Thursday, November 27, 2014

Sandip Roy - VHP plays big bully in Bastar missionary schools

I went to a Jesuit missionary school. We called the priests “Father”. We called the other male teachers “Sir”. And the women “Miss”. As a boy I was less alarmed by the bleeding man on the crucifix as by the pictures of Jesus and Mary where you could see their glowing hearts through their robes. It looked like some kind of scary open-heart surgery to me. We did learn to rattle off the Lord’s Prayer – Our Father who art in heaven – without ever really thinking about the meaning of what we were saying. But we did not go to Catechism classes, we sang patriotic Bengali songs during the drill display and the priests lent us not Bibles but sci-fi books and westerns. 

No one that I knew in my class converted to Christianity. And we did Saraswati Puja at home and at every examination I carried with me a small paper twist with dried flowers from that puja. As a goddess exclusively devoted to learning, she remained unquestionably the first port of call when it came to divine help during trigonometry. To this day I remember both the Lord’s Prayer and the Saraswati-mantra by heart.

If a Vishwa Hindu Parishad had shown up and demanded we install Saraswati images in our school and insisted we call the teachers “Pracharya” or “Up-pracharya” or Guruji or Sir (hardly a very “Hindu” word, that one) we would have been more bewildered than upset. But in Bastar the VHP and missionaries who run 22 schools in a tribal district have been locked in negotiations over exactly those kind of issues. They have also demanded no Santa Claus distribute sweets to the children during Christmas.

It’s obviously not really about what you call teachers. Or Santa Claus. Or Ma Saraswati either. It’s all about power play. The missionaries are accused of converting poor tribals. The VHP has been trying to ramp up its re-conversion “Ghar Vapasi” programmes. These latest measures are just warning shots that are part of that larger battle. It was apparently triggered by the alarm raised when the Bishop of Jagdalpur said a missionary school should be established with every church in the region.

The issue around conversion and missionaries especially in tribal areas is a complicated and tricky one. A missionary-run school in tribal Bastar is not the same as the missionary-run school in middle-class Calcutta. Interfaith minister Philip Goldberg, author of American Veda: How Indian Spirituality Changed the West writes about the shady practices of zealots who target the poor and illiterate sometimes offering free treatment in return for conversion or dressing in orange robes to look like swamis. They are, he says “like door-to-door salesmen racking up commissions” and sounding more like “snake-oil hucksters of legend than servants of Christ” devoted to serving “the least of these.”

But to respond to the misdeeds of some missionaries by heavy-handedly trying to introduce Hindu symbols into a missionary school is merely a way of flexing muscle to let them know who is Big Boss. Saraswati is not being installed as a Goddess of Learning but as a watchdog in the guise of Goddess, a muscular assertion that this is a Hindu country and they had better watch their step. What next? A demand for Saraswati in a madarsah? A missionary-run school is run by a religious order and parents who put their children into such a school are well aware of it. That’s just as true for the Catholic missionary schools as it is for the ones run by the Ramakrishna Mission.

As for the schools in Bastar who knows if Saraswati is even prominent in the pantheon of these tribal communities whose children go to these schools? The priests are called Father because it is part of their religious practice and the VHP must think very little of the intelligence of the average child if they regard this as a source of great confusion to impressionable minds. “We asked the missionaries what was the meaning of father? Father means pita. We have only one father, how can we address a teacher as father?”says Suresh Yadav of the VHP. However Saraswati can be called Mata because “matayen aur behanen we say before any address.” I have known families where the children have gone to my missionary-run alma mater for generations. I have never heard of anyone confused about the difference between the Father Bouche and Father Bruylants in school and the real father at home.

The Vishwa Hindu Parishad is of course welcome to start or fund its own schools complete with Saraswati images and Pracharyas. One wonders how it would react to outsiders telling it what pictures to hang on its walls. Some would be happy if the government banned missionary schools altogether except there are plenty of schools in India affiliated to Hindu religious orders as well and what's sauce for the goose will become sauce for the gander as well. This particular skirmish sounds more ridiculous than ominous. The VHP is happy to make outlandish attention-grabbing demands to stay in the media limelight and its Praveen Togadia has butted heads with Narendra Modi in the past. But the church in Bastar cannot just dismiss the VHP’s fulminations as hot air. Sometimes hot air can have fiery consequences. It remembers the how missionary Graham Stainesand his sons were burned to death in their station wagon in Keonhjhar, Odisha by a gang led by a Bajrang Dal activist.

A Saraswati image in a Bastar school is a long distance away from a burning station wagon in Odisa. But when bullying enters a school’s syllabus, in the name of protecting the children, it should worry us all.