christians in India. It may be broadcast in June, along with Gladys Staines' interview, whose husband Graham and two sons were burnt alive in Orissa in January '99. Here are some of my thoughts in the wake of that fiery event, which may turn out to be much more significant than an isolated tragedyit we react decisively.
THE PRESENT PHASE of persecution, at its roots, is a testimony to the effectiveness of the work of the missionaries at the front lines, most of whom are located in South and North-East India. They, therefore, need our prayers and support as they seek to bless also the northern parts of India at tremendous personal risk and cost. However, I have become more convinced than ever that what has triggered the persecution at this time is the rise of Mrs. Sonia Gandhi as the potential Prime Minister of India.
Most front-line missionaries don't seem to understand the power of their own work. They don't realize that their work is an historic threat to the socio-economic power equations that have existed in India for over 2,000 yearsever since Hinduism marginalized the lower castes and tribals. Hinduism has kept these people by force as marginalized, ignorant, and vulnerable to oppression and exploitation. The missions are giving them a new identity, self-respect and new principles for individual life, family and social organization. I will illustrate this point elsewhere. Here I merely want to say that just as the front-line evangelists seldom understand the revolutionary nature of their work, so does the Christian leadership seem unaware of the challenge Sonia Gandhi (widow of our former Prime Minister, the late Rajiv Gandhi) poses to the Hindutva movement.
For 75 years the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)the ideological fountain of the multi-faceted Hindutva movementhas said that Muslims and Christians cannot love India or be true patriots, because India is not their holy-land. Now, suddenly they are confronted with a greatly embarrassing situation: They were given an opportunity to rule India, and within one year they've made a mess of it. The average voter has turned against them and has turned in favor of not merely a Christian woman, but an Italian Christian woman! What happens if she turns out to be a better Prime Minister than their "Able PM," the still widely respected Mr. Atal Bihari Vajpayee?
To begin with, in the providence of God, Sonia Gandhi could single-handedly demolish the very basis of their propaganda.
If she does come to power and lasts for even five years, many of them, who have worked hard for 4-5 decades to achieve political power, would be dead before their personal ambitions and political dreams could begin to be realized.
Worse still, because of the incompetence of its political leaders, the Hindutva movement has already lost its strongholds in the states of Delhi, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh (MP). And it knows that the little power it does have in states such as Uttar Pradesh (UP) and Maharashtra is likely to come crumbling down within weeks after the fall of their central government. This is because their coalition governments in these states are dependent on smaller parties which have no ideological love relationship with Hindutva.
From the point of view of the Hindutva this total and astonishingly rapid loss of the cow-belt is an absolutely frightening scenario.
As was already evident in MP and Gujarat, and has now become apparent in UP, the much-talked-about "inner party discipline" of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is a myth. Would the party hold together after the loss of power? There is a fair chance that a loss of power to an Italian Catholic womanespecially if she turns out to be even moderately successfulwould intensify mutual hatreds and rivalries that already exist within the BJP. This will destroy the political aspect of Hindutva as effectively as Fascism in Western Europe and Communism in Eastern Europe stand discredited.
So what options do they have?
Persecution—the Game Plan
The BJP's incompetence has been exposed. Sonia Gandhi's mettle is yet to be tested. She is certainly not the savior of India, and might fail badly as Prime Minister. However, the nation does seem to be in a mood to try her out. So how can the Hindutva movement beat her? In the 1980's Sonia's mother-in-law and husband built up a hate-Sikh sentiment in the country which became a tidal wave that catapulted Rajiv Gandhi to power in 1984-85.
In the 1990's, the BJP and Shiv Sena cultivated a hate-Muslim campaign that succeeded in bringing them to power.
Now, it seems obvious to me that Hindutva's present game plan is to build-up a hate-Christian campaign. If they succeed in seducing even 35 percent of the Hindus to hate Christians, they might be able to beat Sonia Gandhi in an election by saying, "Don't vote for her, because she is a Christian, planted by the Pope to convert India."
Persecution—the Immediate Future
I expect that there will be little physical persecution in the next few weeks and months. The Hindutva movement will devote its time and energy to propaganda. The attack will not be so much on Christians as on Christ and Christianity. The Sangh Parivar will increase its present effort in using the press, pamphlets, booklets, books and its enormous manpower to talk against Christ, Christianity, missions and Christians.
Since the BJP government could fall in a matter of days, and since violent acts of persecution might cease for a while, Christians are likely to be dulled into believing that "their prayers have been answered" and "the devil has been defeated"; therefore, they can go back to business as usual. However, in my opinion this would be only the calm before the storm. If, in the judgment of the Hindutva movement, their propaganda appears to be succeedingthat is, if they believe that Hindus are buying their argument that Christianity is a threat to India; then I expect a massive wave of persecution a few months before the next election.
