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Time to wear a "Black Armband" of mourning over the Amritsar massacre and for the Christians whose religion is being suppressed in India

Time to wear a "Black Armband" of mourning over the Amritsar massacre and for the Christians whose religion is being suppressed in India

By Joseph G Muthuraj
Special to Virtueonline
April 7, 2019

I, as an Indian living India and as a member of a united church within the Anglican Communion, I read with some interest the speech made by the honourable Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby on March 13 to the trustees of the Deo Gloria Trust on the subject of evangelism. Justin was my contemporary at the Cranmer Hall, Durham in the early 1990s during which time I also had the privilege of being part of the pastoral team of the diocese of Durham for a period of two years. Here is my response.

My ancestors began their Christian journey beginning June 1877 when 40 families in a village in south India decided to become Christians by handing over two Hindu temples in which they worshipped for Christian service as marks of their turning to Christianity. The Bishop from the SPG mission Robert Caldwell (1814-1891) dedicated these temples to the God of light by removing 53 idols from them which the people dumped into a nearby well. One temple was converted into a church and a parsonage was built with the other. Although more than half of the families relapsed back to Hindu worship some remained strong in Christian faith and they are so until today.

It is an undisputable fact that colonialism and Christian mission twined in and out of each other. Both shared the same objective as Bishop Stephen Neill has acknowledged, 'The Churches have tended too easily to identify themselves with the colonial powers and to believe rather too naively in the mission of the white man to civilize the rest of the world'. I find the views of the Archbishop on evangelism quite radical considering this statement of Bishop Neill, a famous Anglican missionary-historian. The archbishop deserves appreciation as he has moved far beyond Winston Churchill's remarks 'I hate Indians, they are a beastly people with a beastly religion' and 'these are men of straw of whom no trace will be found after a few years'. God bless Churchill!

Words like 'heathendom' and 'pagans' the watchwords of evangelism of colonial era seem to have disappeared in his homily on evangelism. His comments on the nexus between cultural imperialism and preaching the good news show the refinement necessary in understanding his neighbours in Britain. It is a delight for an Indian living in India that the native British Christians themselves (rather than hiring someone from India to deal with the Hindus) are turning to the Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs in Britain to dialogue and share God's word rather than just inviting them occasionally for Garden-Tea in the Church-yard of bishop's mansions.

In his discourse on evangelism, Archbishop Justin has alluded to the most obnoxious incident in Indian history happened exactly one hundred years ago namely the massacre of 1000 unarmed men, women and children with many others left seriously wounded in a place called Jallanwala Bagh near the Sikh Golden temple in Amritsar, Punjab. A team from the Lambeth Palace visited the site recently as a tourist spot to trace the colonial past. Referring to this display of imperial aggression one hundred years ago, the Archbishop said, 'The Church often, not always, by no means always, colluded with that racist view, and it was a thoroughly un-Christian worldview.'

If the incident was mentioned by the Archbishop to enforce the view that the Church colluded with the un-Christian worldview, he should be reminded why no Government or Church official from Britain until today has felt any need to offer an apology or even say "sorry" over the atrocious event. Queen Elizabeth II visited the memorial at Jallanwala Bagh in 1997 and the Prime Minister David Cameron visited in 2013 - both showed their respect yet carefully avoided making an actual apology when the British had apologised on other matters.

We read in India that the Indian-origin British parliamentarians, Lord Meghnad Desai and Lord Raj Loomba, had initiated the debate in the House of Lords on the massacre's centenary. Just two months ago, the Punjab assembly unanimously passed a resolution seeking an apology from Britain for the massacre. The Indian novelist Shashi Tharoor is at the forefront demanding not just an apology but for setting up a museum in Britain to educate British people of the wrongs committed by the colonial rule.

The mass killing at Jallianwala Bagh on 13 April, 1919

Without any post-mortem on the British Raj, we look through a rear-view mirror. In history, Colonel Dyer who was called by the Sikhs "Butcher of Punjab", was not 'a wooden and preposterous a character' as portrayed by Edward Fox in Attenborough's 'Gandhi'. Colonel Dyer, ordered the firing of 1650 rounds without any warning given to the crowd entrapped within the locked gates. According to one official report, an estimated 379 people were killed, and about 1,200 more were wounded. An Indian media estimated the death approximately 1000. He prevented any medical treatment for the thousands wounded. Such a man enjoyed much support in Britain as he returned to huge applause in his own country. The House of Lords gave him a sword inscribed with the motto "Saviour of the Punjab."

