Blindsided by Fear Mongering on RSS, Punjab Hangs By the Cross

 

Sukhbir Singh Badal with Bishop Franko Mulakkal at an event in 2016


In the ongoing farmer agitation bringing attention on to Punjab, it is interesting to note the various social dynamics that have emerged over the past century first in the undivided state and post-partition, in the various mutations that eventually led to the present state of Punjab in India. An important phenomenon that has been obscured by the various tumultuous events over the years has been the rise and rise of Christianity in Punjab. Through this essay, an examination of this phenomenon is understood. From historical contexts, the role of the community in 1947 to the present state of affairs, an attempt has been made to bring all such details to light. What is also brought to light is the rather strange silence of certain groups who would rather respond to those looking to examine reasons for this conversion and exercise some kind of restraint on it.

 

The Moorings of Christianity in Punjab

Christianity had been introduced to Punjab through the Missionaries whose efforts can be traced back to the 1860s thanks to the British rule. Ironically, it must be seen how the Christians became important. Dr. Ernest Trumpp, sponsored by the Ecclesiastical Mission Society, had translated the Adi Granth or Sri Guru Granth Sahib in 1877 based on his work and research initiated in 1869[1]. The influence of this act still remains significant, as people fail to recognize the real reasons for this exercise. In typical missionary fashion, the holy text was being translated to find attack points that could be used to denigrate Sikh beliefs and also subsequently bring them into the fold. Of course, Hindus were already on the radar thanks to efforts in other places.

Christianity’s spread was very aggressive thereafter, particularly in the region of what is now Pakistani Punjab. A large number of converts were essentially the Scheduled Caste community, which is also the case with the conversions happening in Indian Punjab. As documented in this report of The News from Pakistan[2]:

 

By 1947, the Christians in the Punjab were just over half a million strong. In less than half a century, the Christians had managed to dramatically increase their numbers, from a minuscule minority in the 1860s to boasting wholly Christian villages by the 1920s, and a huge network of schools, hospitals, and other charitable organisations throughout the Punjab.

 

A large chunk of this was driven by mass conversions in Gurdaspur and Sialkot regions, which ironically had a significant population of scheduled caste community, particularly what are known as the Chuhras, ironically used by caste supremacists in Punjab as a slur even today. As this blog entry from the Centre for Policy Studies succinctly puts out[3]:

In the Church literature, the event is celebrated as one of the several mass movements in which whole communities and castes in different regions of India converted to Christianity en masse. The particular movement that led to a concentration of Christians in Gurdaspur began in the neighbouring Sialkot district, now in Pakistan, with the conversion of Ditt, a member of the Chuhra caste, by a Presbyterian missionary, Samuel Martin, in 1873. The example and zeal of Ditt led to several persons—initially from his family and immediate neighbourhood and later from his larger community—being converted. It is said that by 1915 all but a few hundred members of his caste in Sialkot district had converted to Christianity. The neighbouring Gurdaspur district also became an early centre of the mass movement that began in Sialkot, especially because another Presbyterian missionary, Andrew Gordon, lived there from 1875 to 1885 and was very active in rendering the Church ritual and psalms in a manner that would appeal to the Punjabis. The Christians of Gurdaspur are largely the descendants of people who got converted to Christianity in what the Church calls the ‘mighty Chuhra movement’ of the late nineteenth century.

 

The Christian imprint in the Punjab was so strong that the first English medium school (and for a while the only high school in Lahore) was established by American Presbyterian Missionaries in 1849. The first school for girls in the province was established in 1856 in Sialkot also by missionaries. These schools in fact became a major driver of conversion by subversion and inducement, and as a result many Hindu families turned to the Arya Samaj, which was instrumental in stemming the tide for the Hindu community in general. In her novel Difficult Daughters, author Manju Kapoor actually captures this very well, wherein she mentions how a Bengali convert teacher introduces her to Christ, but her family discovers it mercifully, and pulls her out of the school to put her in an Arya Samaj school[4]. At that time, the Hindu community was beginning to generate a real intellectual and social response to this attack, driven by the popularity of the Arya Samaj movement that also rallied the community beyond its adherents.

