India - A Question of Faith
21 min 13 sec - 12 January 2004
REPORTER: Edwina Throsby
It's Sunday morning in Anklov, a small town in Gujarat, and Father Sudhir is saying mass. The congregation, who have come from surrounding villages, are all Dalits, or people from the untouchable castes. Although untouchability was officially banned in the 1950s, Dalits are still the poorest, most marginalised group in Indian society. Within Hinduism, it's the birthright of the Dalit to be oppressed.
FATHER SUDHIR: They are treated like dirt, they are kicked, they are not allowed to drink from the wells, which the upper castes use. They are not allowed to enter into certain areas of the villages, forget the temples but even certain parts of the village. You know, "You live on the outskirts of the village, there's your place."
Father Sudhir believes he is on a mission from God to improve the situation for the Dalits. In his compound in Anklov he runs a boarding school for Dalit children, most of whom he has baptised.
FATHER SUDHIR: If they were in the village with the family, they would not get a proper place to stay, proper food to eat, proper education and no care to become a better individual.
Cooking for the children in Father Sudhir's church compound is Gomet, a Dalit woman who knows where caste prejudices can lead. A few years ago she was living with her husband and two young children on a small grant of government land, where they were preparing to build their first house.
GOMET, (TRANSLATION): The land on which we were going to build a house belonged to the government. The high-caste Rajputs were using this land to store their wheat crop, so they told us we couldn't use this land. But we had government permission to build here. When we started laying the foundations they came and beat us up. They came with guns and scythes and beat us up. I grabbed the children, who were crying because they had heard gunshots. The high-caste people came in and said, "Go outside and look at your dead husband." They told me. My people told me "They've killed your husband." I saw my husband. They had smashed his head in and broken his leg.
A few days after the attack, the high-castes began building their homes on the site. Gomet and her children left the village. She found work with Father Sudhir and later baptised her children in the Christian faith.
GOMET, (TRANSLATION): We have faith in Jesus Christ so we became Christians. Yes, things are better. Now we can buy all the things we need and we're living well.
Gomet is one of a growing number of Dalits who are choosing to abandon Hinduism, the religion of their ancestors, in favour of something new. By escaping Hinduism, converts hope to escape oppression. So many thousands of Dalits are changing their religion that it's being described as a "conversion movement".
But in a country - and a global climate - where religion and politics are increasingly hard to separate, the act of conversion has become politically charged. The state of Gujarat is ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, a fundamentalist Hindu party that is violently opposed to missionary activity. Dr Previn Togadia is the international general secretary of the BJP's culture arm, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, or VHP.
DR. PREVIN TOGADIA, HEAD OF VHP: We are dead against conversion of any type. If I change my religion, that is a different thing. But if you target me, they are targeting! They are harassing! They are planning and preparing! It is nothing but religious terrorism.
Dr Togadia fears that the richness of Indian culture is threatened by the incursion of foreign religions.
DR. PREVIN TOGADI: They enhance monoculture by destroying our belief system. They did it in Europe, in the first millennium, second millennium they destroyed the belief system of Africa. Third millennium, the Pope himself came and declared that I will convert Asia and India. It means they want to destroy pluralistic belief system of India.
When it comes to respecting different belief systems, however, the record of the BJP Government in Gujarat is stained with religious violence. It was re-elected last year in the wake of massive communal riots, which were started when a Muslim mob torched a train carrying Hindu worshippers, killing 58.
The ensuing violence killed hundreds, injured thousands more, and split the community down Hindu and Muslim lines. The BJP Government was condemned for at best doing little to stop the violence, at worst, being complicit in it. At the headquarters of the BJP's culture wing, the VHP, looked down upon by photos of Hindus killed in the riots, officials congregate to discuss policy and to worship.
The VHP has devised the boldest strike so far in the battle for the souls of the Dalits. It's behind a bill that attempts to stamp out religious conversion. Passed in March this year, the paradoxically named Religious Freedom Act restricts the activities of missionaries and requires would-be converts to obtain permission from a magistrate.
