A lightly edited version of this article appeared on Firstpost here.
In Los Angeles, a crowd of protesters gathered around a statue of Junipero Serra, a missionary who had been tasked with converting and suppressing the native people during Spanish colonization. Elders from the indigenous community told stories of their ancestors and recounted the crimes of Serra, who had been declared a saint by the Catholic Church in 2015. The cries from the crowd grew louder. Ultimately, some of them tied a noose around the neck of the statue, and pulled. The statue of Serra bearing the cross was ripped from its pedestal, and came crashing down upon the ground, face first.
In the United States, it was the summer of discontent following the death of George Floyd. Black lives matter, they said. As well as the rights of indigenous people everywhere who have been subjected to colonization, conversion and racial prejudice for centuries. The world cheered. In Britain, protesters tore down a statue of a colonial era slave trader in Bristol. The following year, activists in Canada beheaded a statue of Queen Victoria outside the state legislature in the province of Manitoba.
While these were technically speaking acts of vandalism, much of the world saw them as good, positive outcomes. Because every issue is ultimately about how the media frames it. Why then has the media coverage of protests by tribal people over the last few weeks in Chhattisgarh been so one-sided? Why is the media insisting on reducing the matter to a single video showing a young man breaking a Catholic statue outside a church? To this, they added the usual commentary about “rising intolerance” in India. Western media got involved as well, covering the supposed attacks on Christianity and raising the bogey of Hindutva.
Why not turn around this gaze? And for once, talk about the anxieties of people as the Church pushes demographic change in India. And the historic as well as continuing role of the Church in suppressing indigenous cultures around the world. After all, what makes a protester breaking a statue in California a “liberal,” but a “fascist” in Chhattisgarh? And what is a fascist anyway? It actually describes an ideology that has historically been sponsored by the Church itself. Let us talk about such things. Because as the African proverb goes, until the lion learns to write, every story will glorify only the hunter.
Conversion is an attack on India’s sovereignty
What is organized religious conversion, whether in India or anywhere else? Our ancestors have lived in this land for thousands of years. We worship this land, its mountains, forests and rivers. Every tree that grows here, and every season has its own special significance in our culture. These traditions are much older than Christianity, and in some sense older than history itself. Imagine someone coming in from outside to say that we are fallen, sinful or worse, devil worshipers. And then offering to save our souls. How? By becoming loyal to the Pope, a monarch who rules over Vatican City, a kingdom located in Europe.
That is colonialism. In order to rule effectively, they divide up our country into their own administrative divisions, which they call dioceses. The Vatican appoints an officer to oversee each diocese. He is called a bishop. And thus inside our borders, they are building a state within a state. A state whose interests may or may not be the same as those of India. Ask the activists carrying Vatican flags who stopped the construction of Vizhinjam deep sea port in Kerala a few months ago.
The problem of conversion by enticements
Because they have rich donors from the West, the church is able to build schools and hospitals, which can be used as bargaining chips for enticing people to convert. And where that does not work, there are always things like “miracles.” These are events where large numbers of people are cured of all sorts of diseases, organized by preachers who are well-practiced in the art of performative deception. Incidentally, what is the official criterion for someone to be declared a “saint” by the Vatican? It is two “confirmed miracles,” whatever that means.
No wonder that these efforts are targeted at people in the poorest parts of the country. We are talking about tribal regions of Jharkhand, Odisha and Chhattisgarh. There is no way for state capacity in these areas to compete with foreign money. And even if they tried their best, it wouldn’t work. By its very nature, the state has to distribute its resources uniformly across all parts. But the church is a private entity. It can concentrate its spending in specific areas, and target them for conversion. On top of that, these targeted areas quickly become votebanks for “secular” political parties. One more reason for these parties, whenever in power, to ignore the problem of religious conversion.
The church is now a player in our domestic politics. It also understands the faultlines in Indian society. And how to play off one against the other: the south against the north, or the northeast against the rest. In the 1993 Rwandan genocide, church priests played a major role in turning the Hutus against the Tutsis. What might happen tomorrow in a country with as many competing identities as India?
