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Field day for conspiracy theorists on Indian Church properties

Land sharks and governments have their eyes on them, but the Church hierarchy has not called out this very real conspiracy
A church in the Kandhamal district of India's Odisha state, where brutal attacks on Christians 16 years ago means many survivors still worry about their minority status in a Hindu-majority nation.

A church in Kandhamal district of India's Odisha state, where brutal attacks on Christians 16 years ago means many survivors still worry about their minority status in the Hindu-majority nation. (Photo: AFP)

Published: May 15, 2024 04:42 AM GMT
Updated: May 15, 2024 05:22 AM GMT

In normal times, it would be the sort of conspiracy theory cooked up in the “deep fakes” laboratories of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the mother of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and alma mater of its most famous cadre, Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Core elements of these theories have abounded since independence, first peaking in 1956 in a swell so strong that even Jawaharlal Nehru, one of the founders of modern India and first prime minister, could not stop it.

A senior leader of his Congress party and chief minister of the large Central provinces, Ravi Shankar Shukla, defied Nehru and set up the quasi-judicial Niyogi commission to probe the work of Christian missionaries in tribal areas.

Other theories link Congress leader Sonia Gandhi with Vatican designs in sensitive border states of India, and creating enclaves of anti-national and traitorous communities.

The notorious Niyogi commission, its membership carefully curated by religious right-wing members, indicted missionaries for enticing “innocent tribals” with money, and magic tricks. A “magic trick,” retired Justice Niyogi quoted, was to show how a wooden Cross floated on water while earthen idols of local gods soon dissolved, “proving the superiority of the Western god.”

This insulted the native intelligence of the people and questioned their freedom of faith, given to them by the newly enacted constitution. However, the report let loose a reign of suspicion, hate, and eventually violence, against the Christian community that continues to this day.

If anything, it has become more vicious in the last decade, basking in the twin nurture of state immunity and the political immunity now in evidence for the hate mongers.

The RSS began its campaign in the 1990s against landholdings by the Muslim community, especially their mosques, alleging that almost every one of them was allegedly built on the ruins of temples demolished by marauding hordes from the western borders. The 500-year-old Babri mosque in Ayodhya was demolished in 1992. Early this year, Modi consecrated the temple to Lord Rama at the site.

Increasing focus has now also shifted to the properties owned by the church in general and by the Catholic Church in particular.

Islam has had an almost 1,200-year presence in north India and came to Kerala in the south within decades of its founding. A mosque can be found in every cluster of India’s 400,000 major villages other than perhaps the smaller states of the northeast such as Nagaland, Mizoram, Meghalaya and Arunachal.

Manipur, the site of an ongoing bloody persecution of the tribal Kuki Zo population, has an endemic Meitei-speaking Muslim population. Neighboring Assam, the largest of the eight states in the region, has a sizable Muslim population. 

In this period, mosques, madrasas, idgahs and burial grounds across the country have been managed by local Wakf, or Auqaf, a sort of trust with roots in Islamic canons.

The Christian, especially Catholic, lands have a more diverse ownership. In ancient Kerala, for instance, rich families donated land and money to build a church, school and cemetery.

After the advent of the Portuguese and later the British rule after 1857, there were leases of crown lands in cantonments, metropolitan areas, and larger villages. Even as a lease, the colonial government charged substantial lease fees, as records show.

After independence, every new church or institution has been built on land bought on the open market, so to speak, or in government auctions for schools and hospitals.

Unlike the wakfs, now supervised by a central government organization set up by an act of parliament, Christian properties do not have a centralized ownership or oversight pattern.

Various denominations have diocesan associations which own the property. The money comes from public donations. In the parish of this columnist, families contributed towards the land and building costs.

Hindu religious properties also have a complex ownership pattern. There is at least one, if not more, temples in every village. In several southern states, Devasthanam boards manage properties of the large temples.

