Privilege and Resentment: Religious Conflict in India

By Vedantam, Vatsala | The Christian Century, April 14, 1999 | Go to article overview

Privilege and Resentment: Religious Conflict in India


Vedantam, Vatsala, The Christian Century


St. Stephen's College in New Delhi carries on its walls the Sanskrit prayer "Satyam Eva Jayate Na Anritham" (Truth alone triumphs supreme, not Untruth). Taken from one of the principal Upanishads (sacred texts) of Hinduism, it stands side by side with another prayer--one from the Gospel of St. John: "I am the light of the world; he who follows me shall not walk in darkness." The inscriptions are dated 1896. The college, founded by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel and now one of the three constituent colleges of Delhi University, also established studies in Sanskrit, the language of the sacred Hindu scriptures, under the stewardship of the Rev. Samuel Scott Allnutt.

A few months ago, 103 years after Allnutt's founding of the college, a Baptist missionary from Australia and his two young sons were brutally torched in a village 660 miles southeast of New Delhi. Graham Stuart Staines was in Baripada in the eastern state of Orissa to preach and do social work. Whereas Allnutt had dispensed education to the country's elite, Staines dispensed medication to poor leprosy patients. Both had a mission to fulfill. One completed a glorious career, the other met with an appalling end.

What could be the reason for this dramatic contrast in the fate of the two missionaries? According to some observers, the recent attacks on Christian evangelists in India are merely stray incidents--the handiwork of senseless terrorists--that could occur anywhere. Others suggest that a change in Christian evangelical strategies has provoked a Hindu backlash. Still others see this sudden religious collision, eagerly publicized by the media, as a sinister attempt by forces inside and outside the country to destabilize the government by making it appear a party to atrocities.

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), with its nationalist agenda, is generally recognized as unfriendly to Western interests. (Its recent assertion of nuclear strength is seen as an added threat.) As the political wing of powerful revivalist partibs dedicated to the concept of Hindutva (or Hinduness), it is also viewed as inimical to the cause of religious minorities. These factors may have influenced Western perceptions of what the Western media describe as "religious" clashes. However, communal clashes in India are not triggered by religious differences alone. They are rooted in deep resentments related to public policies. But more about that later.

The reality and seriousness of the recent violence cannot be denied. Five Baptist women were beaten by an angry mob in Allahabad on January 15, the holiest day in the Hindu calendar. Reason? Defying police orders, they were found distributing Christian literature to Hindu pilgrims who came to bathe at the confluence of India's three sacred rivers, called the Sangham.

In October, Father A. T. Thomas, a Jesuit priest, was kidnapped, tortured and beheaded in the northern state of Bihar. Motive for the ghastly murder? He had gone to court to intervene in land disputes between agricultural landlords and their workers.

A month earlier, Father Christudas, a teacher, was beaten and paraded naked on the streets in western Maharashtra. Why? He reportedly had committed sodomy on one of his own students, and neither the police nor the law courts would intervene.

Father A. Jeevendra Jadhav, another Catholic missionary in the same state, was attacked violently in his residence on February 14, but escaped death. He had launched a lawsuit to claim lands for the 1993 earthquake victims.

In Gujarat, a mob set fire to a Pentecostal prayer hall at Ahwa during Christmas week. Provocation? Christian zealots had earlier entered the temple of Hanuman in nearby Borkhet and desecrated the image of this god worshiped by millions.

And so the stories of unprecedented assaults on Christian missionaries mount up. The violence cannot be condoned--not even on the grounds that Hindus and their institutions also have been targets of similar outrages.

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