A sinister Christmas carol

A sinister Christmas carol

From a joyous occasion in India's festival calendar, Christmas is being turned into an object of virulent hate

Representative image. Credit: Reuters photo

Growing up in Kolkata in the 1970s, one of my favourite annual rituals was to go to New Market — the most upscale shopping centre in the city at the time — a few days before Christmas to choose a Christmas tree. There were masses of artificial Christmas trees on display, and my mother and I would spend a pleasurable hour or two selecting one. We would pick up some decorations to go with it, too: glittery gold and silver stars and bells, shiny green wreaths, little red plastic berries, and, of course, a cheery red-and-white Santa Claus figure to be placed at the base of the tree along with clumps of white cotton wool to simulate snow. My mother and I would decorate the tree, she almost as enthusiastically as I, and there would be a "special" Christmas lunch at home — not necessarily with roast turkey — but one that was always finished off with some rich, fruity Christmas pudding that Mom had made.

Though I belonged to a Hindu family, we celebrated Christmas with as much gusto as we did our multifarious pujas for our multifarious Hindu gods and goddesses and all the religious and cultural traditions associated with them. If listening to Birendra Krishna Bhadra's Chandipaath at dawn on All India Radio was a must-do on Mahalaya (the first day of Devi paksha), so was listening to Christmas carols sung by Jim Reeves on Christmas (the long-playing record at home would often play on the loop that day); if sitting down for a feast of bhog at a relative's family Durga Puja, or tucking into my mother's heavenly pithey and nolen gurer payesh on Makar Sankranti, were much-anticipated food events, so was stuffing one's face with plum pudding on Christmas or with the biryani and seviyan that dad's Muslim friend sent over to us on Eid.

And we weren't the only celebration-agnostic family I knew. Most of my friends and relatives, who were predominantly Hindu, participated in cultural activities associated with other religions. And it was done without much thought — not for the sake of any lofty, politically-correct principle, but simply because we enjoyed Christmas and Eid festivities as much as we did our Hindu religious and cultural rites. The inclusivity was as natural as breathing, and as instinctive.

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At the convent school I went to, one was required to attend daily chapel, sing Christian hymns, and recite the Lord's Prayer. Neither I nor any of my schoolmates converted to Christianity as a result. Nor were our parents ever apprehensive that we would. We sang a reverential 'How Great Thou Art', or a full-throated 'Onward Christian Soldiers' at morning chapel, and went back home and maybe prayed to Goddess Saraswati to give us a leg-up at the annual exams. The one did not exclude the other, and neither were they considered to be at odds. Rather, they went together, along with countless other influences, to make up one's cultural identity as an Indian and a citizen of the world.

So how did things change so drastically? How did Christianity, Christians and Christmas Day itself become objects of the violent hate that they are now? This past week has been a lesson in how far we have come from the time when Christmas was just another joyous occasion in India's crowded festival calendar.

This Christmas, members of Bajrang Dal, a Hindu fundamentalist group, burnt effigies of Santa Claus in Agra. Leading the charge against the mythical figure of Santa Claus, aka Father Christmas, the loveable and fictional bearer of gifts for children, Ajju Chauhan, regional general secretary of Bajrang Dal, thundered, "As December comes, the Christian missionaries become active in the name of Christmas, Santa Claus and New Year. They lure children by making Santa Claus distribute gifts to them and attract them towards Christianity."

That wasn't all. On Christmas eve, right-wing miscreants allegedly stormed into a church in Pataudi in Haryana and disrupted the prayers, shouting 'Jai Shri Ram' slogans; in Assam's Silchar, Bajrang Dal members shut down Christmas celebrations at a church, declaring that they would not let Hindus participate in the proceedings. Christmas celebrations were also disrupted at a Gurgaon school. And on Sunday, unknown persons desecrated the Holy Redeemer Church in Haryana's Ambala district.

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All this comes in the wake of frequent attacks on Christian prayer meetings in Karnataka, a state which has recently passed an anti-conversion bill.

Raising the bogey that the church is luring Hindus into its fold has become an effective ploy to whip up hatred against Christians. It's not unlike the way Muslims have been sought to be demonised — by projecting them as intent on slaughtering cows (elevated to an unprecedented level of sacredness) or forcibly marrying Hindu girls.

Clearly, Hindu majoritarian muscle-flexing, on the rise since the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government came to power in 2014, is widening its target area. Call it the inclusivity of hate, the finding of ever newer enemies on which majoritarian wrath can fizz and feed. The ideology of Hindutva rides on the paradoxical conviction that while India's Hindus are mighty in their majority status, they are also under severe existential threat from Muslims and Christians (who constitute 14.2 per cent and 2.3 per cent of the country's population, respectively, according to the last available figures).

And as in the case of Muslims, the attacks against Christians are also subtly validated by the powers that be. This Christmas Day, for example, the home ministry declined to renew permission to the Missionaries of Charity (MoC), an organisation set up by Mother Teresa, to receive funds from foreign donors under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act. All MoC's bank accounts have reportedly been frozen as well. The messaging, especially on Christmas, couldn't have been clearer.

The MoC has, of course, long been accused of carrying out conversions. But let us remember that proselytisation is a part of Christianity. And let us also remember that whatever the number of people who may have converted to the Christian faith in recent years, it has made no difference to the percentage of Christians in India's total population.

But fanatics do not deal in reason and logic. Hate is their only fodder and their sole raison d’être. The scattered incidents of attacks against Christians are now gathering force and coalescing into a focused onslaught. Much is being lost in this toxic flood. Not least the sense that you were once part of a culture that owned and celebrated a multiplicity of religious traditions and lived the principle of pluralism in your daily life.

As one more fractious, pandemic-ravaged year comes to an end, here's wishing for a new year where we may start building the path to reclaim that lost world.

(Shuma Raha is a journalist and author)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author's own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

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