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Open letter to Chhattisgarh CM: Christians punch above their weight

A. J. Philip A. J. Philip
05 Feb 2024

Dear Shri Vishnu Deo Sai Ji,

When you took over as the fourth Chief Minister of Chhattisgarh, I was happy that a tribal had reached there. I thought you knew the state's problems much better than anyone else and that you would do everything possible to ameliorate the condition of the people, especially the tribal population.

Alas, your recent statement against Christians has shocked me, as no one in authority has used such harsh words against them. You claimed that the educational and health services provided by the Christians were with the intention to convert people, and you would, therefore, stop them from doing so. You also added in the same vein that you would ensure that Hindutva is strengthened.

While saying this, you forgot for a moment that you were sworn in with a commitment to adhere to the Constitution of India. You do not have to read the whole document. You just have to read the Preamble of the Constitution to know that you have to uphold secularism, not Hinduism. You must ask your conscience whether what you said squares with the Constitutional promise that people are free to believe in any religion and even propagate it.

Long before you were born, the forerunner of the BJP, the Bharatiya Jan Sangh, had demanded that foreign missionaries should be thrown out of Chhattisgarh. As everybody knows, Chhattisgarh was a part of Madhya Pradesh. There were some foreign missionaries working in Bilaspur and other areas in what is now your domain. The Jan Sangh claimed that people were converting because of the foreign missionaries.

The few foreigners who lived there were Catholic priests. They had left their native places in Europe many years earlier. All of a sudden, when they were forced to leave the state, they did not know where to go. Many of them were old and needed support even to walk. I met one such priest in Delhi.

His wish was to die in Bilaspur and be buried with the people he served. Alas, he had to leave for the Capital, where the church gave him accommodation. His passport had expired long ago. I doubted whether any airline would accept him as a passenger as he was too old. Yes, he died in Delhi, and I attended his funeral.

Yes, the funeral service was in a Catholic Church. The church had to make a change in its practice because the priest wanted to be cremated, not buried. That is what was done. It was said that he was the first Christian priest in India to be cremated. Today, cremation is becoming popular among Christians worldwide for reasons I do not want to go into in this letter.

Today, there is not a single foreign missionary in Chhattisgarh or anywhere else in the country. In fact, they are not needed. Do you know that there are Indians serving as priests and pastors in Europe, Africa, and several countries in Asia? The church in India has come of age.

What you said this week is what the Jan Sangh leaders in your state used to say some seventy years ago. Madhya Pradesh was ruled by the Congress at that time. It had a chief minister who belonged to the Brahmin community. He also probably believed in Jan Sangh's rhetoric about conversion.

He also found an easy way to mollycoddle the Jan Sangh cadres. They called off their agitation against foreign missionaries when Durga Prasad Mishra, as chief minister, appointed M. Bhawani Shankar Niyogi as Chairman of a large commission that included a "Christian" S. K. George as a member, among four others. Significantly, not one of the members belonged to a tribal or Dalit group. All of them belonged to upper castes who could not understand the deprivations a Dalit suffered from. It is like my grandson, who finds it difficult to understand that his grandfather went barefoot to school.

It was a voluminous report that the committee submitted. Thanks to an RSS theologian, Sita Ram Goel, it was published in book form, and he sent me a copy for review. I read the whole book and gifted it to a church library. The commission had sent a questionnaire to hundreds of people. It suggested that the Christians were dangerous people doing dangerous things.

This is not my opinion. In fact, this is what the High Court said about the questionnaire: It's "a long and searching document... in many places it amounts to an accusation. Some of the questions border on an inquisition, and may well be equated to a 'fishing expedition' on the supposition that something discreditable can be discovered."

After reading the report, I came to the conclusion that it was a case of much ado about nothing. If you have the time and inclination, you should get hold of a copy and read it. One result of the report was that Madhya Pradesh became the first state to introduce the anti-conversion law, euphemistically called the Freedom of Religion Bill.

You were, perhaps, just an idea in the minds of your parents when the controversial Bill was passed and it received the gubernatorial assent. Six decades have passed since the Act came into force. You still talk about conversion. You can do one thing. Please call your Director-General of Police and ask him how many Christians were convicted and punished under the Act. Many were, of course, arrested on false charges.

If he says "nil," will you be convinced that your claim about forcible and fraudulent conversion was baseless? Yes, the Congress was in power at that time, you may say. That is why the Act could not be implemented.

