IAS officer C Umashankar, 50, who was told by the Tamil Nadu government this week to stop “preaching and propagating activities”, says he not Christian — only a “disciple of Jesus” who is spreading the word of Christ in the same way as he once campaigned for open-source software Linux or Ubuntu.
Umashankar, the son of parents who married outside their castes, says he first “heard Jesus” in 2008 — but despite having conducted over 850 prayer meetings in Tamil Nadu since then, has never tried to convert anyone to Christianity.
After finishing education in Palayamkottai near Tirunelveli, the officer became a medical representative. In 1990, he entered the civil service.
One of Umashankar’s colleagues in the IAS described him as an outspoken man of strong convictions. “I remember he got rid of Microsoft in his office, introduced the free Linux operating system, and then campaigned for it energetically,” the IAS officer said.
Umashankar himself said, “I am spreading the word of Jesus just like I did for Linux or Ubuntu. What is wrong with that? I am not Christian. I am a disciple of Jesus,” he said.
Umashankar said his Dalit father and his mother, who belonged to a fairly rich intermediary caste, fled Palayamkottai after they married. He himself faced no discrimination until he entered the civil service, Umashankar said.
The government’s warning to him came after police action on January 16 in Kanyakumari where Hindu groups tried to disrupt prayers at a church where Umashankar was to speak. According to Umashankar, the day before, the police asked for the “IAS officer’s” function to be cancelled.
“I have been praying at these meetings for years. Suddenly, for the last couple of months, there is a campaign to portray Kanyakumari as a religiously sensitive area. Hindu Munnani and local BJP-RSS cadres have started attacking me. At least 100 people were waiting for me at a friend’s house on January 16. The district SP told me he would not let me attend the meeting. I spoke to the DIG and Collector, but by then, police had entered the church and used canes on devotees. This is nothing but an attack on religious freedom,” Umashankar said.
The officer’s colleagues recalled that as Collector of Tiruvarur, Umashankar would pull the temple chariot and lead temple festivals. As chairman of the Electronics Corporation of Tamil Nadu, he helped set up IT parks, satellite cities and open-source training centres in all collectorates.
In 2008, however, he unearthed a scam, Umashankar said, following which he was transferred. “I was depressed. Then I heard Jesus for the first time. It was this system that changed my faith and now I am peaceful,” he said.
However, he is not into converting people of other faiths to Christianity, Umashankar said. “I preach among Christians, only in churches. Let them (the government) prove that I have ever made an attempt to convert people,” he said.
“Jesus” has changed Umashankar in other ways too. So, the man who before 2008 pushed for a special Linux training programme for transgenders, now thinks they are sinners. “The Bible says they are against humanity,” he said.
He uploads religious videos to his YouTube channel ‘Day of Lord Jesus’. Almost all videos get at least 7,000 viewers. “In my ministry, Jesus is the Lord and I am the evangelist. I do not know any foreign evangelists or funding agencies as they allege,” Umashankar said.
On Jan 24, Chief Secretary K Gnanadesikan wrote to Umashankar that his planned “preaching and propagating activities” were “likely to cause communal disharmony and disturbance to public order”, and “directed” him not to indulge in activities “unbecoming of a member of the service”. Not complying, Gnanadesikan warned, would invite action under the All India Services (Conduct) Rules, 1968.
Umashankar says Art 25 of the Constitution guarantees the right to profess, practise, propagate religion. That is true. But the right is subject to the maintenance of “public order, morality and health”; must not “affect the operation of any existing law”; nor prevent the state from making any law “regulating or restricting any economic, financial, political or other secular activity which may be associated with religious practice”.
The All India Service (Conduct) Rules, 1968, which govern the conduct of the IAS and other all-India services, say although they may “in their private lives” profess, practise or propagate any religion, “they should so conduct themselves in public as to leave no room for an impression that they are likely in their official dealings to favour persons belonging to any particular religion”.
On proselytising, the Rules are clear that participation in such activities “may be treated as good and sufficient reason for taking disciplinary action”. They say that an impression of favouritism is “bound to arise in respect of a member (of the Service), who participates in bringing about or organising conversions from one religion to another, and such conduct would be even more reprehensible if, in the process, he makes use, directly or indirectly, of his official position or influence”.
But Umashankar insists he is not proselytising. The chief secretary too doesn’t mention proselytising. The officer has cancelled his meetings but said that the government’s instruction violated his Fundamental Right, and that he would go to court.