The Church in India is in a picnic mode. It enjoys celebrations and a relaxed, laidback comfort zone. This was one of the opening remarks of Swami Sachidananda (aka Airforce Baba), the founder of the Disciples of Christ for Peace (DCP), and the convenor of the National Seminar on “Christian Leadership for a Culture of Peace in the Multi-Religious Context of India”.
It was held April 13-15 at Navjivan Renewal Centre (NRC), Delhi, in which 81 delegates from across the country participated.
Inaugurating the seminar Bishop Thomas Thuruthimattam of Gorakhpur (who subsequently spent all three days at the seminar as an ordinary participant) said that the increasing danger of religious fundamentalism could destroy the democratic and secular fabric of the nation. Hence it was imperative for Christian leaders to come together on such a platform to be peacemakers.
During the Vietnam War in the 1960’s a new breed emerged, known as peaceniks. It was a derogatory term used by over zealous pseudo-nationalists against those opposed to war. History, however, is witness to something else; the courage, not cowardice, of those who oppose war and violence.
It was such thoughts that forged an alliance between Swami Sachidananda and chhotebhai, former National President of the All India Catholic Union (AICU), to organize this seminar. It sought to identify and inspire potential Christian leaders, so that they could in turn become pacemakers – giving new life to the weak hearted; and to be torchbearers for peace and communal harmony.
To this end Swami Sachidananda said that we need to jettison our picnic mode and rediscover the power of the Cross of Jesus. He said that a true Christian is not one who is just baptized and goes to church on Sundays, but one who radiates the peace of Christ within. Just as Jesus first sent out 72 disciples with the message of peace this Seminar sought to identify a Special Task Force (STF) of 72 committed persons who would take this mission forward.
Guru Santaji of Kohlapur, Maharashtra, another DCP member, gave his testimony of how he stood up to bulldozers that threatened to demolish his ashram. He said that missionaries are often attacked because they are out of touch with local language and culture.
Later in the evening Father Anand Mathew, a member of the Varanasi-based Indian Missionary Society, showed a video of how his team of theater artists accompanied Swami Sachidananda on a 5-month tour of Uttar Pradesh spreading the message of peace among the public and school children. Anand warned that after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya the fundamentalist forces had declared that Mathura and Kashi (Varanasi) were next on the agenda.
On the second day chhotebhai presented the thrust paper “Christians as Harbingers of Peace.” He said that our peace mission should be rooted in present day ground realities where a multi-religious society was surreptitiously but systematically being transformed into a mono-religious one – with one religion, one culture, one language, one dress, one diet, one political ideology, one unique identity and one Civil Code. Several parables and anecdotes were used by the speaker to drive home his points.
Here communal forces seldom follow the path of open confrontation as often seen in Islamist violence. They rather choose the path of steady infiltration, all in the guise of “culture”, not religion. chhotebhai also quoted extensively from the Bible to emphasise that every Christian is called to be a harbinger of peace. It is not an optional extra.
He also cautioned against unnecessarily communalising situations. He gave the example of the Konkan Railway (KR) in 1994, when he was the National President of the AICU. Two senior Catholic bureaucrats in Delhi asked him to oppose the KR as it was a threat to Catholic holy places, life and culture in Goa. Despite pressure being exerted on him he declined to give a communal colour to that national project.
This presentation was followed by group sessions where the participants were asked to respond to four questions:
1. To propose ways to collectively and individually promote peace
2. To identify the methods/ tactics used to inflame communal passions
3. To determine the role of the mainline/ social media in promoting peace and communal harmony
4. Whether it was proper to pursue aggressive forms of evangelization in an already communally surcharged atmosphere.
The responses were enlightening. It was felt that we should not wait for things to happen, but we should take pre-emptive steps to promote peace. We should have common celebrations of major festivals like Diwali, Eid and Christmas. Others advocated the formation of neighbourhood parliaments. There was a need for inclusive language, and not pointing out the “other”. Children, in particular, should be made agents of peace.
The groups were unanimous that the social media was being exploited for spreading communal hatred. Hence it was imperative to verify messages on WhatsApp etc instead of blindly forwarding them. We should not be “WhatsApp Crusaders” who have no other commitment to society. Likewise we need to be wary of religious polarization disguised as “social engineering”, especially before elections. It was also felt that some TV channels had been sold out to the powers that be, and had thereby compromised their role as watchdogs. They had become stooges in the hands of the powerful, repeating ad nauseum what their political masters wanted to convey.
Contrary to popular perceptions about sensationalizing news, an example from Andhra Pradesh was given of how a newspaper began a weekly page on “positive news”, and its circulation actually increased manifold.
The participants were again unanimous in rejecting all forms of aggressive or insensitive proselytisation. We should never condemn the beliefs, practices or sacred symbols of other religions. There was also no need of “competitive” religion, using loudspeakers or taking out processions on the roads, thereby inconveniencing others. Christian evangelists needed to be humble and broadminded.
The next session was on the “Christian Contribution to make India what she is Today”. This was presented by Sqn Ldr Mohan Philip (Retd) and Dr Raju Abraham. It was an important counter narrative to negate the criticisms levelled against the Christian community in some quarters, where our loyalty to the nation is questioned.
Dr Sunil Sardar, a firebrand Dalit leader from Maharashtra, spoke on “An Indian Face of the Christian Faith”. He sought to re-interpret classical Christian beliefs in ancient Indian terms. The social reformist Jyoti Phule had referred to Jesus as Baliraja, the sacrificial king. He strongly felt that Christian churches had not done enough to integrate the Dalit community into their own.
