The meeting between India’s ‘Hindu nationalist’ Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Pope Francis reminds me of a phenomenon that media researchers have been talking about for over a century now – propaganda.
Propaganda is everywhere, even in the silence around a word. We are accustomed to the phrase ‘Hindu nationalist’ for PM Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) because it’s commonplace in media and academia, even though he has barely made India any more Hindu than it was before he took office in 2014. And the judiciary may have taken some action on Hindu festivals, such as banning firecrackers during Diwali, but the government has been compliant and not pushed back. Local authorities in Telangana have been allowed to demolish a temple in the state secretariat. On the other hand, we are not accustomed to seeing a label like ‘Christian expansionist’ for the Pope, the head of an important institution responsible for the global expansion of Christianity for hundreds of years.
My point is that we can barely speak about people and issues without relying on assumptions and silences that have already been put in place for us, let alone have a truly open debate free of the burdens of propaganda. And since propaganda remains as much a concern today as it was in the aftermath of the First World War when communication researchers began to talk about its dangerous influence on society, we might learn a little more about it in the context of the meeting between the Pope and the prime minister.
Even as contemporary academia tries to be secular and objective, it remains stuck in normatively Christian ways of looking at things. From 22 June 1622, when Pope Gregory XV issued a Papal Bull establishing the “Sacred Congregation de Propaganda Fide,” we are told, the term “propaganda” had a largely positive or neutral connotation. It changed only when the British and Americans manufactured atrocity propaganda against the Germans during World War 1, and people suddenly woke up to the dangers of propaganda. This characterisation, of course, misses the fact that for millions of indigenous people around the world, the propaganda served by the colonisers and missionaries well before World War 1 wasn’t quite positive or neutral at all.
Following World War 1, propaganda became a topic of widespread concern, leading to the establishment of the Institute for Propaganda Analysis in New York in 1937. Even as the institute sought to educate the public on how to detect propaganda techniques such as “name-calling” and “glittering generalities” (or, “virtue-signalling” in today’s idiom), a far more deadly form of propaganda was unfolding in Nazi Germany. It was clear, by the end of the Second World War, that the word ‘propaganda’ could not be used in any kind of positive or neutral sense.
Propaganda vs propagate
A less widely known fact about the history of propaganda from this time is of direct relevance to the recent meeting between Pope Francis and Prime Minister Modi – the enshrinement of the right to propagate a religion as opposed to merely practicing it in the Constitution of India. In 1947, the Constituent Assembly actually debated the meaning of the word ‘propaganda’ (the following examples are from the book History of Hindu-Christian Encounters AD 304 to 1996 by Sita Ram Goel). The Congress party had initially promised in its manifesto “freedom of conscience, and the right to freely profess and practise his religion subject to public order and morality.” No “propagation” yet. On 17 March 1947, K.M. Munshi presented a draft of the clauses under the Right to Religion to the concerned sub-committee. These included, among other things, the right to “freely profess and practise religion,” as well as clauses protecting children under 18 from changing their “religious persuasion” without the content of parents, and also penalising coercive forms of conversion (an understandable concern given the history of colonisation).
But on 17 April 1947, a member, M. Ruthnaswamy, pointed out that “certain religions such as Christianity and Islam, were essentially proselytising religions, and provision should be made to permit them to propagate their faith.” On 19 April, the word ‘propagate’ was added. Two days later, on 21 April, the implications of this inclusion and the meaning of the word ‘propaganda’ were debated. Ruthnaswamy offered a defense: “The word ‘propagate’ is a well-known word. It includes not only preaching but other forms of propaganda made known by modern developments like the use of films, radio, cinemas and other things.”
K.M. Munshi cautioned though that “the word might be brought … to cover even forced conversion” and said that the Christian and Muslim desire to “preach” would be sufficiently guaranteed under “freedom of speech.” Alladi Krishnaswami Ayyar said: “Even in the American continent we do not have these practices as a special right, because we have freedom of speech… why place at the forefront of our country this propagation of particular religious faith and belief?” And it was not just Brahmins who expressed their concern. R.P. Thakur made a fervent plea: “Sir, I am a member of Depressed Classes. This clause of the Fundamental Rights is very important from the standpoint of my community. You know well, sir, that the victims of these religious conversions are ordinarily from the Depressed Classes. The preachers of other religions approach these classes of people (and) take advantage of their ignorance.”
In response to this debate, the National Christian Council published in its August 1947 issue a sharp criticism of the Congress party, comparing it, much as Modi’s BJP is now, to the Nazis: “The Congress members of the Constituent Assembly who wish to make everything Hindu from top to bottom should take a lesson from history. Hitler created a kind of nationalism which brought about the ruin of the German nation… He gave to the German people those things and ideas which made the Germans feel distinctly different from others, i.e. the Swastika.”
