Are Indian Christians insecure after the recent attacks? How does the church respond to allegations levelled against it by the Bajrang Dal? Karan Thapar raises these issues with the Archbishop of Delhi and president of National United Christian Forum Vincent Concessao.
Karan Thapar: The church, its priests and nuns, Christians are under attack in Karnataka, Orissa, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Tamil Nadu, Uttarakhand and Delhi. Are you getting the felling that the church and its faith is under attack in India as a whole?
Vincent Concessao: Definitely, the church is under attack. The feeling of most of our people is that of insecurity because the government has not been able to protect them from atrocities.
Karan Thapar: So you are saying that it feels to you as if it is a nationwide phenomena.
Vincent Concessao: It is because there has been a lot of groundwork behind this—years of groundwork in spreading Hindutva.
Karan Thapar: You are saying the Christian community is actually feeling scared.
Vincent Concessao: Definitely. Because when attacks come unexpectedly—sometimes from people who are not of the place but from outside—you never know what happens next.
Karan Thapar: You mean to say that ordinary Christians are suddenly looking over their shoulders wondering when they will be the next victim.
Vincent Concessao: Precisely.
Karan Thapar: As you see it, this is a conspiracy against the Christian church and the Christian community organised by the Bajrang Dal?
Vincent Concessao: There is no doubt about it because it cannot be that all of a sudden in different places you have these attacks and atrocities.
You get crowds of people who are being organised with a purpose. You cannot get just hundreds of people together to attack innocent people unless they are organised and motivated.
That is the groundwork Hindutva has done in the past several decades.
Karan Thapar: So your suspicion is aroused by the fact that this is happening geographically across the country and it is happening in a very concerted, small space of time.
Vincent Concessao: Yes, I suppose they did try this earlier but probably they now feel more confident—that with these attacks they can organise all the Hindus together against the minorities and have better political outcome from this.
Karan Thapar: Let us look at two areas where attacks on Christians have attracted most attention. Orissa Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik has said he has done everything in his government’s power to protect Christians. Do you believe him?
Vincent Concessao: Not at all. He has not done even the minimum that is required to protect the citizens. How is that people could carry on vandalising institutions and killing people for days together? And it is still happening.
Karan Thapar: You really mean it when you say that he has not done the minimum that is required.
Vincent Concessao: That is what I am saying.
Karan Thapar: So you are accusing him in a sense of dereliction of duty?
Vincent Concessao: Yes, it is the responsibility of the state government to protect all its people. That has not happened. Attacks are still continuing.
Karan Thapar: You say attacks are still continuing and no doubts there have been reports of houses and churches being burnt in the last 48 hours in Kandhamal, but two days ago Naveen Patnaik’s deputy leader in the Rajya Sabha said on TV that Orissa is on the verge of normalcy. How do you respond to that?
Vincent Concessao: I don’t know what he understands by normalcy. There are thousands still in the jungles. I don’t know how they are eating, how there medical needs are being looked after—and in this rain what suffering they are going through.
They are afraid to go back to their places because their houses are no more there. They are scared of the goondas (goons) who could attack them.
Karan Thapar: Christians in Orissa are scared of their lives being lost?
Vincent Concessao: Definitely.
Karan Thapar: What about Karnataka? In Karnataka, it is reported that the police themselves attacked the churches. How do you respond to that?
Vincent Concessao: Very irresponsible behaviour. What I read from the newspapers was that these were new police officers—it is like the hedge is eating the vegetables.
Karan Thapar: In other words those who should be protecting are turning into attackers.
Vincent Concessao: Yes.
Karan Thapar: Chief Minister BS Yeddyurappa called upon the Archbishop of Bangalore and you have just returned from Bangalore. Was the explanation given to the church acceptable?
Vincent Concessao: No, the Archbishop of Bangalore was very upset, because for us the Blessed Sacrament is something precious. It is the heart of our Christian faith and when that gets desecrated anybody would be hurt. That is why he was so upset.
Karan Thapar: What more have you called upon the Karnataka government to do?
Vincent Concessao: Ban these terrorist groups, the mobs that attack small groups of minorities. Protection and security for all our people.
Karan Thapar: But at this moment Christians and the church as an institution feel unprotected in Karnataka?
Vincent Concessao: They are unprotected; they feel unprotected.
Karan Thapar: You said that you wanted the Karnataka Chief Minister to ban terrorist groups. Do you mean the Bajrang Dal?
Vincent Concessao: Yes.
Karan Thapar: Specifically, you want a ban on the Bajrang Dal?
Vincent Concessao: Bajrang Dal and even the VHP (Vishwa Hindu Parishad), which is very closely related to the Bajrang Dal.
Karan Thapar: You are calling as the Archbishop of Delhi and as the president of National United Christian Forum for a ban on the Bajrang Dal and the VHP.
Vincent Concessao: (Bajrang Dal and the) VHP because of what they have done in the last few weeks.
Karan Thapar: When you made this request to the Karnataka Chief Minister what did he say?
Vincent Concessao: I didn’t make it. The Bishop must have done it.