Many celebrated Britons supported him too, including Rudyard Kipling who called him "the man who saved India" and the Governor of Punjab Michael O'Dwyer who termed the tragedy a "correct action". Another approving voice came from Miss Marcella Sherwood, an Anglican missionary teacher, who had spent 15 years in Amritsar (who was saved by a Hindu family when she was attacked and left half-dead in a street in Amritsar) called Dyer 'Saviour of Punjab'. In 1920, the Morning Post opened a fund for Dyer. It is reported that the rich, the poor, the clergy, the Army from Calcutta to Colombo contributed to make the total of £28,000 ($36,500).

The incident is remembered as an illustration for the failure of church and society to confront the British Raj; it means that the missionary enterprise barring few exceptions was another ugly side of the unjust colonial project!

We need to locate this acute wrong against the backdrop of colonialism and Indian struggle for freedom and reflect on how British society and the Anglican Communion which consists of former colonisers and the colonised deal with this horrific aspect of the past. The Archbishop has admonished us to 'put ourselves in the other's shoes would help us do this with genuine respect.' Shouldn't we apply the 'Golden Rule' as proposed by Justin Welby to give freedom to others to present their meta-narratives?

It cannot be called evangelism or dialogue when the British colonial past is recharged to fortify national myths by bringing it back to memory the colonial achievements. Modern missiologists in Britain such as Brian Stanley works on an underlying thesis that colonialism is basically a morally justifiable enterprise and so it is a matter of pride. Can imperialists within the Anglican Communion unwrap themselves from the colonial garb and find ways to interact on a footing where there is mutuality in speaking and listening?

The Equal but Opposite Reaction

The Indian society in 1919 handled this cruelty in its own way. The episode was a decisive step towards the end of British rule in India as it stirred up the national feelings among Indians. First of all, the 20,000 men and women who gathered at Jallanwala Bagh on 13 April were not 'innocent' crowd as the Archbishop has noted. They were there to hear speeches opposing the Rowlatt Act just introduced by the British Raj. The purpose of the unpopular Act was to curb the growing Indian nationalist upsurge in the country for stricter control of the press, arrests without warrant, indefinite detention without trial, etc. The Act angered many Indian leaders and the public, which caused the government to implement repressive measures.

The Indians opened up a new perspective of encountering that dehumanising activity. Rabindranath Tagore (first Asian Nobel laureate) renounced his 1915 knighthood immediately after the massacre. O'Dwyer, the Governor of Punjab who endorsed Colonel Dyer's action was assassinated by Udham Singh in 1940. He did not try to flee or resist arrest and went with the Police with smile on his face. Singh was hanged for his crime.

The Archbishop remarked, 'The machine gun magazines that were emptied on innocent men, women and children have left indelible marks on the remains of buildings in the park, the site of the massacre...' One ought not to look for the marks of the bullets in the buildings of the park but in the history of the people who fought for freedom. The marks on the buildings bear testimony only to the targets missed by the British army led by Colonel Dyer. Dyer throughout his life was seen struggling to accept the blame for anything that happened in Amritsar on 13 April 1919. On his deathbed, he is believed to have said, "So many people who knew the condition of Amritsar say I did right... but so many others say, I did wrong. I only want to die and know from my maker whether I did right or wrong."

It is strange that bishop Stephen Neill (who blessed me by laying his hands on me months before he died in 1984 when I visited him in Oxford) echoes Dyer's views when he wrote, "The history of Christian mission in the colonial period must in the end be left to the judgement of God, who alone knows all the facts, and who alone can exercise a perfectly objective and merciful judgement." Can such divine voices be heard through other people on earth in their life-time? They must listen to Moses and the prophets when they are still on earth. Moses and the prophets speak objectively and their judgements are true. Lazarus cannot be sent back to teach the rulers' kith and kin.

The Emergence of Gandhi and the Birth of Non-Violence

It marked a decisive turning point in India's march to independence. Gandhi raised to prominence after this horrifying event as a leader who could inspire and lead the Indian people towards independence with his teaching of non-violence. John Haynes Holmes (1879-1964) a prominent Unitarian minister in the city of New York, who publicised his interactions with historical Gandhi from his pulpit published a book entitled My Gandhi (1954) He narrates: 'The British', Gandhi wrote, 'want us to put the struggle on the plane of machine-guns. They have weapons and we have not. Our only assurance of beating them is to keep it on the plane where we have weapons and they have not.' The massacre, however, changed him forever. It transformed him to an implacable opponent of British rule.