A challenge from a Christian group has delayed the bill's enactment, but it's expected to become law within months. Similar bills are in various stages of passage in four other states. The VHP claims the Act will protect the free will of the under-classes, arguing that their ignorance and poverty are exploited by missionaries. Dr Togadia is the principal author of the controversial act.
REPORTER: Isn't the act of conversion an exercise of free will?
DR. PREVIN TOGADI: No, if you are targeting me, where is there free will? Why aren't they converting Dr Togadia, medical surgeon? Why are they converting poor, downtrodden, illiterate? The bill is targeted against individual organisations who want to convert by force, fraud, or allurement, who don't believe in the validity of all religion, who want to destroy pluralistic tradition, and want to impose monoculture with force, fraud and allurement.
FATHER CEDRIC PRAKASH: We are just approaching a road sign, a board, put up by this Hindu fundamentalist organisation which says that this is a Hindu kingdom, it's a Hindu state.
Father Cedric Prakash is a human rights activist who's been campaigning for religious tolerance in Gujarat for decades. He believes that the BJP's great skill is the ability to play the race, religion and caste cards.
FATHER CEDRIC PRAKASH: The government is maintaining its popularity by creating bogies. They create a bogey that "the whole of Gujarat will become Muslim", "all Muslims are terrorists". They create a bogey by saying that "the whole of Gujarat might become Christian." In fact, the Christian population of Gujarat is less than 0.5%.
DR. PREVIN TOGADI: It's not a question of the number of Christians. It's the concept. It is not a number it is a virus. A single AIDS virus is sufficient to kill a human being. So conversion is cultural AIDS, which will destroy pluralism.
Bhitasi is a small Dalit village in Father Sudhir's parish. He visits about once a month to hear the people's problems and help them where he can. But in the current political climate, Father Sudhir is very careful not to place too much emphasis on the importance of conversion. After all, in the likely event that the bill is enacted, much of what he does could become illegal.
FATHER SUDHIR: My work here is not only conversion. My work here is to take care of my people, take care of my flock in terms of spiritual field, in terms of educational field, in terms of many other things. Conversion is just a part of something that happens if somebody feels that they are touched by the help that they have received from me, because we help people just because they are poor.
The number of Christians in Bhitasi is slowly rising and this mass, in a converted Hindu temple, is well attended.
REPORTER: Do you give political education and information to the people that you're working with?
FATHER SUDHIR: We make people aware of what is happening. We make people aware of what are the political parties doing and what is the intention. We make people aware of how they are being cheated. We make people aware of how their rights are being taken away. We make people aware of their basic human rights. This is something that certain people are not happy with.
REPORTER: That brings you in conflict with the government?
FATHER SUDHIR: Very true. And that is why they want to eliminate us as much as possible. They want to trouble us in the villages. They want to close down our institutions, because educating the uneducated is a threat to them.
The Dalits in Bhitasi are very receptive to conversion, and not just to Christianity. A week before I visited, Bhitasi made headlines when 25 Dalits announced their conversion to Buddhism in the press. They were angry about the murder of a local Dalit youth by high-caste Hindus. Their conversion was clearly a political statement.
CHATOR BHAI, (TRANSLATION): This is the government... they are the officials, the chief minister, the governor... the government policy is keep the Dalits downtrodden. Dalits are the servants. They don't want Dalits as bosses. If Dalits become bosses, the high-caste will be servants. That is the problem!
Chator Bhai is one of these Buddhist converts.
CHATOR BHAI, (TRANSLATION): We don't want to go to their temples, or to go to their schools. We do not wish to retain any contact with them. That's why we are changing our religion. Some of us are Christians. Some have become Buddhists, including myself. The main thing is we don't want any contact with the Hindus.
BETHASI CHRISTIAN, (TRANSLATION): I have accepted this religion. I am a Christian. Why did I accept this? I thought that Christianity was a humane religion. Why did I accept it? It doesn't discriminate. We want our own religion, we want our own personality...
CHATOR BHAI, (TRANSLATION): My religion treats me like a human being. The Hindu don't think we are human beings. They treat us like animals.
