Mahatma Gandhi has a new job. Three years after he was appointed as the brand ambassador of the Swatchta Abhiyan of the government of India, he has now been deployed as the chief spokesman and mascot of the Jharkhand government anti-conversion drive.
The government of Jharkhand – and the BJP – crossed yet another rubicon when it published a full page advertisement in all the newspapers with a quote from Gandhi denouncing Christian missionaries for their act of conversion and proselytising among Adivasis and Dalits. The quotation, with a smiling Gandhi walking with a stick in his hand, is misleading and mischievous. It is erroneous and puts words in Gandhi’s mouth that are not his.
Let us see the advertisement first. It is published by the government of Jharkhand and carries the photograph of the chief minister. It is in Hindi and begins with the declaration, “An intiative to realise the dream of Bhagwan Birsa Munda and the late Kartik Uraon.”
The quotation attributed to Gandhi says,
“If Christian missionaries feel that only conversion to Christianity is the path to salvation, why don’t you start with me or Mahadev Desai? Why do you stress on conversion of the simple, illiterate, poor and forest-dwellers? These people can’t differentiate between Jesus and Mohammad and are not likely to understand your preachings. They are mute and simple, like cows. These simple, poor, Dalit and forest-dwellers, whom you make Christians, do so not for Jesus but for rice and their stomach.”
Let us leave Gandhi aside for a moment. Irrespective of what he said or felt, this government and the chief minister must withdraw the advertisement and apologise to the Christians of Jharkhand and India as it directly targets Christian religious institutions. This misuse of the state apparatus to attack a section of society is so brazen and blatant that it takes your breath away. Christians, including the missionaries among them, are legitimate citizens of this country and pay their taxes. This advertisement is funded by the state, which means that suspicion, malice and hatred against the Christians is being created using their own money. As if they are being made to dig their own grave.
It would have been perfectly in order for the advertisement to have been issued by the RSS or its affiliates because one knows their animosity towards Christians and Muslims. But the state, even when governed by the RSS’s political arm, the BJP, cannot do such a thing.
Secondly and more importantly, the state government is humiliating India’s Adivasis and Dalits by terming them as mute, ignorant and simpletons who have no mind of their own, even when it uses a figure like Gandhi to mouth its bias.
Gandhi as an individual is entitled to his view of the Adivasis and Dalits and would have to answer his critics and defend himself, but the state cannot hold, leave alone publicly display, such a paternalistic and patronising approach towards two sections of society who are otherwise deemed intelligent enough to elect their government. By endorsing Gandhi’s view in this matter, the BJP government of Jharkhand is demonstrating that it believes it is the guardian of the eternally ‘juvenile’ tribals and Dalits.
But first let us understand the immediate context of the advertisement. It comes in the wake of a recent move by the state government to enact a Bill criminalising conversion. And this move itself should also be seen as a tactic to deflect the popular anger against the government for making changes in the core principles of the Chota Nagpur Tenancy (CNT) Act and the Santhal Pargana Tenancy (SPT) Act. The church was with the people of Jharkhand in protesting the government’s move to dilute the rights of the tribals over their lands. Since then, it has been on the radar of the government and the BJP.
The affiliates of the RSS have also been active in driving a wedge between the Sarnas and the Christians. The Sarnas want a different religious code for themselves but the RSS, though different activities, is trying to pull them into the Hindu fold.
Invoking the names of Birsa Munda and Kartik Oraon is again to confuse the people of Jharkhand who are being made to believe by the state government that their dream was to stop the activities of Christian missionaries. It is quite the reverse and it would be interesting to see if the Jharkhand chief minister would be willing to publish the quote by Kartik Oraon himself who, in the book, Adivasi Hindu Nahi Hai (‘The Adivasis Are Not Hindu’) says,
“Let it be known, there is no space for Hindu gods and goddesses in the Adivasi community. Hindus believe in God whereas the Adivasis worship nature and follow the Naga culture.The High Court of Jabalpur has also said that Adivasis are not Hindus. Even then the Hindu missionaries insult them by calling them ‘Vanvasi Hindus.”
Obviously the BJP government would never like the people to read these words of Kartik Oraon. Similarly it would, given a chance, censor Gandhi – who castigates the Hindus who were involved in the “Shuddhi” campaign, an earlier avatar of the present ‘Ghar Vapasi’ to which the Jharkhand government would be sympathetic with.
