The Saint, the Fanatic and the Miracle
The Politics of RSS tirade against Teresa
One wonders if the Vatican will recognize the happenings in India in the last week of February 2015 as the Miracle it is looking forward before it canonizes Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu, the Macedonia-born Albanian nun of the Loreto Convent who came to India, founded the Missionaries of Charity, took the country’s submerged tenth of the population to heart as an Indian citizen, was given the Nobel Prize, the highest Indian honour of the Bharat Ratna, and became immortal as Mother Teresa. A title given by the people, much as the honorific of the Mahatma was given to another person who gave his life for political freedom for his homeland.
The latest “miracle” was a social revolution in some ways, a great churning and unification. A vast section of the billion-strong Hindu population rose in righteous indignation when the supreme leader of the nation’s fundamentalist group of religious nationalists chose to vilify the Mother, accusing her of using her works of love and charity as means of converting Hindus to Christianity in India. The Mother’s defenders ranged from film actors, men and women, to sports icons turned parliamentarians, such as Mr. Navjot Singh Siddhu. There was an angry interlude in Parliament where some of the most luminous members spoke of what she meant to them, and to the people of India. Many, including the Chief Minister of Delhi, Mr. Arvind Kejriwal, fondly and gratefully, recalled their own days of service in her ashram in Kolkata, and how their meeting her changed their lives. The people of the City of Kolkata took it as a personal affront. For once, spokespersons of the Christian community became redundant, though, for the record, the Catholic Bishops Conference of India and the Archbishop of Delhi issued statements
Mother Teresa is not yet a saint in the Catholic church. Love her or hate her, but her main work was with her hands, and with her heart, with people who even religion had forgotten. It was Caritas, Love, which is much more than charity or good works. She had been abused vilified, opposed even in her lifetime, and by experts who knew their theology and their sociology. Many have written books, some made documentary films against her. Hundreds of millions across the world, and a fair proportion of Hindus in India, called her a Saint long before her cause went to the Vatican.
What had happened in India this week was not a religious phenomenon, nor a clash of civilisations or anything as profound and epochal as much as it was a political issue, though people for their own reasons did not so want to call it.
Mr. Mohan Bhagwat, the head of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, RSS, is not a spiritual leader. He is a politician who heads a political and social group that thrives in the legal shadows and seeks to mobilize Hindus on an ideological argument of religious nationalism. The RSS has spawned a large brood of other organizations under the collective of the Sangh Parivar with the Bharatiya Janata Party, currently in power, as its political wing. The two most famous contemporary volunteer-leaders of the RSS are Mr. Atal Behari Vajpayee, Prime minister of India from 1998 to 2004, and Mr. Narendra Modi, who swept into power in May 2014. The Madhya Pradesh government, headed three terms by anther volunteer-leader, Mr. Chauhan, has just declared that the RSS is a cultural organisation and government employees are free to become members if they so wish. He has not clarified if policemen and judicial officials can also join the group which was banned for a time after one of its members assassinated Mahatma Gandhi back in 1948.
Mr. Bhagwat, as reported in the media this week, told a meeting that while Mother Teresa may be known for her service, the real motive for her work with the poor, the orphans and the dying destitute was her desire to convert people to Christianity.
The importance of Mr. Bhagwat’s statement is in its timing, not in its content which is quite consistent with what he and his predecessors have been saying every since the Mother started picking up people on the verge of death on the streets of the city, and taking them home to a few moments of dignity and the experience of human love.
Mr. Bhagwat timed his remarks within a few days of the widely welcomed speech of the Prime Minister, Mr. Narendra Modi, assuring Indians of their Constitutional guarantee of freedom of faith, and of security. Mr. Modi did seek to put the majority and minority communities in the same frame as equally culpable, but nonetheless, Christians in particular saw his remarks as a condemnation of the violence that has taken place against the community not just in the forests of Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, but even in the national Capital, New Delhi. Mr. Modi had not named the RSS and the Hindutva Parivar, but Christians had presumed that his remarks were also directed against that group.
Mr. Bhagwat too has continued to stress that India is a Hindu Rashtra, with one people professing one religion, a sort of a theocracy and not the polyglot, multi-ethnic country with just about every religion of the world, knit into a secular and functional democracy. Several leading lights of the ruling party also seem to believe this to be the case. There has been remarkably little toning down of the rhetoric despite a severe drubbing the party received some weeks ago in elections to the Legislative Assembly of the national Capital territory of Delhi.
His remarks also came on the eve of the RSS-affiliate Vishwa Hindu Parishad [VHP], which works amongst indigenous Tribes, celebrating its golden jubilee on 28 February in Kandhamal district of Orissa State, which saw massive religious violence against Christians in 2007 and 2008 in which more than 120 persons were killed, a nun and other women raped, 6,000 houses and 300 churches destroyed. Dr. Praveen Togadia, the international head of the VHP is the chief guest at those celebrations. His role in precipitating that violence, which followed the assassination of a senior VHP leader in the district, was alleged, but never investigated. The district’s Christians had sought protection from the state government to ensure there was no hate, and no violence. The entry of Mr. Togadia to Kandhamal for the meeting was subsequently banned by the district administration.
