Half-baked half-truths

BY VIVIAN FERNANDES| IN Media Practice | 05/01/2015
By not checking the ground reality, reports on conversions end up being sketchy and misleading.
VIVIAN FERNANDES laments lazy reporting.

 News reports in Delhi’s English newspapers about conversions have amplified the views of Hindu extremists. By not critically examining their exaggerated claims, they have fanned the impression that Christian priests and pastors are engaged in an all-out attempt to depopulate Hinduism through large-scale desertions. 

Little attempt is made to seek out the converts and elicit their points of view. One cannot hear the independent voices of the reporters either; instead, by conflating assertion with fact they end up endorsing the claims of the Hindutva conspiracy theorists. 

A report from Chandigarh in the December 22 edition of the Indian Express says the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and its affiliates are engaged in a ‘massive’ programme of getting Christians back to home-grown religions -- Hinduism and Sikhism -- in Punjab. They claim to have won over 8,000 converts in the last three years, 3,500 of them in the past year alone.  A January 2 report in the Economic Times ascribes to another RSS outfit the conversion of 17,000 Christians in the state to Hinduism in just one year. 
The Indian Express reporter says the Shiromani Akali Dal, far from applauding the RSS, is unhappy with it because Sikh Christians are its ‘vote bank’. Chief minister Prakash Singh Badal has promised ‘Masihi Bhavans’ in all districts of the state and assured Christians there will be no ‘forcible conversions’ from their community. Would a party championing the cause of Sikhs risk mass conversions and a depletion of its core constituency in the hope that the crossovers will leave its overall vote base unaffected? 

It is also not clear why the Shiromani Gurudwara Parbhandak Committee (SGPC) -- a body which manages most of the gurdwaras, including the historical ones -- would outsource the business of winning back converts to the RSS, which the Sikhs view with some suspicion because the RSS denies them an identity separate from Hinduism. 

If the situation is indeed alarming, it is not reflected in SGPC spokesperson Dalmegh Singh’s statement that the SGPC is not engaged in converting Christians.  He repeats the statement in the December 30 edition of the Tribune, in response to a Hindu outfit’s claim that 128 Christian families had converted to Sikhism in a locality in Amritsar: "We have nothing to do with it. The gurdwara where the event was held was not under the SGPC. We strongly oppose forced religious conversions."

A SGPC member, however, admits to be on the job in her freelance capacity. She finds the situation is ‘so alarming’ that even in Amritsar, the seat of Sikhism, conversions to Christianity are taking place. 

It is a juicy story to chase. Either way (if conversions were or were not happening) it would have been a good follow-up report. But no attempt is made to arrive at an estimate of conversions, verify the numbers with officials or to meet the converts. 

The view of RSS volunteers that convent schools are ‘dens of conversion’ is not contested. The Express reporter refers to Mohan Nagar, a Dalit Basti in Khermarkan where almost 70 per cent of the residents are said to be Christians. What is that supposed to mean? People of a kind tend to flock together. I know of an apartment in East Delhi’s Patparganj area entirely occupied by Muslims. Can that neighbourhood be held as a proxy for the entire area? One Kinder Kaur says she reconverted along with her children because the condition for their conversion -- her husband’s recovery from an illness -- was not met. 

Gandhi Ram, 60, a daily wager, says he was born to Christian parents and has ‘returned’ to Hinduism. If he was born a Christian he was never converted. And how can be return when he was never a Hindu?
The Economic Times report mentioned earlier has comments from two converts. Rajbir Singh, 36, a Mazhabi Sikh of Dasuya, says he returned because he was troubled that he had upset the gurus. Gurmeet Kaur, 46, of Gurdaspur, says free medical treatment for her ailing husband did the trick for her (the word used is ‘enticed’).  She gives up Christianity after 27 years ago .Isn’t that a long time to suffer a fraud?  A painter, who was Christian all his life, says he was ‘enlightened’ about his Valmiki roots by his Hindutva guide.  

The report, ‘Christian conversions fuel tension,’ in the December 23 edition of the Times of India should have been more appropriately headlined as ‘Conversion talk fuels tension,’ or 'Reconversions fuel tension'.  The story is a confusing amalgam of reports from Bahraich and Agra. An Agra woman is said to have converted to Christianity. The police deny it. After the act, she disappears. The reporter says she has gone underground. The police say she has left the village for work!  