Conversion is a European colonial project
In 1935, the world watched with horror as Mussolini’s Italian troops invaded and occupied Ethiopia, then known as Abyssinia. At the time, Ethiopia was a sovereign member of the League of Nations, one of the last remaining places in Africa that had not been colonized by Europeans. But the Vatican announced its support to Mussolini. The invasion became a holy war to “civilize” the native people and bring them under the banner of the Roman Catholic Church. And that is how the fascists justified their aggression before the world.
In fact, the collusion between the church and the fascists goes much deeper. As part of a 1929 deal, Mussolini gave the Pope the power to rule over Vatican City as a sovereign state. In return, the Pope recognized the fascist regime in Italy and praised Mussolini as a man sent by God. Four years later, the church signed a similar agreement with Hitler, legitimizing the Nazi regime in return for special religious privileges. This was just after the Catholic party gave Hitler the votes he needed to amend the constitution and give himself absolute power. Incidentally, both these agreements remain in full force even today, with the modern Italian and German states enforcing these special privileges of the church.
These are not unique examples. Across continents, from Africa to Asia, and from Australia to the Americas, religious conversion has always been part of the colonial project. And not just for the Catholic Church. Even the more enlightened colonial officers, such as Montstuart Elphinstone, the governor of Bombay after whom Elphinstone College is named, believed that upliftment of the native people would eventually lead to them converting to Christianity.
“Just as the first millennium saw the cross firmly planted in the soil of Europe, and the second in that of America and Africa, so may the third Christian millennium witness a great harvest of faith on this vast and vital continent.” These were the words of the Pope during his 1999 visit to New Delhi. The colonial tone of those words can hardly be missed. How much has really changed?
The long resistance of Indian people against the Church
On Dec 24, 1899, tribal people in Chotanagpur region, now in Jharkhand, began a series of attacks on missions run by Anglican and Roman Catholic churches in the area, as well as local zamindars loyal to the British. Their leader was the 24 year old Birsa Munda, now remembered as a legendary freedom fighter of the Indian independence movement. The British suppressed the Munda rebellion of 1899. Birsa Munda was captured the following year, and tortured in a Ranchi jail, where he died in 1900.
As a child, Birsa had actually attended a missionary school, where he had been given the name of “Birsa David.” But when he grew up, he rejected Christianity, returned to the original Munda traditions, and began a movement against missionary activity. Our names contain our history, the stories of our ancestors. When you take away our names and our traditions, you are cutting us off from our land. Birsa Munda understood this. He knew that the people had to resist.
Why won’t the ‘activist’ class speak up for people to keep their way of life?
Speaking of resistance by indigenous people, where is the ‘activist’ class? This class has given intellectual covering fire even to organized terrorist activity against the Indian state. Members of the elite with obvious connections to the banned CPI(Maoist) and other left wing terrorist groups are often hailed as poets, and human rights activists in intellectual circles. While violence is always wrong, the recent troubles in Chhattisgarh are nothing compared to the scale of Naxalite violence in those same parts.
If these people had been protesting against a new factory, a new railway line, or a dam, it is more than likely that the activist class would have supported them. But not against missionary activity. Why? Because people in those parts don’t need jobs, but they do need churches? Because the Indian state is supposed to be an outside force in Jharkhand or Chhattisgarh, but the Roman Catholic Church is an insider?
All over the world, the activists say they are for the rights of indigenous people to keep their way of life. But in India, they support religious conversion by the church. Why?
I will tell you why. Because India is a living civilization, the last of its kind in the whole world. The descendants of the great Egyptians, the Mesopotamians, the Chinese, the Greeks, the Romans and the Aztecs and the Incas have all been subdued by one of the Abrahamic faiths or by Communism. But in India, we still grow up with stories, culture and traditions that have remained unbroken for thousands of years.
Remember the statue in Los Angeles mentioned at the beginning of this piece? In 2021, the governor of California signed a bill to replace the toppled statue of missionary Junipero Serra with a monument to indigenous peoples. But that is really lip service. The fact remains that the civilization of Native Americans has been almost entirely wiped out, and their land colonized forever. This lip service today does not cost the liberals anything at all. If our indigenous culture were wiped out tomorrow, I am sure that the activist class would pretend to show the same courtesy to us.
But what if we want to save our living civilization? You know, before it is reduced to museums. Then, they will say that we are “fascists.” Or worse.