July 05, 2020
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The Cross And The Trident

The arrest of two missionaries draws attention to the politics of conversion in Madhya Pradesh

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The Cross And The Trident
A palpable air of gloom marked Saturday mass at the Catholic church in Ambikapur, the headquarters of Madhya Pradesh's tribal-dominated Surguja district,on February 3. A few days earlier, a local court had sentenced a Jesuit priest, Father Louis Berger and an Ursuline nun, Sister Ekka Vridhhi to six months rigorous imprisonment. Both have since obtained bail and gone in appeal. Their crime: failing to inform the Surguja district magistrate that they had converted 94 tribals of Maheshpur village to Christianity in 1988.

In stark contrast to the gloom at the mission, workers at the local BJP office gleefully waved copies of the court order. While the order clearly stated that the tribals had voluntarily embraced Christianity and thatFather Berger, 88, and Sister Vridhhi, 51, were guilty only of a technical violation, the Sangh Parivar saw it as a vindication of its militant stand against conversions by Christian missionaries.

In the forested hills of Surguja, the question of religion has overtaken the problems of illiteracy, acute poverty and lack of development. The BJP, through the Akhil Bharatiya Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram (VKA), has launched a virulent campaign against the Catholic missions in Surguja and Rai-garh districts, which have operated peacefully for well over half a century. Clouds of communal tension are gathering over this remote corner of Madhya Pradesh, as the BJP targets the Catholic clergy in an effort to establish control over the tribals, one-third of whom are Christian.

The BJP campaign is spearheaded by Rajya Sabha MP Dalip Singh Judev, erstwhile'Raja' of Jashpur, in the north-eastern part of Raigarh district. The Jashpur-based VKA has presented the Church with a five-point charter of demands: a complete halt on conversions, a ban on beef, adoption of national policies like family planning, peaceful co-existence with Hindus in Christian-dominated areas and no political activity whatsoever.

That the first two demands constitute a violation of fundamental rights is of little consequence to Judev, who projects himself as a Hindu tribal leader. If the missionaries do not toe the line, he declares: "Gala kaat kar Hanuman mandir mein chadha denge (We will cut off their heads and offer them to Hanuman)."

 The BJP-inspired militancy was all too evident in October last year, when a Christian youth, John Kerketta, was murdered by a mob protesting damage to aShiva temple in the Latbora village of Raigarh district. The Christian community reacted with a silent, peaceful march. Since then, the atmosphere in Raigarh has been vitiated. "We live in fear," declares Father William Topno, of the Catholic mission at Pathalgaon, near Latbora.

Thus, the order against Father Berger and Sister Vridhhi comes at an unfortunate time, when the Christian community is already under siege. "I am not a missionary, I am a social worker," says the octogenarian priest, who came to India from Belgium in 1928 and is now a citizen. The church runs schools and hospitals and at one time, even ran banks to provide the tribals with much-needed financing.

The district administration is deeply appreciative of the church's efforts to provide education and health-care to the trib-als. "The missions were working here at a time when the state was barely aware of the tribals' existence. They worked under very difficult conditions, with no infrastructure," points out a senior official.

The church complements the state government's drive to improve literacy, which stands at an abysmal 18 per cent among the tribals and is practically nil in some pockets. That the quality of education provided by the Church is far superior to the state's is evident from the fact that its detractors line up to admit their own children to mission schools.

Judev charges the church with luring tribals into its fold with the promise of access to health care and education. But Judev, a product of Jesuit schooling himself, is well aware that the schools and hospitals are open to all. His allegations have cut no ice with the villagers. Father Berger,Who was parish priest of Junagadi (under which Maheshpur falls), and Sister Vridhhi, who was superior of the local convent school, enjoy tremendous affection among the villagers.

Cries of "Jai Jesu" greet visitors to Maheshpur. The village is nine-tenths Christian and a mud hut serves as a church. Prakash Gautia, a farmer, says: "The sisters and priests have educated us on how to live in a proper fashion. Today, we even have some graduates in the village. Most of us have been Christians for years. Those who have converted were brought up in a Christian atmosphere and even used to pray with us. They have converted in the sense they have only now been baptised." According to Ramdeo, a recent convert, education and good advice from the parish priest have helped the villages prosper.

The 'Raja' has become something of a bogeyman for the villagers. "Dalip Singh wants us to give up our religion," said Gautia, referring to the BJP leader's intensive "reconversion" drive. Gautia points to the pictures of various Hindu gods in his hut: "My doors are open to all religions, but I am free to worship Christ. Is that not Mahatma Gandhi's law?"

 Martha, sarpanch of the village, says the case against the missionaries is politicallymotivated. Sister Vridhhi feels it was concocted when she protested against "misbe-haviour by some road contractors with the village women". While the chargesheet makes no mention of any complainant, Judev freely admits that he was behind it.

Lawyer Silvanus Lakhda, who defended the priest and the nun, has handled 40 similar cases—most of them filed when the BJP government was in power—and is stunned at the conviction order. That harassment was involved is clear in that Father Berger was summoned to court 25 times and made to stand for hours. "Even though he is in good health, it was a big strain. His legs would give way and he would collpase on the floor," says Sister Vridhhi.

THE politics behind the BJP's assault on the church is easily understood, observes Lakhda. By educating tribals andgiving them access to government jobs, the church has loosened the stranglehold of the upper castes, which in turn feels threatened. In such a situation, the anti-Christian, Hindutva plank helps garner votes for the BJP.

Judev's tirade against the Christians of Raigarh and Surguja is much in the same vein as Sadhvi Rithambara's haranguing of the Muslims. They are characterised as anti-national "agents of foreign powers" and the Congress government in the state is accused of following a policy of appeasement. The Niyogi or 'Christian Missionary Activities Inquiry Committee' report of 1957 has become something of a bible for the VKA activists. Indeed, the VKA was set up in response to the alarmist report, which charged the Church with aggressive proselytising and running a "state within a state".

While the Christians are a substantial minority, their vote has always been divided. "Our people are educated in many ways, but not politically," says Father Topno. And the BJP's strategy has paid off. In the last assembly poll, it won all three seats in the Jashpur area.

Once in a while, large-scale "reconversion" programmes are held by the VKA, in which tribals are welcomed back to the Hindu fold. Judev presides, washing the feet of each "convert" with ganga jal.

Ironically, the conversions to Christianity have all but ceased, thanks largely to the socio-economic development in the region. A district offical of Surguja explains: "The tribals were attracted to Christianity for several reasons. First was the fact that the missionaries lived with them, sharing their joys and sorrows. They cared for the sick, including the ostracised lepers, thus making a powerful impression on the tribals. Also, access to education and aid in cash and kind was easier if one became a Christian. The missions are still there, but the state now has a large presence. The loans once made by the church are now made by the government. There are government schools and dispensaries."

Father Berger's troubles are just beginning—the VKA plans to take him to court for allegedly purchasing tribal land in Batauli village (an offence under the state law). So are those of the Christian community, as Judev's speeches become more strident, the demands more outrageous. "It seems he can do anything he wants," says Father Leo de Jaegher of Pathalgaon. For the missionaries of Surguja, the trial of faith is about to begin.

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