Yvette Rosser’s letters to National Public Radio
—–written Nov. 5, 1999——
During NPR’s Morning Edition broadcast on Friday, November 5th, 1999, there were three separate pieces about the Pope’s journey to India, including a short news flash, repeated several times, informing us that the Pope, whose three day visit is meant to “strengthen cooperation among religions” was facing protests from Hindu extremists. This ominous news flash, on the Morning Edition loop, alerted the listeners more than once that fanatical Hindu fundamentalists are protesting the Pontiff’s good will tour. One journalist, Vir Singh, explained that Hindus are demanding the Pope apologize for centuries of “forced conversions,” though neither he, not any other newsperson covering the story thought it necessary to discuss the basis of these demands.
The piece by Michael Sullivan, the NPR correspondent in New Delhi was sensationalist and could have been written by Pat Robertson who is a dedicated and seasoned Hindu-basher. There was an interview with nuns who fear that, after the Pope’s visit, they will be “targeted” by the threatening Hindus who have set fire to Christian schools from “village to village.” And an interview with a Hindu fundamentalist vowing to forcibly reconvert local tribals who had recently become Christians–he is described as sitting under, of all things, a poster of Krishna.
From these reports we are left with the impression that these Hindu extremists are rampaging across India killing missionaries and burning schools. There was no balance in this coverage. We were informed by Michael Sullivan that Christianity in India was established through “colonial expansion in the 16th century,” while a church historian proudly explained that St. Thomas had brought Christianity to the southern state of Kerala in 52 AD. Certainly, Hindus and Christians have lived together for centuries, as can be seen by the statistics in Kerala where Christians are 20% population, not to mention the Portuguese Catholic influence in Goa, the plethora of Christian schools across India, and the fact that, for example, the Defense Minister of the BJP government, George Fernandez is a from a Christian background.
However, according to these inflammatory reports from NPR it is obvious that Christianity is in grave danger in Hindu India, where fanatical Hindus rule. In the last couple of years there have been conflicts between members of hard-line Hindu groups and Christian missionaries in the Dangs region of Gujarat, as well as the tragic attack in Orissa on the Australian missionary and his sons. Violence is *never* to be condoned. However, these incidents are inevitably reported from not only a Christic-centric perspective, but with an anti-Indian slant, and with no reference to the politics of conversions in the Subcontinent. Conversions are part and parcel of the Christian worldview. . . negatively appraising missionary activities is nonsequitor.
One notable example of this slanted journalism can be recalled in the coverage of the rape of several Christian nuns in Madhya Pradesh last spring. The international media immediately picked up on the story, reporting with the same anti-Hindu bias that was evident in NPR’s pieces on Friday morning. In the case in Madhya Pradesh, a subsequent criminal investigation found that the nuns had been raped by men from a rival Christian group, not by Hindus, as originally reported. There was, of course, no international media attention to this interesting fact. . . when Hindus attack Christians it is news but when Christians attach each other it is rather boring. (This may be a weak critique since the press is notorious for reporting sensational crimes and ignoring acquittals.)
In the Dangs region of rural Gujarat, a large portion of the inhabitants are Adivasis or tribals. There has, over the last few decades, been a concerted effort by evangelical Christian groups to convert the Adivasis in this area. Many unethical methods have been used to save the souls of these simple rural folk. One tactic is to throw a stone statue of the Hindu God Hanuman in a pond along with a wooden crucifix. The Adivasis are told that the Christian God is more powerful because he floats to the top and Hanuman sinks to the bottom. Adivasis and others, are offered free tuition at the Christian schools and free medical care at the hospitals, if they convert. These schools and hospitals, funded by donations from Christian organizations abroad, certainly offer important services in an impoverished remote area. However, it is the mocking derogatory rhetoric that accompanies Christian conversion propaganda which is disturbing to many Hindus.
