Last October, I had an occasion to stay for a night at Uttarkashi. I got up in the morning and walked out into the balcony to have a darshan of Bhagirathi. But, instead of the soothing view of the river, I found myself confronting a huge Cross looming large on the hill opposite. The Cross was etched on a building that seemed to stand out as the biggest and best maintained on the hill. There was another imposing Cross on the roof of an adjoining somewhat smaller building, which appeared to be part of the same campus. In the morning light, these two Crosses seemed to define the skyline of this holiest of Hindu cities.
I enquired about the building and the Cross from the waiter who brought my morning tea. He seemed genuinely surprised that I was so ill-informed as not to know this major landmark of the city. The building, he told me, was the prestigious MDS school. Later, I drove up to the school, and found out that the full name of the school was Maseeh Dilasa School, Uttarkashi; the other building in the campus was Maseeh Dilasa Convent. The school comes under the Diocese of Bijnor of the Carmellites of Mary Immaculate. The diocese also has a church in Uttarkashi, with the beautiful Sanskrit name of Abhishiktalaya, and it also runs the Mary Mata Ashram in Chinyalisaur near Uttarkashi.
Maseeh Dilasa School and other Christian institutions in Uttarkashi are apparently patronised mainly by the Hindus, because there are few Christians in the district. According to the census of 2001, there were just 230 Christians in the district; though this number is nearly three times the number of Christians in 1991, when only 89 Christians were counted in the district; in 1971 and 1981, there were just 15 Christians.
I have recounted this story of Uttarkashi in some detail, because it is the story of much of India. We know that there is little Christian population in most parts of India. But, almost all historic and holy sites of India are marked by a multiplicity of Christian symbols and institutions. And the phenomenon has become much more marked in the recent past.
A couple of months after the visit to Uttarkashi, I took the metro from Chennai Station to Mylapore. Suddenly I found too many of the houses along the track supporting imposing Crosses. Christian symbols were always very visible in southern towns. You could hardly enter a major town like Chennai, Tiruchirapalli or Madurai without coming across imposing churches, Crosses and images of Christ along the main road and the main railway track. But, now you cannot even go up the Tirumala hill without encountering similarly imposing Christian symbols. And, the multiplicity of Crosses on the houses along the metro track in Chennai would seem odd to even someone inured to the sight of such images in the important public places of India.
This increase in the public display of Christian symbols is accompanied by an equally visible rise in the number of Christians during the last couple of decades, especially during the last decade. Like in Uttarkashi, overall number of Christians remains small in most places, but the rise in those small numbers is very significant in almost every part of India. Such rise has taken place especially in those parts where there has been little Christian presence so far. Thus, Himachal Pradesh had 4,435 Christians in 1991; the number has risen to 7,687 in 2001, marking a decadal growth of 73 per cent. Haryana had about 15.7 thousand Christians in 1991; in 2001, the number has risen to more than 27 thousand, again marking a decadal growth of 73 per cent. In Rajasthan, there were 48 thousand Christians in 1991, now their number is 73 thousand, indicating decadal growth of more than 50 per cent.
As in Uttarkashi, the numbers in many parts of India look even more startling when compared with the number of Christians in 1971 and 1981. The Christian numbers in parts of India where their presence had been negligibly small began to rise in the 1981-1991 period, and the rate of growth has picked up in the last decade of 1991-2001.
In areas where Christians already had a foothold in 1991, the numbers are not small any more. Thus in Chennai, there were about 2.5 lakh Christians in 1991 and 2.2 lakh in 1981. In 2001, their number was 3.3 lakh, marking a growth of 35 per cent in the last decade, while the total population of Chennai grew by only 13 per cent. All those Crosses on the houses along the metro-track are thus not merely empty symbols; the religious profile of the city is changing.
Christians do often protest that they are a miniscule minority of India, that they form less than 2.5 per cent of the Indian population, and that too much is being made of small accretions to their flock. But, in the regions where Christians have established a significant presence, the numbers often rise very fast. The way Christian presence rose suddenly to cover the almost entire populations of Nagaland, Mizoram and the hill districts of Manipur is well known. Those who have so far remained outside the Christian fold in Meghalaya are being rapidly converted; the Christian share in the population of Meghalya keeps rising by several percentage points every decade and has reached above 70 per cent in 2001, compared to less than 65 per cent in 1991. Several districts of Arunachal Pradesh are experiencing even more rapid rise in Christian presence.
