I can quite appreciate why you were so worked up about the alleged atrocities on
Christians in Gujarat. Several of the English language papers had reported from the state
as if pogroms were being perpetrated. The pogrom was an organised massacre of Jews which
was not uncommon in Russia until the twentieth century. More recently, the word
pogrom brings to mind what the Nazis led by Adolf Hitler did to six million or more Jews.
With the advent of glasnost initiated by Mikhail Gorbachev, more Jews
have emigrated from Russia to Israel than from anywhere else.Which is the reason why I am
keen to erase propaganda distortions from your mind. You will be surprised to know that
most of the correspondents who had reported the alleged atrocities in Dangs have, to this
day, not visited the district.
Dangs is a tiny district comprising 311 villages with a total
population of approximately one and a half lakh Adivasis and some settlers from
neighbouring areas. It has one member of Legislative Assembly and being so small it is, by
no means, at the centre of politicsin Gujarat. These villages were originally owned by
five rajahs and were not annexed by the British. These villages were taken over by
lease agreements. The descendants of the rajahs still get salyanas orcompensation
pursuant to the leases.
I met a descendent of one of the five called Bhilraja Bhanwarsinh
Hasusinh Suryavanshi. He appeared neutral between religions. He felt, as incidentally I
do, that worship was a personal matter and each individual was free to choose his own
path. Explaining the causes of the tension then prevailing, he said that the preservation
of the bhil identity was important. His conclusion was that the more bhils became
Christian, the less bhil the community remained. If the trend continued, eventually the
tribe would cease to be bhil his people would turn into non-descripts.
Talking to younger people in Dangs, it became more and mord evident that there was an
identity crisis. The conditions were different in the days of their grandparents who were
very poor. For any substantial favour they could receive, they might have exchanged their
religion. The economic situation was nowhere as desperate at present. At the same time,
the awareness was much higher, thanks to education as well as exposure to the media.
Everyone now needs to be proud of something. Bhil identity is one such thing.
A few months earlier, an old lady died. Since she had lived with her
elder son, he felt it was his right to cremate her according to his tribal tradition. Her
younger son, however, would have none of it. He had been converted to Christianity and
strongly felt that the old lady should be buried. He claimed that his departed mother had
loved him more than his elder brother. He therefore should have the veto.
This is one example of conflict. Much worse had happened to a family
living in the neighbourhood of the Dangs. The Christian husband kept insisting on his
Hindu wife to attend church every Sunday with him.Her resistance ultimately climaxed into
her drinking phenol. When she had drunk half the bottle, her husband became emotional,
snatched the bottle and drank up the remaining half of the phenol. They were rushed to
hospital where the doctor commented: thank God they both drank half each and could
therefore be saved!
There are some serious problems. The Adivasi tradition is that all
property belongs to the clan. Yet, when a person turns Christian he tends to demand his
separate share which creates conflict. When an Adivasi happens to borrow money from a
professional lender, he would deposit the title deeds of the land as security. If there
were to be a default, the lender could demand that the property be transferred to him. The
protection to the borrower on the strength of being an Adivasi or a scheduled tribe
This threat of property transfer to a non-Adivasi was aggravated in the
weeks following 1 September, 1998 when a farmer's rally was held at Ahwa, the district
headquarters of the Dangs. It was reported that one or two nationally known leaders, after
the rally, assured some petitioners that they would take up their request for property
transfer with the district Collector.
The resultant anxiety played its part in inciting some of the scuffles
which took place on the day of Christmas in 1998. Several chapels made of bamboo and hay
were set on fire. The asbestos roof of a school hostel in Ahwa was broken. A few Hanuman
shrines were profaned with excrete but fortunately to this day no one has been killed or
even seriously injured.
A point that hurts the Adivasi sentiment is that the missionary calls
him an animist, if not also a pagan in private. When I chatted with a padri in the
area he explained that there was nothing insulting about calling anyone an animist so long
as he worshipped natural phenomena.
True, the bhil worships a tiger which, incidentally, is the
carrier or vaahan of Marri, another avataar or personification of Ambaji or Durga,
a leading deity in Hindu mythology. The bhil also worships Hanuman which could be
distorted as praying to a monkey. But then most Hindus pay obeisance to Hanuman.
I could go on with my interactions with missionaries and the Adivasis.
As you know, I have by now spent over four decades in tea gardens. On the gardens of north
east India work lakhs of Adivasis who originally hail from the Jharkhand region. But I
know that you are busy with your studies and time is therefore short. Let me therefore
take you straight to my conclusion, which in turn, may well be coloured by my owing a
great deal of my formal education to Christian teachers, mostly Catholic Anglo-Indian
ladies. Since I had not been to school until I was nearly eleven, I do not know what would
have happened to me had these kind teachers not gone out of their way to help me make up
for lost time. You could well imagine how much they must have helped when at the age of
15, in a matter of four years, I was able to matriculate.
One lady, Mrs. Joan Cameron straightened out my English grammar in a
matter of six weeks. If you find grammatical mistakes in this letter, be assured that the
fault is not that of Mrs. Cameron. They would be a part of the bad habits I have picked up
subsequently. About Mrs. Phyllis Hartley, here I can only sum up. Being associated with
her as a pupil for four years, I did not need the proof of God. If one could meet an angel
on earth, she certainly was one.
Because of such a background, many have teased me of being
pro-Christian which, perhaps, I am. But I am not pro-conversion. A proselytiser is quite
different from a worshipper of Jesus. A devout follower is quite different from a person
whose mission in life is converting people to his faith, especially needy people who might
be tempted to change their religion for favours even as important as free education or
medicine. One is a good citizen. The other is a social aggressor. One wants peace and
prosperity. The other spends all his time persuading innocent people to his religious fold
at the cost of the rest of the society.
What many a Hindu finds galling is that a proselytiser only targets his
co-religionists. One hardly ever hears of a group of Muslims having switched their loyalty
to Jesus. I have never come across any Christian who him self, or whose parent, was a
former Muslim. Is it because the Muslim is not considered a heathen whereas the Hindu is
or, is it because the missionary is afraid of the mullah? Are there no Muslims who
are poor, or have children in need of education?