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An open letter to Sonia

An open letter to Sonia

Author: Balbir K. Punj
Publication: The Asian Age
Date: December 10, 2002

Dear Madam,

You happen to preside over the destiny of the oldest political party by a quirk of fate and an unfortunate assassination in your family.

Considering the fact that you were born in a distant country and spent your formative years in a culture alien to India, it is imperative that these factors will naturally affect the thinking and politics of the party you head. It's more so in view of the fact that most Congressmen and women (in true traditions of the Congress since the days of your mother-in-law) are subservient to the leader and there is little scope for any discussion on an issue about which your mind is known.

Madam, recently, one of your party activists came out with propositions on issues concerning Hindus, conversions and Harijans, which are light years away from the ones Congress had professed since the days of Gandhiji. Of course, we all know that your party has said good-bye to Gandhian lifestyle decades back; but it still has the facade of being committed to Gandhian philosophy. At least the public position is that you have not disowned Gandhi so far. But then how to reconcile this position with the public utterances of one of your party colleagues?

Here are some of the pearls of wisdom that viewers had from former state minister of Congress, Mrs Jayanti Natarajan: "who says Vedas are the source book of Hindus, the Vedas are not"; "Scheduled Castes are not Hindus"; "the Dalits are not Hindus"; "if Hinduism is not a proselytising religion then how did South East Asia become Hindu - how do you explain Shaivite kingdoms in southern India"; "Sage Agastya proselytised southern India into Hinduism"; "the right to propagate religion under Article 25 of the Constitution includes the right to convert"; "the Supreme Court 1977 decision on conversion ban will hopefully be heard by another bench in future and altered". Your worthy party colleague was participating in a recent Big Fight show of Star TV which also featured Mr B.P. Singhal of BJP and Father Dominic Emmanuel, spokesman, Delhi Archdiocese as co-participants.

Madam, as I said earlier, each of these propositions is contrary to the Gandhian view of India and Hinduism. But maybe under your leadership the Congress has quietly abandoned Mahatma Gandhi and is now following the new creed promoted by Sonia Gandhi. I hope not. If that is the case, will you kindly distance your party publicly from Mrs Natarajan's position?

What Mrs Jayanti Natarajan stated was deeply agonising and provocative to the 860 million strong Hindu community which is the core of India. However, the emasculation of Hindus was complete under Congress rule, when it had survived the colonial period. Imagine the "physical" reaction had she said that Shias are not Muslims, since they are oppressed as minority in Pakistan and even as majority in Iraq and Bahrain. Imagine the protest if she had said for instance Born Again Christians are not Christians or Eastern Orthodoxy is not Christian. But her ill-informed debate on Hinduism, speaks of devilish ingenuity to Balkanise this core of India. If it is the Congress view, Madam, it has surely departed from the premises of Gandhian theory on Hinduism.

She says that Scheduled Castes are not Hindus. Great discovery indeed! But does that stand the constitutional position? I quote here from Tahir Mahmoud's Are All Tribals Hindus (Hindustan Times, January 28, 1999): The Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order 1950 said in so many words that a non-Hindu could never be a Scheduled Caste (even if belonging to a particular caste included in the official list of Scheduled Castes). By an amendment introduced in 1956, it was provided that only a Hindu or Sikh could be a Scheduled Caste. The Scheduled Caste law is, thus, clearly religion-based and its religious basis has generated abundant caste laws. The Supreme Court has held that a Scheduled Caste Hindu on ceasing to be a Hindu also ceases to be a Scheduled Caste and, should he ever reconvert to Hinduism, he will also regain forthwith the Scheduled Caste status."

Jayanti Natarajan doesn't count Scheduled Castes and Dalits amongst Hindus. The reason being that they are not admitted into temples at many places. Is it not a paradox that she simultaneously attacks Hinduism as a caste-ridden religion in a pejorative sense? Why should Hindus suffer being maligned as caste-ridden if she has already discounted "Scheduled Castes" and "Dalits" as non- Hindus? You can't have the cake and eat it too.

But in her most stunning feat Mrs Natarajan holds the right to propagate one's religion under Article 25 includes the right to convert. She outdoes even Father Dominic Emmanuel in her zeal to advocate conversions. While Father Dominic appeared apologetic on the issue of conversions, she appeared proactive. She is also of the view that conversion ban existing in certain states like Arunachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Orissa (two of them imposed by the Congress itself) should be rethought and rescinded by future governments. Similarly, the Supreme Court's 1977 verdict on banning fraudulent conversion, she hopes, will be revised by a separate bench. I know Congress is not averse to upturning Supreme Court verdicts through changes in the Constitution with retrospective effect. Hence, I wish to know what message the party wants to send to the citizens of India. Does the Congress share the dangerous proposition put forward by Jayanti Natarajan? Does it want to reject the findings of Justice Niyogi Committee, Justice Rege Committee, Justice Venugopal Commission etc., and overrule the Supreme Court? The country awaits an answer.

