A day before the Jharkhand government prepared to table its anti-conversion Bill in the assembly, it issued an advertisement with a quote it attributed to Mahatma Gandhi that questioned Christian missionaries for trying to convert tribals in India.
The full-page advertisement in Hindi, which appeared in local newspapers, said: “If Christian missionaries feel that only conversion to Christianity is the path to salvation, why don’t you start with me or Mahadev Desai? Why do you stress on conversion of the simple, illiterate, poor and forest-dwellers? These people can’t differentiate between Jesus and Mohammad and are not likely to understand your preachings. They are mute and simple, like cows. These simple, poor, Dalit and forest-dwellers, whom you make Christians, do so not for Jesus but for rice and their stomach.”
The ad, which was uploaded on the official Facebook page of Jharkhand Chief Minister Raghubar Das, identifies Desai as Gandhi’s private secretary but does not mention the source of the quote.
The ad also contains photographs of Jana Sangh icon Deen Dayal Upadhyaya, tribal leader Birsa Munda and former MP, the late Kartik Oraon. Its headline reads: “An initiative towards fulfilling the dream of Birsa Munda and the late Kartik Oraon.”
Munda had converted to Christianity before returning to his tribal beliefs. Oraon had brought a bill in Parliament on the issue of Christian converts utilising the dual benefits of being a minority and a member of the Scheduled Tribe. It failed to get passed.
Ram Lakhan Prasad Gupta, director, Public Relations Department, said, “It (the ad) is more to raise awareness. It should not be seen in context of the proposed Bill, which is part of the government’s legislative process.”
Asked about the source of the quote, Gupta said, “I will have to find that out.”
Slamming the content of the ad, tribal activist Gladson Dungdung called it a “waste of public money”. He also said that Gandhi never referred to tribals as “vanvasi”. “It is a term used by the Sangh Parivar. Gandhi called them girijan,” Dungdung posted on Facebook.
On Saturday, the government will introduce the Freedom of Religion Bill 2017, which seeks to make conversion through coercion or allurement a punishable offence attracting a maximum of three years’ imprisonment.
The JMM will oppose the Bill, said its general secretary Supriyo Bhattacharya. “We have a law against coercive conversion or through allurement. What is the need to bring another one? This will only increase conflict. As far as the ad is concerned, we question the intention. Gandhi said so many things about so many issues at different points. He said many good things about Christians, too. They are using it to suit their convenience,” he said.