Why this doubt over Indian Christians’ nationalism?

The RSS would have us believe that all that Christians do is proselytize. They have no clue that the Indian Christian community’s immense contribution to the nation is based on a clear Biblical exhortation to remain loyal subjects

As I started writing this piece, NDTV was flashing the news that carol singers were attacked by Bajrang Dal activists in Satna in Madhya Pradesh. The police there had detained priests and seminarians. So what Christian perspective should one present on nationalism? Carol singing has always been an integral part of Christmas celebrations and carol singers heralding the birth of Christ, hailed as the Prince of Peace, were a ubiquitous sight across the country during the Christmas season. Is it an anti-national activity for a peaceful community to go caroling and spreading the universal message of peace?

A December 2014 file photo shows RSS supporter flying a saffron flag atop a vandalised church in Muniguda, Orissa

Nationalism has been defined by political pundits, statesmen and thinkers. We find plenty of Western interpretations of nationalism. With the changed political realities in our country there are public discourses on “reinventing” nationalism, from a particular religious perspective. Here, I attempt to articulate the thoughts of some of the founders of free India expressed in their voluminous writings. One would also look at how nationalism was defined by M.S. Golwalkar, who succeeded founder K.B. Hedgewar at the helm of the RSS, in two of his books, Bunch of Thoughts and We, or our Nationhood Defined.

The Indian Council for Philosophical Research (ICPR), established under the Ministry of Human Resources Development (HRD), believes that ‘’Golwalkar’s views on nationalism have been misunderstood and maligned by his adversaries” [The Indian Express quoting the PTI story on 9 July 2017]. But his words are there for everyone to see and seem to explain the philosophy of the present ruling dispensation. To sum up his theory of the Hindu Rashtra, he considered democracy to be alien to the Hindu ethos and believed in a Hindu supremacy subjected everyone else to second-class citizenry.

On the other hand, the views on nationalism and the concept of India of three of the leading lights of our freedom movement – Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Dr B.R. Ambedkar – continue to be reassuring for everyone, especially the minorities. Gandhiji often wrote about nationalism in the context of the threat of increasing communal tensions in his own characteristic way: “My nationalism, fierce though it is, is not exclusive, is not devised to harm any nation or individual” [Young India, 26 March 1931]. Reacting to the neo-nationalism raising its evil heads in post-First-World-War Europe, Gandhiji gave a new interpretation to Indian nationalism: “It is not nationalism that is evil, it is the narrowness, selfishness, exclusiveness which is the bane of modern nations which is evil. Each wants to profit at the expense of, and rise on the ruin of, the other. Indian nationalism has struck a different path. It wants to organize itself or to find full self-expression for the benefit and service of humanity at large” [Young India,18 June 1925].

To Gandhiji, Indian nationalism had its roots in our heritage of peace and non-violence. He wrote, “At the present moment, though the national creed is non-violence, in thought and word at least, we seem to be drifting towards violence [Young India, 22-8-1929].”

A Christian protest march in New Delhi in 2015 following a series of attacks on churches

As the main architect of the Constitution of India, Dr B.R. Ambedkar’s pronouncements  assume deeper meaning for Indian nationalism. In April 1938, speaking at a Bombay Assembly debate, Dr Ambedkar made the following observations: “That the common goal is the building up of a feeling that we are all Indians. I do not like what some people say that we are Indians first and Hindus afterwards or Muslims afterwards, I am not satisfied with that … I  do not want that our loyalty as Indians should be in the slightest way affected by any comparative loyalty whether loyalty arises out of our religion, out of our culture or out of our language. I want all Indians to be Indians first, Indians last and nothing else but Indians… [Ambedkar: Awakening India’s Social Conscience by Narendra Jadhav, Konark]”

Dr Ambedkar was a Labour Party member in the British Government of India. Speaking on All India Radio in January 1943 on “Why Indian Labour is Determined to Win the War”, he said, “… If nationalism means the worship of the ancient past – the discarding of everything that is not local in origin and colour – then Labour cannot accept nationalism as its creed. Labour cannot allow the living faith of the dead to become the dead faith of the living [ibid].”