(Mrs. Sonia Gandhi would want an election right away, as it is likely to hurt the BJP and help her. However, it is unlikely that the smaller parties, whose support she needs to dethrone the BJP, will allow her to have an election now. They would want to keep her dependent on them for as long as they can.)
The objective of persecution before the election would be to polarize public opinion for and against Christians (not just missions). Their aim would be to try to get at least 30 to 40 percent of the Hindu voters to hate Christians enough to vote against the Congress party simply because its leader is a Christian. My guess is that this wave of persecution will not be restricted to tribal areas, its epicenter could well be the metropolitan cities. This persecution will not target conversions alone, but also service missions. Eventually, for reasons that need not be discussed here, I believe the English medium schools will become the main focus of the hatred of the Bajarang Dal. Of course, the Hindu elite send their children to our English medium schools. But that in itself will become a factor behind:
The best-case scenario is that the voters will not buy Hindutva's argument that Christianity is a threat to India, because:
- (a) They neither "see" any Christian terrorists, as they "saw" the Sikh and Muslim terrorists earlier, nor do they see that conversion is Indian Christianity's "singular" focusas Arun Shourie would have them believe.
- (b) While they do see the BJP's inability to rule, they do not see sinister conspiracies behind the service missions of a Mother Theresa or a Graham Staines.
- (c) They see the contradiction in Hindutva's claims that the Western world has turned away from Christianity, and yet somehow the West has a conspiracy to colonize India, by Christianizing it.
Therefore, confronted by the fact that their propaganda is hurting their own credibility, it is possible that
- The Sangh Parivar will accept its present defeat with dignity and grace,
- will learn from its mistakes,
- Will return to the role of a responsible opposition,
- Will give up its populist politics of hate, and
- Will concentrate on rebuilding a cadre of dedicated, self-sacrificing patriots, who will eventually
- Offer a credible cultural and political alternative to the nationan alternative against which the humanists ("secularists"), communists, and Christians could compete freely with their own visions of how to build a great India.
The worst-case scenario. Widespread persecution of urban Christians is not the worst possible future because, at this moment, the above does seem to be a tall (and rather idealistic) order. Therefore, the worst-case scenario is that the religious violence will be turned into political violence. That will only be a small step for a movement that has been self-consciously built on European Fascism. Needless to say it will be a step that begins the end of our democracy.
How could religious violence be turned into political violence? Well, they already teach absurdities such as:
- All missions, including Mother Theresa's, are a part of conspiracy to re-colonize India.
- The Nobel Prize awarded to economist Amartya Sen was a part of an international Christian conspiracy.
- Sonia Gandhi was planted in the Gandhi family in line with Rome's long-term design for India.
Therefore, it is no big deal for them to start saying that a Jayalalitha, a Mulayam Singh Yadav, or the liberal press, is the obstacle on the way to building a great Hindu Rashtra, therefore, she/he/it needs to be eliminated.
Of course, these are silly propositions. But propositions such as these will merely be a cover for the more serious issues, such as the Reservation (quota) system, the Swadeshi Economics, the Mandir movement, Kashmir, the future of Hindu social order.
Many now believe that the "Reservation" system that reserves close to 50 percent of the seats in the educational system and 50 percent of the jobs for the lower castes and tribes, to the disadvantage of the upper castes, cannot be ended without ending democracy itself. The upper castes cannot say that they want to end democracy to eliminate the Reservation system. They have to say that they want to end an alien import (democracy) which is at the root of our corruption, crime, urban chaos, caste-ist politics, communal violence, and continuing socio-economic backwardness.
One year of the BJP rule has demonstrated that the "Swadeshi" economic vision cannot be implemented within the context of democratic governance. It will require authoritarian rule. Contrary to popular perception, the "Swadeshi" is not Gandhian economics. It is an integral part of fascist theory held deeply by some RSS ideologues. (This is explained in the forthcoming book, Fascism: Modern & Postmodern, by Gene Edward Veith with my introduction, to be published by Good Books in May 1999pre-publication orders are welcome.)
If the Ram Temple (Mandir) could not be built in Ayodhya when the BJP was ruling both the center and UP, how would it be built when Sonia rules Delhi and Mulayam Singh rules Lucknow? Not building the temple would discredit Hindutva globally because it has already received huge sums of monies from Hindus all over the world. Allegations about an abuse of these funds have already been made by responsible people such as Mr. Vishv Bandhu Gupta, the Additional Commissioner of Income Tax. These allegations of corruption would permanently destroy the credibility of the religious wing ("saints") of Hindutva in its primary constituency.