What did Gandhi really say?
Now the quote. As stated above, it is a distorted version of Gandhi’s response to John R. Mott, an American evangelist, a prominent YMCA member and chairman of the International Missionary Council. Mahadev Desai recorded this conversation and wrote that it was taking place when the Tranvacore proclamation was being issued, which was on November 12, 1936 (Gandhi heritage portal, vol 64, pp 33-41).
Gandhi wrote to Amrit Kaur that he gave four hours to Mott on November 13 and 14, 1936. This is time when Gandhi was busy in his anti-untouchability campaign and temple entry drive of Harijans. Travancore was a major theatre of this battle. Ambedkar was one of the main actors. Word went outside that he was ready to offer 50 million people to those who were prepared to accept them. It was here that the question of Muslims, Sikhs and Christians entering the fray arose. They were vying with each other to attract the “untouchables” to their fold. Gandhi held the view that untouchability was not integral to Hinduism, that it was a vice which had entered its body and that it had to be cured of it to save itself.
It is interesting to read the conversation between the American evangelist and Gandhi, who as matter of principle is opposed to the idea of conversion:
Mott: “Removal of untouchability is the business of your lifetime. The importance of this movement lies beyond the frontiers of India, and yet there are few subjects on which there is more confusion of thought. …I am Chairman of the International Missionary Council which combines 300 missionary societies in the world.I have on my desk reports of these societies, and I can say that their interest in the untouchables is deepening. I should be interested if you would feel free to tell me where, if anywhere, the missionaries have gone along wrong lines. Their desire is to help and not to hinder.
Gandhi: “I cannot help saying that the activities of the missionaries in this connection have hurt me. They with the Mussalmans and the Sikhs came forward as soon as Dr. Ambedkar threw the bombshell, and they gave it an importance out of all proportion to the weight it carried, and then ensued a rivalry between these organisations. I could understand the Muslim organisations doing this, as Hindus and Muslims have been quarrelling. The Sikh intervention is an enigma. But the Christian mission claims to be a purely spiritual effort. It hurt me to find Christian bodies vying with the Muslims and Sikhs in trying to add to the numbers of their fold. It seemed to me an ugly performance and a travesty of religion. They even proceeded to enter into secret conclaves with Dr. Ambedkar. I should have understood and appreciated your prayers for the Harijans, but instead you made an appeal to those who had not even the mind and intelligence to understand what you talked; they have certainly not the intelligence to distinguish between Jesus and Mohammed and Nanak and so on.”
The conversation moves on:
Gandhi: The Ezhavas in Travancore want temple-entry. But it is no use your asking me whether they want temple-entry. Even if they do not want it, I must see that they enjoy the same rights as I enjoy, and so the reformers there are straining every nerve to open the temple doors.
Mott: But must we not serve them?
Gandhi. Of course you will, but not make conversion the price of your service.
Mott: I agree that we ought to serve them whether they become Christians or not. Christ offered no inducements. He offered service and sacrifice.
Gandhi: If Christians want to associate themselves with this reform movement they should do so without any idea of conversion.
Mott: Apart from this unseemly competition, should they not preach the Gospel with reference to its acceptance?
Gandhi: Would you, Dr. Mott, preach the Gospel to a cow? Well, some of the untouchables are worse than cows in understanding. I mean they can no more distinguish between the relative merits of Islam and Hinduism and Christianity than a cow. You can only preach through your life. The rose does not say: ‘Come and smell me.’
Mott: But Christ said: ‘Preach and Teach,’ and also that Faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God. There was a day when I was an unbeliever. Then J. E. K. Studd of Cambridge, a famous cricketer, visited my University on an evangelistic mission and cleared the air for me. His life and splendid example alone would not have answered my question and met my deepest need, but I listened to him and was converted. First and foremost we must live the life; but then by wise and sympathetic unfolding of essential truth we must shed light on processes and actions and attitudes, and remove intellectual difficulties so that it may lead us into the freedom which is freedom indeed. You do not want the Christians to withdraw tomorrow?
Gandhi: No. But I do not want you to come In the way of our work, if you cannot help us.
Mott: The whole Christian religion is the religion of sharing our life, and how can we share without supplementing our lives with words?