Do you remember the names of Kalyan Joshi, Virendra Kumar Sakclecha, Sunderlal Patwa, Babulal Gaur, and Uma Bharti? They all belonged to the Sangh Parivar, and they were all chief ministers of MP. They also could not punish a single Christian for violating the Freedom of Religion Bill. Taking their cue from MP, chief ministers of 10 other states enacted similar laws. Have they been able to punish a single Christian?

You are totally mistaken when you say that Christians run schools and hospitals to convert poor people. No, Sir, that is not the purpose. I, as president and, later, chief executive of an NGO run by Christians, educated over three lakh children in NCR. Not even one was converted.

I am happy that they are doing well in life. They will not be cheated by showing 10 rupees as a hundred rupees. They also know about their rights and privileges. If you check the antecedents of many people whom we consider successful, you will find a Christian connection.

Recently, the Chief Justice of India, Justice DY Chandrachud, took the initiative to celebrate Christmas. There, he recited from memory the Lord's Prayer. It is arguably the best prayer because it was taught by Jesus himself. There was not one moment when he fumbled or had to turn to the printed text. For your convenience, let me quote the prayer in full:

"Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name; thy kingdom come; thy will be done; on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation; but deliver us from evil." Can you find anything objectionable in the prayer?

Some time ago, a minister in the Modi government, Piyush Goyal, visited his alma mater in Mumbai. I heard his speech, which is available on YouTube. You should also listen to it. He spoke extempore. He was garrulous about the kind of affection he received from the school authorities. He attributed his success in life to the sort of education he received from the Christian school.

He was able to recite not only the Lord's Prayer but also the Catholic prayer: "Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen. Behold the handmaid of the Lord: Be it done unto me according to Thy word."

By the way, I have not learned this by heart, but I can recite the Gayatri Mantra and the RSS anthem. Once, when I recited the mantra, I was told that I should recite it 108 times to get its full benefit!

Many BJP leaders like LK Advani, Smriti Irani, and Swapan Dasgupta studied in Christian institutions. I have never heard any of them saying that the school authorities forced them to convert. They have only fond memories of their schools, colleges, and the teachers who taught them. It is a surprise that you consider Christians to have an ulterior motive when they do service.

It was a revelation that you studied in a Catholic institution in Jashpur. The school you went to is run by the Jesuits. I do not have to tell you that the Jesuits are known the world over for the kind of education they impart. Unfortunately, I could not study in a Jesuit school.

You are luckier. Once, when we interviewed candidates for the post of Principal of a senior secondary school of which I was chairman, our choice was an ex-Jesuit who left the order after getting married. Now, let me ask you a question? Did any Jesuit compel you to convert? I would like to hear from you.

If all the children who studied in Christian schools were converted, the Christian population in India would have been at least 25 per cent, if not more. I go to a Catholic hospital for treatment. I find that the patients are mostly Muslims and Hindus. The Christians are too few to count in Delhi. Why do they go there? The answer is simple. They get good service at a fraction of the cost in a corporate hospital just across the road.

It is the poor who avail of Christian services. As Chief Minister, you may be able to close down all Christian schools and, hospitals and dispensaries. Who will suffer? The rich can send their wards even to Britain, Australia, and the US for studies and settlement. It is the poor who will suffer. Please do not think along such lines. Or, is it that you do not want others in your community to come up in life after you have become chief minister?

I have travelled within your state, and I know the condition of the people there. The worst tragedy I ever witnessed was at Chaibasa in what is now Jharkhand. I was standing near the market. I saw an elderly tribal woman bringing a rooster to the market. Just then, two upper-caste boys reached there on a motorcycle. They snatched the rooster away from her. While leaving, they threw a currency note at her.

She took the money after a minute or so. I could see the shock on her face. I could not do anything. It still remains a thorny incident that pricks my conscience. The tribals are one of the most exploited lot in the country. I believe that the tribals are Adivasis. They are the original inhabitants of this country.

But your party leaders consider tribals as Vanvasis, that is, those who live in forests. They will never call you an Adivasi. Why? Because it will disprove their theory that Hindus are the original settlers of this land. Actually, they came from outside the country and settled down on the banks of the Indus.

The tribals have a greater heritage and civilization. Alas, your leaders want to deny this. If the tribal languages have survived, the tribals should thank the Christians for it, not those who force your brethren to chant certain chalisa. I can go on and on, but you have your time constraints. Your town, Jashpur, has the largest church in India. Please include the church in Chhattisgarh's tourism circuit. The state will benefit. May God bless you to work tirelessly for the welfare of your people!

Yours etc.

ajphilip@gmail.com

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