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Lancy LoboFebruary 19, 2000
Elizabeth Antony, a Catholic fish vendor, cuts fish on a roadside in Thiruvananthapuram, India Dec. 14. (CNS photo/Anto Akkara)

There are one billion people in India, the second most populous country in the world. This means every sixth person in the world is an Indian. About 450 million Indians live below the poverty line. Suppression of religious minorities and its nuclear blasts have made India visible to the world. One of the messages that India sent to the world was that it needs to be reckoned with. The Hindu nationalist leadership on the whole sent this message. While each country needs dignity before others, many ask why such a poverty-ridden country should invest massive amounts in nuclear devices and why it persecutes a Christian religious minority that has made bold attempts to empower the poor of India.

Religious Landscape in India

Of the one billion people in India, 85 percent are Hindus, 10 percent Muslims, and 2.5 percent Christians. The rest belong to other religious minorities: Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, Parsees and other groups. Though the decennial census classifies 85 percent as Hindus, there is no positive definition of what Hinduism is. Negatively, whoever does not belong to any of the other religious minorities is taken to be a Hindu. British discourse shaped the terminology used in reference to Hinduism. The British in India began by asking the Indians: "Our religion is called Christianity, what is yours?" It was then decided to call India’s religion Hinduism. The British asked, "We have the Bible as our scripture, what is your scripture?" It was decided to consider the Vedas, the Upanishads, etc. as the scriptures of Hinduism. Further the British asked, "We have religious heads like the pope and the bishops, but who are Hinduism’s heads?" They declared the Shankaracharyas as their pontiffs. The West initially tried to understand the religions in India in its own terms and categories.

But in truth many religions are grouped together under the title of Hinduism. First of all, there are the religions of autochthonous (indigenous or tribal) people, and second, there are the religions of Aryan invaders known as Hindus (living on banks of the Indus River). The latter had two main divisionsShaivism and Vaishnavism. Later came the protest religions, Buddhism and Jainism, criticizing the religion of the Aryan or Brahminic Hindus. In the medieval period came the Bhakti movements, through which the lower castes sought equality with the upper caste Hindus. Then came Sikhism, blending both Hindu and Muslim religious elements. As a result of the British colonial rule, reformist movements like Brahmo, Prarathana and Aryasamaj sought to reform Hinduism from within. Today Hindu nationalists prefer to classify Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism as insider religions to India and Islam and Christianity as outsider religions, even though Christianity has existed in India for 2000 years.

Two Traditions Within Hinduism

One useful approach to finding one’s direction within Hinduism is to see it as composed of two traditions: the Great Tradition and the Little Tradition. The Great Tradition consists of the higher forms of Hinduism, also known as Sanskritic or Brahmin Hinduism. This encompasses the hegemonic classical philosophy, rituals, dance, music and art of the upper castes (middle and upper classes) or the elite of Hindu society, who compose about 20 percent of Hindus. The Little Tradition consists of the lower forms of Hinduism, also known as non-Sanskritic or non-Brahminic. This encompasses the rites, folk wisdom, folk dance, music and art that have become the cultural heritage of the lower castes (the lower classes) or the masses, who consist of 80 percent of all Hindus.

It is important to understand the existence of two categories of elite within the Great Tradition. According to Schermerhorn, the first is known as the "parochial neo-traditionalists" and the second the "conditionally Westernized." The parochial neo-traditionalists "had their education primarily in the vernacular. They are more attracted to local or regional than to Western culture. Males prefer Indian to Western garb. Vegetarianism retains a strong hold on dietary habits, while caste restrictions and practices remain potent in the home, no matter how often they are violated in public. Most members in this category have a strong susceptibility to patriotic appeals couched in Hindu slogans, and they tend to share the suspicion that Muslims and Christians lack commitment to the nation. They usually ignore members of the lower castes and/or untouchables as much as possible unless the upper level politicians make a temporary display of favoritism towards them."

