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Anti-Christian forces in Assam

Albert Thyrniang Albert Thyrniang
04 Mar 2024

On February 17 in Assam, North East, a detestable incident happened to a Catholic nun in a bus. A media outlet reports, "The nun was mocked by co-passengers, mostly Hindus, for her religious habit and faith before she was forcibly deboarded (midway)." When the conductor ordered her to alight from the bus, passengers allegedly insulted her. The incident occurred on a bus from Dudhnoi to Goalpara (District headquarters) in Lower Assam. The nun had purchased the bus ticket after travelling from her place of work in Siju town, South Garo Hills, under the Tura diocese in neighbouring Meghalaya.

The uncalled-for incident echoed in the Meghalaya legislative assembly. Charles Pyngrope, an opposition legislator, raised the issue during zero hour on February 22. The TMC MLA told the House that the nun was harassed and subjected to derogatory and humiliating remarks by some passengers for her dress and Christian faith before being forced to get off the bus in an isolated location. He sought the government's intervention with the Assam government to bring the culprits to book.

Chief Minister Conrad Sangma replied, stating he had already taken up the matter with Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, who assured action against the perpetrators. Sangma also informed a bishop from Tura, who had called and briefed him about the unfortunate incident. According to reports, Auxiliary Bishop Jose Chirackal, who took up the matter with the Meghalaya government, said that the nun was "traumatised", adding that the diocese demands action against people who humiliated the nun.

The local MLA of Siju and minister, Rakkam Sangma, also promptly wrote a letter to the Chief Minister urging him to raise the matter with the union government and the neighbouring state while seeking a probe into the condemnable treatment of the religious woman.

Details are awaited, but why should such a shocking incident take place? This is the first time one has witnessed such abnormality. Everyone is free to don any religious dress. We see sadhus, seers, saints, gurus, mullahs, ordinary Muslims, priests and other nuns in religious attire in public places. 'Yogi' chief ministers and ministers wear religious outfits even in offices. Even in parliament, religious attire is not outlawed. Why should the particular nun be ridiculed in such a manner? How could one imagine that passengers did what they did just because the lady was a Christian nun?

The shameful instance is suspected to be a direct effect of the hate propaganda against Christians in the BJP-ruled Assam. The chief minister himself is enthused with the right-wing ideology for political mileage. He might have been taken into the BJP and was made chief minister to carry out the Hindutva agenda.

As recently as February 12, the chief minister came up with the hardliner-pleasing idea of banning the so-called 'magical' healing. His Cabinet approved a bill vowing to prohibit healing by evangelists as these practices dupe tribal people into conversion. This is the latest occasion when the chief minister has made accusations, purportedly also against Christians, for using inducements and allurements to convert tribals. Earlier, he was often heard at gatherings counselling tribals to preserve their indigenous faith and practices and not to convert to other religions. Why should a chief minister preach religion? Why should a chief minister say, 'Let Hindus remain Hindus, let Muslims remain Muslims, let Christians remain Christians, let adherents of indigenous religions remain so? Then why does anyone have a problem when and if others openly advocate for religious conversion? After all, all citizens under the union have the right to freely practice, profess, and propagate a religion of their choice. If fraud cases exist, prosecution must proceed, but without any basis, allegations are made for political expediency. Christian groups termed the chief minister's equation of "magical healing" with proselytisation as 'misguided and misleading'.

Ironically, the chief minister has been giving financial incentives to tribal groups. Should we infer that without such 'enticements', they would not remain in their forefathers' religion? We have also seen 'ghar wapsi' cases within the state in the media. It is suspected that groups give cash and other rewards to individuals who renounce their adopted faith. These, too, are allurements and inducements. They are illegal.

The government's pro-Hindutva attitude has emboldened fanatical individuals and groups in the state to create fissures on religious lines. A person named Satya Ranjan Borah, president of the Kutumba Surakshya Parishad, on February 7, led leaders of 10 organisations into a press conference issuing an ultimatum to Christian schools to remove all religious statues and other symbols from their schools within a fortnight. They also demanded that priests, nuns and religious brothers cease wearing their religious dresses on school campuses. As always, the right-wing Hindu group accused Christian institutions of using their facilities for conversion. Subsequently, some posters appeared in some locations, including border areas with Meghalaya. Another MLA, Mayralborn Syiem, made known his concern in the Assembly, saying the posters against Christian schools have created panic and fear. School authorities also reported that individuals went to Christian-run schools demanding the dethroning of statues from their pedestals.

Why are such groups permitted to utter unconstitutional statements and indulge in such intolerance? Why are they patronised to create panic and inflame hatred? Why is no action taken against such groups for threatening to upset societal harmony? Statues and religious symbols adorn many private institutions across the world. The likes of Yogi Adityanath don their religious costume as chief minister in office, at public functions and at all times. Then why should priests and nuns be deprived of the choice to wear their dresses? Even in some police stations, government and military establishments, religious altars are kept; why should private schools be denied the right to have statues and symbols on their properties?

Fear and jealousy could also be a factor. Many don't understand why Christian schools are so successful? Compared to their tiny percentage (in Assam and nationally), the contributions of Christians towards education and general nation-building are legion.

A year ago, the Assam, RSS-Affiliated organisation, Janajati Dharma-Sanskriti Suraksha Manch demanded that Article 342A of the Constitution of India be amended, that is, Christian tribals be delisted from the Scheduled Tribe status. The "Challo Dispur" call promising to gather one lakh tribals to make the union and state government punish tribals who have embraced Christianity was scheduled for a date. Hindutva elements consider conversion as such only when ingenious tribals convert to Christianity. They don't count when tribals convert to Hinduism. This is because they mislead the public by saying that tribal indigenous religions and Hinduism are the same. This is far from the truth. Tribals who follow their indigenous religions are not Hindus. In indigenous faiths, there is no concept of temple and idol. Indeed, there are no Hindu deities in indigenous religions. They are animists who worship in nature. When Ram Mandir was consecrated in January, many 'indigenous tribals' went to Ayodhya chanting 'Jai Shree Ram.' Ram is certainly not part of indigenous tribal religions. So, those who did so might have converted to Hinduism. If Ram or any other idol makes his or her way to an indigenous religion, that is a new phenomenon. That indigenous religion is diluted if not changed. Conversion is conversion if one embraces Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, or any other religion.

Religion is a matter of conscience. It is not political. In Assam, a situation is crafted to prevail where Christians are made to feel targeted and threatened. As noted above, Christianity made immense contributions to Assam. During the Assamese Language Movement for the recognition of Assamese as the official language in courts, government offices and as a medium of instruction in educational institutions right from the British rule in the nineteenth century, Christian missionaries played a big part.

One giant is Nathan Brown, the American Baptist missionary acknowledged for his invaluable works on Assamese language, grammar and script. Orunodoi, the first Assamese periodical, was his creation. It was responsible for the survival of the Assamese language. He also promoted the language by publishing works of contemporary and historical Assamese scholars. Brown is one of the pioneers and champions of Assamese language and literature. The good works of Christians have continued ever since. However, there are elements today who are anti-Christian in their attitude and activism. If they are not subdued, other 'Dudhnoi-Goalpara bus' incidents will reoccur.

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