Karan Thapar: What reply did he get?
Vincent Concessao: I have no idea. I have not talked to him about it.
Karan Thapar: But you don’t believe that the Chief Minister is going to ban the Bajrang Dal and the VHP, do you?
Vincent Concessao: I don’t think, because it seems to some sort of collusion.
Karan Thapar: A collusion between the BJP-led Karnataka government, the Bajrang Dal and the VHP?
Vincent Concessao: Because the ideology is the same. The problem is not just some incident here and there. Behind it (attacks on churches) is a very clear ideology and strategy.
Karan Thapar: So you believe the BJP is colluding with the Bajrang Dal to attack Christians?
Vincent Concessao: That is the impression I am getting because of their not fulfilling the responsibility to protect Christians.
Karan Thapar: So you believe that today ‘the enemies of the church and the enemies of the Christian community is the BJP itself’.
Vincent Concessao: Yes, as manifested in what has happened.
Karan Thapar: You personally met both the Prime Minister and Sonia Gandhi and no doubt they are sympathetic but have they responded with the alacrity and the determination you were looking for?
Vincent Concessao: They were very sympathetic and they felt it was a shame that such things are happening in these days.
They also pointed out their limitations—the question of state-Centre relationship comes in and also their dependence on other parties working in alliance with them.
Karan Thapar: It is interesting for you to say that they pointed out their limitation. I want to ask you a specific question. Do you believe that Sonia Gandhi uses her position and influence to protect and help Indian Christians, or is she reluctant to do so?
Vincent Concessao: Well, I do feel that she is concerned, but that's another accusation that the Hindutva bodies have been levelling against her, that because she is a Christian, she is in favour of Christians.
Karan Thapar: So you are suggesting that to protect herself against this Hindutva accusation, she actually doesn't do as much for Christians as she could or she should?
Vincent Concessao: I think so; I think so.
Karan Thapar: Is it a fact that in January 2007 when the then Congress government in Himachal Pradesh was poised to pass an Anti-conversion Bill you wrote to Sonia Gandhi and she never responded to your letter?
Vincent Concessao: No, she did not.
Karan Thapar: Did that disappoint you?
Vincent Concessao: Well, I would say so.
Karan Thapar: Let me broaden the discussion a little. It is well understood today that Indian Muslims feel discriminated; they feel a sense of prejudice against them. That was not thought to be the case with Indian Christians. Now is it changing for Christians as well?
Vincent Concessao: Slowly it is getting into it, it is becoming more and more clear because of the non-action by responsible agencies in fulfilling their responsibility to protect and give security to our people.
Karan Thapar: So the more politicians fail to protect Christians, the more Christians feel discriminated against.
Vincent Concessao: Naturally.
Karan Thapar: Are Indians beginning to feel ill-treated, perhaps even in some places unwanted?
Vincent Concessao: I don’t think so. What is happening today is the work of a fringe group. The vast majority of our people are not against what we believe in and what we are committed to.
Karan Thapar: But if the fringe group is not checked then this could spread like a contagion?
Vincent Concessao: Definitely.
Karan Thapar: And then at that point Christians could feel discriminated, ill-treated and unwanted.
Vincent Concessao: It could be but I have a clear feeling that these fringe groups are not Hindus. Hinduism is not to be identified with Hindutva. Hindutva has its ideology from the West—from Hitler and Nazism. It has no roots in India, or in Hinduism.
Karan Thapar: In other words these fringe groups which are targeting Christians, are not representative of the vast majority of Hindus.
Vincent Concessao: Not at all.
Karan Thapar: These groups may hate Christians, but you feel no such hatred from the vast majority of Hindus.
Vincent Concessao: Definitely not, they (Hindus) are far more tolerant, far more open and broad-minded.
Karan Thapar: The Bajrang Dal believes the Christian church is responsible for the defamation and vilification of Hindu Gods as contained, for example, in the book called Satyadarshini, which has created enormous offence in Karnataka. Let me ask you bluntly: is the church connected, directly or indirectly, with Satyadarshini.
Vincent Concessao: Certainly not. We respect all religions. Any literature which creates disharmony or is offends people should be avoided. We condemn such publication of literature.
Karan Thapar: I quote to you what the press claims ‘Satyadarshini’ says about Hindu Gods. It says Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva are the victims of lust. It says Vishnu’s daughter Urvashi was a prostitute. It says Krishna represents darkness, rather than light. The Bajrang Dal says this is representative of how the Christian church views the Hindu faith.
Vincent Concessao: I think it is generalisation of what somebody has written. It (Satyadarshini) is apparently the work of one man. You cannot on that account attack the Christian community.
Karan Thapar: Do you condemn such views?
Vincent Concessao: Definitely.
Karan Thapar: Unequivocally?
Vincent Concessao: Yes, yes.
Karan Thapar: Very strongly?
Vincent Concessao: Definitely.
Karan Thapar: Do you disassociate the church from such views completely?
Vincent Concessao: Yes, we respect all religions. Our thinking maybe different and we differ. That is part of human life, particularly different points of view.