Dr Kasta Dip of the Indian Peace Centre, Nagpur, opined that 90 percent of the conflicts in India were linked to religion, hence the urgency to tackle this. Most religious leaders do not undergo critical examination of their thoughts and actions. They need exposure to other points of view. There is too much of generalization and absolutism. We tend to see everything in black and white, rather than in several shades of grey. None of us has a monopoly over truth. His centre in Nagpur conducts weeklong residential programmes for youth from different religious persuasions to help them recognize and appreciate each other.
Jesuit Father Joy Karayampuram of the Indian Social Institute, New Delhi, shared his rich experiences of promoting peace. He averred that the preamble to the Constitution of India, and the Fundamental Duties of citizens as enshrined in Article 51(A) should be the mainstay of our peace mission. His institute had formed a Shanti Sadbhav Manch in 2006, and was working in seven states of central India, with 40 units, to promote peace, especially in and through school children. For government schools they had obtained permission from the concerned authorities.
Augustine Veliath, who had worked with several UN organizations for several years spoke on the “UN and International Peace Initiatives in India”. He said that the UN headquarters in New York faces the Isiah Wall which says that swords shall be turned into plough shares. That is the challenge that UN has failed. The sale and purchase or arms continue unabated.
Poorer countries divert their money for schools and health care for children to buy arms. India is among the top buyers of arms and weapons. The other UN challenge is Isiah’s new kingdom where infants do not die young and people live out their age. To make this happen there are 23 UN specialized agencies like UNICEF and WHO at work in India.
He is now the chairperson of an international agency, the Non-Violence Project Foundation, India. Its symbol is a gun whose barrel has been twisted out of shape, rendering it useless. This symbol, now placed before the the UN building, was made by a Swedish sculptor to honor John Lennon, one of the four Beatles; who was killed because he promoted peace through his songs. This is a price that peacemakers are made to pay.
On the final day of the Seminar Swami Sachidananda conducted an ecumenical service which called for a commitment to his STF for promoting peace through his Tyagarchana (happy childhood) program. 31 of the 81 delegates gave a written pledge to join the movement. Some others said that though they may not be formally part of this movement, they would nevertheless collaborate in different ways for promoting a culture of peace.
The service was followed by Swami Sachidananda’s vision of a “Second Freedom Struggle” for India. He had begun it as a fight against corruption, but soon realized that it required a spiritual and moral struggle to change peoples’ attitudes. Working in an NGO mode was not enough for obtaining this freedom. He gave the example of himself organizing 20 peace meetings in Muzzafarnagar after the communal riots had erupted there a few years ago.
For a plan of action several suggestions came from the floor of the house. Dr Joseph from Chennai gave the example of children’s parliaments that he is running, involving 300,000 children. Dr Sundar re-iterated that we should have a special outreach to the so-called lower castes. We must break the culture of dominance and arrogance.
Baba Gautam from Kasganj, U.P., said that there was a greater need for prayer. Swami Mukhtanand from Kerala appealed for concern for the environment. His organization had created a green belt by planting trees in a 17 km stretch on the Kollam coastline. Acharya Ram Surat from Ayodhya, quoting Dr Ambedkar, said if you educate a woman you are educating an entire generation.
Father Anand said that there was a concerted effort to bring back a manuvaad culture. Dr Raju Abraham from Mirzapur, U.P., said that we should avoid Sanskritization/ Brahmanization in our discourse, else we will alienate the Ambedkarites. We also need to counter the presentation of ancient myths as scientific facts. He said that if 25 percent of the country is committed to a particular political ideology it cannot be just wished away.
Nazareth Sister Marianne from Mokameh, Bihar, stressed the need to involve the first tier of democracy, the gram panchayat (village council) in the efforts for peace. Rajeev Sapera from Kannauj, U.P., opined that it was necessary to align with a secular political party to attain one’s goals.
This was an open house, and not a collective intent; but nevertheless gems of wisdom that could guide our future course of action said Jesuit Father Norbert Menezes from Patna.
The seminar concluded with the Delhi Declaration. It was not a resolution or a diktat but an expression of intent. It included a four-point charter for the 31 persons who had volunteered for the STF. This was followed by the release of Swami Sachidananda’s latest book by Padmashree Jesuit Father Tom Kunnunkal.
In his concluding remarks chhotebhai said that the word “impossible” was not in God’s lexicon. God’s greatest “weakness” was that he was a poor mathematician. His numbers never stacked up, as evidenced by the feeding of 5000 with just five loaves and two fishes. The Seminar, not the mission, ended on this note of faith, hope and trust.
Among those who had actively contributed to its success were the local co-ordinators Dr Nalini Abraham, Deepak and Monica Verma. Special mention must be made of Rev George Peter SJ, the unassuming and indefatigable Director of the NRC, Thomas Satyanand DCP, who did all the programming and photography, Acharya Rajhans DCP, from Nagpur, Sr Benedicta Pinto AC from Patna and Rev Allwyn Misquitta SDB from Aurangabad, Maharashtra. The choir was led by Praveen Dungdung of St Patrick’s youth, Kanpur. Incidentally, the largest contingent of 18 delegates came through the Kanpur Catholic Association.
It is hoped that this humble effort will contribute to promoting that much sought after, and often elusive, culture of peace. Surely some of those who attended will have come out of the picnic mode to become, not just passive peaceniks, but real peacemakers and true pacemakers!
(The writer was the Co-convener of this National Seminar.)