India Christians set to celebrate the 1970 years of Christianity in India on 3 July 2021. Historically, Indian Christians observe the martyrdom day of St Thomas on 3rd July every year.
Christianity in India is as old as many other religions in India. It has existed in India from the very first century. Two historical accounts about the coming of St Thomas, one of twelve disciples of Jesus Christ. Churches in India believe St Thomas came to the southern part of India and established the first church in 52 AD and believed of being killed in 72 AD by the opponents of the gospel he was preaching to the people.
The second historical account, James Kodangallur, in his book “First Voyage the Apostle Thomas to India” claims St. Thomas visited India during 43-44 AD before he came to South India. He travelled breadth and length from Afghanistan to North India. It also suggests his involvement in social activities during his first visit to India. This is exactly what the Church has been involved in national building ever since its birth in India and worldwide.
As Indian Church celebrates the 1970 years of Christianity in the country, it will be worth making some of the contributions given by the Indian church toward nation-building.
Christians in the Interest of National Defence
Like all other communities, irrespective of religion, caste, or creed, the Indian church has contributed toward the national defence services. Two of them served as Chiefs of Naval Staff, one each, Air Chief of Indian Air Force and as Indian Chief of Army Staff.
Admiral Ronald Lynsdale Pereira was the first Indian Christian to serve as 10th Chief of Naval Staff from 1972 – 1982. He hails from the Kannur family of Kerala in South India.
In his 39-year illustrious naval career, Pereira held prestigious appointments of Flag Officer Commanding Eastern Fleet, Flag Officer Commanding Southern Naval Command, and the Flag Officer Commanding-in-Chief Western Naval Command.
Oscar Stanley Dawson was the second Indian, served as 11th Chief of Naval Staff from 1982 to 1984. He comes from the Nadar community of Tamil Nadu in South India and was the recipient of both the Ati Vishisht Seva Medal (AVSM) and Param Vishisht Seva Medal (PVSM).
The Hindu in its outbreak news of Oscar Stanley Dawson’s, says, “It was during Admiral Dawson’s tenure as the Flag Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Southern Naval Command, at Kochi from March 1979 to February 1982, that the site for the future Indian Naval Academy at Ezhimala was identified.”
He was the Director of Naval Operations during the India-Pakistan conflict in 1971, for which he was awarded the AVSM. During the latter half of his tenure as the Navy Chief, Admiral Dawson was also Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC), and later, after retirement, he was assigned as Indian High Commissioner to New Zealand from 1985 to 1987.
Then Admiral Denis Anthony La Fontaine served as 13th Air Chief Marshall of India from 1985 to 1988. He also hails from Chennai, Tamil Nadu. He joined the IAF as a fighter pilot in 1950 and rose to become its 13th Chief in July 1985.
He was awarded the Vayu Sena Medal (VSM), Ati-Vishisht Seval Medal, and Param-Vishisht Seva Medal during his illustrious career.
General Sunith Francis Rodrigues served as India’s army chief of staff for three years term in 1990. The first Christian to head the world´s fourth-largest army, General Rodrigues is from the western coastal state of Goa, studied at Bombay´s Jesuit-run Saint Xavier´s High School.
He joined the National Defence Academy in 1949 and was commissioned in 1952. In 1972 he was awarded the Vishisht Seva Medal for distinguished service during the 1971 India-Pakistan war. He was awarded the Param Vishisht Seva Medal for his distinguished service of the most exceptional order on Jan. 26, 1989.
Impact on Secular Idea of India
The idea of India was invented by Mahatma Gandhi through the influences of Rabindranath Tagore, explored by Jawaharlal Nehru, and later redefined by B. R. Ambedkar. The idea of India, according to the founding fathers mentioned above is a secular state and democratic nation.
Indian Churches had a role in making India a secular state and democratic country. The campaign against the Sati system and female infanticide led by William Carey and Raja Ram Mohan Roy, a reformer influenced by Christian missionaries is the landmark of Indian churches’ role in making India a secular state and democratic nation.
A few of those who influenced Indian reformers who played a vital role in making India a secular state and democratic nation are Friedrich Schwartz of German missionary at Tranquebar, who influence Tulsi Raja, and Muslim ruler Hyder Ali.
CF Andrews another missionary has a close influence upon India by his identification with Mahatma Gandhi and Tagore. Bishop Waskon Pickett, an American Methodist Bishop associated with Jawaharlal Nehru, Dr B R Ambedkar, and Indira Gandhi.
When Gandhi was assassinated, it was Bishop Pickett was conducted the first memorial service in the Lucknow Methodist Church. He also took part in sorting out national problems when there were community clashes between Sikhs and Hindus. Bishop Pickett was a close friend of Dr B. R. Ambedkar the father of the Indian Constitution and messiah of Dalit emancipation. Dr Radha Krishnan praised Bishop Pickett in 1969 for the impact of Indian Christians on national influence and participation.
Impact on Indian Education
Exceptional is the educational contribution by pioneering missionaries. Long before, Governments established schools; it was Christian missions that started mission schools. The educational contribution of Indian churches is a household icon of every Indian.
American missionaries compiled and published the earliest grammars and dictionaries of Punjabi, Hindi, Urdu, Marathi, and Manipuri. Missionaries gave an enormous boost to mass education and we have a legacy of it in the whole nation.
Impact on Women’s Education
Culturally, among Indian societies, women were considered not for education. Any girl having the ability to read and write was practically confined to nautch girls and not for respectable women. Despite local disbelief and pessimism, the missionaries believed that the girls could be educated and transformed.
The first school for girls in the whole of India was established at Tranquebar in 1707 by missionaries. Mannah Marshman opened a school for girls at Serampore in 1800 and Miss Isabella Thoburn started a women’s college on her veranda at Lucknow in 1870 and it became the first women’s college in the whole of Asia.
Ida Scudder, a missionary to South India founded Vellore Christian Medical College in 1900 to train women as doctors and nurses, and men are admitted only in 1947.
In conclusion, while celebrating the 1970 years of Christianity in India, Indian Christians are very much a part of Indian society from the first century. Christians gave all that they could in terms of nation-building and they shall continue to do the same.
Many Indian church leaders have called to rethink the mission and its service within the context of the challenge faced by the nation. Some of the challenges are the attack on Indian secularism, the rise of fascism, caste apartheid, anti-Christian and minority policies, human trafficking. Last, not least, the challenges brought by the Covid-19 pandemic. The need for healthcare infrastructure is reckoned and forecast of the challenges faced with unemployment amid high inflation.
The writer is a Hyderabad based freelancer and former spokesperson of North East Helpline, Delhi.