Christian presence in a region does not remain miniscule after they begin to form a critical fraction. A more recent example is that of Kandhamal, which has been in the news recently. Kandhamal is a relatively small district in central Orissa, with a population of only 6.5 lakh, of which 1.2 lakh have been counted as Christians in the 2001 census. In 1981, there were only 42 thousand Christians in the district, and they formed about 9 per cent of the population. Their number rose to 76 thousand in 1991, and their proportion in the population increased to 14 percent. In 2001, Christians formed 18 per cent of the population of Kandhamal. They have thus doubled their share in the population of this district in just two decades.
Kandhamal district has 15 tahsils; Christians form 69 per cent of the population in Brahmanigaon, 54 per cent in Daringbari and 52 per cent in Kotagarh; and they have a presence of 31 per cent in Tumudibandha and 20 per cent in Raikia. Of 1.2 lakh Christians in Kandhamal district, 87 thousand are in these 5 tahsils, and another about 15 thousand are in Baliguda, where they form more than 14 per cent of the population.
In the neighbouring Gajapati district, Christians form 33 per cent of the population compared to just 12 per cent in 1971. In three of the nine tahsils of the district, Christians now form a majority; their proportion is as high as 79 per cent in Serango, 70 per cent in Adva and 49 per cent in R. Udayagiri.
The tahsils of high Christian presence in Kandhamal and Gajapati are contiguous to each other, and there is a contiguous tahsil known as Puttasing in Rayagada district with nearly 70 percent Christian population. Christians have thus carved out a fairly big region involving more than 10 contiguous tahsils spread over three districts, where they now have a dominating presence.
During the Kandhamal events, Christians at the national level were able to successfully present themselves as a suffering minority whose normal religious activity was being curbed. And, they effectively used the media in this projection. But what kind of ?normal? religious activity can lead to the conversion of nearly the whole populations of so many tahsils in the course of a couple of decades? The native people of Kandhamal protested against this wholescale conversion, because the Christian conversion activity also got intertwined with the competitive politics of reservation between the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. If it were not for the obvious injustice being meted out to the native tribal people of the region, and their capacity to protest, most people even would not have known about the great inroads made by the Christians in that region.
This vibrancy of growth in Christian numbers and Christian symbolism across much of India, and the carving out of pockets of dominance in different parts, reflects a new found confidence in the church. This assertiveness is also reflected in the growing stridency of protests, when any symbol of Hinduism appears in an area where the Christians have achieved dominance. Recently, Christians of Kanyakumari, where they are now in a majority, raised a great storm over the installation of a Hanuman statue in the town. Christians form about 45 per cent of the population of the district, and nearly 60 per cent of Kanyakumari town.
In the nineteenth century when India had come under the control of the Christian British rulers, the church had come to believe that Hinduism was about to collapse. That did not happen; and the church began what it believed to be a largely fruitless task of presenting Christ to the Hindus, through its various activities. These activities included, besides direct proselytising, the offering of modern education to the children of Hindu elite in the Christian ambience of schools like the Maseeh Dilasa School of Uttarkashi, and offering of medical services in a worshipful Christian way.
The church created the Christian ambience in the public spaces of India, but there was a feeling that while the Hindus took to the ambience and accepted the service, they seldom converted. There was a feeling of despondence. But, the numbers of the last two censuses have enthused hope. There is a new sense of optimism in the highest echelons of the church that they are now about to reap the harvest they have tended for so long. And this sense of optimism is leading to a new assertiveness and a new openness about the activities of the church. And there is an increase in the Christian presence and ambience all around.
The growth in the numbers and influence of Christianity is certainly going to affect the electoral calculations in several parts of India. It shall affect India in several other ways. Of the many problems that Independent India has failed to resolve, one of the most significant is that of minority assertiveness. The problem, like most other core problems of the Indian nation, is a legacy of pre-Independence politics. Such problems do not go away by ignoring them. Notwithstanding all the optimism that is in the air about India having arrived on the world scene as a potentially great economic and political power, we are unlikely to succeed in building a great Indian nation without solving our core problems. Indians of today may have taught themselves to feel comfortable in the presence of a huge Cross overlooking the Bhagirathi at Uttarkashi, such ambience does not portend any greatness for India.
(The writer can be contacted at [email protected])