What really bothers Ashok Singhal and his Vishwa Hindu Parishad? If you're wanting to answer that, you need look no further than his recent diatribe against Amartya Sen. Sen's steady calls for ending illiteracy in India, along with his Nobel prize, is a "Christian conspiracy" that is going to destroy Hinduism.
This is the bizarre thesis Singhal has chosen to foist on us. In so doing, he also tells us the truth: he really cannot stand the idea of ending illiteracy in India.
Poor Ashok Singhal. Try, won't you, to imagine how the prospect terrifies him. The more India's masses get educated, aware, the more we will start asking questions. We will ask questions about our condition; about the dirt, injustice, hunger, corruption, thirst, disease and oppression that lie everywhere. We will ask questions about Singhal's rhetoric about temples and conspiracies and spreading radioactive sand around the country: rhetoric that was deliberately designed for an essentially unquestioning audience. We will want to know exactly what this rhetoric has to do with any of the daily problems in our lives. And as we ask those questions and get no answers, we will see clearly just how empty Ashok Singhal's bag of tricks really is.
That is what bothers Singhal. The thought of facing such questions frightens him. That is why he really wants us Indians to remain largely illiterate. That is why he heaps abuse on literacy, Amartya Sen and Christianity.
So rampant is the perversity in all this that it is difficult to know where to start arguing against it. Of course, Amartya Sen needs no help from me. So let me instead discuss Christianity and illiteracy.
In a country that contains over 800 million Hindus, Singhal wants to persuade you that 20 million Christians pose a threat to Hinduism. Almost two millenia of Christianity, with all the rabid missionary fervour its zealots have exhibited in those years, has "succeeded" to the extent of bringing one in every fifty Indians to the church. Compare that to the stellar success illiteracy has had in remaining entrenched in India: after a mere 50 years of Independence, we have more illiterate Indians -- over 450 million -- than we had Indians at Independence. Today, one of every two Indians cannot read and write; according to the UNDP's Human Development Report, about one of every three adult illiterates in the world in 1993 was an Indian.
The extent to which this disgrace weakens India, to which it threatens the survival of India, is entirely opaque to Ashok Singhal -- or, more likely, he purposely chooses that opacity. If there is a danger to Hinduism, surely it is that hundreds of millions of Hindus — of Indians — live such deprived, oppressed lives. Yet Singhal cares not a whit about them.
Instead, perhaps sensing that people are tiring of his Parivar's campaign against 120 million Indian Muslims, he decides to whip up hatred against 20 million Indian Christians. It must be a strange and twisted mind that sees those 20 million as a threat to a vast, ancient religion. But Singhal, his muttering VHP cronies and their followers possess just such minds. That, again, is why they are so scared of any talk of literacy — like from Amartya Sen.
What's far worse, they deliberately blind themselves to the extent to which so many low-caste and tribal Indians themselves see converting to other religions as the only way to escape oppression and misery.
Take what a tribal leader I interviewed recently told me: "High-caste Hindus don't treat humans as humans. They will feed milk to snakes, but they will kick people. They send money to build a temple, but none for people. Just saying [the word] dharma does not make dharma. This is why some of us convert to Islam or Christianity."
Take, too, what a Pardhi tribal I met in Maharashtra's Satara district said: "We think of ourselves as Hindus. But if we can't get justice here in India, where will we get it, in Pakistan? We don't want this kind of Hinduism, where we are treated as criminals. If this goes on, we will have no choice but to convert."
When I quoted this last man in a column here some months ago, I got a flood of angry responses attacking me for "criticising" the BJP and its Parivar. None of these email-happy dudes stopped to think: what's the real problem here? That there are people who feel this way? Or that it got reported? When will Singhal and his gang understand that there are Indians who themselves decide that they want to switch religions? That they are no part of any conspiracy?
And yet, the real tragedy is that converting will change their lives so little. One reason for that is the silly pretexts for which the actual conversion often happens. In a recent Sunday Observer report, Sunil K Poolani tells of a tribal in Gujarat who was offered "a white powder" by nuns from the Church of North India. They told him it was "God's prasad" and could "cure any illness"; that and some catechism classes convinced the man to convert.
This miraculous prasad, Poolani learned, is nothing more divine than powdered Crocin (a paracetamol tablet). The motive of these oh-so-generous representatives of the Church, then, is clearly nothing more divine than more numbers added to the fold. No wonder this tribal's brother is now "seriously thinking" of reconverting: a Hindu group told him that "they would give us more benefits than what the church does." After all, it takes very little to promise "more benefits" than powdered tablets and a few classes.
This is how unbelievably mindless this whole business of converting and reconverting is. This is it: religion reduced to membership in clubs.
There's another reason conversion from one religion to another, by itself, can hardly change lives for the better. Too often, the caste prejudices converts are trying to escape simply carry over into their new religions, as terms like "Dalit Christian" hint at. The ill-treatment continues irrespective of religion: because what defines so many Indian lives is not religion, but caste.
So if Ashok Singhal is truly worried about Hinduism, he might recognise that little truth. He might try to understand that Hinduism, and India, will flourish only when we break the stranglehold caste has on us all.
Only, Singhal's various pronouncements tell us that what he truly wants is something quite different: for those at the bottom of the caste totem pole to remain there, illiterate and unquestioning. He will not even recognise the paradox in that. As long as illiteracy is widespread, there will be those who fall for devious allurements like powdered tablets; whose conversions so annoy Singhal. Fighting illiteracy and oppression is the way to prevent people converting. But instead, this man rants at literacy.
Another tribal told Sunil K Poolani: "[F]or us, religion is immaterial — what is important is that we get basic amenities." The equation is that simple. But for the strange minds of the VHP, even that must be too hard.
— Dilip D'Souza
Picture of Sunil K Poolani by Shilpika Bordoloi