Partition of India and Kashmir's peculiar constitutional status are very serious/deeply emotive issues for Hindutva, which has campaigned for five decades for an "Akhand Bharat" (a re-united India). They now know that their agenda cannot be realized within a democratic framework: they believe they need absolute power to implement their agenda.
An ally such as Jayalalitha destabilizing the BJP's central government in New Delhi is a much smaller problem when compared with the fact that the upper caste leaders of the BJP are destabilizing their own government in UP.
Why are they taking such a suicidal step at a time when the fate of their central government is hanging with a slender thread? Believe me, it is not merely a matter of the frustrated personal ambitions of some aging politicians, but it is a question of the very survival of the Hindu social order. Democracyan egalitarian political orderand Hinduisma hierarchical social ordercannot continue to co-exist in India. They are not made for each other. One must destroy the other. At this moment democracy is destroying the Hindu social order; therefore, a backlasha last ditch attempt to save the traditional privilegeis inevitable.
The upper-caste Hindus in the BJP had accepted Kalyan Singh, a Lodhia backward caste leaderas their Chief Minister, in the hope that the backward castes would in return allow them to rule the nation and thus maintain their traditional superiority. The bargain has not worked. The backward castes have relished the bait, but carefully avoided the hook. They are using their political power to bully if not to actually murder (e.g., the recent massacres in Bihar) the upper castes. The 15 percent upper-caste Hindus, in return, are getting restless with a democracy that inevitably favors the 85 percent lower castes and religious minorities (the constituency Sonia Gandhi is seeking to win back for Congress). For the upper caste Hindus this time around, the prospects are worse than during the first 50 years of Independence because the Congress is no longer headed by a Brahmin, but by an Italian Christian! If democracy has forced even the BJP to give power to the "backwards" over the "forwards," then what would Sonia do? So the worst-case scenario is that the coming days would see religious violence turn into political violence, with an aim to end democracy and to turn India into a Hindu Rashtra by force. I hope and pray that this will not happen.
However, it will be foolish to dismiss this scenario as impossible and to look to Sonia Gandhi and the secularists (press or politicians) as our saviors. Sonia may turn out to be an Esther, planted by Providence for such a time as this. But I would urge Christians not to return to "business as usual." Whether we sail through the serene waters of the best-case scenario, the cyclonic sea of the worst-case scenario, or the unpredictable waters of an in-between situation, we need to realize that India has exhausted all optionsfrom feudalism to democracy, and from Hinduism and Gandhianism to Socialism and Communism. In the providence of God, all the present players from the Sangh Parivar and Shourie to Sonia and Staines have been used to bring Christ into the center of the national debate. We need to seize this opportunity to present a vision of the Kingdom of Heaven in India.
Can Hindutva Survive in India?
Providence has polarized the public opinion in India as a clash between Hindutva and Christianity. Hindutva may pounce upon us with the full fury of a tigress whose cub (power) has been taken away by a Christian woman. It will be tempting for many Christians, especially the nominal Christians and new converts whose worldview remains Hindu/animist, to retaliate in self-defense. I would urge Christian leaders to prepare them not to retaliate. They need to understand that in the present phase of persecution, at stake is not the question of the existence of the Church in India. It is Hindutva's survival that is at stake; and no one understands this as well as the Hindutva's leadership. If we choose the way of the crossthe way of self-sacrificing love in the midst of sufferingif we continue to love, serve and preach fearlessly, irrespective of the cost, we will hasten the end of the last ideological challenge to the Gospel in India. Gladys Staines has given us a tremendous model. Many of us, through our personal cross bearing and tragedies, will need to reinforce that perception of true Christianity. The nation needs to see that all religions are not the same; that the Gospel and Hindutva, Gladys Staines and Dara Singh, stand as opposites. If we follow Christ and Gladys Staines, the light of the Gospel will shine even brighter when the religious violence does turn into political violence of fascism.
At present it seems to me that much of the Church is trying to take shelter under the cover of "secular" parties. This, I believe, is a serious mistake. Hindutva came to power precisely because secularism had already failed.
Therefore, my first strategic recommendation is that we need to resolve to take the bull of Hindutva by the horns, and allow the issue to remain as Gospel vs. Hindutva instead of making it secularism vs. Hindutva. (India needs to remain a tolerant and pluralistic society. But it is the Gospel, not secular political parties, that will provide the real, solid basis for building a tolerant, pluralistic society where every individual's right and conscience is given equal respect. I have argued this point in my book of letters to Arun Shourie, Missionary Conspiracy: Letters to a Postmodern Hindu. Here I only need to remind us that the Sikhs and Muslims rejected the Congress party because they rightly perceived that it was not as "secular" [pluralistic] as it claimed. Its obsession is with power, not with principles.)