A police complaint is said to have been filed in her name. Did she file it? She is said to have been accompanied to the police station by two Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) members. She claims to have been lured to Christianity with material inducements but the complaint is against two Hindus!  
In Bahraich’s Navinagar Mohraniya village, 70 Hindus are alleged to have converted. The police dismiss this as rumour. The same reporter had, on 20 December, said the same number of Hindus have converted to Christianity in Kamalapur village. Police are said to have told villagers to take off the crosses they were wearing. (What is the offence?)  

A December 25 story in the Indian Express says an RSS affiliate has put off its planned ‘ghar wapsi’ of 5,000 Christians and Muslims families of Aligarh on Christmas eve. The report paints a fantastic picture of ‘cadres’ lying in wait for the winter session of Parliament to end. They are said to be ‘camping’ in the nearby villages (with soul traps presumably) and keeping an eye on the ‘target’ families so that ‘missionaries’ do not persuade them to take part in Christmas celebrations. 

The Hindutva outfit is apprehensive that the local administration will help Church representatives talk to those waiting to make the cross over. Has the church co-opted the UP administration too?  The pastor of Aligarh’s Church of Ascension asserts he is not intimidated by talk of reconversions. But a Christian advocate says the festive feel is missing. A 70-year old resident, who says he is a member of the RSS, finds quite a few chairs empty at the midnight mass he is attending. 

A December 30 report in the Times of India from Gaya gives a different spin to conversions. The story is about 42 Mahadalit families converting to Christianity on Christmas Eve.  Rajniti Devi, one of the converts, is described as illiterate but articulate and aware. She is the wife of a mason, a reformed alcoholic. Far from giving them money, the pastors (called ‘missionaries’) taught them expenditure management, she says. They campaigned against gambling and alcoholism, which the Mahadalits used to ascribe to evil spirits.  

Sadly, the report is based on just one conversation with a convert. A previous day’s report speaks of the Mahadalits seeking police protection after their village is raided by a group of people. The group is beaten back, but the converts feel intimidated. 

In the December 25 report by the news agency IANS from Kottayam about 59 Dalit Christians converting to Hinduism, only leaders of the VHP and the Hindu Ayikya Vedi, CPM leader Pinarayi Vijayan, and Chief Minister  Oomen Chandy are quoted. The converts do not speak. 

A good investigative story on conversions is the one posted by Supriya Sharma on Scroll.in on  December 28. She visits a dozen tribal villages in Gujarat’s Valsad district four days after a mass ‘reconversion’ event is organised by the VHP -- around the time (December 21) that RSS leader Mohan Bhagwat declared in Kolkata that India is a Hindu country and there is nothing wrong in getting stolen ‘maal’ (goods, i.e, converts) back. 

Sharma meets a VHP worker, who was earlier a mobilizer for Oxfam, a London-based NGO which champions fair trade. He says tribals convert to Christianity on the promise of cures but revert when they are disappointed. Those who participated in the Valsad ceremony had stopped practising Christianity for some time. The ‘reconversion’ was only a formality, in his view. A tea vendor in one of the villages sports a Hanuman locket, proof that he was at the reconversion ceremony. He says he was drawn by the prospect of a meal of baigan ki sabzi, dal and rice. Sharma speculates that the large crowds at the Valsad ceremony were attracted to the food. 

Adivasis were one people at one time, says a tribal. But they are now divided into sects like Moksh Marg, Swaminarayan and Sanatan Dharma. Christianity would have fitted in, except that it is a break from tribal culture, says Sharma. Converts do not participate in the Vagh Baras ceremony because idolatry is forbidden. 

When Sharma visits a village, preparations are on for Natal, as Christmas is known in these parts. Converts tell her they changed faith to feel better, to get rid of pain, to be healed. She finds a church nearly empty on Christmas Day. Tribal folk were attending a get-together of faith healers (bhagats) organized by the VHP with lunch thrown in. Elsewhere, there was a 11-day Bhagwat  Katha underway at a temple.  There is a lot of competition for tribal eyeballs. 
"The act of changing religion is hardly a dramatic one as the sands of faith are constantly shifting," says Sharma.  It is a nice story done in the course of a day that would have cost at most Rs 3,000 in taxi fare. Unfortunately, reporters either do not make the effort or media organizations do not approve even meagre budgets for local travel.  Sketchy, misleading stories are the result. By failing to check facts and report the situation on the ground as it is, media organizations are not just letting down their audiences, they are failing India’s secular democracy. 
(Vivian Fernandes is a Delhi-based journalist and founding member of the Foundation for Media Professionals.)
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