Lifting Padmini’s Veil

I just read this Scroll article which is being shared on Facebook by some good people. Following are the arguments in support of Sanjay Leela Bhansali made in this article (along with some other articles too, clubbed together) –
1) It’s not a ‘distortion’ of history because the ‘saga’ never happened in the first place. Two proofs forwarded are –
  • Malik Muhammad Jayasi wrote the book called Padmavat – hundreds of miles away from Rajputana and hundreds of years later than the incident said to have happened.
  • There is no corroborative contemporary evidence of Padmini ever having existed. The main source of Alauddin Khilji’s Chittore siege is Amir Khusro and he never mentions her.

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2) It’s a freedom of speech and expression issue – the basic civic right of each citizen in a liberal democratic set-up. Everyone has a right to interpret and analyse and then portray. And the people who are opposing it are by definition thus anti-democratic in spirit.

The article then goes on to suggest that today the Rajputs are ashamed because their daughters were once given to the Mughal kings in treaties as token of their subservience and loyalty. The same Rajputs who were once the carrier of the flag, known for their valour and loyalty, are now marginalised in their own territory, emasculated politically, economically and socially. Democracy’s number game has disadvantaged them because of their numerical inferiority. They are thus now turning to save their dignity with such vicarious-but-patriarchal methods as attacking the set of film-shooting, trying to protect their lost honour in the myth of Padmavati. Padmavati is this as mythical as the Rajput valour (another myth created by Tod). Thus, this frustration induced backlash.

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This is what the article says, I think. Its easy to counter some of these arguments.

First things first – the sources.

That Jayasi wrote the poem a couple of centuries later and a few hundred miles afar makes it abundantly clear that it’s not a primary and hence totally reliable source. At best it can be a secondary source and thus in absence of the primary source, it’s less reliable. There is also no denying that fact.

However, citing Amir Khusro’s non-mention (who was to be her supposed contemporary) of the Padmini affair as a proof of her non-existence is nothing but a logical fallacy. Proof of absence and absence of proof are two different things altogether. At best we can infer that there is no contemporary source. But to jump from this argument to the next level by saying that it proves her as a mythical character is little bit daring. This for two reasons.

A. Amir Khusro: A Poet, a Historian –

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Amir Khusro, despite having written a couple of histories, was not a regular historian is a settled fact among historians of today. He may be a great court poet and musician and a famous sufi murid. He may well deserve the epithet of Tuti-e-Mir and Turkalla. But his writings are mostly masnavis and other kinds of poetry which are packed with historical inaccuracies, geographical and chronological mistakes, undue exaggerations and deliberate omissions. He mentions, even in his histories, only those parts where he thinks would earn him praise of his master. Court historians are known to be like this everywhere and all the times. Its their job.

In Islam, history writing was a specialised job and it took many years of training under a master to be able to do so. Not only Elliot and Dowson, the authors and translators of (ill)-famous The History of India as Told by its Own Historians say so but the modern historians of medieval India like Satish Chandra have cautioned against liberally using his writing as history. Peter Hardy, one of the eminent historians of the medieval India has clearly cautioned against labeling Amir Khusro as a historians. Even Prof. Harbans Mukhia has said that Khusro could be used to understand socio-cultural ethos, customs, practices and traditions of the time… but to use him as a historian would be a mistake.

And when a mere non-mention by ‘poet’ Amir Khusro is being peddled as a proof of Padmini being a later-era myth, it brings me pain. Its a convenient smokescreen. Mind well – not for a moment I am suggesting that the whole saga is a history. It very well might not be. The logical inference is – we don’t know. There is no conclusive proof.

B. Absence of Proof as a Proof of Absence – 

Some readers of this blog would be surprise to know that there some queer cases like Meera. Meera is not known to have mentioned in any contemporary record. Earliest records that we find today are at least a century later – like in Bhaktamal of Nabhadas. Should that be taken as a proof of her being imaginary?

sanjay-leelaDefinitely, Padmavat is a very bewitching poem with a hold over public psyche for many centuries. It takes forward the tradition of bardic poetry of the Rajputana. It’s also the landmark in the medieval development of Hindi. Along with khyats (like burunjis of Assam), the Rajasthani bardic poetry has enriched our society, literature and also history to certain extent.