The same thought is reflected in what Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru writes in his Discovery of India: “A blind reverence for the past is bad and so also is a contempt for it, for no future can be founded on either of these. The present and the future inevitably grow out of the past and bear its stamp, and to forget this is to build without foundations and cut off the roots of national growth. It is to ignore one of the most powerful forces that influence the people. Nationalism is essentially a group memory of past achievements, traditions, and experiences, and nationalism is stronger today than it has ever been.”

Christianity in India is believed to be as old as Christianity itself. It did not reach our shores through any conquest, nor did Islam. Both these religions came to the Malabar coast – the former in 52 AD and the latter in the 7th century. As Dr Ambedkar said, “discarding everything that is not local in origin” has dangerous ramifications, especially when it comes to personal choices of beliefs and faiths. If the same logic was extended to science and technology we probably would be living in the stone age!

A nun tends to a patient in Nirmal Hriday, the home for the destitute and the old founded by Mother Teresa in Kolkata

Nationalism is ingrained in the Christians of India. Before going into a perspective on nationalism and Indian Christians it is important to understand that there is no monolithic church in the country. Indian Christians are divided into various denominations and their antiquity too is varied. The main Christian denominations are Catholic (the largest), Orthodox (probably the second largest and the oldest), Protestant, Evangelical and Pentecostal groups and innumerous unorganized groups. It is believed that the St Thomas Christians have been around from the first century onwards. The first major foreign influence on Indian Christianity was the Catholic Portuguese in 1498. Later the British, predominantly Anglican or Protestant, started the Company (East India Company) rule in 1757. All these denominations are independent but are considered by most people as one unified faith. This reality has to be borne in mind while looking at Indian Christianity.

The contribution of Christians to nation-building cannot be ignored – be it the civil services, armed forces, industry, education, healthcare, media, sports or the entertainment industry. Barring certain insurgent groups there has never been any violent outfits among the Christians. True to the gospel of Christ they, as a community, have been law-abiding and peace-loving. Fundamentalist, right-wing groups of course have raised the bogey of the confusion called conversion. They allege that the motive behind the humanitarian work is conversion. The population figures of the community since independence prove that this exaggerated fear of forced conversions is ill founded. Christian population has remained almost static; had there been such large-scale “forced conversions”, their population would have skyrocketed. There is no scope in their agenda of hate for appreciation of the genuine work by the community and thus they question Christians’ nationalism on the basis of false presumptions.

As a community, Indian Christians have assimilated the ethos of their forefathers. A number of their customs and traditions associated with marriage ceremonies, food and sartorial habits are deeply rooted in Indian, nay Hindu, traditions. Many of us started our education by writing on rice grains and palm leaf, “Hari Shri Ganapataye Namaha”; when children from homes with strong Christian faith staged plays it was common to have a “Ranga Pooja”, invariably a “Ganesh Stuti”!

Christians have never felt under threat, not at least till the emergence of the forces of neo-nationalism of the so-called Hindutva elements, and still don’t feel under threat amid those who follow the Hindu religion – which is all-encompassing and tolerant. Even under severe signs of threat to their welfare in certain areas they have never given up their unflinching loyalty to the nation and their nationalism.

There are two instances of indigenous Christians revolting against Portuguese hegemony. The first one known as the Coonan Cross Oath or the Koonan Kurish Sathyam was taken by the St Thomas Christian community of Kerala. According to that oath taken on 3 January 1653 the ancient Kerala Christians resolved not to submit to the Portuguese dominance in ecclesiastical and secular life. The local Christians were brought under the Portuguese for 54 years and this was unacceptable to a large number of local Christians and hence the oath. The nationalist Malankara Syrian Christians thus re-established their independence.  Many church historians have described this as India’s first war of Independence! The second instance of revolt is the one by indigenous Christians, known as the Pinto Revolt, in Goa in 1787, when a few Catholic priests in Goa tried to question Portuguese supremacy. The revolt of course was crushed.