Needed: A Theologically Informed Vision for India
As I have shown in my books (e.g., India: The Grand Experiment), from Charles Grant and William Carey up to the time of Stanley Jones there was a distinctly Christian vision for building a great India. It was Christianity, not the Gandhian struggle, that gave us the rule of law, democracy, fundamental rights, universal education and health care, corruption-free administration, equality of sexes and castes, economic freedom, opportunity and infra-structure and religious and journalistic freedoms that we enjoy at this moment. From the very first advocate of a missionary movement for IndiaCharles Grantthe missionary movement had a "singular focus"; but contrary to what Arun Shourie says, that focus was to bless India, not to count how many bodies had been ducked under baptismal waters. The "battle" between Hindutva and the Gospel is a battle between fascism and freedom. This Christian vision for a great India did indeed become weak as the large part of the Church gave up the biblical worldview in the 20th century, by a surrender either to liberalism or to an anti-intellectual, individualistic, privatized, pessimistic, un-Biblical evangelicalism. This evangelicalism has weakened the Gospel by perverting it. Allow me to help us recover the focus:
What is the Gospel? Is it a message about my soul going to heaven, or is it a message about the Kingdom of Heaven coming to this earth in the person of the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords? Is the Christian battle for heaven? Or does God already rule in heaven, and therefore, the battle is for this earth? Who will rule on this earth, God or Satan? If it is the latter, then should the passion of our lives be to go to heavenand take others thereor should it be "Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in India as it is in heaven"?
So my second recommendation is that as the nation flounders we need to articulate a clear Christian vision for India. Such a vision will include a vision for an "Akhand Bharat"a United States of South Asia (USSA). The logic of Hindutva seeks to unite South Asia with the help of nuclear weapons, because the Hindutva has no spiritual resources to lead the subcontinent towards repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation. The Gospel is capable of creating a united India, a "USSA"the greatest nation on earth.
It is necessary to articulate afresh a Christian vision for India because the language of the "spiritual warfare" movement has become the main justification for the present persecution. (If a tiny section of the American church has declared India to be an "enemy territory" that has to be "conquered," surely the target group has a right to defend itself.) Is our mission driven "by the love of God that constrains us"? Is God seeking to bless India or to conquer it? The Indian church needs to have theological maturity to stand up to the teams of naive young missionaries from America who today assume they are the ones to define what "spiritual warfare" is all about. Their naivete derives from a theology of spiritual warfare that is neither from the Bible nor from Church history, but from Frank Perretti's excellent fiction. Understandably, it does confuse the focus of some Indian Christians.
Taking the Bull by the Horns
Since the BJP government seems likely to collapse shortly, and since overt persecution is likely to cease for a while, it is imperative that we do not allow each other to go off to sleep. The next phase of attack is not likely to be against the missionaries and new converts; it is already directed against Christ and the Christian faith.
Therefore, my next recommendation is that we turn that attack into an opportunity to expound, defend, and commend the faith. While the hatred has to be countered by love, and force by suffering, the propaganda must be countered by a fearless presentation of the truth. The evangelists, church planters, and social workers get honor, recognition, and funding. The Indian Christian tradition has little space for apologists. But this is their moment. We need well-crafted letters to the editors in responses to what writers such as Arun Shourie write.
To begin with, as Professor Guptara argues, such letters need to correct the terminology being used today. The press is wrong when it talks of “Hindu fundamentalism” or “Hindu zealots.” There are no “fundamentals” in Hinduism to which Hindutva can lead Hindus. A good Hindu can choose to be a strict vegetarian, but he can also choose to be a tantric that kidnaps and sacrifices a neighbor’s child. Hindutva is about zeal for demolishing mosques and burning Bibles, but it is not about a zeal for Hindu spirituality. The appropriate terminology, therefore, is “Hindu fascists” or “fascist Hindus,” because Hindutva is about incorporating Italian fascism and German Nazism into Hinduism. We need letters in the secular press all over the world urging NRI Hindus to demand financial accountability and transparency from the Sangh Parivar. What has happened to the huge amounts of money donated for the temple?
We are already seeing hundreds of articles in the media, and millions of pamphlets circulating against our faith. These should not be ignored. Someone is investing enormous money into these efforts because he understands their strategic value. We need to study them, debate them, formulate thoughtful responses, write and publish. For too long we have abandoned intellectual creativity in favor of activism. If there was ever a time to recover a balance, it is now.