In Defence of the Indefensible: The Annals of James Tod –

Today, people are fond of attacking James Tod as a myth-maker. He relied mostly on bardic narratives and family annals. His resources were limited and biased, his methods unsophisticated and his approach uncritical. His reliance on bards is specially taken as a point to debunk each and everything he wrote.

History, both in substance as well as method, has changed very much after Tod’s romanticisation – they say. In between we have rise and fall of the Victorian era, well represented by imperial historians like Moreland and Vincent Smith, countered by nationalist historians of Rajasthan like Gauri Shankar Ojha. Then we have the Allahabad school succeeded by the Aligarh Marxist school. Today we have post-Marxist theories with multi-disciplinary approach and critical perspective. Tod, thus they say, is an outdated Scottish, India-lover Company-officer, who needs to be thrown in the dustbin of history or be rejected as romantic – not be treated as a historian.

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These people may well be partially justified. But only partially I must say. For one, Tod is not ‘out and out’ useless, there are various parts in his two volume book which still hold ground. Secondly and more importantly, oral history has been gaining quite some respect for last couple of decades. Not only from the narrative-reconstruction point of view but also in its own respect. Historians are adopting various new methods from different disciplines today – one of which is realisation of importance of ‘orature’ as historical resource. These methods are being borrowed from two different disciplines – anthropology (for tribal studies) and literary theory (for studying classics like Homer or Shahnameh).  Arrival of critical and post-colonial methods in social sciences has furthered such approaches.

In short – debunking Tod in off-hand manner only because he relied heavily on bards to construct his narrative may be fashionable but not strong enough reason. Its not only irresponsible but also cavalier. We can rather look at Tod today in a totally different perspective than we did in the previous century. It may not speak of history of instances, but it does speak of a different history – of people or ‘history of mentalities’ of the Annales school type (of both the medieval Jayasi-era Rajputs and also Scottish-Enlightenment inspired servants of the East India Company) or simply history of what people considered cherished and why.

Distort the Myth, Let Alone the History – 

Now, coming to the later half of the Scroll argument – the author seems to suggest that because the Padmavat-story it is not a history, it can be liberally interpreted. As the Padmini herself is a myth, so is the upcoming film – so where is the harm?. Why to cry about ‘distortion’  when the base itself is imaginary?

TS Elliot would have said –

Between the idea, and the reality
Falls the Shadow
Between the conception, and the creation 
Falls the Shadow

There is a two-level problem in the argument.

Firstly, its not always possible to separate history from myth. There are always some narratives. Fact-value is not as clinically dichotomous as it may appear at the first impress. Where to draw the line then? How to separate one from the another? I think its not only difficult but sometimes even practically impossible. Some historians have turned their gaze in other ways now and they study the attitudes, power-equation, approaches and shifts in such narratives today, rather than dealing in black-and-white.

(There is implied suggestion also that adhering to history as fact is rational but to myths is irrational. However, the author is blissfully unaware of the changed contours of the concept of rationality – both in psychology as well as in history of ideas. Holding dear the post-Enlightenment rationality by rejecting myth as irrational and considering positivist history as rational is fine sometimes but doesn’t paint the whole story.)

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Secondly, even if it is granted that such clinical separation of fact-value is possible upto some satisfactory extent, the corollary that emanates from it is this – history should be strictly interpreted while myth can be modified freely. Aren’t the problems in both the parts obvious? History can be imaginatively interpreted. Look at the work of the people like Prof Shahid Amin on Imaginary Gandhi. And if the author is claiming that all kind of distortion of any myth is legitimate by virtue of it being a myth, well then there is no end to it. It takes us to the second set of argument – freedom of expression.

The Speech: Free and Fair – 

Let me make my position clear – I am in support of total freedom of expression. Even to the extent that it shouldn’t matter if it causes offence to some individual or group. I believe that the speech is not progressive enough if its not causing offence to sizable number of people (however it’s converse is not true, as in the case at hand). There could have been no Buddha and Mahavira or Shankaracharya without the tradition of respecting free speech by their opponents. There could not have been any social reform in Hinduism starting in the 19th if we were so sensitive about not causing offence.

