• The Conversion Factor

    Fr. Dominic Emmanuel

    The Supreme Court on January 21 upheld the verdict of the Orissa High Court and gave a life sentence to Bajrang Dal activist Dara Singh, who burnt alive Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two sons, Philip and Timothy, aged 10 and six respectively, on the night of January 22, 1999, as they slept in their jeep. The then President of India, K.R. Narayanan, had described the murder as “one belonging to the inventory of black deeds of history” and a “monumental aberration from the tradition of tolerance and humanity for which India is known”.

    The Church, very much in line with the stand of Graham Staines’ wife, Gladys Staines, who stunned the world by forgiving the murderers of her husband and two sons, is satisfied with the sentence. The Church and Gladys Staines are happy that the Supreme Court turned down the demand of the Central Bureau of Investigation that Dara Singh and his 12 accomplices be sentenced to death. The Church has consistently stood for life, and not death. It believes that a person should be given enough opportunities to change his life and a prison is as good a place as any for someone to reflect and change one’s ways. This happened in the case of Samunder Singh who murdered Rani Maria near Indore in 1995. Through the kind gesture of tying a Rakhi on his wrist, Rani’s sister, a nun, changed his heart. The late John Paul II went to the prison to offer forgiveness to Agca who had attempted to assassinate him in Vatican Square. 

    What, however, is a shock to all those who believe in India’s secular spirit and Constitution, is the reference by the bench of Justices P. Sathasivam and B.S. Chauhan that states: “In the case on hand, though Graham Staines and his two minor sons were burnt to death while they were sleeping inside a station wagon at Manoharpur, the intention was to teach a lesson to Graham Staines about his religious activities, namely, converting poor tribals to Christianity… It is undisputed that there is no justification for interfering in someone’s belief by way of use of force, provocation, conversion, incitement or upon a flawed premise that one religion is better than the other. It strikes at the very root of the orderly society, which the founding fathers of our Constitution dreamt of”. 

    Is the Supreme Court suggesting that members of the Bajrang Dal can take it upon themselves “to teach a lesson” to a person serving lepers and outcastes of society, whom the likes of Dara Singh would never even dream of touching, and go to the extent of burning him and his two young sons alive? Before making this observation, did the Supreme Court take into consideration the report of the Wadhwa Commission that was set up to probe the Staines’ murder? The commission had observed: “There has been no extraordinary increase in the Christian population in Keonjhar district between 1991 and 1998. The population had increased by 595 during this period and could have been caused by natural growth”. Did the honourable judges care to look at the findings of a civil society group headed by Swami Agnivesh, which after visiting Manoharpur reported that they did not come across a single person whom Staines had converted? Did the judges recall India’s official census that shows a decline in the Christian population, from 2.6 per cent in 1971 to 2.33 per cent in 2001? Did the judges find out if there was ever a complaint or an FIR filed by anyone about forceful conversions or allurement or any other fraudulent means? Were the allegations made by Dara Singh and right-wing Hindu fundamentalists more credible than these facts?

    Before steering away from the main subject related to Graham Staines’ murder, it is important to note the Catholic Church’s stand: “In spreading religious faith, everyone ought, at all times, to refrain from any manner of action which might seem to carry a hint of coercion or of a kind of persuasion that would be dishonourable or unworthy, especially when dealing with the poor or uneducated people. Such a manner of action would have to be considered an abuse of one’s own right and a violation of the rights of others” (Declaration on Religious Freedom: No. 4. Vatican: 1965).

    Several Hindu organisations, including the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, routinely hold sessions in Europe and America to convert Christians. Practically every big town in the US and Europe has ashrams set up by Hindu sadhus. Who is burning them alive to teach them a lesson?

    The Supreme Court’s judgement is music to the ears of Sadhvi Pragya Singh, Swami Aseemanand and their ilk involved in bomb blasts at various mosques and the Samjhauta Express. After all, their intention was only to “teach a lesson” to the so-called Muslim terrorists.

    It is not a coincidence that the murder of Graham Staines took place less than a month after Swami Aseemanand organised a huge rally in Gujarat’s Dangs district on Christmas Day in 1998 adjacent to the place where Christians were gathering to celebrate. The attacks on Christians that followed lasted 12 days. Probe Swami Assemanand a little more and I am sure he will divulge all the plans of the Sangh Parivar to terrorise the Christian community.

    Ever since the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power in Karnataka, the Christian community has been under attack. The Ram Sene and the Bajrang Dal have gone on rampages and beaten up nuns inside their convents. According to Justice Michael Saldhana, former judge of the Karnataka high court who led the People’s Tribunal Enquiry into the attacks on Christians in Karnataka on behalf of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties: “The state is under an unprecedented wave of Christian persecution, having faced more than 1,000 attacks in 500 days… On January 26 (2010) — the day we celebrated India’s Republic Day — Karnataka’s 1,000th attack took place in Mysore city”.

    The Supreme Court’s observation on conversion is going to embolden the attackers further. And many fear that the ruling may send the wrong signal to courts trying cases of religious violence in Kandhamal and other places. Though the damage may have been done, the Supreme Court must seriously consider expunging these remarks.

    Father Dominic Emmanuel is the director of communication of the Delhi Catholic Church

    Christian Today India
    January 24, 2011

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