Right now we need a feature film on the martyrdom of Graham Staines that explains Christian service, the Gospel, and conversion to the Indian masses. I already have a story. But I don’t have the time or resources to make the film. If you are able to help in any way do ask me to send you the treatment of the film script.
We need well-produced documentaries on what the Gospel has already done for the tribals in Nagaland, Mizoram, Meghalaya, and other parts of India.
We need well-documented TV documentaries on what the Gospel has done for the untouchables in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh.
We need a feature film on Pandita Ramabai--not to raise money for the Ramabai Mukti Mission, but to counter propaganda with an effective presentation of the truth.
The above is to say that as demonstrated in my various books, the Gospel has already done more for India than all other ideologies put together. The nation is forgetting it because the leadership of the Indian Church has not honored, encouraged and supported the creativity of her young people. Many of our professors of Church History teach only what they learn in the Western seminaries--so, sadly, even our own pastors and preachers do not know what the Gospel has done for India. However, it is obvious that the challenge of today--the challenge of providing a fresh hope to India--cannot be met without discovering fresh talent and supporting it.
Three medical doctors from around Mumbai pooled their talents and financial resources together to translate Ruth’s and my book William Carey and the Regeneration of India into Marathi. They believed it was a tool that could be used effectively to counter some of the Hindutva’s propaganda. Their edition was released by the Gospel Literature Society on March 26, 1999, along with Burnt Alive a book on Staines’ murder. We need hundreds of local, spontaneous, positive initiatives such as this. The Gospel Literature Society did a commendable job in bringing out a book on the murder of Staines with speed and courage. Although the book has many moving sections, it also needs some reworking. I’m sure they would gladly accept any help that any of you can offer--editorially and in terms of promotion of this book.
From the Evangelical camp Rev. Valson Thampu is almost the only one who is writing in the secular press in New Delhi. Several responsible Christians have expressed a concern that Valson’s theological cutting edge is getting increasingly blunt. A very responsible and highly respected Christian leader went as far as to say that he believed that “It was merely a matter of time before Valson’s writings become indistinguishable from those of liberal and secular writers.” I would urge our friends to rally round Valson instead of criticizing him. We need to honor and encourage him. He needs prayer partners, research and secretarial assistance, friends with whom he can bounce off his ideas--those who will take time to read him and critique him from a position of commitment. Valson’s relationship with the press and with public figures such as Swami Agnivesh are good things. But some Christians who live in Delhi need to reach out to become a part of his inner support circle.
The tribals and lower castes today, like their forefathers who may have genuinely “converted” to righteousness in Christ, believe that they need the Gospel. Some of the tribals may be assuming that in the interest of their personal and eternal future, and in the interest of their future generations, they need to get out of a false, enslaving and exploitative socio-religious system.
We may even disagree with the understanding of “conversion” that the potential converts have. But surely, neither the Sangh Parivar, nor the church dignitaries can be allowed to keep these folk in their present moral, cultural and philosophical bondage. No one, except for those committed to corruption, would deny that spiritual/moral transformation is the greatest need of a nation as corrupt as India. Hinduism--whatever its strengths--has singularly failed in strengthening the moral muscles of our society. As I have shown in my book, The World of Gurus, the mainstream Hindu philosophy cannot provide even a framework of moral absolutes, let alone the power to regenerate our sinful hearts.
Needed: Structures for Countering Persecution
While there are a number of people doing fine work in focused areas of concern, there is currently no satisfactory forum for dealing with the whole gamut of issues related to persecution. There is a need for vigorous leadership that will investigate particular instances of persecution, follow up both on rehabilitation of the victims, as well as on the legal front to ensure that the law enforcement agencies do their work honestly.
Such a forum will also need to provide analysis of the big picture, the macro trends so critical for the health of the nation. This needs to be done both for the Christian community and for the nation as a whole, to help India become a nation of free individuals and families--a nation where people are free to live by their conscience.
To date, the strongest leadership has come from John Dayal, a Catholic and the convenor of the United Christian Forum for Human Rights. The needs are immense, the challenge is great, the risks are fearsome, but the rewards can be unimaginable. Who could have imagined twelve months ago that the Hindutva movement would begin to fall apart so soon? Who could have predicted six months ago that Christ would become the central issue in India? Yet He has.
We need courage and wisdom because this persecution has raised a serious question--Not about the survival of the church in India, but in the short term about the survival of the rule of law and democracy in India, and ultimately about the survival of Hindutva as an ideological force. And, I repeat, Hindutva is the last remaining ideological rival to the Gospel in India.