All local temples and their institutions are owned by local people, and not by the government as is sometimes claimed. The government also enacted a law for the management of Sikh gurudwaras to free them from the stranglehold of local abbots. The gurudwara management boards are managed by bodies elected by the congregations. The Indian government has no control over them.

The major difference is in finances. The Christian groups have to struggle to get licenses to receive foreign donations. Most major groups, including Caritas of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India, have lost these foreign contributions, or FCRA licenses. There is no government control over the finances of temples, or “Hundis,” money vaults, as they are known. Even conspiracy theorists do not quote a figure on the wealth of the temples, other than saying it is several times the national GDP.

The Catholic “wealth” was usually talked about as bazaar gossip. A former president of the now 105-year-old All India Catholic Union, first said the Catholic Church had land more than that held by the Indian Navy. The late Professor Remy Denis, a well-known mathematician of the country, however never cited the source of the figure he had quoted. The ripple died down within a few weeks.

It was picked up in recent times by Op India, a web-based newsgroup closely aligned with the ruling establishment, especially the RSS, and usually targeting its political enemies in Congress, the Communists, and the socialist groups.

In a 2022 story, Op India said India, despite being the world’s 7th largest country by area, possessed only 2.4 percent of the total land, with the government as the biggest landlord — owning all of 15,531 square kilometers of land. They did not specify if this included lands with the army, railways, roads, grazing lands, and public industries.

The political insinuation was in the sentence: “In India, the intricacies of land ownership hold substantial sway over the economic landscape. Surprisingly, entities like the Catholic Church and Wakf have emerged as significant landowners, reshaping the dynamics of property possession. The Catholic Church’s impact on land ownership is substantial.”

As a little more spice, Op-India added “Functioning as a conglomerate of various trusts and charitable societies to spread Christianity in India, the Catholic Church employs over 50,000 religious sisters, making it the largest non-governmental employer in the country. With an estimated value between 50,000 to 100,000 crore rupees [500 billion to 1 trillion rupees which equates to about US$5.9 billion to $11.9 billion] the Church’s vast land holdings, acquired through the Indian Churches Act of 1927, have been a subject of legal debates. The Church’s influence impacts small villages where its religious institutions become central to local life.”

In recent months, Church institutions have been attacked by militant elements of the RSS group. Churches have been defiled, priests and nuns assaulted, and the children coerced.

For the RSS, as enunciated by Op-India, “as the country strives to accommodate its growing population, estimated to require 4 to 8 million hectares of land for residential use by 2030, navigating these complexities becomes paramount.”

It goes on to demand “strategic land governance and comprehensive regulatory measures.”

Indian Catholic Matters, a news portal edited by journalist Verghese V Joseph, accepts the Op-India data at face value, and word to word, garnishing it with various recent controversies.

Among them is the one related to the land disposed of by former Syro Malabar Church head Cardinal George Alencherry. Although he does not mention it, there are many other controversies in the diocese of Madras Mylapore for instance.

The non-Catholic churches, including those following the Anglican, Methodist, and Baptist traditions are mired in allegations of corruption and alienation of properties. Many prime properties have been usurped by land sharks, and even by local governments. Even in Delhi, two ancient Christian cemeteries now have scores of apartments and thousands of residents, only a few of them Christians.

It is becoming increasingly difficult to buy land for new churches and even more difficult to get government-subsidized land for schools and colleges.

A new crisis is on the horizon, and these witch hunts and conspiracy theories segue seamlessly into them. Many of the 99-year leases given during the colonial British regime are running out. Only a handful of them are renewed.

Some of these properties, including some famous Anglican Churches and colleges, are in the midst of metropolitan residential and commercial sectors. Land sharks have their eyes on these properties.

The federal and state governments too have their eyes on the properties. Not only do they think they will make a commercial “killing,” but their ideological masters think they will “kill” two birds with one stone — make a profit while diminishing the Christian influence on society.

Strangely, the Church hierarchy has not called out this very real conspiracy.

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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