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However, the question is of intent. The controversy in its most crude form erupted with the Danish cartoon in Europe a few years ago. Was that in poor taste? – yes. Was that progressive in any way? – Perhaps not. Was there possibly some malicious intent? – Possible. Will the ban on such cartoon be the suppression of artistic and journalistic freedom? – definitely. What should be done then? – not sure. The debate in the classical liberal democratic place like Europe is not settled yet. Everyone agrees that there should be some line. But no one agrees on where that line should be.

The issue in India is however somewhat more complicated by the fact that India is NOT a classical liberal democracy. There are multiple laws and rules, state enforcement is weak, capacity is feeble. And moreover, the society is not as ‘progressive’.

Some people say these are the colonial era archaic laws that restrict the free speech. Its all the colonial legacy – starting from defamation secion in the penal code, sedition amendment later, gag act of Lord Lytton and Rangila Rasool controversy in 1920s. However this is just a partial picture again. The very first amendment to the constitution  of the free India was done to curb the free speech and it was done by Babasaheb Ambedkar and Chacha Nehru together. The two magazines in question were creating hurdles in the government land reform policy measures – one was Marxist while the other was religious right wing. The Indian state’s record is not blameless. It has buckled all too very often in last six decades.

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To be sure again – there is no legal and moral justification of the criminal conduct of the Karni Sena. All that we can say is SLB’s poor taste resulted in his having to face some uncouth, anti-social elements. And the state had neither will or capacity to impose the rule of law.

As the issue stands today – there is the Article 19(2) of the constitution which allows reasonable restrictions on the free speech on eight specifically enumerated grounds – nothing more and nothing less. But there is a due process. If the people had issues with the picturisation, they should have fully utilised the laws and processes available. Such street-level goonda-gardi is reprehensible.

Extrapolation: Reading Through the Fine Print – 

However, I would not like to judge the cause of their discontent or being felt offended in so off-hand a manner as the author of the Scroll article does. His line of argument can be converted in these words without any loss of meaning – that if Rajputs can themselves send off their daughters to the Mughal kings in marriage for centuries, SLB should have the right to picturise a dream sequence showing Alauddin and Padmini in romance. SLB’s ‘crime’ evidently is of lesser magnitude than the kaum of Padmini herself and  thus Rajputs have no moral right to claim any offence. These are not the author’s words, but this is what he seems to be saying in nutshell. I don’t need to expound on his arrogance of the author and his regressive-ness here.

If he had delved into history a bit more, what is called as ‘due diligence’ in a professional manner, he would have found that its the same Sena which has vandalised other film sets before and had indulged in some similar un-civil activities in the past. These are the habitual offenders who get habitually offended. To extrapolate immediately from that and paint the whole Rajput community in one brush is not only over-generalisation, but also criminal stereotyping. It only betray’s his own regressive attitude.

The Narratives: Created and Re-created – 

Anyway. History is and will remain a sensitive subject. And an object.

Also no one can rule out the possibility that this was all staged – by SLB himself – as a publicity stunt. That can also be one possible and probable ‘narrative’ for historians of Scroll.

Sumit Sarkar 2.0

sumitwithbookProf. Sumit Sarkar is not keeping well for last many months, I hear.

He published his latest book Modern Times a couple of years ago. It was initially supposed to be just an update over his 1983 classic Modern India but he felt that the original book is ‘thoroughly dated’ and thus couldn’t be updated. He instead is bringing out a two-volume set titled Modern Times. The first was published in around 2015 and the second one is awaited.

Reading both the books (1983 and the latest one), it seems that his writing is still as terse as it was then, but has lost that bit of sharpness. It was unforgettable when he called Gen. Dyer as ‘the butcher of Jallianwallah’, and Churchill as ‘pigheaded’ or Gandhi in 1942 being ‘in uniquely militant mood’. Although very prose, it has a kind of embedded liveliness into it. The new book is still dense but the sharpness seems to have matured now.

Significantly, it’s a difficult read because he seems to have a specific reader in mind who is fairly familiar with the debates on-going in the discipline. Back in 1983, he was enamoured by the subaltern school, which was relatively new. Back then, there was not much debate on ideology and Foucauldian analysis was not in vogue. Saidian methods were yet to touch modern Indian history. Modernity was still modern, so to say. Today, the subaltern group doesn’t exist, it’s splintered and its members went into different directions. Sumit Sarkar himself later seems to have decried demise of the subaltern in subaltern. Prof. Sarkar also quips the random and loose usage of post-modern and critical theories in the latest book.

