Christianity and the conversion debate in India
Most people are familiar with the 1951 battle between India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and President Rajendra Prasad over his decision to witness the installation of Hindu idols in the newly rebuilt Somnath Temple in Gujarat. Prasad attended in a personal capacity after Nehru objected to him presiding over the inauguration of the rebuilt temple of Somnath in his capacity as head of state. What is less well known is yet another public debate between India’s first Prime Minister and its first President soon after about foreign missionaries and the evangelistic work of Christian churches. This debate took place in Delhi between Nehru, Rajendra Prasad, the Ministry of Interior and several chief ministers of Congress. Coming shortly after the controversy over Rajendra Prasad’s decision to attend the installation of idols in the rebuilt Somnath temple in Gujarat, this controversy reflected a new episode in tensions over religion, freedom of expression , the role of the state and a Hindu reaction that animated the ruling Congress during the first decade of independence.
The debate began with Home Minister KN Katju telling parliament on April 15, 1953 that while Indians were free to propagate their religion, the new government “didn’t want people from outside [missionaries] come and do that.” Katju stated categorically that “if they come here for evangelistic work, then the sooner they stop it, the better”. Five months later, in September 1953, he announced that the Nehru government had already expelled three foreign missionaries for “undesirable activities”. When questioned, Katju said that the expelled missionaries had “moved among the primitive tribes and engaged in various activities which, from the national point of view, were not considered satisfactory”.
Congressional ministers from five states added to this narrative. The Madras state government, headed by former Governor General of India C. Rajagopalachari, sent a report to the Home Ministry on the “anti-Indian” activities of two Italian missionaries in Fort Cochin. Assam Chief Minister Bishnuram Medhi accused the US Baptist Mission of “fostering a foreign conspiracy to separate the Naga Hills from India and retain them as an imperialist stronghold”. UP Home Secretary Sampurnanand also announced he was consulting with the central government over ‘concerns’ about American missionaries who he said had become particularly active in rural areas. and at the state borders with Tibet and Nepal. UP Assembly Deputy Speaker Hargovind Patel alleged that some of these missionaries carried “wireless transmitters”. The UP assembly separately discussed a dispute over 250 conversions in Mathura by Catholic and Methodist missionaries, which led to the arrest of Arya Samaj activists who alleged ‘monetary inducements’. A minister in Bihar told the Council of States that if Christian missionaries continued their “illicit activities”, his state government would force them to leave. With a number of MPs now asking questions linking espionage to foreign missionaries, Home Minister Katju informed the Rajya Sabha that he had started collecting data on the number of missionaries in Kashmir (his office in had counted nine so far).
Ravishankar Shukla’s Madhya Pradesh government has also sent a report critical of “improper activities” in Delhi. He alleged, Katju told parliament, that some missionaries were engaged in “anti-Indian movements”, such as the “formation of a separate ‘State of Jharkhand’ to affiliate with Pakistan”. Jharkhand, of course, was founded five decades later in 2000 by the BJP-led Vajpayee government (and had nothing to do with Pakistan). Such was the paranoia at the time that Katju officially warned foreign missionaries that India was not open to conversions from people who decried Hinduism as “hopeless”.[ly] idolatrous’.
Around this time, President Prasad visited Surguja (a former princely state near Jashpur) to see two new settlements for forest dwellers being built as a pilot project. He met residents there, some of whom seemed to have complained about the conversions. A newspaper article about this meeting reported that “nearly 300,000 people are said to have been converted in the past few years” in Raigarh, Surguja and neighboring districts. Many missionaries retorted that they were unjustly slandered. Their work, they said, was tarnished by communal propagandists.
two titans President Rajendra Prasad with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.
Prasad addressed the raging debate, issuing two public statements on conversions in 1954. Speaking in open forums, the president said India guaranteed full freedom to preach Christianity, but warned churches that “none” of their activities should be inspired by a desire for conversion. In Mysore, he told religious groups at a public meeting to “avoid suspicious activities”. This hysteria over foreign missionaries came at a time when their numbers had nearly doubled after independence, to 4,683 (1947–52) from 2,271 (1942–47).
India’s encounter with Christianity dates back to the arrival of Saint Thomas the Apostle, who is said to have reached the Malabar Coast of Kerala in 52 CE. There was a second phase when the first Protestant missionaries (from Germany) arrived in the Danish settlement of Tranquebar on the Coromandel coast in 1706, and a third phase under the British, who introduced “prohibition measures against Christian missionaries” and drastically reduced state subsidies. to them after the 1857 uprising because the “aggressive” proselytizing of evangelicals was seen as one of the causes of the upsurge. However, independent India is agitated on the question of proselytism. This was also the time when Nehru formulated what came to be known as his Panchsheel Tribal Policy, influenced by anthropologist Verrier Ewin, which was largely aimed at protecting the cultures of various Indian tribes and protecting them from too much external interventions.
The churches, including the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, have hit back, saying they have co-existed peacefully in the country for centuries and that a “deliberate attempt” has been made to “ignore the Constitution”, with “extremist elements” attacking ‘Christians with complete impunity even with the help of the authorities’. Religious groups argued that they were being unjustly slandered for political reasons.
Nehru first reacted to attacks on Christian missionaries by clarifying government policy, saying that while there would be no religious interference from the Indian state, he had a political and security imperative. pressing to impose controls in border areas. There were nine foreign missions in border areas at the time, the government said. Nehru announced that no news would be allowed, although there were no restrictions on native Christian missions.
Yet he was quite sensitive to the impact this controversy could have on Indian Christians, their right to equality and perceptions of prejudice. Just as he had done in his 1951 speech at Nasik in the face of a similar debate, Nehru now sent a powerful letter as President of Congress in his monthly circular to state congressional committees. The prime minister argued that while he personally disapproved of the conversion, he was also opposed to the anti-Hindu ‘Shuddhi’ movement. He said that if he had imposed controls on foreigners only in border areas, the conversion debate was bound to have an impact on Indian Christians. In his clearest statement yet of what he meant by a “secular” state, Nehru told members of Congress it meant an “equal” space where “minority communities” were free to practice their religion. Moreover, he wrote, the “majority community” should “be fully aware of this” and not use its “dominant position in a way that could undermine our secular ideal”. If the organizations speaking of a “Hindu Rashtra” triumphed, he said, it would be “neither nationalism nor democracy”. It would be a “return to certain ideas of a medieval period”, thundered Nehru. Domination by a majority as a “religious community” would be “completely undemocratic”, he argued, as there was “no chance of a minority obtaining that position within a democratic framework”. It was yet another episode in the long-running face-off between Nehru and his party’s Hindu traditionalists over the issue of Hinduism and its role in the new India.
The debate finally ended with the Union government instituting new restrictions on foreign missionaries in 1955. They would now be required to take prior government approval to enter India, and would not be welcome if they devoted themselves solely to proselytism. They should also have appropriate qualifications in fields such as education, medicine and social work.
It was only after this new regulation that Rajendra Prasad issued a new reassuring statement to foreign missionaries. Speaking at a ceremony to mark the 1,903rd anniversary of St. Thomas’ arrival in India, India’s president on Dec. 19, 1955, said the country had ‘no intention of restricting their freedom or to obstruct their missions”.
(This appeared in the print edition as “Christianity and the Conversion Debate”)
(Edited excerpt, with permission, from Nalin Mehta, The New BJP: Modi and the Making of the World’s Largest Political Party, Westland Non-Fiction, 2022).