The "conditionally Westernized" have the opposite characteristics: "Educated almost universally in English medium if not public schools, the members are fluent in the English language; they prefer Western to regional culture. People in this category consume meat and alcohol without a qualm, though in other respects they maintain an all Indian diet. Nearly all are secular minded. For the most part, patriotic appeals touch them only lightly except during national conflicts. They are convinced secularists in politics and have no difficulty in regarding Muslims and Christians as loyal patriots." The "parochial neo-traditionalists" and "conditionally Westernized" are 80:20 percent of the total elite or those belonging to the Great Tradition of Hinduism.

Hinduism and Hindu Social Order

Hinduism and the Hindu social order (caste system) are two sides of a coin. One cannot be understood without the other. One cannot exist without the other. The caste system is similar to the racial society in many ways. One is born into a caste group. A caste (endogamous) group is ranked high or low according to its purity or impurity and is always linked to a traditional occupation. These caste groups are ranked in a hierarchical order like the rungs of a ladder. The higher the caste, the greater its social status, wealth, power and privileges. The lower the caste, the lesser its status, wealth, power and privileges. Hindu theological concepts like dharma, karma and sanskara lend legitimacy to the privileges as well as the deprivations. For instance, karma means, "as you sow, so shall you reap." You are born into a caste because of the actions in your previous life. Dharma calls upon an individual to fulfill the proper obligations of one’s caste (division of labor) assigned to it by the code of Manu (the lawgiver). Sanskara are caste-specific performances of sacraments and rituals.

The lower castes in Hinduism perpetually suffered economic, social, political and religious deprivations. They were largely laborers, who had to give free services to the upper castes by working in their fields and doing demeaning jobs. They had to live in a segregated part of the village. They could not be touched lest they pollute the upper castes. The Brahmins did not serve them, so they had to create their own priestly castes. The upper castes were literate intellectuals, and the caste system they created gave them a foolproof social security and welfare. Religion and the social order were so intertwined that most of those who belonged to the Little Tradition were the illiterate, laboring masses who make up 80 percent of the Hindus. These rebelled, protested and asserted their rights from time to time, largely through religious movements. Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism and the Bhakti movement exemplify such movements within Hinduism that sought equality from within.

Paradoxically, what they got was spiritual but not socio-economic equality. Many lower castes opted out of Hinduism and joined Islam and Christianity in order to overcome indignities and deprivations through a new identity that would give them equality. Normatively, both Christianity and Islam preached an egalitarian social order. The British colonial period brought about a lot of social consciousness among the lower castes. Large numbers of them converted to Christianity, setting off alarms among the upper-caste Hindus. If many from the lower castes deserted the Hindu social order, who would provide cheap labor to the upper castes? Reactionary movements like Arya Samaj began to reconvert the low-caste Christian converts through shuddikaran (purification).

Struggle for Empowering the Poor

The struggle for freedom led by Mahatma Ghandi managed to throw out the British colonial power. The architect of India’s constitution, Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, an untouchable himself, managed to put in generous clauses of affirmative action (reservation or protective discrimination) for the lower castes. The egalitarian ethos of the secular, liberal and democratic constitution was another blow to the hierarchical Hindu social order. "One man, one vote" flattened the merit system of caste. A Brahmin’s vote and an untouchable’s vote were of equal value. For the lower castes education opened new windows for upward mobility. Affirmative action too had some beneficial impact on the lower castes. All this meant loss of power, loss of opportunities for employment and loss of status for the upper castes. This was seen as undermining the traditional Hindu social order. The upper castes were being sidelined. The vertical social structure (caste ladder) was being brought down to a horizontal level. No longer was it going to be one group placed on top of another, but groups placed side by side on the same level.

The role of the church is significant in the above-mentioned context. The educational, health and awareness-raising activities of the church have helped the lower castes in many ways to assert, protest and defy the upper castes, and to become upwardly mobile, thereby escaping the humiliation, indignities and exploitation suffered in the past. As droves of people from the lower castes took conversion to Christianity as an escape route, the upper-caste Hindus were alarmed. This is not to say that traits of caste do not exist in the Indian church.