How the views of present day Congressmen and women are far removed from those of Gandhiji is obvious from the following quotation: "I disbelieve in the conversion of one person by another. My effort should never to be to undermine another's faith. This implies belief in the truth of all religions and, therefore, respect for them. It implies true humility." (Young India, April 23, 1931).

Writing in Harijan (June 3, 1937), Gandhiji said, "I am not interested in weaning you from Christianity and making you Hindu, and I do not relish your designs upon me, if you had any, to convert me to Christianity. I would also dispute your claim that Christianity is the only true religion."

How Gandhiji saw the missionary activities is best summed up by him in Harijan (November 5, 1935) in these words: "If I had the power and could legislate, I should stop all proselytising... In Hindu households the advent of a missionary has meant the disruption of the family coming in the wake of change of dress, manners, language, food and drink."

All these things don't carry any meaning for Mrs Jayanti Natarajan. She delves into historical anomalies to rationalise contemporary wrongdoing. One of the theories is that Hinduism has been a proselytising religion in the past. How else does one explain, asks she, the entire South East Asia becoming Hindu in ancient times? South East Asia has indeed been a historical instance, between the 4th and the 13th centuries. But much of South East Asia actually accepted Buddhism, and we know Buddhism was indeed a great missionary religion. A former ambassador of China, as B.P. Singhal noted in that debate, said, India has dominated China for over 20 centuries without ever having to send a single soldier across the border. But she confounds the public by raising an epic age issue, namely the coming of Sage Agastya. I don't know how to reconcile her paradoxical stance or many paradoxical stances. In the known stretch of history southern India was as much Hindu as north or east or west India is, or perhaps more so given their intellectual and artistic contribution to Hindu civilisation. What Sage Agastya might have done was popularise the Vedas. But the Vedas according to her is not the source book of Hindus. Was Agastya a one-man army that he proselytised southern India to Hinduism?

If some people are so fond of speaking of our epics, in the Ramayana, Ravana was a great exponent of the Vedas and the hymn of Shiva attributed to him continues till date. Was Ravana not Hindu? Was he Hindu merely because Agastya proselytised South India? Or perhaps Ravana originated in northern India and his father Sage Pulastha was from the north? So we reach an inference that ties between the north and the south are as old as this land and no part was treated non-Hindu even in the epic ages. But Jayanti Natarajan wants probably to overwrite the epics to rationalise conversions! I wish she reminded the Islamic countries, and Muslims and Christians in India, that once they were not Muslims, and hence everyone else has the right to convert them.

Originally, South East Asia was animist. Hinduism took root most strongly in Cambodia between the 8th and 13th centuries and in Indonesia, about the same time and in Thailand, Burma, and Laos where Buddhism took hold most strongly. In Indonesia, Hinduism saw the rise of the great empires of Sri Vijaya, Malayu, Mataram, and Majapahit. In Cambodia, it was the basis of the ancient Angkor civilisation. The contact was mercantile, cultural and intellectual and never colonising. South East Asia was at the pinnacle of glory in the Hindu-Buddhist period, a legacy they still celebrate through multifarious manifestations in art and culture.

Moreover, "conversion" to Hinduism doesn't breed exclusivism, intolerance of other religions and disavowal of the pre-Hindu past. Unfortunately, the same is not true about proselytising religions. She probably forgets to mention about the Hare Krishna movement that is converting people in America to "Krishna Consciousness". But they work amongst the well fed, well bred, and well read people who have the option of informed choices unlike the adivasis of India. But I marvel at her temerity to misinterpret the past to rationalise a contemporary problem. I hope, Madam, you will find time to clarify your party's position in these crucial matters.

Yes, there are problems within Hinduism, like casteism. But should that be made the scapegoat for the dismemberment of Hindu society? The proselytising religions were not conceived with a view to help the underprivileged of the other societies but to increase one's fold by exploring and exploiting whatsoever means available. I hope Madam, you will find time to clarify your party's position on these crucial matters.

Yours truly, Balbir K. Punj

(Balbir K. Punj is a Rajya Sabha MP and convenor of the BJP Think Tank and can be contacted at bpunj@email.com)

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