Christianity’s onward march in Punjab; need for a strategic response

3
3172

By Rishpal Singh SidhuOpinion |

Unlike Sikhism, Christianity is a missionary religion that actively seeks converts and “proselytization in some form is usually perceived as an inalienable aspect of Christian identity.”1 When did Christianity first make its appearance in India, what were the factors that contributed to its special appeal and alarming rate of conversion in the Punjab, and more importantly, what are Sikh organizations currently doing  to address this besides expressing concern in numerous articles in the news media. There is also increasing concern among the fundamentalist Sikhs who form the core of the Khalistan movement that Sikhism will be absorbed by Hinduism.

Hinduism was the largest religion in Punjab before the advent of Islam from the West and the birth of Sikhism in the Punjab region from the East.According to the 2011 Census of India, Punjab has a population of around 27.7 million and Sikhism is the most practiced faith, practiced by 16 million people3 representing 57.69%4 of the population of Punjab. Hinduism is practiced by 10.67 million people, constituting 38.49% of the population.5, 6  It is interesting to note that between the 2001 and 2011 Census, Sikhism as a practicing religion dropped from 59.9% to 57.69%. In contrast, Hinduism recorded an increased growth from 36.94% to 38.49% over the same period, and Christianity recorded an increase from 1.2% to 1.26%.7

While the caste population figures  have not been officially released by the Indian Government, it is estimated that the scheduled castes (Dalits) constitute 31.9% of the population and the Jat Sikhs comprise 21% of the population.

It is believed that Christianity was first introduced to India by Thomas the Apostle when he sailed to the Malabar region in what is now known as Kerala in 52AD. Christianity made its appearance in the Punjab in 1834 with the arrival of Presbyterian missionaries John Lowrie and William Reed and the Presbyterian Church can rightly take credit for the initial spread and conversion through establishing many centres in the Punjab. They were followed not long after by fellow missionaries from the Methodist, Anglican, and Roman Catholic churches, as well as the Salvation Army. The parent organizations of these churches were more than aptly generous in their financial support of their overseas endeavors. Furthermore, they were supported in their activities by grants of land by the British Government for the establishment of settlements.

EARLY WARNINGS OF LOWER CASTES DALIT CONVERSIONS TO CHRISTIANITY

This is not a new phenomenon. Almost 130 years ago, an article appeared in The Tribune dated 19 October 1892, expressing alarm at the rapid conversion of the lower castes to Christianity, and sounded warning bells to the higher castes to protect themselves from these converts who no longer considered themselves in degraded positions. Fast forward to an article published in the 9 May 2011  issue of India Today titled “Wake Up Call for Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhan Committee (SGPC) – Christian Missions mushroom across Punjab.”Fast forward yet another decade and Giani Harpreet Singh, Jathedar of Akal Takht, expressed concern at the rising rate of Dalit conversions to Christianity and accused Christian missionaries of carrying out mass programs of forced conversions of Sikh families and scheduled caste Sikhs in the border belt of Punjab using money and other means to entice them to adopt Christianity. He added that the conversion of innocent Sikhs to Christianity was intolerable, a direct attack on internal matters of the Sikh community, and   announced a special drive “Ghar Ghar Andar Dharamsaal’(sacred shrine within every home) with the formation of 150 teams, each team comprising of 7 preachers  destined for the rural belts of Majha, Malwa, and Doaba. These teams would visit and “connect the sangat to Gurbani, ‘rehat  maryada’ as well as Sikh history and principles. Free traditional Sikh religious literature would also be distributed –the same method used by Christian preachers. Besides, all gurdwaras in the border villages would also be given extended help to counter  the conversion mission of Christian missionaries.9 SGPC chief, Bibi Jagir Kaur, asserted that “the campaign will not only bring firmness among Sikhs toward their faith, but also make the younger generation take pride in their history and culture.”10 This proposal begs two important questions namely, is this the right step at the right time and does much more than this needs to be done to turn the tide? Dharamsalas as precursors of modern day gurdwaras date back to the time of Guru Nanak and besides providing opportunities for devotional worship and humble service, also functioned as religious asylums providing food and shelter to travellers and the needy. Dhillon correctly asserts that “the original function of the gurdwara as a dharamsal – an institution for the learning of Gurmat has been lost.”11

