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FEBRUARY 15, 1999 VOL. 153 NO. 6

Serving God and Mammon
India's religious crisis has more to do with economics than faith

To understand the religious intolerance that has erupted anew in India, consider the tales of two typical men, one Christian, one Muslim. John Jacob is a Syrian Christian from the southern state of Kerala. He proudly traces his ancestry back several centuries, viewing himself as a direct descendant of the Keralites converted by the apostle Thomas shortly after the death of Christ. Jacob dismisses the more recent converts to his religion. "They are just illiterate, impoverished Hindus and Muslims trying to find an escape hatch from their misery," he says.

Hafeez Mohammed is a Muslim from Calcutta. In the small north Bengal village that is Mohammed's ancestral home, his family enjoys high social status, which traces back to a census taken 98 years ago. The British in 1901 decided that Hafeez's forefathers fit into the category of Arab or Pathan conquerors, not local converts. They reached the conclusion by applying the Cephalic index: measuring the proportion of the breadth of the head to its length, as well as of the breadth of the nose to its length. Through this method, more than 80% of Muslims in India were declared as being originally Hindu, leaving the others with untarnished bloodlines as the spiritual leaders of the community. Mohammed, as befits someone exposed to modern ideas, rejects the index, but he, too, is convinced that the "new" converts to Islam must win their spurs before being considered true followers of Allah. "They are just convenience Muslims; they could become Christians tomorrow if the padres offered them a better deal," he says.

It's politically incorrect in India's liberal circles to talk of people like Jacob and Mohammed. It's more fashionable to criticize the bigotry of extremist Hindus, who have launched recent attacks on both the converted and their converters. As India recoils from attacks on Christian missions in several states and the immolation of Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two young sons, allegedly by Hindu-extremist groups affiliated to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, most people are focusing on the religious intolerance of the majority. Overlooked is a key issue--that the conversions have very little to do with religion. They are taking place, as John Jacob sneeringly suggests, because of social and economic reasons. While some of the hateful manifestations of the caste system, such as untouchability, are no longer much in evidence, particularly in the cities, there is no denying that the untouchables of yore make up a large part of the masses that live below the poverty line. Conversion gives them a chance to break out, to challenge their karma--the Indian philosophy that what will be, will be.

It's easy enough to blame India's woes on the caste system. But it was essentially a form of freemasonry that would have evolved into something more in keeping with the times (the way slavery, the one-time engine of growth of the U.S., has done) had the British colonial rulers not repressed industrialization. The past 50 years have seen progress, but it will take a great deal more for economic emancipation to seep down to the grassroots. In such an environment, it is inevitable for the poorest of the poor to look to religion as a parachute to a better life. The church offers this, if only in small ways. Consider its charity programs: the pagan poor on the breadline get one loaf; the converted get two and some soup to boot.

PAGE 1  |  2

S T O R I E S :

On the Cross
Political considerations more than religious fervor have sparked a violent wave of attacks against Christians

P O L L :
Will cricket matches between India and Pakistan help improve relations between the two nations?

This edition's table of contents | TIME Asia home



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