 

An oft-ignored fact about the Christians of Punjab is their role in Partition in 1947. Christians in Punjab provided the necessary edge of support eventually that led to the partition of the state into east and west Punjab at the time of Partition by actively supporting the Muslim League. In 1942, the All-India Christian Association assured unconditional full cooperation to the founder of Pakistan, and leaders of the Church in the Punjab strongly endorsed the Pakistan concept and advised their brethren to move to Pakistan when it would come into existence[5]. In fact, in the final vote of choosing to remain in India or being part of Pakistan, Punjab’s provincial assembly saw a split of 88-91 in favor of joining Pakistan, with the deciding factor being the four votes of Christian members Dewan Bahadur Singha, Mr. Cecil Gibbon and Mr Fazal Elahi, plus Singha’s additional vote as Assembly Speaker[6].

 

The Catholic and Evangelical Segments

The latest wave of Christianity in Punjab is largely driven by Evangelical sects and their newly established pastors, though the Catholic Church also has a role and influence, as was seen in the case of rape accused Bishop Franko Mulakkal, who yields significant influence on Jalandhar’s Catholic Christian community[7]. One must point out the Jalandhar Diocese’s history and the considerable influence it wield in Punjab, politically as well.

Before Partition, Jalandhar was under Lahore diocese and remained abandoned for years after Independence. In 1952, Rome declared the ‘Jalandhar Prefecture’ and put a British national in charge. In 1971, the unit was upgraded to a diocese. The Jalandhar diocese is a powerful body that promotes all Catholic Christian activities in Amritsar, Faridkot, Ferozepur, Gurdaspur, Hoshiarpur, Jalandhar, Kapurthala, Ludhiana, Moga, Muktsar, Nawanshahr, Tarn Taran in Punjab besides Chamba, Hamirpur, Kangra and Una in Himachal Pradesh. The Diocese commands control over the hundreds of institutions — educational and charitable —spread across the two states.

The second strand that is gaining attention both in the media and the public is the evangelical movement gaining ground. The evangelical wave seems to have affected not just Sikhs and Hindus in Punjab, but also the Catholic adherents[8]. Evangelical churches have drawn followers by holding prayer meetings to seeking visas to countries like USA, UK and Canada, for childless couples and also for people suffering from chronic diseases. Some have noted that the influx of international church funds was a big driver to providing inducements to thousands of people within Punjab to convert, including free household goods and other luxuries[9]. A 2011 report from India Today had noted how Independent churches mushrooming across Punjab attracting foreign funds in big amounts to support these conversion activities and foster these evangelical churches[10].

There also seems to be rivalry among the various church denominations of the Evangelicals, even going to the extent of accusing each other of promoting superstitions like witchcraft. Some pastors have become extremely well known for their flashy lifestyle and also for their passionate sessions. Ankur Narula, who is based out of Jalandhar, has the largest following in Punjab. The other prominent face is Raman Hans who is based out of Chamkaur and is known for his mass healings. Another famous name, Bajinder Singh is active around Chandigarh, particularly Dera Bassi.

The influence and impact can also be gauged by the acts of Pastor Randeep setting up a relief camp in April 2020 attended by foreign evangelists, which became a super spreader event, causing a massive spike in the COVID-19 infection rate in Punjab[11]. The event had been conducted without the permission of the local administration. Three villages had to be sealed, as confirmed by Special Chief Secretary of Punjab KBS Sidhu[12].

 

Politics of Christianity – All Political Parties Vying for this Segment

Politics of Christianity in Punjab, much like the faith itself, is divided along denominational lines. The Christian community seems to be emerging as a potent vote bank in Punjab’s already fractured politics. Shashwati Talukdar had noted in her journal the increasing political machinations[13]. In 2017, the Aam Aadmi Party met with leaders of Punjab Christian United Front in order to get a sense of the issues faced by the group in order to define the “party’s manifesto” for the elections in 2017.