The Archbishop said, 'Whether we like it or not, this atrocity, and so many others, was perpetrated by Christians and done in the name of Christian Society.' He then acknowledges, 'It's not good news; it's not of God; it's not Christ-like.' If the Amritsar massacre was contrary to the good news of Christ, not of God and was not Christ-like, then by what standard shall we call the dehumanising act as performed by Christians and in the name of Christian society? Dyer's action was a sheer display of a nationalist spirit backed by a racial and a cultural supremacist agenda. Colonialism is an outgrowth of nationalism. Therefore, any remorse or apology from the British side must be accompanied by a commitment to combat right-wing nationalist crimes such as the one happened in Jullanwala Bagh, be it committed by anyone in the history of humankind.

The Incident at Jullanwala Bagh may Repeat with Dyers of India

The history of colonialism makes nationalism look very bad indeed. The kind of nationalism that is fast growing in India may bring about an incident similar to what happened in Jullanwala Bagh in 1919. India is moving from territorial nationalism to a Hindu nation theory determined by religion which makes Christians foreigners as they follow a foreign religion. It is reported, "In August 2017, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) ranked India's persecution severity at "Tier 2" along with Iraq and Afghanistan. Mainstream Protestant and Orthodox Christians are targeted far less frequently than Catholic, Evangelical and Pentecostal Christians. According to the All India Christian Council, there was an attack on Christians recorded every 40 hours in India in 2016." As I closed this article, a video clip was passed on to me in which a young girl in Madhya Pradesh state is beaten severely by a crowd (and it is further reported that she was later burned to death) for attending a Christian prayer meeting.

The 'Hindu' nation or kingdom implies that the Hindus are of one blood, one race and one common civilization and Christians and Muslims will have no part in it. This ideology called Hindutva subjects Christians to acts of violence at the hands of Hindu nationalists which include arson of churches, vandalising Christian statues, desecrating the symbols, conversion of Christians to Hinduism, inflicting physical violence on Christian evangelists, sexual assaults on nuns and tribal women, torture and murder of Christian priests and destruction of Christian schools, colleges, and cemeteries. It is now growingly becoming a life-threatening experience in many parts of India to bear names like John, Joseph, Peter etc. These names cannot hide behind initials as the Hindu nationalists of fascist bend can dig out your full name and treat you publicly with contempt and hatred.

It is estimated that 100 to 200 attacks against Christians happen every year. From time to time we watch videos in which the preachers of Indian missionary organisations in parts of North India are beaten with sticks and rods in public. But only cases such as the murder of Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two sons in 1999, the Kandhamal riots in 2007-2008 in the state of Odisha where at least 100 Christians were killed and 600 churches were destroyed and thousands were left homeless got reported. The large number of perpetrators of violence against Christians have not been brought to justice. Many suffering Christians do not go to Police to complain.

India - the biggest democratic country in the world -- goes to the polls

Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in 2014 with Narendra Modi as the Prime Minister, militant Hinduism has increased steadily in India, as have systematic attacks on Christians. Several states outlaw conversion to Christianity and Christians are reconverted to Hinduism by force and through violence with Government paying no attention. It is most feared that the political movement advocating Hindu nationalism and the establishment of a Hindu state if the BJP is voted back to power as 800 million Indians go to poll in April-May. Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) is a militant Hindu nationalist group linked with the BJP; they have stated that they want to see India free of Christians and Muslims by the end of 2021. If the BJP gets elected for another term of five years, attempts will be made to see that that agenda is implemented. It is already the ugliest campaign season in India's history. Some former Judges of the Supreme Court and University ex-Vice Chancellors have recently asked the people of India not to vote for BJP as it would mean death for Indian democracy and Hindu nationalists who abhor the minorities, namely Christians.

Will ACC meetings in April-May remember Christians of India in prayer?

It is appropriate that we wear a black arm-band on April 13 in honour of the people who were killed by a right-wing nationalist Colonel Dyer, 'the butcher of Punjab' and also as a form of protest against the upsurge of Hindu nationalism which shows hatred towards minority Christians in India. The Dyers of India could stage the next massacre and this time the Christians will be the prey whom they look at as the dregs of western colonialism. Alas, there are churches and famous evangelists who befriend the BJP and RSS leaders and in some CSI dioceses the moneyed Hindu fanatics provide the financial sponsorship to the election/selection of bishops and secretaries. Whom will such men serve and obey?

The Rev. Dr. Joseph G Muthuraj is retired Professor of New Testament at United Theological College in Bangalore, India

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