The church was also serving the upper castes through its educational institutions, and by and large this service gave rise to the "conditionally Westernized" elite class mentioned earlier. The church had in a way appeased the upper castes to allow it to work among the lower castes. But the "parochial neo-traditionalists" mentioned earlier gave rise to Hindu nationalism. The Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh (national voluntary corps, known as R.S.S.) was the fountainhead of Hindu nationalism during independence, and it was a man linked to the R.S.S. who shot and killed Mahatma Gandhi for having permitted the division of India into India and Pakistan. This organization was banned but later allowed to rise again. In post-independent India it has been implicated by different inquiry commissions appointed by the government in a number of Hindu-Muslim riots in different parts of the country.

Fury of Hindu Nationalism

In 1982 a federal government dominated by the middle order castes or other Backward Castes (O.B.C.’s) appointed a commission to consider extending affirmative action to a few more disadvantaged communities and castes. This further angered the "parochial neo-traditionalists," as if it were going to eat into their share of the cake. This was the turning point in the relations between the upper castes and the O.B.C.’s. The upper castes declared war on the O.B.C.’s within the Hindu fold.

Hindu nationalism upheld one religion, one culture and one nation. Being numerically small, the upper castes needed mass support or lower-caste support to come to power in the "one man, one vote" system. In order to regain political supremacy, they played the religious card to mobilize the masses. On the one hand, they tried to homogenize the differences within Hinduism, and on the other, they declared war against Muslims and Christians. The latter were defined as the "other," enemy, outsiders, unpatriotic and were to be eliminated in order to realize the golden age of Hinduism in India. Besides the R.S.S., multiple other organizations came into being, such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (V.H.P.), the Bajrang Dal (B.D.), the Hindu Jagran Manch (H.J.M.) and others, under the umbrella of the Sangh Parivar with the Bharatiya Janata Party (B.J.P.) as its political organ. They all proclaimed that Hinduism was in danger. Accordingly, the birthplace of Ram in the city of Ayobhya in the northeast state of Ultar Pradesh had to be liberated from the Muslims, who had built a mosque over it hundreds of years ago.

In 1992 the demolition of the mosque known as Babri Masjib was preceded by rath yatras (car processions) made by the Hindu nationalist leaders across the country to mobilize the masses, which led to the death of scores of Muslims in the ensuing riots. More riots followed the demolition of the mosque itself. In Bombay alone rioting took the lives of 900 Muslims. But the general elections in 1994 saw the results of religion-based political mobilization. The Hindu nationalists captured the highest number of seats they had ever won in the parliament. It was almost as if the party rode in on the dead bodies of Muslims. But mobilization based on stirring emotions, particularly hatred, does not last long. The Hindu nationalists had to identify newer issues to stir up the emotions of the Hindu masses to keep them together and cultivate their vote bank.

In 1997 the Hindu nationalists turned the heat up on Christians in India, particularly in Gujarat State, where nationalists were in power. There were only 50 cases of registered atrocities against Christians during the first 48 years of independence. But between 1997 and 1998 there were 500 cases, a geometrical rise during two years. Christian missionary personnel were accused of converting tribals (indigenous people) and the lower castes by force or fraud, though no cases of this were cited to substantiate the allegation. Christian churches were desecrated or burnt, sacred festivals were disrupted, Bibles were torn and trampled upon, and priests and nuns were killed or raped. Most recently, in my home state of Gujarat, the nationalists disrupted Christmas midnight Masses by holding rallies outside Catholic churches.

These atrocities are taking place mostly in tribal areas, where Hindu nationalists have publicly declared war on Christian missions. Their strategy is to use the existing ritual differences among the Christian and non-Christian tribals to divide them further and pit one against the other. The one-sided vernacular press is making it look as if the non-Christian tribals are fighting the tribal Christians and missionaries for ruining their culture.

The Hindu nationalists focused upon the tribal regions (indigenous people) not so much because of conversions among them to Christianity but because the tribals were awakening to their plight. They were increasingly deprived of their life-supporting resourcesforests, land and waterby the "developmental" policies of the state. Large dams displaced thousands of tribals. Tribals could not cut trees even for fuel. Their land was acquired by the state for industrial plants. Non-tribals also were encroaching on their resources. The educational, health or developmental activities of missionaries raised the awareness of the tribals. Hindu nationalists struck upon the strategy of actively Hinduizing the tribals and making missionaries the scapegoats. They did this first to pre-empt or check the self-assertion of the tribals and, second, to cultivate a vote bank among the poor tribals.

