Churches and conversions in the Bangalore press

BY Ammu Joseph| IN Media Practice | 24/09/2008
Hardly ever are people who are actually in a position to illuminate the scene with the light of knowledge quoted in the press or interviewed on television.
Audiences get very little of the real story despite the 24x7 news environment we now live in., says AMMU JOSEPH. Pix courtesy PTI

"Prayer groups galore in B’lore" stated a headline in The New Indian Express, Bangalore, on 18 September – four days after a number of churches/prayer halls were almost simultaneously attacked in three districts of Karnataka. 


The exact number was difficult to determine since there was considerable variation in the figures mentioned in press reports on 15 September, the day after the first wave of attacks:  16 (Deccan Chronicle), 14 (The Times of India), 12 (The Hindu), 10 (The New Indian Express) and 9 (Press Trust of India, reproduced by various news outlets). 


While both The Hindu and Deccan Herald initially used the word "prayer hall" – rather than church or, at least, both – to describe the places of worship that had been attacked, Bangalore Mirror specified that the attacks were on "many New Life prayer halls."  This was a little inaccurate because some of the targets appear to have been churches in the traditional sense of the word and not all of them were associated with the New Life Fellowship Trust (NLFT).


Incidentally, at another level, the NIE’s front page headline on the 15th said churches had been attacked in "costal" Karnataka.


Going back to the NIE headline of the 18th – "Prayer groups galore in B’lore" – the report went on to list seven places where several different prayer groups reportedly meet in Bangalore, practically providing directions ("behind Cantonment Railway Station, Millers Road next to the Archbishop’s house," etc.).  It is difficult to fathom how and why such a random list was compiled and published at such a juncture, in the immediate aftermath of violent attacks on places of worship in the state.


In view of the repeated allegations regarding "forced conversion" from various quarters, ranging from the state convener of the Bajrang Dal to the chief minister and home minister of Karnataka, all duly reported in the media, The Times of India’s coverage is rather interesting. 


For example, while the front page report in print edition of 15 September (the day after the first round of violence) was headlined "14 churches, clergy attacked in 3 dists," the report in the online edition of the same day (posted at 0440 hrs IST) was headlined, "Conversion fire engulfs Karnataka, seven churches vandalized." Not only did the number change but the rationale for the violence put forward by the Bajrang Dal and others was woven into the headline.  None of the headlines in any of Bangalore’s English language dailies that day, including the local edition of the TOI, went beyond stating the fact that churches/prayer halls had been attacked. 


On 17 September the TOI devoted a full page to the subject, with "Faith under attack" as the slug and "Versions of conversion" as the overall headline.  One Karnataka-based story, headlined "Bringing converts back into fold," was about Paravarthana, the "reconversion movement" launched by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad.  Another traced the story of "How Bajrang Dal built its muscle." A third, headlined "Charges of conversion are real:  BSY," was placed next to a box headlined "Contain violence, say BJP bosses." A fourth report, based on an interview with the pastor of the NLFT in Mangalore, tried to answer the question, "What is New Life?"  There was also a report on the opinions of members of a fact-finding team including film director Mahesh Bhatt:  "Mahesh Bhatt’s team slams mob terrorism."


But the most interesting piece was a small report at the bottom of the page headlined, "We are happy with our new faith:  converts." Datelined Chikmagalur (one of the districts that had witnessed attacks the previous Sunday), this is how it began:  "Conversions by some Christian missionaries in the Malnad region appear to have taken place after the people were lured into it, or due to social compulsions, rather than voluntary." (sic)


Two cases were cited, which are brief enough to reproduce in full here:


  • "Thimmakka embraced Christianity after she lost her husband, and she was helpless. A missionary came along, and admitted her daughter to a school run by them.  Thimmakka was given a job.  After a while, the missionaries started weekly prayers in her house. Miffed by their activity, some Hindu organisations opposed it and now they have stopped using her house for the prayers, but Thimmakka has not returned to her original religion."
  • "Shobha’s case was a little different.  A resident of Norway Kaimara in Koppa taluk, her father was a Hindu who married a Christian.  Shobha married a Hindu youth, but now the whole family has embraced Christianity."


The next paragraph reported that Narasimharajapura now has many "Syrian churches" and that "conversions are said to be rampant." Statistics were quoted without attributing them to any source:  "More than 30% of dalits and other backward classes have converted to the Christian faith."


Most interesting of all was the next paragraph:  "Most of them are not voluntary converts, but they say there are many attractions in Christianity.  They feel they have social status and are no longer outcastes."  Perhaps a definition of "voluntary" would have helped make things a little clearer.


This small report also serves to raise another issue about media coverage of the recent attacks:  widespread confusion about the various offshoots of Christianity in India.  For example, there is actually no such thing as a "Syrian church." The word Syrian generally refers to a Kerala-based community rather than a church and its use in the nomenclature of several different churches based in the state indicates their roots in the community rather than their affiliation to any of the three main or establishment church groups within Christianity (in India and worldwide):  Roman Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox.


Between churches, prayer halls/houses, chapels, monasteries, friaries, grottos, tabernacles, sacraments, et al – not to mention the smorgasbord of "mainstream" and "fringe" Christian denominations and organisations – quite a few reporters were obviously quite lost.  Some attempt to tap Christian scholars and/or academic institutions may have helped dispel some of the confusion. 


That leads to the broader issue of the sources of news and information that tend to be tapped by the media these days.  Hardly ever are people who are actually in a position to illuminate the scene with the light of knowledge quoted in the press or interviewed on television – especially researchers who have studied the local situation and/or activists well-grounded in local conditions.


In fact, TV talk shows and studio discussions are so heavily dominated by representatives of political parties (each with their own axe to grind) and/or others who represent diametrically opposing views on the subject under discussion that there is almost no room for informed, reasoned debate that can help viewers make some sense of current events.  The print media are, to some extent, saved from this situation by their editorial and op-ed pages (and, in increasingly rare cases, the Sunday magazine sections), which are often used by informed and thoughtful people, both inside and outside the organization, to provide the necessary analysis and interpretation. 


For example, in the case of the prolonged and ongoing violence in Orissa, inputs from academic-activists who have worked in the area for a long time and are familiar with the history as well as the present situation, suggest that there is far more to what has been widely presented as a communal conflict (related to conversions and reconversions) than meets the eye of most journalists covering the story.  Thanks to the "breaking news" approach coupled with the "big fight" approach of much media coverage today, audiences get very little of the real story despite the 24x7 news environment we now live in.








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