One important development is the theoretical awareness of the narrative. The olden times, the narrative books were different and the books dealing with references and methods were written separately for a select few. Now the situation is changed for there is an awakening that the narrative can’t be separated from theory. Prof. Sarkar has done good justice to it. It’s a rare skill to find a powerful narrative which is theoretically informed and yet not boring.

modern-india-400x400-imadxngmxdmy6cnfIn between the two books (the intervening ~30 years), there were many developments in the field of history. New Cambridge series appeared. Sociology became much more sophisticated and active into history. Gender and caste studies exploded. Apart from peasants, tribals and workers, many other sections, aspect, regions and era started receiving due attention. Many history departments in India either became defunct or substandard. Except in few cases, the American academia became extremely active and powerful in not only doing latest research but also setting the tone. There were some other indigenous developments too.

The 1980s was the time when environmental history started as an academic discipline in India – thanks to the pioneering work of people like Ram Guha and Madhav Gadgil. That has been largely incorporated into the mainstream of modern India now. Back then there was scanty research available on North East India. It hardly existed in the books. Now that some substantial body of work has evolved due to labours of some hardworking individuals, it’s poised to be integrated into the mainstream narrative. Same is the case with legal history – which was back then studied either by law fraternity or only for the sake of understanding the evolution of administration, a dab topic considered back then. Sociologists have done immense work on the legal aspect of modern India and that work is now well integrated into the main narrative, which is getting amply reflected into Sarkar’s new book.

Also, the correlation between what was happening in Europe or the world over and in India is better brought into the narrative. Back then, it was mostly about London politics or European wars but the horizons are expanded today. Many more connected points between global happening and Indian developments are suggested.

Culture, back then, was thought as either bourgeoisie phenomenon or reflection of production relationships. Marxist historians thus gave very less importance to those aspects compared to the politics and state which were considered as the central issues of interest. (It’s surprising not least because Marxist activists were the ones at the forefront of the folk theatre with IPTA) That issue has been gladly resolved now that copious amount of work is done on music, architecture, dance, painting, drama, novels etc. Prof. Sarkar has also attempted to include those aspects. His chapters on print culture, Hindustani classical music and urbanisation are superbly written. This shift in the focus away from state and politics is well summed up in the change of title itself – from Modern India to Modern Times.

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Also, the old had sharp dates – 1885 to 1947. Today it’s realised that both the events – the formation of Congress (1885) and freedom with partition (1947) don’t really represent as sharp breaks as were thought of earlier. Significance doesn’t mean discontinuities, especially in history. The new book thus talks about a period from the 1880s to 1950s.

Sarkar is a historians’ historian and thus the book is totally unreadable for a layman (as was the previous one). Although it’s full of jargon and requires some time to comprehend, if one has read the earlier book, it becomes easy. It’s a highly dense book, with huge data habitually compressed into a few lines. Also, at many places, instead of enunciating his arguments separately, he brings forth those forth through the facts. Getting used to his style takes some time as well as efforts.

His influence has been immense. He never flinches from taking sides, his words are precise. If we notice the two important interventions in modern Indian history textbook writing in the last decade, these are undoubtedly by Sekhar Bandyopadhyay and Ishita Banerjee-Dubey. Both confessedly give a huge credit to Prof. Sarkar.

I am not a Marxist by a far shot (and there indeed are some places where I do disagree with his conclusions). Yet, Prof Sarkar’s is one of the most rigorous books I have ever read. I also prefer him over some other historians like late Bipan Chandra whose books are not as good or deep but are (unfortunately) famous I suspect primarily because of simple (or rather simplistic) writing.

The second volume is still awaited. I hope Durga Maa gives him enough power and life to complete it soon.

 

Medium is the Message

For quite a while I was thinking about restarting the blog. But then I thought I shouldn’t. The thoughts kept swinging….  who reads it anyway nowadays? Facebook and Twitter have almost killed the blog-world. A few of my friends doggedly stay out there on the front, carrying the mast of blogging on their broad shoulders through the wilderness but some of them are too late into this once-beautiful world of blog while others are resigned from within.

derridaDoes this always happen? That the change in platform changes the content? Or the reader? And eventually the writer? I know that dreadful phrase of Derrida – ‘medium is the message’. It sounds too empty isn’t it? Hollowness surrounds it. The idea that the form itself is the content and outside of the form there is no separate content is really very grotesque. It’s beyond ‘normal’ existentialist notions. There are some people who say that its similar to shunyavad of Nagarjun (that Dhamma is empty). I don’t know that. All I know is that it’s pretty dreadful.

