A Jesuit priest, Fr. Cedric Prakash is the official spokesperson of the Christian community in Gujarat and the Secretary for Social Communications of the Western Region Catholic Bishops Council. He is a noted human rights activist and is the head of Prashant, a social action-research institution in Ahmedabad. In this interview with Yoginder Sikand he talks about the challenges facing Dalits, Tribals, Muslims, Christians and other marginalised communities in Gujarat today.
Q: Given that Hindutva forces are strongly entrenched in Gujarat, how do you look at the situation in the state today?
A: The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) are well-oiled think-tanks and have a sophisticated, well-organised machinery reaching down to the village level. We would make a big mistake if we think they are simply a bunch of Bajrang Dal lumpens, hired foot-soldiers and contract-killers who can, therefore, be easily stopped. In the context of the anti-Muslim genocide in Gujarat in 2002 it was widely believed that many Tribals were involved in the attacks on Muslims. The fact is, as I have been told by some Tribals, that some Tribal youth were involved, and they were provided alcohol and were egged on by Hindutva leaders to attack and kill Muslims. These Tribal youth may not have been ideologically motivated, and in attacking Muslims they may have been goaded primarily by the desire to loot. But the bigger issue is ideological. Hindutva forces are now so deeply entrenched in Gujarat that Hindutva has become part of the basic common-sense and worldview of many Gujarati Hindus, so much so that even now many of them express no remorse for the mass killings in the state that took a toll of thousands of lives. I have spoken to several of my Hindu friends here in Gujarat, many of who have studied in our Christian schools. They are not all necessarily pro-BJP, but, almost all of them believe that the Muslims who were massacred in the genocide deserved their fate. Such is the total insensitivity among large numbers of people in Gujarat even today. The demonisation of Muslims and Christians continues unabated, even among these so-called well-educatedђ people, and Muslims continue to live in fear and insecurity. The victims of the genocide of 2002 have still not got justice and the perpetrators of the crimes are roaming scot-free.
The violence of 2002 was not a spontaneous reaction. Rather, as the head of the VHP in Gujarat, K. K. Shastri, declared, Hindutva activists were prepared for it. The burning of the train in Godhra was just a trigger, but planning for the anti-Muslim pogrom had begun months before that. Any other incident could have triggered it off, such as a Muslim boy eloping with a Hindu girl. The way Muslim houses and shops were selectively targeted and destroyed clearly indicates that it was all carefully planned well in advance, much before the Godhra incident, with a census of Muslims and Muslim-owned properties having been undertaken all over the state. And now the same Hindutva-vadis have been going around Gujarat in the past few months doing a similar survey of Christian institutions, using the state machinery to intimidate Christian institutions working in the rural areas among Dalits and Tribals. Some time ago, they even came to our institution, Prashant, to ask us what arms we possess! Some of these instructions come directly from the government and some from local RSS shakhas, with the heads of the shakhas asking the police to obtain this sort of information.
Intimidation of marginalised communities continues in Gujarat in different ways today. In Gujarat we now have a draconian law, ironically called the Gujarat Freedom of Religion Act of 2003, according to which if a person wants to change his or her religion he or she needs to seek the permission, and not just inform, the District Collector, who may decide to give or refuse permission for this. If a Dalit, Tribal, woman or minor converts without getting this permission he or she can be imprisoned upto four years and also liable to a fine which may extend to one lakh rupees. Conversion to Hinduism will probably not be seen by many of those who are charged with implementing this law as coming under its purview, because for them this is not conversion but, rather, as the Hindutva-vadis call it, home-comingђ (ghar vapasi). Likewise, in the case of Tribals converting to Hinduism. The Tribals have their own religion but are now, by law, wrongly identified as Hindusђ, thus automatically absorbing them into the Hindu fold. The irony is that even today, more than two and a half years of the passing of this Act, the rules that are required to govern the implementation of this law are not in place. This law is being used to terrorise Dalits and Tribals who wish to escape from the shackles of caste oppression by converting to other faiths. This law can be used by officials to intimidate oppressed communities like Tribals and Dalits who have historically resorted to religious conversion as a means of social protest and in search of emancipation from upperђ caste oppression. Thus, for instance, some time ago ago, the then Collector of Baroda, a Brahmin who is said to be sympathetic to the VHP, threatened some Dalits who wanted to convert to Buddhism that if they went ahead he would imprison them under this law. This law is obviously unconstitutional and goes against the freedom of religion that the Indian Constitution guarantees for all Indian citizens. Its like having a law preventing people from shifting from one political party to another. At this juncture, I need to add that anything ґforced or wrought through inducementsҒ is wrong. There are many other laws to deal with this in our country and anything forced has nothing to do with true conversion, which is essentially about the faith experience of an individual. Above all, if I preach about Jesus or if someone wants to preach about Ram or Allah no one has the right to prohibit this.
Q: Several Catholic institutions working in the Tribal areas of Gujarat have been attacked by Hindutva forces in recent years. Is the situation changing now?