REASONS FOR SPREAD OF CHRISTIANITY

“The advent and spread of Christianity in the Punjab would have been a limited affair but for the “Dalits”, the depressed classes of the Punjab.”12 It could be argued that Sikhism and its scriptural truths  in some respects is more akin to Christian beliefs, unlike Hinduism with its beliefs in multiple deities. In writing of his Presbyterian experience, Gordon (1886, pp.462-463) observed that “conversion is not a long and elaborate process, depending necessarily upon intellectual qualifications difficult to acquire, but short and simple. It doesn’t require learning and knowledge as much as a sense of sin, and a willingness and readiness to accept the unspeakable gift. It is thus attainable by the poor and illiterate, who appear to accept the gift easily, promptly and decidedly, while the rich hold fast to the world, and the learned stand by their logic.”13 The missionaries targeted the villages, in particular, the untouchables, despised, and exploited members of the rural communities. Singh (1965) suggests that if not for the contributions and strenuous efforts of the Christian missionaries, ‘millions of people of the depressed classes, now forming a respectable portion of the Indian population, would have been rotting as condemned untouchables.”14

Guru Nanak denounced the caste system and, in forming the Khalsa, the members of Guru Gobind Singh’s Panj Pyare truly personified the amalgamation of  high and low castes into one. Yet, more than 500 years later, “Sikhism, despite its claims of equality and less orthodox attitude towards caste, has failed to remove restrictions of the caste system, more so in the case of the untouchables.”15  Even today, the untouchables are shunned by the upper caste Sikh communities in a complete departure from the basic tenets of the Sikh faith. The land owning class of Jat Sikhs have to take some responsibility for their treatment of the Dalit Sikhs. In some rural belts, upper caste Sikhs socially boycott Dalits in gurdwaras. There have also been instances where they are not allowed to enter gurdwaras and their requests to use gurdwara utensils and bedsheets are denied, and in some villages, it has been reported that they are also not permitted to use the Shamshan Ghats (cremation ghats) used by upper caste Sikhs. There is both social and political apathy towards the Dalits, the poor, and the marginalized. The political leadership in Punjab has done little for the welfare of Dalit Sikhs and successive governments in the Punjab have failed to address the issues of social discrimination, justice, and equal opportunities in building an all-inclusive society.

Sadhu Sundar Singh (1889- 1929) was an Indian Christian missionary  and is revered by many as a formative  and towering figure in the missionary conversions of the Christian Church in India. He was born into a Sikh family in the village of Ranpur near Doraha in the district of Ludhiana and was one of the early converts to Christianity when he was publicly baptized as a Christian at the parish church in Simla. The conversion of Maharaja Duleep Singh in 1853 was the first prominent feather in the cap of the Christian missionaries and a grievous shock to the Sikhs.

CONVERSIONS TO CHRISTIANITY BY SUBTERFUGE

Inculturation is the adaptation of Christian liturgy to a non-Christian cultural background. It can also be said to include the gradual acquisition of the characteristics and norms of a culture or group by persons of another culture. Eyebrows have indeed been raised and observations made that some Punjab based Christian missionaries have been using questionable strategies in their conversion efforts to target the Dalit Sikhs and other downtrodden communities. These  include offering money to convert,  food and grain bags, promising to cure them of cancer, chronic illnesses, and disability, protecting them from evil spirits, saving their souls from the fires of hell, and promising to take care of their children’s education. They have also been accused of luring  young Sikhs to convert by offering to arrange visas and getting them settled in the United States, Canada, Europe, and Australia.16  Given the imbalance in the male to female ratio in Punjab as reported in the 2011 census, many Sikh men of marriageable age were reported as experiencing difficulties in finding suitable brides, and some Christian evangelists were reported as promising to find suitable brides for some of these Sikh men if they converted to Christianity.

