Serving God and Mammon

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PARTHASARATHI SWAMITo understand the religious intolerance that has erupted anew in India, consider the tales of two typical men, one Christian, one Muslim. John Jacob is a Syrian Christian from the southern state of Kerala. He proudly traces his ancestry back several centuries, viewing himself as a direct descendant of the Keralites converted by the apostle Thomas shortly after the death of Christ. Jacob dismisses the more recent converts to his religion. They are just illiterate, impoverished Hindus and Muslims trying to find an escape hatch from their misery, he says.Hafeez Mohammed is a Muslim from Calcutta. In the small north Bengal village that is Mohammed's ancestral home, his family enjoys high social status, which traces back to a census taken 98 years ago. The British in 1901 decided that Hafeez's forefathers fit into the category of Arab or Pathan conquerors, not local converts. They reached the conclusion by applying the Cephalic index: measuring the proportion of the breadth of the head to its length, as well as of the breadth of the nose to its length. Through this method, more than 80% of Muslims in India were declared as being originally Hindu, leaving the others with untarnished bloodlines as the spiritual leaders of the community. Mohammed, as befits someone exposed to modern ideas, rejects the index, but he, too, is convinced that the new converts to Islam must win their spurs before being considered true followers of Allah. They are just convenience Muslims; they could become Christians tomorrow if the padres offered them a better deal, he says.

It's politically incorrect in India's liberal circles to talk of people like Jacob and Mohammed. It's more fashionable to criticize the bigotry of extremist Hindus, who have launched recent attacks on both the converted and their converters. As India recoils from attacks on Christian missions in several states and the immolation of Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two young sons, allegedly by Hindu-extremist groups affiliated to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, most people are focusing on the religious intolerance of the majority. Overlooked is a key issue--that the conversions have very little to do with religion. They are taking place, as John Jacob sneeringly suggests, because of social and economic reasons. While some of the hateful manifestations of the caste system, such as untouchability, are no longer much in evidence, particularly in the cities, there is no denying that the untouchables of yore make up a large part of the masses that live below the poverty line. Conversion gives them a chance to break out, to challenge their karma--the Indian philosophy that what will be, will be.

It's easy enough to blame India's woes on the caste system. But it was essentially a form of freemasonry that would have evolved into something more in keeping with the times (the way slavery, the one-time engine of growth of the U.S., has done) had the British colonial rulers not repressed industrialization. The past 50 years have seen progress, but it will take a great deal more for economic emancipation to seep down to the grassroots. In such an environment, it is inevitable for the poorest of the poor to look to religion as a parachute to a better life. The church offers this, if only in small ways. Consider its charity programs: the pagan poor on the breadline get one loaf; the converted get two and some soup to boot.

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Political considerations more than religious fervor have sparked a violent wave of attacks against Christians
This causes resentment. But make no mistake: conversion by itself does nothing to change the fundamental economic and social structures. In recent years, Christian organizations have indirectly admitted as much by demanding quotas--in government jobs, college admissions and other areas--for those converts who previously belonged to backward Hindu castes. The neo-Christians want to have their cake and eat it too.

Hinduism is essentially a very tolerant religion. The average Hindu's attitude is: we have thousands of deities already, so what's a few more? The fanatics crawl out of the woodwork only when religion is used to create new social classes and divisions--which is exactly what the missionaries are doing, if incidentally.

In the long run, the only solution for religious intolerance is economic reform. That won't come from the churches, mosques or temples but from government policies. Only economic parity will convince the John Jacobs and Hafeez Mohammeds that they are not superior to their poorer brethren. But economic reform has fallen out of favor. The BJP government's real failure lies not in its inability to control Hindu fanatics, but in its economic mismanagement. A nuclear explosion or five cannot wish away the fact that the man in the street now has less purchasing power than at any other time this decade.

And so the BJP will be defeated in the next general election which, given the current explosive political situation, is likely to happen this year. But it is a testimony to India's religious tolerance that the person most likely to become the country's next Prime Minister is Sonia Gandhi, an Italian-born Roman Catholic. That might please John Jacob. Or not--after all, she belongs to a different denomination.

Parthasarathi Swami is a Bombay journalist and commentator

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Political considerations more than religious fervor have sparked a violent wave of attacks against Christians