Grandson sees an attack on Gandhi legacy

India's right wing has cited Mahatma in attacking Christians.

He is a high-caste Hindu, tall for an Indian, wears a starched white kurta, and speaks with a blend of perfect elucidation and warmth. At age 12 he literally sat at Mohandas Gandhi's feet for months. That's because Rajmohan Gandhi is the grandson of Mr. Gandhi, considered the father of this nation of a billion people, and a 20th-century icon.

Today, in response to a rise of attacks on Christians here, the normally low-profile junior Gandhi is countering recent efforts to use his famous grandfather to partly justify a climate of antipathy against Christians, the 2 percent minority.

In dozens of pamphlets, articles, reprints, and tracts published here by right-wing groups, Mohandas Gandhi seems to view Christianity as a "largely negative" influence in India. In "Gandhi's Open Challenge to Christians," published by the Vishnu Hindu Parishad (VHP) in Gujurat, for example, Gandhi characterizes Christians as caring only about "converting" unsuspecting Hindus to their faith, and "undermining" India.

Such writings and ideas today have wide circulation among both leaders and the rank- and-file nationalist groups called the Sangh Parivar. The literature often presents itself as Gandhi's "real feelings," which he was too polite to say openly.

According to Rajmohan Gandhi, the pamphlets are an "attack on Gandhi's legacy -they do not reflect at all the spirit that Gandhi brought to his relations with Christians.

"These writings are often clever. The same groups opposed Gandhi strongly, persistently, and with great zeal when he was alive. Yet Gandhi carried the Hindu masses," says the younger Gandhi, a philosopher who published a biography of his grandfather, "The Good Boatman," in 1995. "Now, aware of Gandhi's influence, they want to use him to fight their battles by tearing his remarks out of context."

In an interview, Rajmohan Gandhi clarified his grandfather's position on Christians and missionaries. He stressed the importance to Gandhi of a sincere friendship with those trying to find larger truths through their faith -while at the same time pointing out where he felt Christian fell short of their own ideals.

Did Gandhi harbor serious anti-Christian attitudes?

This needs to be corrected. It is a gross misrepresentation of Ghandi's thinking. Only two months before he died, at one of his multireligious prayer meetings where all faiths were invited, he spoke of a village called Kanhai near Delhi. Roman Catholics were being attacked -and Gandhi completely condemned it.

In his own life, Gandhi considered Christianity for himself, but he chose to stay as a Hindu, and he became one of the most famous Hindus ever. But he was always clear on the need to make one's own choice. When Ghandi's son embraced Islam, he didn't say it was a problem. He said I hope he becomes a good Muslim.

We can't understand Gandhi if we don't recognize that individual conscience was everything to him. Again and again, he said that the only tyrant he would bend his knee to was the "still, small voice" within.

How do you feel when Gandhi's writings are used to justify negative views or even attacks?

Hurt. Disturbed. Was there a Hindu leader of recent decades who quoted from the Bible more than Gandhi? Was there a Hindu leader of recent decades who was a better scholar of the Bible? The records we have of numerous interviews Gandhi had with Christian missionaries both Indian and Western, Protestant and Catholic -the dialog was of the most sensitive kind, courteous kind, warm kind.

He was really a friend to the missionaries -unlike these people who now quote him out of context, or misquote him, misuse him, and who are hostile to the missionaries and to Christianity. He was greatly stirred and moved by the lives of many missionaries.

At the same time, many Christians were very stirred by Gandhi's life and by his works. They would come and take counsel with him, and seek his advice on what they should do. There is no record of Gandhi at any stage, suggesting to any missionary, that he should wind up his work in India and go home.

Gandhi was capable of very blunt speech. If he really felt that the missionaries from other countries were doing a disservice to India, he would have told them so. He was their friend. But he was willing to help them purify their life, message, and work, and he would hope they would help purify his life and message as well.

There are records of Gandhi's concern about conversions to Christianity.

Yes, but this is something often thrown out of context. One can't be sure of the accuracy or authenticity of many of the quotes. We can say that Gandhi cautioned many in the church about a fascination with numbers. He cautioned them about some Indians who might, by the lure of a better standard of living, consider Christianity.

So the love of numbers on the one side, and the lure of a higher standard of living on the other, might create some conversions which would not mean a greater understanding of Christianity or of Jesus Christ. This is what Gandhi would say. He was never impeding the missionaries; he was trying to get them to do their work better. His aim was to purify the Christian missionaries, not to block them.

He would say to them -not only must you not be interested in adding numbers. But he would say that even the desire that others become Christian need not be present in your prayers. What he would say to them, and this was roughly his words: Don't pray that they see the light that you have seen. Pray that they see the light that they need.

We can't deny that there is an East vs. West that enters into Gandhi's comments on Christianity. Because historically it is from the West that Christianity comes to India. And we can't deny that Gandhi was very unenthusiastic about conversions as such. He felt that (proselytism) held seeds for competition.

Are there too many conversions today?

As a Hindu who is deeply sympathetic to Christianity, from what I know the actual instances where enthusiastic or over-enthusiastic ministers or priests have used material incentives to obtain converts -there are very few. As far as tricking Indians into converting -there is no foundation in fact, none in actual fact. The great fact is that despite 150 to 200 years of British rule, and despite relative freedom to work, despite all this, the Christian percentage has remained steady at a tiny figure.

What is your greatest concern about the recent attacks on Christians?

I am most concerned with the attitude that the judiciary and the police take. When minority institutions are attacked, the judiciary and police are all-important. They can get easily intimidated or influenced by the anti-minority campaign. The majority of Hindu citizens are not in any great danger of changing their views away from tolerance.

This is where a clear line condemning attacks from Prime Minister (Atal Behari) Vajpayee would matter. If a clear condemnation were articulated, the police would have to take it seriously. Police in every country have biases. But when the police are told by their bosses what their job is, they do their job in line with the law, and they put aside their bias.

Now, without a clear line, we see that the police have begun in many cases to harass and pursue the victims of the crimes, rather than the perpetrators. They are spending more time harassing victims than pursuing the aggressors. We see trumped-up charges.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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