All political parties in Punjab have been actively trying to woo Christians as a vote bank within Punjab. In Gurdaspur particularly, a Lok Sabha seat that is represented by Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), they hold a sizeable influence both at the central and state assembly levels[14].

Leaders of the Congress party in Punjab like Pratap Singh Bajwa have vocally supported their demand for reservations post conversion[15]. Interestingly, as per the Punjab government’s list of castes classified as Backward and Other Backward Castes, Christians converted from Scheduled Caste are also guaranteed reservations[16], which was notified in 1993[17].

In the case of the Catholic community, the role of the Jalandhar Diocese in Punjab’s politics is increasingly overt, though many would like to deny the same. In August 2014, then deputy chief minister of Punjab Sukhbir Singh Badal met the bishop Franko Mulakkal at Trinity College in Jalandhar where a sarv dharma prayer had been organised by the diocese. Then chief minister Parkash Singh Badal and Akal Takht jathedar Giani Gurbachan Singh too attended the prayer[18]. Some reports in fact indicate that Franko Mulakkal is considered to be close to the Akalis[19]. Relationship between the Christian leaders and Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal) and Congress have been on the decline, driven by issues like lack of burial grounds, employment opportunities and preservation of the churches.

A particular organization to note in this case is the Punjab United Christian Front, which aims to bring all Christian leaders on one stage to unite and become a big Power[20]. This is based out of Jalandhar, where the diocese is.

Why would this be the case, one would wonder? The answer lies in some interesting demographics. The presence of Christians in Punjab seem to have been much higher than originally thought. In 2016, a Hindustan Times report highlighted Punjab’s Christians demanding correct information from the 2011 census data, with a leader stating that Christians constitute 7 to 10% of the state’s population, with the latest census showing them as less than 1% “under a deep-rooted conspiracy against the fast emerging religion.”[21]

This is interesting, as a blog by the Centre for Policy Studies, there has been a pocket of historically high Christian presence comprising parts of Gurdaspur district. Christians have a share of 7.1 percent in the district; their share in Dera Baba Nanak, Gurdaspur and Batala tahsils is 16.5, 11.2, 7.2 percent, respectively; during 2001-11, there has been a remarkable increase in their share in all three tahsils[22]. Many of the lower caste Christian converts use the surname Masih or retain their traditional surnames like Hans. Mazabdhari Sikh converts retain the use of Singh despite conversion.  Given the challenges they face in getting OBC certificates post conversion or losing out on minority benefits arising from being Sikh and/or Scheduled Caste (SC), the phenomenon of crypto Christians seems to be a very distinct reality of Punjab too.

 

Political Assertion and Demonstration of Street Power

Interestingly, the actual strength of the Christians in Punjab can be gauged by the serious engagement in politics and the demonstration of street power, making one wonder about the graveness of the situation. Christian community has been increasingly coming into conflict with the other religious communities in Punjab. The trajectory started in 2001, when Christians demanded that a book written by Satnam Singh on Guru Nanak’s life be withdrawn as it had insulted Christians[23]. He had to eventually withdraw the book despite repeated apologies. The real wake up call however came in 2014, when there was a major conflict regarding a function by evangelical Christians in Hoshiarpur, which was strongly opposed by Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal, reaching the point where the district administration had to impose Sec 144 in the city[24].

2014 seems to have been a watershed year of sorts. In 2014, Christians had also protested to stop the demolition of a church. More than 200 activists of Punjab Christian Movement (PCM) staged a dharna and blocked traffic for around one hour at Vein (rivulet) Bridge near Kang Sahib village on the Nakodar-Jalandhar road to protest a bid to demolish a church constructed there by slum dwellers[25]. The subsequent year, a protest organised by the St Francis Church (Roman Catholic denomination) was held at the Custom Chowk area of Amritsar against Dharam Jagaran Samiti’s conversion against the conversion of 23 Christian families to the Sikh fold at Guru Ki Wadali village[26].