Christian women display crosses made of palm leaves

There are spiritual reasons and Biblical tenets that form the basis of the conduct of Indian Christians – law-abiding, always in the service of the nation, especially when calamities strike, and loyalty to their rulers. Christ had instructed his followers to love their enemies and if someone hit you on one cheek to show them the other cheek too. The Bible says that the body of a follower of Christ is the temple of God with an indwelling spirit. There is an instance in the life of Christ when he is asked about paying a toll or a tax. He instructed his disciple to pay tax saying, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s [Matthew 22:21, Augustus Caesar was the ruler then].” According to St Paul, the greatest exponent of the Gospel of Christ, “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God; the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever, therefore, resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God; and they that resist shall receive to themselves judgment [Romans 13: 1-2 ].” So no Christian worth his salt can evade tax or can be disloyal to his nation!

Regular prayers are offered in many churches for granting of God’s grace, wisdom and discernment to the President of India, Prime Minister, Chief Ministers and all other rulers responsible for governing the country. One wonders how many other communities do such a thing on a regular basis.   Christians believe that their character is produced by the Holy Spirit and not by their own effort. St Paul details the “fruits of the spirit” (Galatians 5: 22-23): “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness and self-control”. So, believing Christians alone are supposed to uphold such values. Gandhiji wrote on many of these universal values.

If the Christian community is involved in the service of humanity without considerations of caste, creed, religion or language, the reason for that is the gospel of love they have adopted. In healthcare, the services of the community is almost unparalleled. Their dedication and loving care are deeply rooted in their faith. Mother Teresa’s contributions in the service of the poorest, lowliest and the lost are hailed the world over. Some of the best educational institutions in the country are run by the community.

Unfortunately, there are tendencies to cast aspersions on the nationalism of Indian Christians. The fringe elements of the ruling dispensation, who spread an ideology of hate and prejudice, have been trying to portray the community’s humanitarian work as the driver of forced conversions. There may be black sheep in the community, but it is unfair to view the whole Christian community with suspicion. What is being done against the community is against the spirit of our Constitution and rides roughshod over the fundamental rights it guarantees.

The agenda of hate was articulated by the second chief of the RSS in his writings. He wrote that the Hindus alone were India’s privileged community. According to him, “hostile elements within the country pose a far greater menace to national security than aggressors from outside’’. He identified three major internal threats to the country, viz the Muslims, the Christians and the Communists! No wonder the ideological progeny of the Golwalkar, who incidentally comprise today’s ruling dispensation, indulge in the misadventures of the kind reported from Satna. The unfortunate trend has been that it is often the victims who are charged by the police and not the perpetrators of violence. If the media reports on 16 December 2017 about the Satna incident are to be believed, it was the Bajrang Dal members who attacked the carol group accusing them of being involved in forceful conversion, but  the police detained the priests and the seminarians! Later, both groups were named in the police complaint.

Now, how does the peace-loving and law-abiding Christian community react to such unconstitutional human rights violations? They are numerically miniscule and because of their faith, they cannot retaliate with violence. After Graham Staines and children were brutally burnt alive in Odisha, Mrs Staines said that she had forgiven the killers. The killer of a nun repented and after release from prison apologized to her parents – which is rare. Her tomb has an inscription pleading for forgiveness to the convicted! Concepts like love and forgiveness are not practical realities for people blinded by undemocratic visions for the country.

Religion and politics is a dangerous mix, however soft or hard it may be. The bane of Indian politics has been the religious, caste and communal polarization leading to vote-bank politics, intolerance and fundamentalism. Sadly, those who swear by religious tolerance and universal brotherhood are ridiculed and trolled in social media. Also, unfortunately, today, we do not have nationally accepted voices like that of Gandhiji to raise the voice of sanity. Gandhiji said that “religion is no test of nationality, but a personal matter between man and his God. In the sense of nationality they are Indians first and Indians last, no matter what religion they profess”[Harijan, 29 June 1947]. Indian Christians wholeheartedly accept that precept.

The Christian community and other minorities wish that some leader gave a reassuring statement like the following, allaying their fears:

“Hindustan belongs to all those who are born and bred here and who have no other country to look to … Free India will be no Hindu Raj, it will be Indian raj, based not on the majority of any religious sect … Religion is a personal matter which should have no place in politics [Harijan, 9 August 1942].”

 

The views expressed are personal and he does not represent any Christian organization.


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