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Indian dilemma: Construction abroad, demolition at home

A. J. Philip A. J. Philip
19 Feb 2024

On Valentine's Day, when some custodians of faith usually harass young couples exchanging sweet nothings at public parks because they lack private space, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was in Abu Dhabi to inaugurate the largest Hindu temple in West Asia. Questions may arise about whether the Prime Minister's role is to inaugurate temples.

Such questions seem silly when Modi can infuse life (Pran Prathishta) into carved stones, as he did in Ayodhya on January 22, suspending the construction work of the Ram temple for over a month. In Abu Dhabi, on the contrary, the BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha completed the job before Modi could do the honours of opening it to the general public.

The temple is undoubtedly inspiring, as it encompasses the diversities of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where people have lived in harmony since oil was struck in the area, attracting businessmen, technocrats, and workers from all over the world. Ask anyone living there, and he will tell you that the UAE is the best place to do business.

I have a friend from Kodungallur who told me how he, as a senior official of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC), helped M. A. Yusuff Ali obtain a loan that eventually helped him become the King of Malls. A couple of years ago, when I visited Hotel Ravi's in Kozhikode for a meal, I saw a helipad under construction for its owner, Ravi Pillai, who meanwhile acquired one of the most expensive helicopters in the world.

Pillai is not the only successful businessman in the UAE. Many Indians, including actor Mohan Lal, have apartments in Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. The BAPS temple is the third in the UAE, the first and second being in Dubai, established in 1958 and 2022, respectively. There are several churches and shrines catering to the needs of the expatriates, who outnumber the citizens.

I have a close relative who narrated his bitter experience when he went to Saudi Arabia about five decades ago. When he landed at Dammam, customs officials searched his bag and found nothing objectionable except his Bible, which they threw into the trash bin. While searching his body, they found a small cross hanging from his neck. He was asked what it was but did not feel obliged to answer. He just wore his jacket and moved on.

Saudi Arabia is not like the UAE. However, the winds of change have been blowing there too. Saudi women can now have driving licenses and drive without having to keep a male relative in the vehicle. I had another relative in Saudi Arabia. Since she lived in a village, she could not obtain a Bible. So, she started reading the Quran, assuming that it is also the word of God.

Today, Christians can worship openly in Saudi Arabia. Last week, I was stunned by the kind of technology and sophistication that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia presented in their little stall at the New Delhi World Book Fair 2024. The KSA is the Guest of Honour country at the Fair.

The point to be noted is that while the Arab world has been moving forward, where are we going? While inaugurating the BAPS temple, Modi recalled meeting the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan a few years after becoming PM. He was accompanied by the Swaminarayan Sanstha officials. He asked for a plot of land to construct the temple. Let me quote Modi, "The Emir did not bat his eyelid while accepting my request."

When the initially offered land was insufficient to build the temple, the Sanstha asked for more. He obliged them. That is how the temple is situated on a plot of 27 acres in Abu Dhabi.

When I heard the PM praise the UAE authorities for their quick response, I wondered how many years have passed since the Catholic Bishops Conference of India (CBCI) approached Modi with a request to let Pope Francis visit India. He was not approached for any land or money. As the Pope is the head of the Vatican, the smallest country recognised by the United Nations, he cannot visit India without the government officially extending an invitation.

Modi and his cheerleaders, both within and outside his party, have been claiming that he is the most decisive Prime Minister. In that case, why is it that he is unable to decide on the Pope's visit? As for precedent, at least two Popes have visited India. I grew up hearing anecdotes of my maternal grandfather, who went to Bombay in 1964 to see Pope Paul VI. I was in Ranchi when Pope John Paul II first came to report his visit for The Searchlight and in Delhi when he came the second time. I could even shake hands with him.

By the way, Pope Francis visited the UAE in 2019. He also visited Istanbul in Turkey. His visits did not create any problems there. Modi is the most travelled prime minister. Why is he averse to a papal visit? Why can't he be as decisive as the UAE ruler? In the past, Indian rulers were not like Modi. In the national museum in Delhi, which few visit, there is a gallery of paintings that depict the maritime traditions of Kerala.

The Kerala coast attracted itinerant preachers, writers, and, of course, traders. One of them was St. Thomas, also called Doubting Thomas, who landed at Kodungallur in AD 52. That is how Christianity came to India, not as an appendage of the British, as some think.

For all his labour, Thomas was martyred at Little Mount (Chinnamala). His body was brought to Mylapore and buried inside the church he had built there. A pot containing earth, filled with his blood and the lance with which he was pierced, were both buried in his tomb. Six hundred years later, some Arab traders arrived at Kodungallur.