In 2017 four Sikh men - identified as Paramjit Singh of Amritsar, Simarjit Singh, Jaspal Singh, and Manavdeep Singh – were arrested for their alleged involvement in making a blasphemous video, in which a Sikh man is seen uttering derogatory remarks against Jesus Christ[27]. The incident had actually led to major rioting across Jalandhar, which clearly has emerged as the major Christian stronghold and the centre for Christian politics of all strains[28]. It is interesting to note that the protests took place a couple of months before the state assembly elections of 2017.

The trend has been gaining strength. In December 2019, Christians staged protests all across Punjab against Raveena Tandon, Farah Khan and Bharti Singh in Punjab for allegedly hurting religious sentiments of the Christian community on a TV show[29]. They had to eventually apologize and get the episode removed, clearly under duress.

 

RSS and the Chauvinistic Attitude Among Sections of the Sikh Community

An indication to the seriousness and longevity of the problem can be gauged from the fact that the problem was highlighted by then chief of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) K S Sudarshan in 2005. At a meeting of RSS volunteers in Jalandhar, he expressed concern over the alleged large-scale conversions taking place among the Sikhs. Addressing the media later, Sudarshan said that various Christian outfits were covertly indulging in ‘conversion’ activities in different parts of Punjab, especially in the Gurdaspur and Hoshiarpur areas, and asked the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee and the Shiromani Akali Dal to be vigilant against the activities of Christians in rural Punjab, where, he claimed, large number of Sikhs from lower classes were being converted[30].

Sections of the Sikh community of Punjab while being aware of the problem seem rather busy calling it either a Hindu-RAW-IB conspiracy or see Hindutva-RSS-BJP as a bigger issue. The denialism within the chauvinists is quite serious. The denialism was on display even then, as seen by the remarks of then Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal) president Parkash Singh Badal,, who said the RSS chief came rarely to Punjab and seemed to be unaware of the ground realities[31]. Badal even said that the RSS should maintain its "maryada" (code of ethics) and desist from making such sweeping statements.

Gurdaspur has since emerged as a major battle going on between Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) backed Dharam Jagaran Samiti and evangelicals on the issue of conversion of SC community in Punjab[32]. The RSS backed bodies have been working to bring back converts to Sikhism; however, these Sikhs have also faced harassment at the hands of Christians for leaving the faith. It must be pointed out that as a percentage of state population, Punjab has the largest SC population in India. The tensions between RSS and Christian bodies have remained high, with the battle lines drawn.

Anti-national agencies have been trying to play along the existing faultlines to create problems and destabilize. The Khalistan Liberation Force terror organization tried to use the tensions to commit political assassinations. In 2018, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) had filed a chargesheet naming Harmeet Singh, Gurjinder Singh, Gursharanbir Singh, Gurjant Singh Dhillon - then suspected to be in Pakistan, Italy, the UK and Australia respectively – of being involved in the killings of pastor Sultan Masih and Amit Sharma, who was working for the Rashtryiya Swayamsevak Sangh  to destabilize the law and order situation in Punjab and to revive the fledgling terrorism in the state[33]. Interestingly, the AAP party leaders had tried to raise a Hindutva bogey, with leader of party in Punjab Assembly Sukhpal Khaira asking for a probe of RSS and BJP in the death of Pastor Masih[34].

Despite the state of Punjab hanging by a cross, the sheer coyness of important decisionmakers in addressing the challenge remains invisible. One only prays that groups that can intervene from creating an explosive situation similar to the one being observed in Andhra Pradesh can somehow be stemmed, though as a cynic the hope is dimmed by refusal of people to see the truth.

 



[1] https://www.sikhiwiki.org/index.php/Trumpp%27s_Translation_Of_Portions_Of_The_Guru_Granth_Sahib

[31] https://www.dnaindia.com/india/report-rss-chief-s-words-rattle-sikhs-again-4396 


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