It also implies that there is no srijan/creation beyond mere transformation. What does an artist do then? And what does a reader perceive? Both are standing in their own orthogonal planes. Perhaps intersecting somewhere, with shared experiences or outlook. But mostly separate. Their’s may be a shared orthography but not necessarily a shared ontology.

Long time ago, Indian languages were undergoing modernisation, accepting new forms of expression like novel, European-style drama, new kind of poetry, travelogues, history writing, dictionaries.. It was not a mere change in form of expression but the new spirit of age. That spirit couldn’t be expressed in traditional formats. Even before that when the Portuguese missionaries brought the printing press or the Turks brought the commonplace use of paper, there must have been such fundamental changes in readership and authorship and also in the content. Enlightenment ideas became prominent in the 18th century Europe because of both the reading revolution and printing revolution which together helped extend the private middle class sphere and make it into secular, independent public sphere. Or so says Habermas. Partha Chatterji has regionalised this theory in Indian context. Whatever.

Simple fact seems that the technological shocks are going to rock the world of reading and writing more and more often. Each platform will signify an era or a generation – not only of technology but of people. Because not all the content flows seamlessly from old to new platform. Content generation is a continuous process and people get stuck to their own platform. Yahoo, for example, is still used very much by many 30-something old Americans. Similar is the story of hotmail and rediff. People in 20s use gmail more often than not. Technology perhaps changes people but not endlessly. Old habits die hard. People adapt to something fast but then later prefer to grow old with it, or they find it hard perhaps to keep adapting all the time. This happens not only because they lost their mental agility to keep changing but there is another reason to it. Their type of content is stuck in one or two platforms and it doesn’t get migrated to the new platforms completely. New platforms create their own new content which may not content these older people…:)

Anyhow. It appears that now platforms change faster than people do. The changes are so fast that many people outlive changes in formats and platforms. All this has kind of degraded the idea of content and has put more premium on the method or form. Form is the new God. Content is just something that tags along, or rather limps along. Medium has indeed become a message. Because there is no substantial message besides anyway.

आँखो देखी – Psychological/Philosophical Review

Its a fantastic movie. That’s the one line summary of all that is about to follow.

I watched it a few months ago and then watched it many times since then. After watching it for the first time, I stayed awake in the bed until early in the morning, could not sleep. Some remote feeling of uneasiness pervaded throughout the night. Every subsequent attempt at watching the film simply deepens that feeling. People here on Quora are trying to make the sense of it from psychological perspective. Although it is very difficult to capture an audio-visual experience in words, here is my take.

(Spoiler alert – don’t read ahead if you are yet to watch the movie. You can watch the trailer here.)

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IMDB introduces the movie thus – “Ankhon Dekhi centers around Raje Bauji, played by Sanjay Mishra who, after a dramatic incident, decides that he will only believe what he sees with his eyes.” Ostensibly, its a movie of an old town, 50-odd years old person from a lower middle class in Delhi called Bauji. Someone may think of it as a twisted comical story of mid-life crisis. It is not. Its also not a story of his family, though it appears like one. The film is rich in allegorical meanings, symbolic and metaphorical interpretations – intended or unintended by Rajat Kapoor. We can only guess.

Coming to the main quest of Bauji – epiphany of truth being only experiential, at least insofar as personal belief system is concerned, I wonder how come no one talked about the concept of education by John Dewey in the context of this movie. His idea of experiential learning and socialisation are directly reflected into bauji’s quest of truth (but in a very comic-yet-serious way). When Bauji goes to the school to find out why his bhatija has failed the maths paper, he quizzes the math teacher with questions about parallel lines meeting at infinity. The math teacher himself has accepted this truth as given, without interrogation. His irritation, though very funny, shows the uneasiness one would experience if faced with inconvenience of having to think about the mundane things in very un-mundane way. (I actually of thought of Kabir’s ulatbansi here). Later in the movie, the teacher is happy that he could understand the real meaning of probability while playing teen-patti, a real life experience. Rajat Kapoor seems to be trying to bring out the meaning by subverting what is given/assumed/received and thus forcing us to think critically, albeit in a manner which is not pedantic/didactic. Here he succeeds in making full use of the film as an idiom. Some people might think that Bauji is just another avatar of an archetypal wise-fool. May be. But the movie is much more than that.