They met the ruler, Cheraman Perumal, and sought a small plot of land to build a masjid. That is how the first masjid out of Arabia and the second in the world was set up at Kodungallur. It is called Cheraman Juma Masjid. This disproves the Sangh Parivar theory that Islam was brought to India by the Mughals. In fact, Muslims were a thriving community even before the arrival of the Mughals.

Panipat in Haryana witnessed three battles. The first, in 1526, was fought between the Timurids (Uzbek) under Babur and Ibrahim Lodi (Delhi Sultanate). Legend has it that after allotting land for the masjid, the Kerala ruler expressed his desire to meet the Prophet. He undertook a journey to Arabia, met the Prophet, and converted to Islam. While returning, he fell ill, died, and was buried in what is now Oman.

By the way, Kodungallur is also associated with Swami Vivekananda. He wanted to visit the temple there. As only upper castes were permitted inside, he was asked to reveal his caste identity. He was a Kayastha but refused to reveal it. The temple authorities had a doubt as he was dark-skinned. He returned without visiting the temple. That is why he called Kerala a lunatic asylum. His skin colour was not a problem in the US, where he was heard with pin-drop silence when he addressed the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago.

When asked about Christian missionaries, Swami said, "We want missionaries of Christ. Let such come to India by the hundreds and thousands. Bring Christ's life to us and let it permeate the very core of society. Let him be preached in every village and corner of India."

"He was as good as his word. On his return to India, he arranged public receptions for Dr. Barrows, a Christian preacher he had met at the Parliament of Religions. He wrote to newspapers entreating Hindus to welcome Barrows and his teaching. Vivekananda wrote in the Indian Mirror:

"Moreover, he comes to us in the sacred name of religion, in the name of one of the great teachers of mankind, and I am sure his exposition of the system of the Prophet of Nazareth would be extremely liberal and elevating. The Christ power this man intends to bring to India is not intolerant, dominant, superior, with a heart full of contempt for everything else but its own self, but of a brother who craves for a brother's place as a co-worker of the various powers already working in India."

Forget a visa for missionaries; it is almost impossible for a church like the Mar Thoma Syrian Church to invite a Western Biblical scholar to address the annual Maramon Convention, whose 129th edition is now underway. A visa is denied if the purpose of the visit is mentioned as Preaching. An anecdote, I received a cheque for $100 in the name of Deepalaya, where I was Chief Executive. I received it as a "gift" from a church in Houston, Texas, USA, for delivering a sermon. The cheque was not cleared.

Many Christian organisations have lost their FCRA accounts because of their names. The other day, a student committed suicide, for which the police in Chhattisgarh have been hounding the school authorities. The day Modi consecrated the temple at Ayodhya, social media was flush with pictures of Hindu radicals hoisting flags on a church building.

The BJP chief minister in Assam threatens to bring forward a law to ban holistic healing. Even in his own state, he can see hundreds of Christian hospitals and dispensaries providing medical treatment. In fact, the doctors from St. John's Medical College, Bengaluru, and Christian medical colleges at Vellore and Ludhiana are the ones who serve predominantly in rural areas.

The CM does not know that even in the national Capital, the first hospital that came up was a Christian one, St. Stephen's Hospital. If Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma had courage, he should have taken action against those who demand that Christians should not display statues of Jesus or Mother Mary or saints like Saint Teresa of Kolkata in institutions owned by them or wear their religious dress.

Modi's body language suggested how thrilled he was when he inaugurated the BAPS temple. The last time I visited the US, I visited the Guruvayoor temple, under construction in Houston. The workers took me around the temple. I also went to an older South Indian temple not far from there. Today, the US has one of the world's largest temples. Nobody grudges such grand buildings.

However, in the case of Christian missionaries, their aim was not to build large churches. When William Carey reached Serampore in West Bengal, the first thing he did was start a school for children, which grew into a university. He was the one who began three newspapers in English, Bengali, and Hindi in the 19th century. He was the first one to promote the three-language formula.

Carey aimed not to make money but to liberate people from ignorance. Saint Chavara will always be remembered not for his healing power but for asking all the churches under his command to set up a school close to their church. Instead of promoting science, the Rajasthan government has made Surya Namaskar compulsory in schools.

A Central law bans changing the religious status of all physical structures that stood on the first Independence Day. That has not prevented demands to demolish the mosques at Mathura and Kashi. Till today, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad has not repudiated its claim that 3000 mosques are situated on the debris of Hindu temples.

UP's chief minister wants to construct two more magnificent temples at Mathura and Kashi. How can someone ask for land for temples outside of India while campaigning for the demolition of mosques and churches in India? As the saying goes, practice what you preach.

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