Pallu, neither Pappu nor Lallu, was a simple villager. He longed to see the Taj Mahal in Agra, one of the seven wonders of the world. All foreign dignitaries visiting Delhi are taken for a mandatory visit to the Taj. Borrowing from Dr Eric Berne’s book “What do you say after you say Hello?” the Govt of India has a similar dilemma. After the Taj what do you show dignitaries, to showcase India? To some extent that dilemma has been resolved by taking them to see the tents at the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad (oops Prayagraj) or the Ganga Aarti at the Varanasi ghats.
But Pallu was not a privileged foreign dignitary, so the Taj would have to suffice. His joy at seeing the Monument of Love was short-lived when an over enthusiastic guide told him that the Taj was built with funds generated by taxing poor peasants like him; that it was a mausoleum to one of the many wives of the emperor; that she died in child birth at the age of 39 after producing 14 children; and that the emperor had the artisans hands chopped off after the construction was complete, lest any body rival it.
Pallu was dejected; this was a big let down. The guide suggested that he try Agra’s other favourite offering – peta, a sweet preserve made from ash gourd. Pallu was apprehensive, he didn’t want another disappointment. After much hesitation he entered the Panchchi Peta Store. What he did not know was that umpteen traders in Agra have adopted the same name of what was once an exclusive outlet at Madan Mohan Darwaza, Raja-ki-Mandi.
The moment that Pallu ate the peta he experienced sheer bliss. He hungered for more. His thoughts flew to his son Bablu, back home in the village. How could he keep this exhilarating experience to himself? He had to share it with his loved ones. It would be apt to say, “Baap khaya peta, yaad aya beta” (the father tasted the sweet and his thoughts flew to his son).
This little episode is what evangelization is all about. It is sharing the amrit (life giving nectar) with one’s loved ones, by extension, the human family. Most Indians are comfortable with the Christian community in India. That is why they flock to Christian schools and hospitals. But they have a bug bear. Why do Christians aggressively pursue conversions? Christian evangelists have a stock reply – we don’t convert, we only preach, it is God who converts. Unfortunately, there are not many takers for this argument. To the contrary, the allegation is quickly made that Christians convert poor Hindus and tribals through force, fraud, allurement and even by threats of divine displeasure; a term used by several “Freedom of Religion Acts”.
There are many counter arguments to the conversion charge. Firstly, as I have just said, it is an act of loving, sharing and caring. That is what it should be. The recent lengthy report in the Hindustan Times dt 15th December refers to several villagers experiencing healing and peace after accepting Jesus in their lives, even though they have not embraced Christianity. The moot question then arises, why should others object to such a free and beneficial choice?
However, just as the original Panchchi Peta has morphed into several others bearing the same name, the same can be said of Christianity and its various proponents. This is equally true for other ancient religions as well – be they Hinduism, Islam or Buddhism. There are variants across a broad spectrum from the liberal to the fundamentalists and many in between.
For me it would be appropriate to speak for the Catholic Church of which I am a member. Many would say that it is like the original Panchchi Peta. It too was fully in to evangelization or more specifically conversions, till the watershed Second Vatican Council (1962-65). Before that the established belief was that there was no salvation outside the Catholic Church, thereby urging missionaries to go all out to “save souls from going to hell”! Vatican II threw this logic out of the window when its “Dogmatic Constitution” stated in unequivocal terms that all persons could be saved even those who had not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God, but lived a good life according to the dictates of their conscience. It also recognized the rays of truth in other religions. This effectively put a halt to vigorous attempts at conversion.
By way of secondary arguments I may state that as per the official Census of India 2011 data the Decadal Growth Rate of Christians is less than the national average, and its percentage of the population has remained static at 2.3% for half a century. A startling statistic from the data shows that between 1961 and 2001 (40 years), the percentage of Christians in Kerala dropped from 21% to 19%, and in Goa from 36% to an alarming 27%. Today it will be even less.
Thirdly, those who threaten neo-converts with social ostracisation, are in fact the ones using the very coercion that they accuse evangelists of. Finally, by giving SC status to Dalit Christians who revert to Hinduism, the Govt of India is actually the one using allurements to induce conversions.
This Christmas, let us rather recognize the goodness in each other, because the Christmas proclamation of peace to men of goodwill was definitely not limited to Christians. So forget the Taj, let us enjoy the Peta.
* The writer is the former National President of the All India Catholic Union