Khushwant SinghJune 1, 2006, Hindustan Times
I am partly the product of a Christian Mission College: I did my intermediate for two years at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi. Every morning we had a half-hour class on the Bible. Attendance was optional. I was a regular because I wanted to know what Christianity was all about. Although earlier at Modern School, both the Principal, Kamla Bose, and her niece, Nilima, who was our English teacher, were Christians, I was not aware of it. Like most other Indians, I use to look down on Indian Christians as karantas. I remain grateful to Christian missionaries for what I have learnt about their work. The Bible opened my eyes to the richness of the English language. Though an avowed agnostic, I continue to read a passage or two every day, as I do of scriptures of other languages. They have a rich vocabulary and noble sentiments.
What impressed me most was the Christian contribution to the development of our country. They run the best schools, colleges and hospitals. Whenever any catastrophe like an earthquake or flood occurs, they are the first to arrive on the scene to provide medical assistance, food, shelter and whatever else is needed. If people in distress are impressed by them and some convert to their faith, it should not surprise anyone. It is neither force nor allurement that make them do so; only the setting of a good example of social service.
I spent some days with Mother Teresa in Calcutta. Although the institutions she set up to help the poor and the needy were headed by Christian nuns, almost all the men and women taken care of by them belonged to other faiths. She never asked anyone to convert to Christianity. The only words I heard her utter to people who were dying were in Bengali: “Bhoggoban aachhen.”(There is God.)
I concede that conversions cause tensions in families. People either convert to another faith en masse when they think they will get a better deal or they do so when want to marry someone of another faith. Seldom, if ever, do people change their faith to save their lives. A lie perpetuated over the centuries is that Islam was spread by the sword. If that were true, all Indians would have been Muslims as Muslims ruled the country for several centuries. Islam spread in India through the influence of Sufi saints who preached equality and harmony. No Muslim army ever conquered Indonesia. Their forefathers accepted Islam on their own.
Why did Babasaheb Ambedkar ask his Dalit followers to convert to Buddhism? Did anyone force or bribe him to do so? No. He felt that upper-caste Hindus had treated them like dirt for too long and it was time to break. So what is this hoo haa about conversions now? Six states — Arunachal, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan — mostly governed by Hindu fundamentalists, the BJP or its allies, have passed legislation forbidding conversion on pain of imprisonment for two to five years and a fine of Rs 50,000. Attempt to “convert directly or otherwise” has been made a non-bailable offence. They call this draconian law ‘Freedom of Religion Bill’. It is exactly the opposite, as it deprives citizens of the right to choose their religion. I hope if and when the matter comes up before the Supreme Court, it will be struck down.
Meanwhile, the Sangh parivar led by the RSS is busy with a re-conversion programme of its own brand. It is called ghar vaapsi (return home) to Hinduism. It is mostly aimed at adivasis. The very nomenclature proves that they were not Hindus but animists with deities and rituals of their own. However, to be fair to the parivar, there are positive aspects of this zeal to bring them back into the Hindu fold. They have opened schools in tribal belts. If they really mean business, apart from persuading them to celebrate Hindu festivals, they might also want to do something to break the stranglehold of caste panchayats which continue to ostracise people who break caste rules. They have no place in a modern society.
What a match
I met Naushad only once. Like millions of others across the continent, I knew of him as the best composer of lyrics of Urdu poetry. I didn’t think he knew of my existence. One afternoon, he rang me and introduced himself. He spoke polished Urdu in Lakhnawee andaaz. He said: “Meri beti aap ki aashiq ho gaee hai. Aap say milna chhahtee hai. Kisee roz meyrey ghareeb khanney pey tashreef laaye.” (My daughter has fallen in love with you and wants to meet you. Please come to my humble abode and dine with us.) I was bowled over and replied in my best Urdu: “Aap ki sahibzaadi kitney ummar ki hai? Aap kaa daulatkhana kahaan ha?” (How old is your princess? Where does your wealth reside?)
“Baaraa baras kee.” (Twelve years.) I was in my 70s and understood what the word aashiq meant in the context. I decided to take my son Rahul, a bachelor, along with me. How nice it would be to be related to someone like Naushad! It was a memorable evening. Naushad’s daughter (I forgot her name) was frisking about, giggling, laughing, never still. She hardly took any notice of my son and later told her father he was too buddhha — too old for her. And after her first outburst of exuberance over me, she lost interest in me and went back to her school homework.