Mr. Bhagwat’s statement reopens a larger political debate on the revival of religious propaganda to divert the attention of the people from issues of governance and economic recovery that Mr. Modi had promised in his electoral campaign, but is finding it increasingly hard to deliver. And though the government has made half-hearted efforts to insulate itself from the fall-out of such remarks, there are arguments by academicians, political observers and civil society that Mr. Modi and Mr. Bhagwat could be acting in tandem. A sort of Good Cop, Bad Cop partnership.
Many luminaries of the BJP have come to the defence of Mr. Bhagwat even as the Prime Minister fails to denounce his statement. One of them is Ms. Meenakshi Lekhi, a lawyer and now Member of the Lok Sabha from Delhi. She is also, and perhaps even better known as the daughter in law of the late Supreme Court senior lawyer, Mr. P N Lekhi who was in his time as well known as the redoubtable Mr. Ram Jethmalani for his pugnacious defence of the Sangh Parivar. In blogs and articles, she sought to trash the defenders of the Mother, in particular her biographer Mr. Naveen Chawla, a former Chief Election Commissioner of India.
Ms. Lekhi’s arguments were based on the dictionary meaning of the term Missionary, which – and she quoted – the Oxford Dictionary said was a person sent on a religious mission, especially one sent to promote Christianity in a foreign country, and Merriam Webster’s said was person who is sent to a foreign country to do religious work (such as to convince people to join a religion or to help people who are sick, poor, etc.) “Keeping these very simple definitions in mind, I would like to ask Mr. Chawla that when Mother Teresa herself said she was a missionary, if admirers, biographers and world leaders also identified Mother Teresa as a missionary, why are you [Mr. Chawla] then trying to wipe clean the annals of history by claiming that she is NOT a missionary, that she is not one who served in the name of religion, that she is not one who laboured to get people within the fold of Christianity, and that she was not here to promote Christianity?”
Ms. Lekhi, like a good lawyer, quoted also from the 275-rule called ‘The Constitutions’ of the Missionaries of Charity’, and from the website of the Order that “devotional materials are distributed to the poor in the course of their work. ”Why is this fact being contested then? Do not take away from that noble woman that which has been the very core of her identity and her work – the promotion of Christianity and what is evident in the name of the organisation itself… At least Mother Teresa had the courage of conviction and honesty of purpose and never shied away from missionary activities, unlike organisations who do it under deceptive garbs.”
The BJP government has been making a case of late against what it describers as missionary work, a carry-all term that now seems to include all Christian social activity and lumps it as propagation of faith with a view to proselytization. The entire discourse around the need for a national law to curb conversions, and the move to curtail the already restrictive Foreign Contributions Regulation Act for Non-Governmental Organisations in the development and empowerment sectors, is precipitated on the argument that it creates rifts in rural and tribal society and also impacts the development objectives of the government.
Mother Teresa’s personal conviction that her work was propelled by Christ, who she loved with her life, and who she saw in every human being, and more so those in suffering, was sought to being reduced to a political argument of destabilizing Indian or specifically Hindu society.
Indians rejected the Sangh argument almost as soon as it was made. Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal criticised Mr. Bhagwat’s comments, saying “I worked with Mother Teresa for a few months at Nirmal Hriday ashram in Kolkata. She was a noble soul. Please spare her.” Others pointed to the fact that the Missionaries of Charity had their ashrams in just about every country on every continent in the world.
The well-known police officer, Mr. Julio Rebiero, in an article summed it up for most admirers of the Mother, “As Ambassador to Romania I was concurrently accredited to Albania, the country of Mother Teresa’s origin. On one of my visits to Tirana, Albania’s capital city, my wife and I were lunching with Reis Malile, the Foreign Minister and his wife when a message was received that Mother Teresa was on her way to Romania from Rome and wanted me to accompany her. The Albanian Foreign Minister told me that they considered Mother to be their own and his government was very keen for her to open a centre of the Missionaries of Charity in Tirana. Their talks with her had bogged down because of Mother’s insistence on positioning a Catholic Priest in her proposed centre. This was not acceptable to the Albanian government as it was officially an Atheist State and did not allow the open practice of any religion. Reis Malile wanted me to explain to Mother that Albania had been predominantly Muslim before all religions were banned. If they allowed a Catholic Priest they would also have to allow Muslim Mullas and that would open the gates for myriad problems that they did not wish to face. When I mentioned this to Mother she was very clear that god could be worshipped by different people by different names and in different forms and she saw no merit in the Albanian government’s denial of the right to worship to Muslims, Christians or other faiths. After the Communists were replaced and religions worship was permitted in Albania Mother Teresa was approached by some young boys to cut the ribbon before their entry into a Mosque which the government had earlier converted into a museum but was now restored as a place of worship. Mother Teresa willingly went and cut the ribbon. When I asked her about it she said that god is one and if Muslims want to worship god it is a good thing that they were doing and they needed to be encouraged.”
This is an argument that is politically not what the Sangh Parivar wants to hear. Its stock in trade is identifying Muslims as a people who will overwhelm the Hindus of India, its solitary power base, by a rapid growth of their population through polygamy and large families. It generates paranoia and hatred against Christians substituting proselytizing as the cause of the population growth.