India and superficial religious tolerance

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Yesterday was Gandhi Jeyanthi, the day Gandhiji was born. He is known as Mahatma Gandhi, and this great man’s name is synonymous with ‘nonviolence’. Not just him, but his state of Gujarat itself was known for nonviolence. That is until the Sabarmati Express was set on fire at the Godhra Railway Station, following an altercation between some local muslims and the karsevaks in the train. Fifty eight lives were lost in that incident.

If this carnage was tragic, what followed was a horrendous affront against the Muslim community who were hunted down with unbelievable hatred–pregnant women were cut open, women raped, and families killed. The nation was shaken, not just because of the violence but because it seemed to have been supported by the state, headed by Chief Minister Narendra Modi.

To her credit, India’s thinking people were horrified by the shame of it all.

As a part of the minority Christian community, I also sensed something far more evil and sinister in the air. Modi brought a controversial bill, known as the Anti-conversion bill, into force in Gujarat. Several other Indian states followed suit, including my state of Tamil Nadu under the leadership of Chief Minister Jayalalithaa. According to this law, conversion was illegal. If any one wanted to change one’s religion, they could do so by going to a District Magistrate and explaining one’s reasons. Ambiguous wording left the door wide open for gross misuse and persecution.

I was shocked that my home state that boasts of so many highly educated people could stoop to this. But what was even more unbelievable was the fact that only the minority communities were agitated about the bill. The bill excited people, but the outcome mattered little to most.

Two factors caused people to even feel that the bill was legitimate:

  • Rice Christians: Many who were locked into “low castes” converted to other non-Hindu religions to escape their caste. Many middlemen, especially among the so-called Christians, cashed into this trend and projected themselves as Evangelists, attracted poor people with money, sarees, food, and other benefits, formed churches and organisations, showed photographs of the crowds to Western Christians and made much wealth for themselves. The poor who converted in this way were sometimes called rice Christians.
  • Ignorance about exclusive faiths: It is difficult for Hindus to understand what drives true Christians to share their faith with others. Hindus are very tolerant of other faiths and would gladly participate in religious festivals of other religions. They simply do not understand or appreciate the exclusivity of religions like Christianity, Islam, or Judaism.

It was hard to keep quiet about this bill, and I found myself discussing it with my friends. One kind person said, “But you Christians are lucky, you can go back to your country if things get too hard for you. For us, we only have one country.” I was astonished and asked him what my other country was, for he certainly was not referring to the heavenly kingdom. Apparently, the person thought Indian Christians could walk into the US or other Western countries without a visa. I tried to explain that I was an Indian, and had no other country to go to and that the same Indian blood that flowed through his veins flowed through mine as well.

Thankfully after some years, the nasty bill was annulled in Tamil Nadu. This bill hangs like a sword over many in other parts of the country. But in that span of time, when the bill was in force in Tamil Nadu, one got a sense of how much misunderstanding and even hate lay just below the surface. I feel that something like the Godhra incident in Gujarat, if strong enough, could trigger pograms against the minority communities across the country.

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