To me, the character of Chacha (Kapoor), the younger brother, represents an alter-ego of Bauji (Mishra). The development of Bauji’s inner struggle is inextricably linked with the trajectory of his relationship with Chacha on the outside. There is this concept called anomie, which is a condition in which an individual becomes free-floating, cut-off from the society in term of values and emotional bond. It is said to be one reason for suicides. Was Bauji experiencing that condition? What could have triggered that? The more Bauji tries to cut himself off from the received wisdom, closer gets the coterie of random people around him. Coterie’s coming closer and younger brother’s going away happen simultaneously, as if only to reinforce the same point. In the end when Bauji cuts the coterie abruptly off, Chacha comes back and the man-mutao between them is over. Both these things are correlated to Bauji’s intellectual/psychological arc of development. As if to emphasise that the journey is now over, internal struggle is conquered and calmness pervades. Whether or not Rajat Kapoor had all this in mind, we never know.

At another level, it is also a story of a lower middle class family trying to eke out its living in congested urban place. Its struggle is to create a meaning for itself in an urban social context. The film becomes overtly philosophical in a serious way only fleetingly. Take the scene of a train at hill station, in the end. The comment of a life being a mere sum of sequential experiences both good and bad goes very beautifully with the scene of a moving train in the woods. Apparently, Rajat Kapoor is strongly influenced by existentialist school of thought, but not in a very gloomy way. Although the marriage of Rita and dil-jamai of the two brothers are the happy things, the suicide in the end leaves a viewer with a deep sense of disillusionment, if not depression.

The movie is full of many subtle and not-so-subtle comments on society. The way the coterie around Bauji comments, reflects and reacts to Bauji over the whole trajectory of the storyline is one example of it. Class relations, power-structure inside family, expected gender roles – everything is there. Rajat Kapoor also has a good eye for satire – take for example a comic character of Ajju’s father or the gadbad at the marriage ceremony in the end. As if to suggest its irrelevance, or might I say irreverence?

Picturisation of Delhi 6 – its houses, alleys, schools and temples, its people and shops, its winter mornings and summer afternoons – as if the part of the city is a living character in the movie. About the music, its wonderful, apt and very enjoyable.

A good movie director is like a good chef, irrespective of intent and efforts, there has to be that additional X-factor without which the whole dinner might fail. Rajat Kapoor indeed has succeeded in creating a wonderful dish full of all the rasas. I just wish I could congratulate him for creating this wonderful movie one day.

Arunachal Diaries – 9

Let’s finish the last leg of the Christianity in the NE region before turning our focus onto the RSS and its sister organisations’ work.

Pooja in the living room.
Pooja posing for a photo in the Father’s living room.

Father Tommy is a clever and imaginative person. He understands the popular psyche well. From Mithun Gate on the highway, the winding road reaches the Church about a km inside – with the bell tower standing tall. All along the road, he has erected many panels depicting Christian legends and myths in mural-form at regular intervals. On days like the Good Friday and other such occasions, local tribal people take this route after the Mass – one by one garlanding the panels – dancing and singing, playing traditional drums in a procession. This has become a kind of a ritual now and has been around for 20 odd years. The road is also unofficially named after Mother Mary. Nowadays Indians seem to have learnt such things – palpable and ritualistic – putting exclusive claim on physical, as if marking their territoriality. This is not the characteristic of Abrahmic religions alone anymore. Such things are put to use by clever persons imaginatively. All that it takes is some social as well as aesthetic understanding of religion and human psyche. And obviously – the persistence, being routed in locality for long enough that the people forget the time before your arrival.

If one thinks, such kind of pradakshina is not actually a Christian practice. Starting from circumambulatory paths around stupas and then Hindu temples, it was also adopted by Sufi saints in the dargahs of their walis and pirs (they call it tawaaf). But this adoption is not an isolated example. There was a huge debate amongst the early Jesuits in India about the strategies to be adopted for conversion (Source – Sumit Sarkar). There emerged two schools. One stressing puritanical approach of religion while other trying to modify the European mores to suit Indian customs by adopting Indian ways – like niranjan and dhoop in front of god’s image, writing pious hymns in Indian metrical styles, adopting local language for mass etc. Puritanical faction opposed such dilution tooth and nail and even filed a complaint with the Vatican or whichever their higher-ups were. How that debate shaped up I don’t know but the later approach sounds logical to me. More than religion, it’s always about a community, a parish. If something new is to be inserted in a pre-existing society, it must morph itself into a form recognizable + palatable to cause minimum disruption.