A: Such attacks have not stopped completely. Hindutva forces are now very active in the Tribal areas, desperately trying to woo and Hinduise the Tribals. They are trying to destroy their identity, telling them that they are not Advisasis, not the original inhabitants of this land, but, rather, that they are merely Vanvasis or jungle-dwellersђ, at the same time as the jungles have almost all been cut down by non-Tribal contractors, many of whom are Hindutva supporters. And now when Catholic institutions are trying to educate and empower the Tribals, the Hindutva forces, facing a major challenge to their hegemony and seeing that, increasingly, the Tribals are unwilling to silently accept upperђ caste hegemony and subjugation, began attacking our institutions, launching a vilification campaign against us. In the last three decades or so since Catholics began working in the Dangs, a Tribal area in Gujarat, we have set up several schools and legal aid centres working for the empowerment of the Tribals. Some Dangis have converted to Christianity, although the figures provided by Hindutva sources are exaggerated. I feel the Hindutva-vadis would care less if the whole of the Dangs converted to Christianity if they were allowed to go on with their exploitation of the Tribals. The issue, however, is that our educating the Tribals poses a major threat to the Hindutva forces and the groups whose interests they represent. The Tribals are now fighting for their rights and their identity, insisting that they are non-Hindus, the original inhabitants of this land, who have been kept subjugated for centuries by the upperђ castes. Naturally, the Hindutva forces, defenders of the interests of the ruling castes/classes cannot tolerate this.
Q: So, you believe that the Tribals are not Hindus?
A: Exactly. Historically, and even today, Tribal religious traditions have been totally distinct from the Brahminical tradition. The Tribals were forced to flee to the forests by the invading Aryans centuries ago, and have preserved their religious traditions and customs, although, in recent years, Hindu groups have been attempting to Hinduise them and absorb them into the Hindu fold, at the bottom of the caste hierarchy, the same as they are doing with the Dalits. Hindutva-vadis say that Tribals have no right to become Christians, but then how can they advocate that Tribals must become Hindus, when the fact of the matter is that Tribals are not Hindus? Today, the VHP and other such groups are very active in the Tribal areas of Gujarat to Hinduise the Tribals, so that they do not convert to other religions and so that they can be used as lowђ caste cheap labour and as foot-soldiers to attack and kill Muslims, as recently happened in 2002. They send out teams of babas and sadhus who tour Tribal villages, hold religious gatherings and tell the Tribals about Hindu gods and goddesses, trying to convince the Tribals that they are Hindus. They are also cunningly seeking to destroy the Tribal religion so that the Tribals come to accept Brahminical supremacy. For this they are creating and propagating all manner of falsehoods, lies and myths about the Tribals and their religion. They claim, contrary to historical facts, that the Tribals were driven to penury by medieval Muslim rulers, and that they were actually brave Hindus Kshatriyas, who were punished by the Muslim rulers for their defence of Hinduism by being driven into the forests. They are also manufacturing new deities for the Tribals. Recently, they established a large temple just in front of a Catholic school in Subir dedicated to Sabri, a Bhil woman who is referred to in the Ramayana as having fed Ram a fruit. The Tribals have never worshipped Sabri, and most have not even heard of her, but now they are being asked to do so. Similarly, near Harsol a massive skeleton of an animal was recently discovered and local VHP-vadis are going around telling the Tribals that it is the skeleton of Ravana. In February 2006 the VHP is planning to hold a massive Kumbh Mela in this area dedicated to Sabri. They expect, according to their own propaganda, 50,000 sadhus and more than 5 lakh other Hindus to assemble there for three days. They have a one-point agenda: to stop Christianity in the Dangs and other parts of India. The BJP government of Gujarat is making tremendous efforts to make this mela a grand success.
Q: Is there no sort of resistance on the part of the Tribals themselves to their enforced Hinduisation?
A: In many places the Tribals are just too weak or frightened to protest. For some Tribals, this sort of Hindusation appears to offer a means for upward social mobility, enabling them to claim a higher social status. VHP and other related groups, including the ruling BJP, offer them monetary incentives to attract them, like some evangelical Christian organisations also do. Overall, there is a definite lack of leadership in civil society to protest. But some educated Tribal youth are speaking out now. Instead of Jai Ramђ, they use the slogan Jai Adivasiђ, seeking to take pride in their own pre-Aryan past. To counter the sinister politics of Hindutva and to empower themselves to struggle for their rights, the Tribals need to develop a counter-culture, rooted in their own traditions. This needs to take the form of a mass movement, which is absent today. And that holds true for the Dalits in Gujarat as well.
Q: Do you see any possibility or worth in dialoguing with Hindutva groups in Gujarat to improve inter-community relations?
A: For any serious dialogue there has to be a level playing field, and the partners to the dialogue have to be sincere about it, which the Sangh Parivar is clearly not. Their whole agenda and worldview is based on hatred for and exclusion of non-Hindus, so how can you expect them to be sincere about dialogue? To think of dialoguing with them is to accept them as the spokesmen of the Hindus, which they obviously are not. So quite obviously, dialogue with these fringe and fanatic groups, however aggressive they may be, is certainly out of the question.