Fali Nariman, one of the country's leading legal lights, has been known to take a principled stand whenever there has been a violation of human rights. In keeping with this, he registered a protest against the attack on Christians in Gujarat by handing over the brief to argue the Narmada case poised at a critical stageback to the state government. It is not the first time he has done so. In 1975, he resigned as additional solicitor-general, protesting against the imposition of Emergency by Indira Gandhi. In an interview to Murali Krishnan, he explains why he felt the need to lodge a personal protest, and says he is apprehensive that this offensive against Christians could be symptomatic of a greater damage to society. Excerpts:
Why did you quit as counsel for the Gujarat government in the Narmada case, especially when the final hearing is scheduled for January 26?
I quit in anguish, it wasn't an act of heroics. It was not a sudden decision, I had thought it over for a period of time. When chief minister Keshubhai Patel called on me three months back, there was trouble already brewing and I informed him of those developments. I remember a Bible being burnt somewhere in the state and the chief minister promised to look into the incident. But then these sporadic incidents increased. Churches were being torched and they don't burn down on their own. Ultimately, what happened in that Christmas week convinced me that things had gone out of hand.
What do you think provoked these incidents?
The business of conversion being raised is stupid and disappointing. It is a reflection of what the government says it is doing for the minorities or a disadvantaged class not able to assert itself. When one community is not being protected, does that mean they cannot voice their insecurities? What needs to be done is to think how best to protect minorities, their lives and properties, not harass them in this fashion.
What do you make of this conversion theory?
India has been full of conversions, they have been carrying on for centuries. Right from 500 BC to 800 AD it was being carried out by Buddhists. But by a quirk of fate and preaching by Hindu religious leaders, like Adi Shankaracharaya, they converted back to Hinduism. This is a process which has been on for ages. I cannot understand this bogey being raised of forced conversions. During the so-called Muslim invasion, many who converted continued to be governed by Hindu laws of succession, though they may have been Muslims. Look at the Koradias in the Western Ghats. What is more relevant is that nothing stops them from re-converting.
Earlier, the bugbear of certain elements in the Sangh parivar used to be Muslims. Now it is the Christians.
Precisely. This is exactly what I told Keshubhai Patel and that is something which is worrying. I do not like what I am seeing and the situation could slide into anarchy, which is happening fast.
What did Keshubhai tell you? Did he hold out any assurances?
He told me that these incidents were being carried out by miscreants and had no pattern. So, I believed him... after all he is the chief minister of the state and he spoke convincingly. Subsequently, matters only got worse and obviously there is a design. I have made a point by my quitting but much more needs to be done to quell these acts. If I was the attorney general of the state, I would have quit.
Do you see a motive behind these attacks in several other states like Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Karnataka?
All I can say is that it is disturbing. Genuinely disturbing. For centuries we have harboured Christians in this country. St. Francis of Assisi died here as well as other important evangelicals. The Christian community has contributed immensely to Indian culture and it is a pity that these acts are being committed. Christians, Jews, Parsees and Muslims, who professed a religion of non-Indian origin, have become distinctively Indian in the course of a few generations. They have never ceased being Indian on account of a change of their faith. Everyone in India absorbs all cultures; these attacks really hurt.
What do you think needs to be done?
There should be a movement, not mere protests by individuals. Violence of this nature is distressing. I hate it and will not accept it. Threats like, Do this or else cause considerable worry.
Do you feel the Centre has not acted?
I honestly hope they take action promptly. It is high time something is done otherwise it will destroy the social fabric of Indian society. The Bajrang Dal may have its point of view. Very well... but it has to be resolved by dialogue. The Constitution guarantees the right for every individual to preach, profess and propagate any religion.
Do you feel enough has been done? Have any other groups or individuals raised their voice against the attacks?
I think so but I would like to see a bit more of reaction. And from these protests, I want people to act more responsibly. If they continue saying that conversions are bad they rub the minorities the wrong way. Don't you think so? I feel even more disturbed that it is happening in a state like Gujarat which is known to be more tolerant. I have had a deep association with the state and am disturbed that this madness continues.
Do you think minorities in this country are safe?
One has to make a bit of noise to make people watchful. These attacks are deplorable and very unpleasant. Right thinking people have to stand up and make their positions known. I honestly feel that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. If the Pope in Vatican was to make a statement on these attacks in India tomorrow, it will show us in a bad light. Protection of minorities is the hallmark of a civilised state, only totalitarian regimes are vindictive to minorities.
Are we then heading towards that (totalitarian state)?
No. India has the resilience to get over this. I would not like to point an accusing finger at the bjp but I hope they realise soon what is happening to society. It does not make for good politics. Let's take the legal system in this country. Till now, foreign observers have been sent to Malaysia, Pakistan and even Sri Lanka to comment on their trials. But that is not the case with India which has its own remedies.
But if unchecked, don't you feel that these attacks may develop into something more frightening?
Yes. But I hope that will never happen. I hope some sense will prevail. The missionary's job is to convert. In this context, they are giving succour and salvation. People are happy because they get education, food and support as well. What is wrong if a little amount of religion is also administered in the process, it is a sugar-coated pill and they are doing it willingly. One needs to be more tolerant and that is what India has always prided itself about.
From your reading of the situation, do you think the harassment of minorities is going to increase?
I sincerely hope it does not. There must be an end to these barbaric acts and it has to be dealt with swiftly. Why don't these perpetrators of violence read Nehru's Discovery of India which is most germane to what is happening. He (Nehru) rightly points out that those who professed a religion of non-Indian origin or, coming to India, settled down there, became distinctively Indian in the course of a few generations. And within its fold, the widest tolerance of beliefs and customs was practiced and every variety acknowledged and even encouraged.
Will you accept the brief again from the Gujarat government or even reconsider your decision if these attacks stop?
I will never go back and I will stick by my decision. I do not believe that anyone is indispensable. Sure, the case is poised at a critical stage where the Supreme Court will decide whether the project should go ahead or otherwise. It is going to be the final hearing of the case on January 26. But I returned the brief well in time as it was playing too heavily on my conscience. Though I hold the seniormost brief, there are other counsels such as Harish Salve and Anil Dewan who are equally competent to handle the case.