If you have ever seen one of Pat Robertson’s anti-Hindu television programs, and for that matter, they are anti-Buddhist as well, you will know the demeaning and disrespectful way in which Hindu and Buddhist traditions and beliefs are treated in fundamentalist Christian rhetoric – where Hindus are described as superstitious pagans who worship demons. Since the 16th century, the work of the innumerable groups of Christian missionaries seeking to convert the heathen Hindus has cost the equivalent of billions upon billions of dollars. I remember in Sunday School at my grandparents’ Baptist Church there were special collections to raise money to help the missionaries in India bring the message of Jesus to the pagan Hindus. In my own Catechism class we were told that Hindus must unfortunately go to hell because they do not accept Jesus as the only God. The Christian West has been fed on a steady diet of anti-Hindu rhetoric for over three hundred years. It is no wonder that NPR can conjure up Hindu extremists who are burning and pillaging in connivance with the Hindu nationalist government, without feeling any responsibility to discuss the basic assumptions inherent in missionary activity.
Ironically, in many cases, Adivasis who converted to Christianity and Dalits, as those from formerly Untouchable Castes are known, found that the social advantages they hoped to gain by being Christian were not as promising as the opportunities offered by affirmative action programs which were based, under the secular Indian constitution, on caste and social status and not on religion. Many of those who had previously converted to Christianity have now reconverted to Hinduism to take advantage of caste-based reservations in education and government service. Critics will point out that many who converted to Christianity to “escape the Caste System” have also signed up for benefits under their caste identity, a sort of social double dipping.
The question remains to be explored, why would some Hindus feel that the Pope should apologize for “forced conversions”? Are there comparable Hindu-centric, anti-Christian activities operating here in the West? I think not. Most Hindus would have no problem with the argument that Jesus was a God. Buddhists may compare the Sermon on the Mount with the Buddha’s message in the Dhammapada. Hindus who are vegetarians or practicing Gandhian nonviolence may personally recoil at the imagery evoked when a Christian prays to be “washed in the blood of the lamb;” or they may wonder at the ontological contradictions in Christian philosophy; or marvel at the demands of blind faith – but Hinduism is a tolerant religion. I would dare to say that Christian fundamentalists are far more bigoted than their Hindu counterparts.
Significantly, it should be mentioned that the billions and billions of dollars donated to convert Hindus over the last few centuries have been an incredibly inefficient use of resources–only about 2.4% of India’s population is Christian, and that, after literally billions of dollars and hundreds of year. It is controversial that even soon-to-be-sainted Mother Teresa spent more on conversion activities than on health care and hospice. Unfortunately, conversions can have violent social and political repercussions, as in the separatist movements in the north eastern states of the Indian union. If the Pope finds it palatable to apologize for the Church’s traditional anti-Semitism. . . why not for its inherent anti-Hindu agenda? And why wouldn’t a supposedly neutral reporting agency like NPR not feel obliged to even entertain the possibility that there may some validity in the demand that the Pope apologize?
This message is not meant to be anti-Christian, just controversial.
–written Nov. 7, 1999—
It is interesting to note that the Vatican requested permission for the Pope to visit China, Bangladesh, Taiwan and Sri Lanka on his Asian tour, but they refused. It was Hindu majority India, it the grips of the Hindu nationalist government, that allowed the Papal visit. The Pope was not there to honor the traditions of the “East” he came to launch his new activities that aim at the evangelization of Asia. Those Hindu zealots in New Delhi allowed him to do so. In fact, India is one of the few countries that recognizes the Pope as a head of state. The United States and most Western countries recognize the Pope only as a religious leader. The Pope did not go to India as a political leader but as a religious leader. The Catholic Church has a long and self-proclaimed policy of evangelization or conversion and a special Asia synod to convert Asia. The Pope came to convert Hindus, not to show respect to an ancient and rich civilization. He was on a mission from God to bring more Hindu souls to Christ. He was not on a Dharmic Yatra visiting the ancient Tirthas.
There is also, as usual, a socio-political aspect to the Pope’s desire to convert Asia. The Catholic Church has lost most of its power in the West. In general, Catholics are only nominal in their beliefs, with many American Catholics practicing birth control, getting divorced and then, with a convenient annulment, remarried–all these practices are banned by the Church in Rome. Most, though philosophically connected with their Catholic roots, don’t attend church on a regular basis. It is significant that the average age of priests and nuns is about sixty and few younger people joining the orders. It is clearly an institution in decline. Without replenishing its population base it is facing a severe crisis. India offers perhaps the best possibility for doing this with a large population with a history of religious devotion and monastic activity that could readily become priests and nuns.