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Curious case of Justice Gowri

In the past, she has been troubled by conversion of Hindus to Christianity

Curious case of Justice Gowri

Unfair: Justice Gowri had objected to Christian girls learning Bharatanatyam! ANI

Julio Ribeiro

Victoria is a very Christian name made famous by the Queen who ruled the country that ruled us! She had a butler who hailed from India, the ‘Jewel in (her) Crown’. A butler from India would not make for news but there was gossip surrounding her partiality for him. That made for news.

When sitting in judgment as judges, political affiliations should not impinge on their need and duty to be just.

The Madras (Chennai) High Court had a Victoria installed as judge last week. Her appointment caused a flutter in the Bar because some leading lawyers objected to her elevation. It appears that like the white-ball Indian cricketer, Washington Sundar, also from the state of Tamil Nadu, Justice Victoria Gowri is not Christian. The cricketer, like the judge, sports a Christian name, but in his case, an explanation was advanced by his family. A neighbour, who was a mentor and a benefactor, was a Christian named Washington and the cricketer was named after him! It would be interesting to find out how the judge got her name. It may explain her ire against Christians in general!

There are many Christians in Tamil Nadu, numerically more than in any other state. Percentage-wise it is much less than the Christian population of Kerala or Goa and much lower than the percentage in the states of Nagaland, Meghalaya and Mizoram, where the American Baptist missionaries were active in colonial times. The British thought that tribals converted to Christianity would submit more readily to the Crown, but that did not happen. Religion did not matter to the tribals fighting for tribal rule. Their tribal laws were what they fought for.

Religion did matter to Lekshmana Chandra Victoria Gowri. Five years ago, she had ranted against conversions of local Hindus to Christianity, for which the Christian priesthood was responsible. Since the great majority of converts were drawn from the Scheduled Castes and Dalits, social upheavals were to be expected. The converted went out of the rigid control of the upper castes and refused to perform menial jobs assigned to them in a caste-driven society.

In a village, the effect of conversions on the social order was more marked. The Dalits had to live by strict rules that prohibited them from partaking of all the freedoms enjoyed by those within the ‘varna’ order. After conversion, they gravitated to the adjoining cities, where anonymity and freedom combined to free them from the yoke of the upper castes. For instance, the work of removing dead animals from public spaces, which was entrusted to them in the villages, was then neglected.

The egalitarian practices common in Catholic churches the world over are not visible in Tamil Nadu. Discrimination against Dalit Christians within the Christian community is common. Complaints of such discrimination are not received from other states. For instance, Dalit Christians are buried in the same cemetery as other Christians, but this does not happen in Tamil Nadu. Christians in Goa are still identified by their old Hindu castes, but Catholic priests in Goa refuse to bury only professed atheists in the common cemetery! My maternal grandfather, an army doctor with the Portuguese forces deployed in Africa, died in his ancestral village in Goa. My mother, who attended his burial, told me that he was interred in a grave outside the Catholic cemetery because he did not believe! That refusal had nothing to do with caste, as his ancestors were Saraswats.

Justice Gowri must have got over her fixations by now. It was five years ago that she was reported to have fumed at conversions. She must have mellowed down after realising that mass conversions prevalent in colonial times have rarely been reported since Independence. In Mumbai and Goa, there has been no case of mass conversion since 1929, when I was born.

Individual conversions do occur. In particular, inter-religious marriages, which are bound to take place in a multi-religious society like ours, often lead to conversions, especially among the less educated. The Catholic church, of which I am a practising member, has abandoned long ago its insistence on conversion at the time of marriage. Islam, an Abrahamic religion like Christianity, still insists on conversion prior to ‘nikah’. This requirement opens it to charges of ‘love jihad’, though the addition of one more Muslim to the total tally was not really planned when the boy fell in love with a Hindu or Christian girl.

If that is what Justice Gowri is bothered about, the solution is to lift the lower middle class into the ranks of the middle class where instances of conversion at the time of marriage are rare. If the ulema removes this requirement of conversion in marriages between Muslims and non-Muslims, the threat posed by the fallacious theory of ‘love jihad’ and the anti-conversion laws passed by different states ruled by the BJP will be reduced.

If people want to marry for love, religion should not act as a dampener! The fact that Justice Gowri was a member of the BJP at one time is irrelevant as far as her elevation to judgeship is concerned. Many active members of other political parties have become judges. If I am not wrong, even Justice Krishna Iyer, an outstanding legal pundit whose elder brother Laxminarayan was my senior in the IPS, was a member of the Left Front government in Kerala before he joined the Bench. When sitting in judgment as judges, political affiliations should not impinge on their need and their duty to be impartial.

What surprises me is that Justice Gowri had objected to Christian girls learning Bharatanatyam! The RSS and other Hindutva elements should rejoice. So, why should Justice Gowri mourn? One of the greatest practitioners of Indian dance was Leela Samson, the daughter of an Admiral in the Indian Navy. She was not a Christian, but not a Hindu either. She hailed from the tiny Jewish community of Bene Israelis settled in coastal Maharashtra more than a thousand years ago, making Marathi their language of communication at home.

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