Statement by Mr. T.P. Sreenivasan, Deputy Chief of Mission Embassy of India, Washington at the Religious Harmony Meeting on February 14, 1999, Ft. Lauderdale, Florida
I have a sense of sadness and satisfaction as I address this meeting for the restoration of religious harmony in India. Sadness because some recent events in India have made it necessary for the Indian community to hold a meeting of this kind. Satisfaction, because you considered it appropriate to invite a representative of the Government of India to join you. Your invitation to a representative of the Embassy of India in Washington to attend this meeting is a testimony to your faith in and support for the Government of India, which, as you know, has done everything possible to restore religious and communal harmony in India after the recent events.
I have come to this meeting today with a five-fold purpose. First, I wish to hear from the representatives of various communities in Southern Florida their views and concerns on the situation in India so that these can be communicated to my Government. I would also like to share with you the extreme anguish that the Government and the people of India themselves have felt over the attacks on Christians in some parts of the country.
Second, I would like to bring to you the facts as I gathered from the reports and briefings that we have received. Many speakers today made broad statements about killings, burning of churches, torture, etc. based on general impressions and, therefore, it is particularly important that we should be sure of the facts. Between the Christmas Day of 1998 and the Republic Day of 1999, there were a number of incidents in Gujarat and Orissa which could be classified as communal violence against the Christians in these areas. There were one or two violent incidents against some nuns and a priest earlier, but these were found to be criminal acts, not motivated by religious animosity. The communal violence in the Dangs District of Gujarat and some parts of Orissa took place in sparsely populated tribal areas. Christian missionaries who had come to this area several years ago, through their message of compassion, mercy and brotherhood, were able to attract some of the local population to convert to Christianity. Since entire villages and families did not convert in all cases, the new thinking of the converts led to some friction among the people. For instance, the Christian converts refused to observe the tribal tradition of settling of family quarrels at the death of the eldest member of the family or of leaving the land untilled during certain spells in the year. Singing carols at weddings also irritated the non-Christian elders. The cumulative effect of these minor irritations was exploited by some fanatics on both sides to create disturbances and, consequently, the peace in the areas was rudely destroyed. Some places of Christian worship were damaged or destroyed and several people were hurt. But there were no killings in Gujarat.
The brutal murder of an Australian missionary and his two sons in Orissa was the most serious incident. As Indians, we should be ashamed that a missionary, who had dedicated his life to serving the poor and the sick should have been burnt alive. The President of India, Shri K.R. Narayanan spoke for the entire nation when he called the incident "a monumental aberration of time-tested tolerance and harmony. The killings belong to the world’s inventory of black deeds". The Prime Minister and other leaders echoed the same sentiments. Three Cabinet Ministers led by Shri George Fernandes went to the area for an investigation and, following their report, the Government requested a serving judge of the Supreme Court of India to hold a judicial enquiry. The last such enquiry was ordered after the assassination of Shri Rajiv Gandhi. No stone was left unturned to find the criminals and to bring them to book. As ‘India Today’ noted, "only if the killers are punished will India efface the scar on its psyche". I agree with a number of speakers who said today that no true Hindu could have committed such a dastardly act.
The third purpose of my presence here is to assure you that the Government of India unequivocally condemned these crimes. The Government was not a silent spectator either, as alleged by one or two speakers today. The Government took swift action not only to provide succour to the victims and to apprehend the criminals, but also to prevent such incidents in the future. In keeping with the guarantees provided in the Constitution of India for religious freedom, the Government also took action to ensure continuation of religious activities. No mercy was shown to negligent officials. The exemplary action by the Government left no doubt that such activities would not be tolerated in India. The visit of the Prime Minister to the Dangs District reassured the people of his concern and commitment. By observing a fast on the martyrdom day of Mahatma Gandhi, Shri A.B. Vajpayee, the first Prime Minister in office to observe such a fast, underlined the moral underpinning of non-violence.
Fourth, I wish to present the events and their likely repercussions in the light of the overall historical context of India. Many speakers today, Hindus, Christians and Muslims, spoke eloquently about the tradition of tolerance, religious harmony and communal brotherhood in India. I do not need to repeat those sentiments. Suffice it to say that no other country in the world has India’s record of secularism and tolerance. As Smt. Sonia Gandhi noted, only a Hindu majority state could have declared itself secular and remained committed to secular principles. Against this backdrop of history, the attacks against Christians, however heinous they may have been, should not be construed as the beginning of the end of secularism in India. To say that these incidents cast doubts on the values of a nation such as India is to reveal gross ignorance of India’s history and traditions.
My final purpose of being here is to voice a word of caution. Some of India’s critics and others who have no knowledge of Indian history are likely to sensationalise recent events and do irreparable damage to India’s reputation in this country. As members of the Indian community, as the inheritors of Indian values, you have a responsibility to ensure that facts are presented in their proper perspective. We need to work together to keep our American friends informed of the facts and their background. False impressions about religious persecution in India should not be allowed to cloud their judgement of the Government and the people of India.
To conclude, since the gathering today consists mainly of Christians from Kerala, let me invite you to ponder for a moment about the situation of Christians in Kerala. The history of Christianity in Kerala goes back to the days when St. Thomas himself came to that land. The conversions that took place at that time were motivated by the message of love and sacrifice that Christianity brought and not by any consideration of economic or social benefits. Christianity is not considered foreign in any sense of the term. I recall how, as a little boy, I used to go to Christian homes on the first of every month to bring them luck! At a temple near my home, the offering of a gun salute to the goddess was the monopoly of a Christian home next door. With this kind of interaction and interdependence, it is unthinkable that communal violence can take place in Kerala. Those who panic about possibility of atrocities against Christians in Kerala do not know Kerala. They do not know India.
Mrs. Gladys Steins spoke like Christ himself when she said that she wanted the criminals that killed her husband to be forgiven. She also said that India was her home and that she would continue the good work begun by her husband in India. This is the true Christian spirit, true Christian charity.
The people and the Government of India greatly appreciate the prayers for religious harmony in India made here by Indians and friends of India. I have no doubt that they will strengthen the resolve of India to safeguard our secularism and democracy.