Karan Thapar: Do you subscribe to such views?
Vincent Concessao: No, if any literature disrespects other religions and is a cause of disharmony then it is to be condemned.
Karan Thapar: The problem is that the author of Satyadarshini is Rev. P Suryanarayan and the book says it was revised by Rev S Mallikat. Both of those are members of the Christian clergy.
Vincent Concessao: Could be, could be.
Karan Thapar: So isn’t there a Christian connection, a church connection with this book.
Vincent Concessao: When you speak of Christian clergy, then it is not one large organisation throughout the world. There are there different churches; some of them have different emphasis on different things. Maybe they are clergymen but not associated with all the churches.
Karan Thapar: Are they associated with the Catholic church, which is your church?
Vincent Concessao: I don’t think.
Karan Thapar: Do you think whichever church they are associated with that church should take disciplinary action against them?
Vincent Concessao: If they belong to a church the church will. But if they belong to another group, even though they are Christians they don’t come under the church’s jurisdiction.
Karan Thapar: Do you think the other group should take action against them?
Vincent Concessao: They should.
Karan Thapar: The problem is this is not the first time such defamatory literature about Hindu Gods or the Hindu faith has been released.
Earlier, as you perhaps know an organisation or a church calling itself the Southern Baptist which has released pamphlets where they spoke of the hopeless and darkness of Hinduism.
They called for Christ’s salvation in Kolkata. Then again that was widely perceived as an insult to the Hindu faith. If these don’t reflect the views of right-thinking Christians like yourself, why do these views kept getting published and released?
Vincent Concessao: This is a religious matter. You have no control over all those who claim to be Christians. Definitely our position is of respect for all people.
Karan Thapar: Are the authors of such pamphlets rogue Christians so to say?
Vincent Concessao: I do not know these people. They maybe misguided, maybe their interpretation is too narrow and maybe they are not able to see the good things in other religions.
Karan Thapar: But you disassociate unequivocally yourself from such people?
Vincent Concessao: With such literature.
Karan Thapar: Another area which leads to controversy is the belief that the Christian church exploits the illiteracy and poverty of Indians to seek converts?
I fully accept that you don’t indulge in forced conversion but does the Catholic church use its good work in schools, hospitals and leprosy missions to seek converts.
Vincent Concessao: This is a clear case of projection of these people on us. Their way of thinking is that. They do service in order to get some benefits—votes or whatever—and they think we also do the same. It is not correct. We serve because we are Christians.
Karan Thapar: You are saying to me categorically the work you do in schools, hospitals or leprosy missions is not connected with the desire to seek converts.
Vincent Concessao: If they turn to us and accept our faith we are happy, but the purpose is not there. The purpose is our love for God has to be manifested in our love for our neighbour.
Karan Thapar: I accept what you are saying but in 1956 the Neogi Committee in Madhya Pradesh established that the church used the work it did in schools, hospitals and leprosy missions to seek converts.
Vincent Concessao: No, it could be they worked and there were converts. But where does the linkage come. How did they know what the motivation was?
Karan Thapar: You dispute the claim that there is a linkage and a motivation?
Vincent Concessao: Definitely.
Karan Thapar: And people who suggest that are the ones who are mistaken?
Vincent Concessao: I think so. We do not serve in order to get converts. We serve because of our own commitment to Christ and our faith.
Karan Thapar: Let us come to the Christian faith in conversion. India is a multi-religious country and conversion has become a sensitive issue.
Can you agree that in the bigger, wider issue of India’s interest to a moratorium on conversions for 10-15 years so that the atmosphere calms down and the present tension diminishes?
Vincent Concessao: This proposal comes from a misunderstanding of conversion. You cannot convert anybody and forcible conversion is a contradiction in terms. If there is force there is no conversion.
Hindutva bodies are doing this and they think we are also doing it. We are not doing it, because we believe that forced conversion is invalid.
Karan Thapar: I accept there is no forced conversion. I accept conversions only happen voluntarily but conversions have become an issue that lead to passion and emotion.
Therefore, I say to you again in the wider interests of India’s unity and integrity why not place a moratorium on conversions for 10-15 years. I am not saying give up the right to convert but don’t exercise it till passions cool down.
Vincent Concessao: Whom are you stopping from exercising their freedom? Not us (but) the person who wants to become a Christian. You are restricting his freedom and that freedom has been given to him by the Constitution.
By saying this you are communicating a misconception of conversion. Conversion for me is the free exercise of the freedom of conscience given to us by the Constitution.
Karan Thapar: Is conversion or the right to convert more important to the church than the unity and integrity of India?
Vincent Concessao: Both are important.
Karan Thapar: You won’t choose between them?
Vincent Concessao: If you are limiting the freedom of the people to choose a religion they want, you are denying them their freedom. How do you expect unity to then come? Freedom is for all. This is the misunderstanding that has been repeatedly communicated to the people—this is creating problem.
It is not conversion but a distorted understanding of conversion that the believers of Hindutva have propagated for the last 80 years or so.
Karan Thapar: Archbishop Concessao, a pleasure talking to you.