It is worth noting here that while American critics of propaganda were addressing real concerns about Nazism and religion such as the infamous case of the radio host and priest Charles Coughlin, whose “social justice” sloganeering was found to be dangerously anti-Semitic and pro-fascist, lobbyists and propagandists in the soon-to-be-former colonies were working to smear a non-existent Nazi association upon indigenous anti-colonial movements. Interestingly enough, Muslim League ideologues from the 1940s also accused the Congress party of having Nazi-like aims, and accused them of trying to instil “Gandhian totalitarianism” into the minds of Muslim children, as historian Venkat Dhulipala’s important study, Creating a New Medina, shows us.
What Pope Francis must acknowledge
All of this suggests that ‘nationalism’ and ‘expansionism’ in the name of religion is something that needs to be understood and debated with greater honesty than what we have seen in the media. The Vatican News has already covered PM Modi’s meeting with an observation about a context of “growing anti-Christian violence in India” even as there has been, yet again, a tremendous resurgence of anti-Hindu violence in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Kashmir in the past few weeks. In 1971, one of the largest genocides of the 20th century was committed against Hindus in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh).
In Indian media, it is Hindu festivals and traditions and symbols that are targeted for mockery, cultural appropriation and erasure year after year. In the BBC, it is Hindu gurus who are smeared with unsubstantiated accusations even as their own journalists are revealed to have been raving predators. And all that the experts on South Asia seemingly have to say is that there is no Hinduphobia because there is no evidence of systematic persecution of Hindus anywhere in the past or present and Hinduism is anyway mostly coterminous with Hindu nationalism; the only time it’s not is when it suits them.
As one of the few nations left on the planet with a majority population rooted in indigenous traditions, and nature-centred, non-dominionist traditions at that, it is time to cease and desist with the propaganda against Hinduism, Hindus and India. For that, I call on Pope Francis and PM Modi to both do their parts. Pope Francis cannot be the progressive, well-meaning Pope he is widely seen to be if, along with making amends with indigenous people and condemning Islamophobia, he does not speak about the history of Hinduphobia and violence against India, from the days of Vasco da Gama and the inquisition in Goa to the modern institutionalisation of what is essentially the right to propagate religious supremacism under the label of religious freedom. In my home state of Andhra Pradesh, in just the last few months, dozens of temples have come under attack, while in neighbouring Maharashtra, an elderly Hindu monk was handed over by the police to a lynch mob and killed.
Even if some of these cases are not of simple Christian-Hindu violence, we have to acknowledge that this pandemic of violent desecration is happening at least in part because of the relentless forces of propaganda directed at Hinduism and Hindus. One part of this propaganda might be nominally secular, and appear in the form of demonising caricatures of sadhus on TV and in newspapers.
Another part of this propaganda continues to exist, even in the 21st century, in the form of naked hatred and name-calling against indigenous traditions and deities by trained proselytisers. It is no surprise then that few Hindus believe that the historic Second Vatican Council declaration marked a real change from the colonial, intolerant past. Even M.K. Gandhi debated with his Christian friends, and critics, about this key issue in the future of Hindu-Christian relations, and it is in his spirit that perhaps Pope Francis could revisit the idea of propaganda in the world today once again.
What Modi must do
At the same time, I also call upon PM Modi to step up to fight propaganda from his own side. By obstinately refusing to acknowledge the worldwide attacks on Hindus taking place ostensibly as payback for his prime ministership (see this article for example, blaming the victims in Bangladesh), he has allowed Hindu lives to become worthless pieces on the chessboard of politics. He may believe that he is being a prime minister for all Indians and not just Hindus with his silence, but he should be reminded by his well-wishers that he has a duty as a democratically elected PM towards Hindus as well. This duty involves not merely renovating temple towns for tourism and getting some Hindu-friendly photo-ops but actually recognising, as a government, that a systemic global propaganda campaign has been underway for nearly seven years now to strip Hindus of their human rights as Hindus. This means, putting truth above votes.
In conclusion, I would like to ask that whenever Pope Francis does visit India, a declaration on rethinking propaganda and seeking satya (truth) would be a truly welcome step. This should be done in the name of not just Hindus and Christians but with the vision of a broader indigenous-globalist project for truth and justice. The expansionist globalist faiths will do well to recognise that the indigenous traditions never really died, neither in the Americas nor in Asia, so merely performative guilt about the “past” is not enough. We need action in the present, and an important step would be to stop with the mockery, demonisation and intellectual genocide against our ancient beliefs about the divinity of animals, birds, plants and trees, for starters. That is our truth, and we will stick to it despite all that the colonists and their neo-colonist stooges have done, necessitating ‘climate change’ crisis summits and the like.
In an indigenous-globalist movement, truth and justice will not remain merely anthropocentric constructs but extend to a deeper sensibility about our obligations to the non-human lives of our planet as well. So far, much of the globalism we have seen has been little different from colonialism because of the absence of serious questioning of the dominionism that has been enshrined worldwide first through colonial religions and more recently through science.
I hope, sincerely, that Pope Francis and PM Modi as leaders who embody the principles of the past and the present, of religion and democracy, respectively, will do something to give an equally warm hug to Mother Earth/Goddess Bhudevi now.
The author is Professor of Media Studies, University of San Francisco. He tweets @vamseejuluri. Views are personal.