December 13, 2019
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Flight Of Imagination, Professor Saab?

An open letter to Jagdish Bhagwati

Flight Of Imagination, Professor Saab?
Flight Of Imagination, Professor Saab?

Christians in India are suffering from a persecution complex, their fears are ‘totally groundless’ and ‘product of a fevered imagination’, believes economist Jagdish Bhagwati, who wrote a piece in Mint to this effect. He reiterated the point on Monday evening while talking to Barkha Dutt on NDTV, defending ‘Ghar Wapsi’ programme of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. If Christians can convert, he argued, so can Hindus. So, what’s the fuss?

In a delicious irony Prof Bhagwati believes he has impeccable credentials to laugh at the ‘paranoia’ felt by Christians in this country because his own wife, economist Padma Desai, converted to Christianity. There are others in his family who have married Christians, he wrote, and since they never apparently felt any fear of persecution, he is convinced that the fears are exaggerated, politically motivated and driven by the Congress. How does one even begin to react to this reasoning?

Should one begin by informing him that the Constitution allows religious groups to preach, propagate and run institutions? That ‘conversion’ is both legal and can take place without coercion as in the case of his wife or in the case of music director A.R. Rahman or the son of composer Ilaiyaraja. That well-to-do Christians, like well-to-do Muslims, are unlikely to face persecution or discrimination. That he has very little or no knowledge of the persecution of Christians in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and other states. That Christians have been killed, their entry banned into some villages, rations denied to them in other places and some of them intimidated and ‘coerced’ into returning to the fold of Sanatan Dharma. That destruction of churches in remote areas and attacks on Christian priests are reported in the media with monotonous regularity.

Prof Bhagwati is of course not alone in his cocoon. There are others with not the slightest exposure or experience of the ground, who hold similar beliefs (see here and here).

Why, even a Chief Justice of India, who is now the Governor of a southern state, let off Bajrang Dal ‘leader’ Dara Singh, who had self-confessedly led the mob that burnt Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two minor sons while they were asleep. While Dara Singh is hailed as a hero and role model by the Bajrang Dal, the judge initially said in his judgment while waiving his death sentence that the killing was designed as a lesson to Staines ‘about his religious activities’. It is another matter that the Supreme Court itself expunged the horrifying sentences a few days later.

Even as Prof Bhagwati was ridiculing Julio Ribeiro for his anguished newspaper article in which he wrote that at the age of 86 he suddenly feels like an alien in his own country and vulnerable, the Chief Justice of India was defending his action in calling for a conference of high court Chief Justices on April 3 which happens to be Good Friday, the day Christians mourn the crucifixion of Jesus. Many of us would love to hail the new work ethic under which the Government under Narendra Modi calls for observing December 25 as the ‘Good Governance Day’, necessitating some ministries to remain open. And the CJI’s intention to ensure that the conference of the chief justices on April 3, 2015 – Good Friday -- does not disturb routine work in the high courts.

Prof Bhagwati and CJI Dattu can argue quite convincingly that Christmas and Good Friday were chosen because very few public servants or high court chief justices are Christians. And the solitary High Court Chief Justice who does happen to be Christian has not protested. But such arguments are specious precisely because they lack a degree of sensitivity. Shouldn’t the majority community sacrifice as much or a lot more in fact to uphold the new work culture? Would it not be far more dramatic and effective to work and hold such conferences on Diwali, Holi or Karwa Chauth?

True, these are arguments for argument’s sake. But what is imaginary about VHP leaders saying that there is no space for Muslims and Christians in this country? When RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat defends ‘Ghar Wapsi’ by saying that he is entitled to take back his ‘maal’ from the thieves, whose imagination is working overtime?

Prof Bhagwati reminded me of Dileep Singh Judeo. The former union minister and BJP Member of Parliament from Bilaspur, who was in 2003 caught accepting wads of currency notes and extolling the power of money in a sting operation. He had studied in St Xavier’s College, Ranchi. Not unlike Prof Bhagwati who went to St Xavier’s, Bombay. And yet it was Judeo who in the 1970s spearheaded the ‘Ghar Wapsi’ programme of the VHP and the campaign against Christian missionaries. Even then they were sporadic and symbolic, designed more for publicity than anything else.

In 1977 one recalls Nanaji Deshmukh exhorting ‘Hindu missionaries’ to emulate Christian missionaries. Reach out to the poor, help them get education, health and livelihood, he said. The RSS as a consequence has today a network of Ekal Vidyalayas (single-teacher schools) and Saraswati Shishu Mandirs for the poor and the tribals; as well as a more thinly disguised ‘Hindu’ network of DAV schools to counter the supposed influence of Christian missionaries. Are Vanvasi Kalyan Kendras and ashrams, funded generously by BJP governments, any different from Christian missionary schools? Are they as good or as ‘secular’?

The good Professor has been indoctrinated into believing that Christians are somehow close to the Congress because of Sonia Gandhi being a Catholic. He needs to be reminded that attacks on Christians started at least as early as the sixties when the Congress was all over the place. It was the Congress Government which not just deported several Christian missionaries from the country but effectively put a ban on foreign missionaries arriving here to ‘educate’ Indians! And if Prime Ministers like Jawaharlal Nehru or Indira Gandhi called on Archbishops and if the Bishops exhorted the flock to choose the Congress as a lesser evil, religion was possibly the least of the motivating factors.

Christians truly have not faced the kind of persecution that Muslims have been subjected to. But that is small consolation in a country where the police, like politicians, are unable to trace people who have burnt and attacked churches, and who describe these attacks as ‘routine crime’ simply because ‘thefts’ have been reported from many more Hindu temples!

Hindus and Sikhs are increasingly facing the brunt of racial attacks and discrimination in the land of opportunities where Professor Bhagwati spent much of his working life. He would or at least should have been aware of the fear and outrage among the people of Indian origin in the United States, where they are busy convincing the White radicals that they have nothing to do with radical Islam. That is why it is doubly disappointing that an academic of Professor Bhagwati’s eminence fails to empathise with the fears of a microscopic minority and instead ridicules and insults them.

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