Gandhi: Then what they are doing in Travancore is correct? There may be a difference of degree in what you say and what they are doing, but there is no difference of quality. If you must share it with the Harijans, why don’t you share it with Thakkar bapa and Mahadev? Why should you go to the untouchabIes and try to exploit this upheaval? Why not come to us Instead?
It is this last piece which has been lifted and distorted from this long conversation. Gandhi, right from his beginning is fundamentally opposed to using service by the practitioners of any religion as a bait to lure people to its side. The temptation to add numbers to one’s lot is not healthy, he feels.
One would and should quarrel with Gandhi when he terms the ‘Harijans’ ignorant as cows who do not have the faculty of judgment. Here he goes against his own principles on the basis of which he sought to include the illiterate and the uneducated in the political decision making process.
One can see that there is no mention of Adivasis or ‘vanvasi’, as the BJP would call them anywhere in the discussion. So it is dishonest and even criminal of the Jharkhand government to have put this word in the mouth of Gandhi.
Gandhi, who would call himself a devotee of Jesus and Muhammad, finds the idea of swelling one’s ranks repelling. But he has no problem if people came to them on their own. It would then depend on the conscience of the missionaries whether they wanted to admit them or not.
The principle is sound. All religions have a truth of their own and each one of them is inadequate. Gandhi is very clear that his personal conviction cannot be made the law of the land. There are people who believe in sharing their lives by words and they have equal rights. They cannot be denied their right to propagate what they think is right unless it hurts others.
The Constituent Assembly debates
This is also the constitutional position. It would be interesting to look back to see how the makers of the Indian constitution dealt with this vexed issue. Krishnadas Rajagopal recalls the debate and writes, “…one has to start with the morning of December 6, 1948, at the Constitution Hall where the Constituent Assembly debated the inclusion of “right to propagate” as a Fundamental Right”:
Here, Lokanath Misra cautions the Assembly that “the cry of religion is a dangerous cry.” “It denominates, it divides, and encamps people to warring ways.”
“Today, religion in India serves no higher purpose than collecting ignorance, poverty and ambition under a banner that flies for fanaticism. The aim is political, for in the modern world all is power-politics and the inner man is lost in the dust,” he said.
Misra advised the Assembly that everybody should have the right to profess and practise their religion as they saw best, but not to “let him try swell his number to demand the spoils of political warfare.”
But Pandit Lakshmi Kanta Maitra disagreed that “propagation does not necessarily mean seeking converts by force of arms, by the sword, or by coercion.” He argued the Fundamental Right to propagate may probably work to remove the “misconceptions” in the minds of the people about other co-existing religions in this land of different faiths.
H.V. Kamath then rose to talk of the “real meaning” of the word “religion.” He pointed to how Dharma, in the most comprehensive sense, should be interpreted to mean the true values of religion and spirit. He pointed to how this young nation was moulding its Constitution in the background of a “war-torn, war-weary world.”
Kamath argued that even as no particular religion should receive State patronage, “we must be very careful to see that in this land of ours, we do not deny anybody the right not only to profess or practise but also to propagate any particular religion.”
“This glorious land of ours is nothing if it does not stand for the lofty religious and spiritual concepts and ideals. India would not be occupying any place of honour on this globe if she had not reached that spiritual height which she did in her glorious past,” he argued.
This debate resulted in the formulation of Article 25(1)of the constitution which says that “all persons”, not just Indians, are equally entitled to the freedom of conscience and the right to profess, practice and propagate religion freely.
It is obvious that the makers of the constitution did not allow the daunting greatness of Gandhi to obscure their vision.
Gandhi, had he been alive would also not have so insisted. He was a devotee of the cow but was very firm that the state cannot have a law against cow-slaughter. He never wanted the state to be constrained by his convictions. Behind this was his sincere belief that he himself was incomplete and did not know everything. He always kept himself open to being persuaded by others. He kept saying that he was a man of compromises.
It is therefore abhorrent that a man like Gandhi is being put to use by those whose creed is hate and not love. The arithmetic of electoral politics has made it possible for them to occupy the seat of power in Jharkhand. But they are not yet strong enough to allow them to change the basics of India’s national character. We would need all our resources to keep that constitutional vision alive. It is an eternal vigil in which nothing should be ignored. Making the government of Jharkhand accountable publishing this offensive, illegal advertisement is an urgent task for all of us.