Minanath, Nikhl, Vineet, Pooja with the Bell.
Minanath, Nikhil, Vineet, Pooja with the Bell. Photo gratuitously taken by the Father.

I was actually a little hesitant to open up the topic of conversion. But Ashishiji had no such qualms. He innocuously asked with all the innocent curiosity of the world on his face whether it’s true that the fathers are monetarily compensated for bringing people into their Church’s fold. Father Tommy was surprisingly free and frank. He neither looked hurt not angry, as if he was expecting this sort of question all the while. After a small pause he said that these are two different issues. Catholic Church, he said, certainly doesn’t encourage any such malpractice because belief in a faith can’t be bought. However they do believe in active conversion. Secondly, he said, there’re some ‘fringe Churches’ of other denominations bringing bad name to the Christianity as a whole damaging its reputation. He then voluntarily started talking about then-in-news ghar wapsi phenomenon. His argument in nutshell was that ghar wapsi is wrong and painful. However, the NE tribes don’t have any religion of their own. Their customs are backward, uncivil. It’s the duty of his Church to help them. And in the process if they choose to become Christian, it can’t be termed as ‘conversion’ because they lack any religion to start with. So, it’s a free market (his words) – all religions should come here and try to convert as many of them as possible. Whoever is better at it will get the most. The spirit of competition..!

I was aghast. I had thought of all people, he would have some respect for native tribal culture and belief system. For all his likeability and affability, he also had some streaks of dogmatism. But he was unabashedly open about his view and was very firm on his stance with all the logical arguments ready. I kind of liked it. His problem was that the tribals who are actually SC are denied the benefits of that status once they convert to Christianity. He wished that tribals should be able to keep the both statuses – SC and Religious minority benefits. Such dual-benefits are opposed from many other quarters. The arguments from both the sides are in public and the debate goes on.

The other people we came in contact with threw some light on not-so-nefarious activities. Kangir bhai said that the strategy adopted by Churches is not generally so much of a monetary allurement as it may cause a backlash sometime somewhere. There are other intelligent ways too. One example was a conversion of the woman in a house first. For some reason which I failed to understand, tribal women are easy to convert. And once they are converted, over time they bring the whole family along with. Women are thus always targeted. There must be some sociological and psychological reason to it, if at all it’s true. Second method he said was building huge and imposing churches in small bastis even if a person or two get converted. A single person in some remote basti actually doesn’t need such huge church and neither can he afford to build one. But he is requested to give some piece of land (as in Arunachal, outsiders can’t own it) on which in a short time a church with all the amenities and facilities is erected. Slowly, over a decade or so, the whole basti comes around. After all, no one gives them facility of any kind in their remote bastis, government hardly reaches there and the local church thus becomes a symbol of strength as well as provider of social services. It becomes the locus of community activity. Nagaland model of ‘communitisation’ is a well known now. There, so strong is their control over the local community and ground-level knowledge so upto-date that even the Government of India runs many of the social sector schemes through the churches for better targeting and reducing leakage. On the darker side however, this gives the church manipulating power and instances of denying government scheme benefits as punishment to those families missing on Sunday mass are not unknown.

The Church of Nyokom Lapang
The Church of Nyokom Lapang

The RSS people moan over the supposed money the church receives from outside. They often compare the suvidha a pracharak gets with those available to father to draw the point home. Whatever that may be. As elsewhere, here too Church is involved in social service as well as conversion. It finally boils down to the motivations and inclinations of individual members of the denomination and thus sweeping generalisations must be avoided. The last thing I would talk here is in the praise of Catholics. This is such a determined and devoted community. Simply see the number of fathers they produce, number of educational and health institutions they run and compare it with their population in India (less than 2%). And they have been doing it for a long time. In the name of religious service if not nation’s service; but it helps the nation nonetheless.

To be continued…
(Next – RSS in Arunachal)