Fundamentalists – of love and hate

By Vishal Arora

The attack on a Christian priest allegedly by members of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the evangelistic zeal demonstrated by the victim right after the assault April 29 in Jaipur brings to light the contrast between the Hindutva and Christian "fundamentalism" in our country.

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The VHP members launched the attack on Pastor Walter Masih at his house after inviting TV news channels to cover their mission. A sense of pride was evident in their gesture, which was later shared by VHP leaders who refused to condemn the incident. The bleeding Christian victim, accused of "conversion", too stood his ground by turning towards the camera to preach his religion before he was taken to a hospital, saying this is how Jesus Christ was killed 2,000 years ago.

Given that fundamentalism means returning to the fundamentals of a religion or ideology, both Hindutva forces and Christian missionaries can rightly be termed as fundamentalists. But their goals and methodologies are as different as the east is from the west if seen in the light of the law of the land and universal values.

Hindutva fundamentalists are said to indulge in hate campaigns against religious minorities, mainly Christians and Muslims, and perpetrate violence. Besides, they train their cadres in arms to fight the "enemies". These activities are unlawful under several sections of the Indian Penal Code.

They also do social service, but the pockets where they serve often witness violence against the minorities.

On the other hand, Christian fundamentalists preach the Gospel with the people of other faiths by personal interaction, public meetings and distribution of literature, permissible under Article 25 of the Indian constitution. But proselytisation is not allowed, as the Supreme Court has ruled.

Christian groups also serve marginalised sections through developmental programmes and educational and medical institutions. In the areas where they work, sections of the people convert to Christianity. Do they convert using unfair means? Converts, who have the sole right to make such an allegation, do not say so. Besides, anti-conversion laws are in force in Orissa, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh for close to 40 years, but not even a single person has been convicted of "forced" conversion by any court of law.

There are, however, sporadic incidents of sections of Christian fundamentalists criticising other religions in their evangelistic zeal, which is distasteful and untenable besides being unlawful.

Christian fundamentalists are also accused of receiving foreign money – an accusation that is true. But so do Hindutva groups to fund their activities. Money comes through and is regulated by the Indian home ministry as per the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act.

As regards the Hindutva dream of making India a Hindu nation, it is both impossible and undesirable. The basic structure of the constitution mandates India to be a secular state. This cannot be amended even if a clear-cut majority in parliament seeks to do so. Even otherwise, the progressive Indian society would never like to regress to a theocracy like Saudi Arabia.

Similarly, preaching of non-Hindu faiths cannot be banned, as that would defy both the constitution and international human rights conventions to which India is a party. Besides, any such restriction will subsequently curtail the rights of mainly Hindus – who are in majority in the country – to embrace any religion.

The infamous killing of Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two minor sons in Orissa in 1999 by a mob led by Dara Singh, supposedly a follower of Hindutva, had demonstrated the different natures of the Hindutva and Christian fundamentalism.

Staines moved from Australia to one of the most backward areas in India and served leprosy patients besides preaching Christianity for 34 years before he was killed. On the other hand, Singh, who preached hate against Christians, managed to convert a few to his ideology and allegedly organised the burning of Staines and his children – an act that can be ascribed to Hindutva, but not Hinduism, which teaches tolerance.

Eight years later, Singh, who is in jail in Orissa, continues to spread hate against Christians through his Dara Sena. Staines' widow Gladys, who forgave Singh and others for the killing, is also furthering the mission of her late husband by serving leprosy patients. Both are undeniably fundamentalists, but one is a fundamentalist of love, and the other of hate.

(Vishal Arora writes on religious fundamentalism. The views presented here are his. Arora can be contacted at [email protected])