DR. PREVIN TOGADI: Hinduism believes that each and every individual himself is a manifestation of a god. So for me, every Hindu is a god. Every Christian is a god. Every Muslim is a god. And if every Hindu is a god, every Dalit is a god for me.
More importantly, perhaps, every Dalit has a vote. Dalits form 16% of the Indian electorate, and as such, it is almost impossible for a government to gain power in India without Dalit support. Departing each day from VHP headquarters is this mobile chariot. Tonight, it's visiting a Dalit area in Gujarat's largest city, Ahmedabad.
RALLY, (TRANSLATION): Glory be to Rama! Glory be to Rama! Now, children... please say "Glory be to Rama" more calmly. Please say "Glory be to Rama" quietly. Those who haven't had their sutra tied, come forward.
This is part of a campaign to build a temple in the town of Ayodhya, on the site of a famous mosque torn down by Hindu fundamentalists. VHP officials are spending the entire month driving around the city to tie a sutra to the wrists of the Hindu faithful. The saffron cotton denotes the wearer's lifelong commitment to Hinduism. By promoting this brand of religious patriotism, the VHP hopes to consolidate its Hindu following in Dalit communities and subsequently secure their votes.
RALLY, (TRANSLATION): We will tie this thread around the wrists of 250,000 Hindus. It will protect the health of Hindu society, protect against terrorists and protect our Hindu culture. With the thread, you take a vow. This sutra... is not merely a thread. It shows our determination to make a Hindu kingdom.
FATHER CEDRIC PRAKASH: See, I suppose one has to understand that the ideology of these Hindu fundamentalists is very fascist. You single out people, you demonise them, you attack them, you tell them that they're not patriotic, you tell them they do not belong to this country, you tell them that whatever they're doing is anti-national, you brand them as 'terrorists' - this is exactly the kind of a feeling that was created by Hitler and his cronies in the times of Nazism.
REPORTER: Why do you think there is so much religious violence in Gujarat at the moment?
DR. PREVIN TOGADI: Because church is converting. Conversion is violence. There is physical violence, spiritual violence, intellectual violence. Intellectual violence leads to physical violence. If they stop conversion, there will not be violence at all.
Back in Bhitasi, I visit the family whose son's murder was the catalyst for the headline making mass conversion to Buddhism. For the Vankars, violence and conversion are directly linked. On the floor of their one-room mud hut, they tell of the day when Raman was murdered.
RAMANS COUSIN, (TRANSLATION): That day my cousin went to the farm to collect fodder for the buffaloes. He returned with a bundle of hay. He carried it on his head and it was heavy. There is a communal temple... he stopped at the temple and put the hay down. Four high-caste people were sitting there. My cousin is a Dalit and he sat down near those people. The four of them kicked my cousin and said, "Hey, why are you sitting with us? You're a Dalit, a latrine cleaner." And they accused him of having sex with his sister and mother. There was a terrible ruckus and I went out to see what was going on. I saw that they were dragging my cousin away. 25 days after my cousin's death I received a letter containing a death threat, saying... "We've killed your cousin and the same fate awaits you. We're going to kill you too. We need only five seconds to kill you. No more."
The family have been ostracised by most of the villagers, who are afraid of being associated with them. They now have a 24-hour police guard posted outside their hut. Of greater concern, they've lost their main breadwinner.
RAMANS MOTHER, (TRANSLATION): Is all this going to bring my son back? Will he come back? Is he going to come back and feed me? He was looking after us. Now who will do it? We only have one request for the government ... drop a bomb on us and kill us all.
The Vankar family believe that Raman's death and their subsequent difficulties would not have occurred had they not been Hindu.
RAMANS COUSIN< (TRANSLATION): We are Hindus, but from today we are not Hindus anymore. We have accepted Buddhism because we can't get justice as Hindus. All the people around here, including the government, have ganged up on us and cut all off all communication. We will not get the justice that is due to us. That's why we gave up Hinduism and accepted Buddhism.
In practical term, the Vankars have very few options. Their religion is one of the few things in their lives that they are able to change. And while millions of Dalits continue to live at the bottom of the Hindu social ladder with such poverty and violence, it is unlikely that any sort of government legislation will halt the conversion movement.