Jesus is being put across as a savior of the poor, untouchables, and outcasts. He is also referred to as ‘Satguru’  and God is  called ‘Satnam Waheguru’ by missionaries, leading many susceptible converts into believing that they are merely rejuvenating their own Sikh faith. The symbols of Sikhism are apparently being used to confuse and convert rural Sikhs. Converted Sikhs are also allowed and encouraged to retain their Sikh names ending with Singh and Kaur. Some converted Sikhs have themselves become Christian missionaries and notable among them is one Gulshan Singh who is variously addressed in his YouTube video clips as Pope Gulshan Singh Bishop  or Rev. Gulshan Singh Labhana  of the Labhana Church Holy Society.

It has been alleged that some Christian missionaries wear turbans and others use saffron robes and live in ashrams. Furthermore, churches are being built in some rural areas of Punjab which outwardly look like gurdwaras, and that Christian hymns are sung in the form of kirtan. In an interesting twist on acronyms, it was reported that in November 2019, the Christian community of Punjab formed a decision-making body named Shiromani Church Parbandhak Committee (SCPC). Albert Dua, member of the Punjab State Minority Committee and President of the Christian United Federation justified its formation “as incidents of hurting religious sentiments of our peaceful community are on the rise in Punjab.”17

CAN THE TIDE BE TURNED?

Some initiatives such as the Ghar Wapsi program (Hindi, meaning ‘Back to Home’) spearheaded by Hindu organizations such as Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP), Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and Hindu Makkal Katchi to facilitate re-conversion of Christians and Muslims back to Hinduism and Sikhism have met with limited success, and it is reported that between 2011 and 2014, about 8,000 Christians in Punjab converted back to Sikhism. Most of the reconversions took place in the Hoshiarpur district, followed by Amritsar and Batala.18 The RSS has usually been viewed with suspicion by orthodox Sikhs because of its  position that Sikhism is part of the larger Hindu culture — has enabled hundreds of Christians to re-convert to Sikhism with the help of gurdwaras and some members of the SAD-dominated Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) who have been acting in their personal capacity. The Khalistani Sikhs also consider the RSS as a threat as it views them within the larger umbrella of Hindu dharma.

As the highest temporal authority for Sikhism, the SGPC has been politicized through its alignment with the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) party. Sikh aid organizations around the world have always admirably  risen to the challenge in times of providing  assistance  during famines, floods, earthquakes and other natural disasters, including the Covid-19 pandemic. The rise of Christianity in Punjab is also a challenge and  major initiatives are needed in Panjab (and elsewhere in India) to reverse the conversions and bring back the disadvantaged to the Sikhi fold. The time is nigh for the SGPC and global Sikh organizations to come together under one umbrella to strategize on how best they can they use their vast resources to counter and provide aid for the progress and spiritual nourishment of the lesser members of their own community in the Punjab. Singh (2020) suggests that “this can only be done through Sikhi parchar and practice of human equality and through educational, medical, and a whole range of welfare services.”19 There is no real need to spend money on the embellishment and building of new gurdwaras and the renovation of heritage buildings.

The promulgation of anti-conversion laws is not  a satisfactory solution. “Laws restricting religious conversions were originally introduced by the princely states headed by Hindu royal families during the British colonial period – particularly during the latter half of the 1930s and 1940s.”20 A number of anti-conversion bills have been introduced in the Indian Parliament, but none have been enacted to date. The  legal opinion has  been that a law against forced and fraudulent conversions cannot be enacted at a national level as law-and-order is a State subject under the Indian Constitution. Freedom of Religion laws are currently in force in eight Indian states but not in Punjab.

A more effective solution lies in the provision of a much better, higher, and more effective level of pastoral care to all our Sikh communities, and this is currently something that our granthis are not fully trained to provide. Pastoral care is a model of emotional, social and spiritual support that can be found in all cultures and traditions and a distinction is sometimes drawn between non-religious pastoral care and religious pastoral care, with one having a scientific basis and the latter having a theological basis. Pastoral care duties include counselling, education, spiritual health, hospital and prison visits, prayer sessions, offering guidance, and sustaining community members through prolonged periods of difficulties and. immediate needs, and improving their spiritual level of wellness. Most if not all Christian missionaries have degrees in divinity and have also received training in counselling.