Real Agenda

The Hindu nationalists targeted minorities like the Muslims and the Christians, who historically belonged to the lower castes, and tribals, who composed the lower strata of Indian society. It was a war on the lower strata, their upward mobility and on the democratic constitution, which upheld equality for all citizens irrespective of creed, code and cult. Hindu nationalists on the one hand gloried in the fact that Hinduism was tolerant, and on the other fomented, provoked and indulged in arson and atrocities, all in the name of producing a proud and glorious Hindu India. The atomic blast has been glorified. The bodies of dead Indian soldiers who died in the recent Kargil conflict in Kashmir have been used to whip up Hindu nationalistic hysteria among the masses before the recent elections. Indian history is being rewritten from the Hindu nationalist's perspective. School textbooks are being produced with an anti-minority bias. Muslims and Christians are finding it increasingly difficult to get employment in the public sector. They have little option except to eke out a living in the unorganized sector or migrate to the Middle East.

Hindu nationalism's hidden but real agenda is to wage war against the lower strata of Indian society and against anyone who empowers them. The Christian missions-while acknowledging the presence of an insignificant number of quixotic, aggressive salvation- and Bible-peddlers and street preachers-have largely done empowering work among the lower strata. This empowerment deals with social transformation, redistribution of power and human rights; it seeks to secure basic needs, economic security, capacity building, skill formation and conditions of dignified existence for the poor. By and large the secular Hindus, English press and the international media have supported the Christians in India in recent times. More of this support is welcome in the name of the poor in India.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
17 years 4 months ago
While reading the article “Religion and Politics in India” (2/19), it was gratifying to find that the church, through educational and awareness-raising activities, is offering the lower-caste peoples some hope. This mass appeal by the church for a much more egalitarian social order has also resulted in the conversion of many of the oppressed to the Christian faith.

The church is championing this change in social structure within civil structures. But when will Rome look within and realize the bureaucracy, power and status of her own hierarchy are equally oppressive to her own people, and foster not only the loss of religious vocations but the rejection of the faith itself?

17 years 4 months ago
While reading the article “Religion and Politics in India” (2/19), it was gratifying to find that the church, through educational and awareness-raising activities, is offering the lower-caste peoples some hope. This mass appeal by the church for a much more egalitarian social order has also resulted in the conversion of many of the oppressed to the Christian faith.

The church is championing this change in social structure within civil structures. But when will Rome look within and realize the bureaucracy, power and status of her own hierarchy are equally oppressive to her own people, and foster not only the loss of religious vocations but the rejection of the faith itself?

15 years 7 months ago
Father Lancy Lobo SJ neglects to mention the four hundred years of slavery which Hindus of all castes had to suffer under Moslem and British rule. He glosses over the fact that during the British rule Governors from McCauley downward attempted to eradicate Hinduism in order to attain greater power. He ignores the fact that at least one generation of Christian missionaries were responsible for the forced conversion of Hindus. Who knows how many thousands of Hindus died during the Portugese inquistions and exorcisms. What untold stories could be heard straining in this dark, bitter wind which blew throughout the centuries of its wanton course. Without a doubt the Christian religion was an instrument of colonialism and institutional violence. Little wonder is there that Christianity is looked upon as a outside religion. Lancy Lobos SJ's statistics which point to the ambivalence of the educated elite to Hinduism are highly questionable. Indian society is unified in its Hindu core. Today in 2008 the RSS and BJP are not part of the mainstream political movement... as implied by Lancy Lobo SJ and as such are in the minority. No doubt the violent excesses of these groups does exist sporadically but certainly these group don't represent the view of the vast majority of upper Hindu castes.Like with fanatic Chistians of the past should have been, these individuals should be brought to justice and if found guilty should be punished. Much work needs to be done in inter-faith dialogue in order to end the religious fanaticism and coercion, bigotry and violence. Instead of using arguments based on differences the dialogue should stress similarities and tolerance. The poor and backward castes do not need more religion but less of it. Their needs are based on bread and self esteem. Who said that such things can best be found in a church or temple.

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