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Business News/ Opinion / Jagdish Bhagwati | The false alarm over Christians in India

Jagdish Bhagwati | The false alarm over Christians in India

Alarmist views about Indian Christians being under threat are overplayed and must be forcefully exposed as such

Photo: Danish Siddiqui/Reuters Premium
Photo: Danish Siddiqui/Reuters

A recent opinion piece by Julio Ribeiro, the much-admired scourge of Khalistainis, complains plaintively that he is on “a hit list" today from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) because he is a Christian. Similar alarmist views on Christianity are common in India today, simply because of the election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the decimation of the Congress by the BJP. They are being spread by church leaders; for example Catholic Archbishop Anil Couto is reported to have even celebrated the defeat of BJP in the recent Delhi elections as if a calamity for Christians had been averted. But they are so ridiculous and libelous to the prime minister, and even the BJP generally, that they must be exposed forcefully as such.

Before I do that, let me establish my credentials concerning the issue at hand. I come from a family that is impressively pro-Indian-minorities. My wife, Padma Desai, has converted to Christianity (in a moving ceremony described by her in her memoirs, Breaking Out, published by Penguin/Viking in India and MIT Press in the US). Two of my nephews have married Christians: one is from Mumbai and is a multiple-award-winning psychiatrist practising in London and periodically in Mumbai, whereas the other is a Syrian Christian from Kerala. Another niece is married to a Parsi (who, of course, belongs to a still smaller, and equally beloved minority as Christians in India); and yet another almost married a Muslim young man. My only daughter’s significant other for years was a Christian and indeed an American-Indian on his mother’s side.

Abid Husain, my closest friend of over 40 years, whom I met in Turkey when we were both working there, was one of India’s most distinguished reformers and a pioneer in community development programmes. He was a Muslim and had married a brilliant Parsi intellectual. Indeed, the other equally close friend for over half a century has been former prime minister Manmohan Singh, a devout Sikh (yet another minority much loved in India except for the awfully heinous massacre, indeed a pogrom, of the Sikhs in Delhi by some Congress party men in 1984 after prime minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by two Sikh bodyguards).

Most of all, I went to St. Xavier’s High School in Bombay. I got excellent education there, and I expressed my sentimental bond with the school when I was chosen recently to receive the coveted Xavier Ratna award. On a lighter side, with discipline a high point, we used to joke how strict the school was because they even had a guy nailed to the wall.

So, if there was anything to the Christian fears today, I should be the first to join the protests. But the truth is that these fears are totally groundless and are, at best, a product of a fevered imagination.

First, we now know from the admirable investigative report in Firstpost (Crying Wolf: The Narrative of the ‘Delhi church attacks’ flies in the face of facts, 17 February) by Rupa Subramanya that there is simply no evidence for the six alleged attacks on Christian churches and one Christian school. This turns out to be a case of the “monkey say, monkey repeat" phenomenon that converts false allegation into a fact.

Second, Ribeiro resents the remark of Mohan Bhagwat of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh that Mother Teresa was interested in conversions to Christianity, not just in the welfare (as distinct from the spiritual salvation) of her flock. But surely, Christians do believe in conversion, as do Muslims; does Ribeiro deny that? Again, what is sauce for the goose must be sauce for the gander. If Christians can convert non-Christians to their faith, what is wrong with Hindus doing the same? In fact, being a religion that does not normally convert, only a minuscule number of Hindus will do this whereas a far higher proportion of Christians and Muslims will.

Moreover, Ribeiro is offended that Mother Teresa is not respected as a saint by Bhagwat. But he is clearly ignorant of the fact that Mother Teresa may have won the Nobel Peace Prize but many doubt her bona fides, including the late Christopher Hitchens whose scathing critique of her was not the only dissenting voice on her, as recently recounted by the Washington Post reporter Adam Taylor (Why, to many critics, Mother Teresa is still no saint, 25 February). Since Hitchens followed this with a scathing attack on Hillary Clinton (an icon mostly to herself), I must confess that when he was coming out of a television debate on Hillary Clinton and I was going in to do a debate of my own, I could not resist telling him: Christopher, you did not say that Hillary Clinton was no Mother Teresa.

Ribeiro, the Archbishop and other Christians also forget that Sonia Gandhi is a Roman Catholic. To my knowledge, many have objected to her leading the country because she was born abroad (much as Americans disbar foreign-born citizens from becoming the president), but hardly anyone, in BJP or elsewhere, has objected to her because she was a Christian.

US President Barack Obama’s speech in India where he talked of Mohandas Gandhi’s legacy of respect for all religions has been self-servingly appropriated by anti-BJP and anti-Modi critics (such as my former Columbia University student Siddharth Varadarajan) as a chastisement of their alleged communalism. But this interpretation is absurd since the president clearly had in mind the difficulties that the US itself is having with such issues. In fact, on returning to the US, he proceeded to tell Americans that Christianity itself had been guilty of serious lapses over many centuries.

Ribeiro and the Archbishop are good men who have allowed themselves to be dragged into politics that plays on fear and partisanship. I only hope that they will join those of us who would like to see religious harmony, not the religious discord that can only subtract from our humanity.

Jagdish Bhagwati is University Professor (economics, law and international affairs) at Columbia University.

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Published: 29 Mar 2015, 06:38 PM IST
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