Our granthis are primarily responsible for reading the Sri Guru Granth Sahib (SGGS) and they have not been professionally trained in providing pastoral care. Besides reading the SGGS in a proper intoned manner in a gurdwara during public worship, a granthi has also to be a spiritual leader, religious minister, spiritual counselor, and provide spiritual counselling to individuals and families.21  Singh (2011) makes a moot point in observing that the granthi has become marginally relevant to the lives of the Sikhs, particularly the young, and asks how many Sikhs, young or old, confide in the granthi about personal or familial problems that confront them? 22

While the two years granthi training courses first introduced by the Sikh Missionary Colleges are a step in the right direction,  much more than this urgently needs to be done. Universities in Punjab and elsewhere in the United States and Canada have departments and chairs for research on Sikh studies, though none of them offer formal degrees or training courses that incorporate training in psychology and counseling  to meet the needs for 21st century granthis who would be employable globally. 23  This deficiency needs to be addressed and calls for collective and concerted action by the SGPC and Sikh community organizations.

DENOUEMENT

Any individual has an inalienable right to convert to any religion of their own choosing. The wearing of a turban is not a unique and exclusive the right of the Sikh faith. What is questionable is whether this and other Sikh symbols are collectively being used in furtively carrying out conversions to Christianity under dubious circumstances. Sikhism ranks as the world’s fifth largest religion. Anti-conversion laws are not the solution. It behooves the SGPC, gurdwaras, and global Sikh organizations to collectively work together towards providing spiritual nourishment and assistance to the needy and less privileged in our community. This can only be effectively achieved if we have well trained granthis with the requisite skills to minister to our sangats.

Rishpal Singh Sidhu is a semi-retired casual academic at the School of Information and Communication Studies, Charles Sturt University, Australia. He has a passion for research, writing, and teaching. He is the compiler and editor of the book, Singapore’s early Sikh pioneers: Origins, settlement, contributions and Institutions, published by the Central Sikh Gurdwara Board in Singapore in 2017. He is presently based in Sydney, Australia.

References

1. Sharma, A. Christian proselytization: A Hindu perspective. Missiology: An international review, vol 33 no. 4, 2005, pp.425-434 (Abstract).

2. Tempest, R. Sikhs dominate Punjab: Hindus: A forgotten minority. Los Angeles Times, July 31, 1985.

3. Office of the Registrar General & Census Commissioner, India. Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India. Indian Census 2011.

4. Censusindia.gov.in. Total population by religious communities, 2008.

5. Office of the Registrar General & Census Commissioner, India. Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India. Indian Census 2011.

6. Censusindia.gov.in. Total population by religious communities, 2008.

7. Ibid

8. Bains, S. Christian invasion of Punjab: A major demographic change in offing. In Opinion, Asia Samachar, 9 November 2011.

9. TheTribune, 14 October 2021.

10. TFIPOST News Desk, 12 October 2021.

11. Dhillon, K.S. Dasam Granth: The weapon of mass control. In Opinion, Asia Samachar, 8 November 2011.

12. Kaur, K. Searching for a new identity. Christianity, conversion and Dalit Sikhs. Cultural and religious studies. July 2020, Vol 8 No. 7, pp416-428.

13. Gordon, A. (1886). Our India mission, 1855-1885: A thirty years’ history of the Indian mission of the United Presbyterian Church of North America. Philadelphia, Inquirer Printing Company, Stereotypers and Printers, Lancaster, PA.

14. Singh, G, (Ed) 1965. Bhagat Lakshman Singh. Calcutta, The Sikh Cultural Centre.

15. Kaur, K. Searching for a new identity. Christianity, conversion and Dalit Sikhs. Cultural and religious studies. July 2020, Vol 8 No. 7, p.422.

16. Bains, S. Christian invasion of Punjab: A major demographic change in offing. In Opinion, Asia Samachar, 9 November 2011.

17. Times of India, 21 November 2019

18. “In Punjab, Sangh works for ‘return’ to Sikhism as well; SAD fumes”The Indian Express. 22 December 2014.

