The Hindu rightwing criticism of Mother Teresa has brought out the usual halo-wallahs, quite forgetting that both the Sangh and the good Mother have emphasised on superstition and faith to deal with practical issues. Devotion to a religion romanticises poverty and mortality.
On the face of it, this looks like an outrageous comment. At a function organised by a NGO, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) chief Mohan Bhagwat said:
"Mother Teresa's service would have been good. But it used to have one objective, to convert the person, who was being served, into a Christian. The question is not about conversion but if this (conversion) is done in the name of service, then that service gets devalued."
It is obvious that the RSS wants to consolidate its position as a social organisation and the moral keeper of Indians, mainly the majority community. It does not take long to associate conversions by missionaries with any activity run by a Church-affiliated individual.
There are no records of any conversions by the Missionaries of Charity, but as in other communities there could have been voluntary converts. This is hardly about pulling up a deceased person; it is more about trying to take the heat off the 'ghar waapsi' by the rightwing where Muslims and Christians are sought to be reconverted to what is assumed to have been their original faith, Hinduism. It is also to deflect from the recent attack on churches.
As is the tradition, the BJP and the RSS continue with their game of one taking on the opponents while the other acts moderate. Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in the Lok Sabha:
“My government’s only religion is ‘India first’, my government’s only religious book is ‘Indian Constitution’, our only devotion is ‘Bharat Bhakti’ and our only prayer is ‘welfare of all’."
Was he assuring the people of India after the persistent hate speeches by members of various saffron groups, including a couple of MPs, or was he trying to convince the US president? After his much-touted visit to India as chief guest at the Republic Day function on January 26, Barack Obama had gone on to question India's record regarding religious tolerance:
"Michelle and I returned from India — an incredible, beautiful country, full of magnificent diversity — but a place where, in past years, religious faiths of all types have, on occasion, been targeted by other peoples of faith, simply due to their heritage and their beliefs — acts of intolerance that would have shocked Gandhiji, the person who helped to liberate that nation."
While many did not like the idea of an outsider lecturing us, the BJP had more pressing concerns. They expected some sort of barter for the obsequiousness they displayed — a hand on the head, a few freebies. Obama for his part had his own selfish reasons. America is like the Vatican. Any attack on churches and Christians becomes its business, although it may not have any real engagement with either. It is more a political stand.
Modi could not look the other way and has felt the need to assert his 'religious' affiliation. The Constitution as scripture is hardly likely to result in devotion, for he has not responded to the utterances of the likes of Swami Adityanath during the election campaign and later. The timing of the PM's concern makes it evident that he wants to protect his reputation as well as the interests of the Indian expat community to which he is beholden.
While he is performing his political duty, the RSS is keeping the flag flying. They targeted a Christian icon who catered to what seems like a secular world of the very sick. This could well be their ideological position, but again the timing has to do with giving it to Obama.
Attempts to firefight are essentially a BJP need and not the RSS belief. Sitting in their cocoons, we now find famous voices doing their beauty queen wanting to do a Mother Teresa act once again, after having forgotten about their ambition in all these years.
Among the comments expressing anger over Mohan Bhagwat's statement that I came across, this one stood out: "Bengalis are an excitable community who would have rebelled if Mother Teresa was converting people in that state."
I doubt if Bengalis would have liked to be known as a city of many dying people either, all waiting to be laid to rest with dignity. Strange that those who have problems about stereotyping icons don't think twice before pigeonholing a group.
It is no surprise that the elite would speak. My first introduction to Mother Teresa was above an antique mantelpiece in the living room of a celebrity. She had equal space with Husain's horses in this chamber with fine crystal ware.
She might have had a noble reason — although there have been some reasoned critiques that point out her political motives — but for many of those 'touched' by her she was a collection, an investment. Even as penance.
Images: Both paintings by M.F.Husain. In the first Mother T and Krishna are in the same frame.