Sunil K Poolani in Saputara (Gujarat)
Bhavarsinh Hasusinh Suryavanshi is a king. No buts about it. But his subjects respect another king: Jesus Christ.
Suryavanshi, king for the last 13 years, is the 22nd in the line of Bhil kings who ruled Linga, a village 28 km from Saputara, in Gujarat. He still receives a monthly privy purse of Rs 3,400, and the two sipahis appointed by him are paid Rs 1,800 a month by the government. Moreover, he has 48 acres of land allotted by the government where he grows crops and is the proud owner of a colour television set - so what if there is no electricity in the village!
Despite all this, Suryavanshi's life is no better than any of his subjects': he moves around on foot unlike his predecessors who travelled in a palanquin (a sipahi was seen resting his leg on the. "throne" while the king was seated), and - gravest of all the ruler doesn't have any powers over his subjects, though once in a blue moon he holds court in his patio to resolve petty quarrels.
Says he ruefully: "Most of my men [there are about 250 families in his village] have ditched me. Notwithstanding my plea, every family, except mine, has converted to Christianity. "
Linga's case is not an isolated one. Traipsing through the tribal villages of south Gujarat, more incidents of conversion by Christian missionaries came to our notice. And we found a slow but steady revolution taking place - unreported and unlooked at.
Keshu Pawar and his family in nearby Malegaon hamlet embraced Christianity two years ago. What prompted him to do that? "Once when I was suffering from fever and headache, a couple of Keralite nuns who were on a visit to our village gave me a white powder. I consumed it and felt better. They told me it was God's prasad which can cure any illness. They, visited us often, held catechism classes, and told us about Christ and his supernatural powers. Convinced, we joined them."
Chanduram, Keshu's brother, was next in line. His daughter had some "incurable" disease and the nuns took her to their monastery, and two weeks later, says Chanduram, "she came back home walking on her feet". Seventy-five per cent of the families in the village followed suit.
If a major chunk of the villagers we talked to converted to Christianity as the church offered them money and free medicines and clothes, some of them were influenced or intimidated by neo-converts. Soon church bells started tolling in the village where electricity and primary education are unheard of.
It is not that the church is not doing good to their lives. Says Keshu: "After I became a Christian, I stopped drinking and chewing tambaaku. They [the nuns] talk to us so endearingly that we get a feeling that someone is there to care for us... they help us in all possible ways." A priest who visits them once a week tells them that "bad habits are Hindus' prerogative and those who reconvert to Hinduism will fall into the putrefied life again".
Interestingly, Chanduram, who is not as obsessed with Christianity as his brother is, admitted that he is seriously thinking of reconverting to Hinduism. Why? After much persuasion he says: "Pandurangshastri Athavale's followers approached us a couple of weeks ago asking us to reconvert. They said they would give us more benefits than what the church gave us."
Suryavanshi is optimistic: "My men are lured by cash, kind and help. But I'm sure they will reconvert to Hinduism if some Hindu group offers the same benefits. Also, the government should chalk out some measures to curb this practice. "
Surya Goswami, an artist working in the tribal belt for the last 17 years and founder member of Gandharapur Artists' Village in Saputara, says: "The church uses weird ways to lure tribals - like giving powdered Crocin or other tablets for various illnesses, saying it is God's gift to mankind. One of their lures is: a Hindu idol in a tribal temple will go down under a flood, but not the cross on top of a church. Then they ask the tribals: 'How do you expect a god to save you if he is not in a position to save himself?'' And the poor, illiterate tribals, often failing to find a suitable answer, succumb to the church's exhortation."
Says a confused Suresh Gadvi, a neo-convert: "I'm aware that the church is now adamant that we shouldn't reconvert, because, as the priest keeps telling us, Christ will never pardon us if we do. But for us, religion is immaterial - what is important is we should get basic amenities. "