19. Singh, G. In Opinion. The rise of Christianity in Panjab. Asia Samachar, January 31, 2020.

20. Mathur, A. Anti-conversion laws in India: How States deal with religious conversion. India Today. December 23, 2020.

21. Dhillon, K. S. Dutieseducational and professional qualificationspersonal and spiritual attributes of a granthi. http://direct.sikhnet.com/news/functions-duties-and-qualifications-granthi 10 July 2014.

22. Singh, I. J. The granthi…priest, rabbi, or minister? http://direct.sikhnet.com/news/granthi-priest-rabbi-or-minister.  September 19. 2011.

23. Singh, R.J. Building an Educational Structure for the Sikh Granthis employed globally in 21st century. https://www.sikhnet.com/news/growing-granthis-modern-world. July 10, 2014.

RELATED STORY:

Christian Invasion of Punjab: A Major Demographic Change in Offing (Asia Samachar, 9 Nov 2021)

ASIA SAMACHAR is an online newspaper for Sikhs / Punjabis in Southeast Asia and beyond.Facebook | WhatsApp +6017-335-1399 | Email: editor@asiasamachar.com | Twitter | Instagram | Obituary announcements, click here 

3 COMMENTS

  1. It is sad that we are suffering from being engulfed in our dated ways of practicing our faith. We are blocked from access to the writings of our gurus by our rituals of wrapping up and putting the Guru to sleep in an air conditioned room on a king sized bed. We have no understanding of the content of the Sri Guru Gra. Granth Sahib. It is seen as a collection of spiritual mantras that will solve our problems if we sat and recited or listened to them. How stupid can we get or have been programed into being.
    We need to go out and educate our future generations to not only be great successes but also true ambassadors of Guru Nanak. We should focus on the values of Truth, Contentment, Compassion, Contemplation to have the wisdom to be right thinking beacons of our community and the rest of the world.
    How we dress, or where we sit and eat or what ornaments or artifacts we adorn are only distractions that serve no purpose. Our sewa has to be more than preparing and eating parshad and Langar. It has to social welfare, education, health and community development including culture, literature and music. We need to be a foce for good and with that will come a compelling image of a united and forward looking Sikh community which is confident and content with itself.

  2. Why worry about what’s happening in Punjab when in Malaysia Sikhi and Punjabis are going to be wiped out within another generation by the amount of punjabi girls dating and marrying non-Sikhs expecially tamils. Gurudwaras are openly performing interfaith marriages like it’s going out of fashion and everyone has buried their heads in sand afraid to address the situation. In major cities like Kl half of the time you will see Punjabi girls with tamil men. If the majority of so called Sikh women marry out of the faith and race then who would Sikh men marry? Sikh men are not highly in demand by women of other races. So if this issue is not addressed within another generation Sikhs and punjabis would have faded and assimilated into the tamil race and hindu religion. Hindu men are already wearing karas and khandas for this exact reason. I would just like to say for our Malaysian Sikh elders and leaders, before crying about Punjab, take a look into our own backyard, it’s a mess here and everyone knows it yet very few are willing to talk about it.This is why it baffles me that we keep on building Gurudwaras and renovating existing ones when we are slowly and surely dwindling in numbers.

  3. Very compulsive case for our gurdwaras and Sikh institutions to buck up or else we will be marching to oblivion.
    We could do without the esoteric scholarship of the likes of Karminder Singh. We need investment in the basics of welfare, education and opportunities for young Sikhs. We need role models and not symbols. The Khalistanis are a turn off and a put off. The educated Sikhs have been marching away from our institutions either by falling in love or by a total lack of knowledge or understanding of Sikhism. Our ardas is also out of date. We are hanging on Symbols like the Khanda which now one knows who created it. Yes our granthies are among the least educated of their cohorts. In our city we have found the kirpan bearing lot to be a pain in our backsides beacsuse of their antics like putting up Jarnail Singh Bindranwale portraits without permission on gurdwara walls.
    We need to do image building both among ourselves and with the wider communities. Our institutions are not taking their place on the forums in our cities and so we have no input into the local narratives. It is time to wake up or we will be obliterated. Our initiatives that you described are meek as they are done in a back drop of exclusivity. We know best. I am not sure if the SGPC team understands or has the where with all to counter the charge of the well oiled Christian missionaries who are highly educated and well resourced.

Comments are closed.