Niyogi Commission Report: An Old Debate in a New Context

An official inquiry into the work of missionaries in Madhya Pradesh in the 1950s and the recent census of the Christian community in Gujarat represent communally motivated acts of surveillance by the state machinery by Parvathi Menon, appeared in the Frontline Volume 16 – Issue 8, Apr. 10 – 23, 1999.

 USING a technique of policing that is Nazi-like in its purpose and method, the Gujarat Government recently conducted a 'census' of the Christian community in the State. The district police were sent a 13-point questionnaire on the basis of which they were asked to collect information on the activities of Christians and Christian missionaries. The questions, such as "What type of trickery is being used by Christian defilement activities?"(sic) and "Which foreign countries encourage Christian missionaries?", and instructions such as "…send dossiers on those Christians having criminal activity and having criminal attitude" (sic) seek confirmation of what the State already presumes to be the case. There is no official reason offered for the census save a vague expression of intent, which is to stop "class conflict" between Hindus and Christians.

This is perhaps the first time in independent India that the state machinery has been deployed in a comprehensive surveillance exercise of a peaceful religious minority, which has been the victim of a sustained and violent hate campaign by Hindu communal organisations.

However, it is not the first time that a State government has initiated an official inquiry into the work of Christian missionaries and in doing so indicted the entire community. In 1954, the governments of Madhya Pradesh and Madhya Bharat (a region that was later incorporated into the former) appointed official committees to investigate the activities of Christian missionaries. The reports of both committees were published in 1956, although it was the first report that sparked a nationwide debate on minority rights under the framework of the Constitution, which had come into force in 1950. Called the Christian Missionaries Activities Inquiry Committee, it was headed by M. Bhawani Shankar Niyogi, a retired Chief Justice of the High Court of Judicature, Nagpur.

Although the Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat exercises, one initiated by a State government run by the Congress in the wake of Independence and the other by a State government run by the Bharatiya Janata Party, a party committed to the Hindutva ideology, more than four decades later, have taken place at different historical junctures, there are remarkable similarities between them in intent and method, which offer important lessons. Both inquiries were motivated by a communal purpose and prejudged the issues; both called into question the fundamental right to profess, practise and propagate the religion of one's choice (given in Article 25 of the Constitution); and both were anti-secular and totalitarian in the way they sought to put an entire community on trial. While the Gujarat survey is far more ominous than the other owing to the fact that the party of Hindu communalism is in power both in that State and at the Centre, the results of both surveys can be used as "data" to substantiate the myths circulated by the Sangh Parivar about Christian missionaries in particular and the Christian community in general.

The Niyogi Report has already been used by the ideologues of the Sangh Parivar as ballast for their anti-Christian arguments. Sweeping under the carpet the substantial body of criticism that appeared following the publication of the Niyogi Report, S. Gurumurthy has used the report as substantiation for the thesis that Christianity in India is funded from abroad and owes its allegiance to foreign interests. (The New Indian Express, January 18 and 30, 1999.) He has quoted in extenso from the Report to "prove" that Christianity, as early as the 1950s, had an agenda of indiscriminate conversions especially of Adivasis, of disruption of non-Christian societies, and of the use of schools, hospitals and orphanages as means to facilitate conversion. The Niyogi Report has also been an inspirational source material for Arun Shourie's book on Christian missionaries. Shourie has quoted extensively from the report of the Christians Missions Inquiry Committee headed by Justice M.B. Rege, which was submitted to the Government of Madhya Bharat in 1956 (Missionaries in India, Continuities, Changes, Dilemmas by Arun Shourie, ASA Publications, Delhi, 1994).

WHAT were the circumstances under which the Niyogi Committee was appointed, what were its terms of reference, what were its conclusions, and how did it arrive at them?

Restrictions were imposed on the entry of missionaries by the erstwhile rulers of the feudal states of Raigarh, Udaipur, Jashpur and Surguja, with the support of the colonial Government. When the merger of these states into Madhya Pradesh did not bring the expected freedoms and the ban on missionary work continued, Christian organisations complained to the Government. The ban on the entry of missionaries was lifted with the promulgation of the Constitution in 1950, but charges and counter-charges concerning missionary work continued to be traded. Representations were made to the Government accusing missionaries of effecting conversions through fraud and inducements, and the complainants included several persons and organisations, such as the ex-rulers of the feudal states (the former Raja of Surguja was particularly active on this issue), local government officials, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Arya Samaj. Missionary organisations, on the other hand, denied these allegations and accused the police and local officials of harassing entire Christian communities in the tribal areas. In early 1952, the National Christian Council of Nagpur sent a letter to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru giving details of the harassment faced by missionaries. Local authorities prepared a counter-report, accusing Christians of criminal offences and anti-national activities. The Niyogi Committee was appointed and entrusted with the task of inquiring into the whole question and making recommendations "from historical and other points of view".

The composition of the Niyogi Committee was called into question as soon as it was set up, as five of its six members were Hindus (one of them, Ghanshyam Singh Gupta, was a prominent Arya Samaji and a bitter critic of Christian missionaries). The only Christian on the panel was S.K. George, a Professor at Wardha College, and a person whom the Christian establishment did not repose any faith in owing to his unorthodox religious views. S.K. George was a nationalist and a Gandhian belonging to the Syrian Christian community and was widely admired for his humane interpretation of Christianity. However, even his admirers did not defend his participation in the Niyogi Committee. His biographer, T.K. Thomas, wrote in The Witness of S.K. George of how George's "uncritical identification with India's religious and cultural heritage and his abiding humility were exploited by a communally motivated committee."

Christian organisations attacked the terms of reference of the committee, which entailed investigation of all Christian missionaries and their activities in the whole State. A protest memorandum from the Catholic Bishops Conference of India (CBCI) to Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Pandit Ravi Shankar Shukla demanded that the committee include representatives of religious minorities, that the terms of reference of the inquiry be expanded to include investigation into harassment of Christians, and that the inquiry be conducted according to the Commissio

ns of Inquiry Act, 1952.

The Niyogi Committee was authorised to frame its own procedure. It claimed in its final two-volume, three-part report that 11,360 persons were interviewed in 700 villages in 14 districts. It received 375 written replies to a questionnaire with 99 questions. Of these, 55 replies were from Christians and 320 from non-Christians, mainly Hindus. The committee visited hospitals, schools, churches, leprosy homes and hostels maintained by Christian missions.

The questionnaire prepared by the committee and its underlying assumptions brought forth an explosion of outrage. The questions were classified under five sections, namely Conversions, Social Relations, Missions, Hospitals, Schools, and Remedies. All the questions were leading, communally loaded and tendentious in the extreme. For example, Question 8: "What, to your knowledge, are the methods used for conversion? Are any of the following methods used?" Twelve means of inducement were then listed, followed by "Other fraudulent and unfair means". The suggestion that the poorer the convert, the more likely that he or she was converted by material inducements was implicit in question 10, which asked if there were cases where conversion had been the result of religious conviction. "If so, what were the educational, social and financial status of such people?" Christians' loyalty to the nation was called into question in Question 11, which asked whether "…the conversion to Christianity adversely affects the national loyalty and outlook of converts?" Question 40 asked if "…converts to Christianity tend to form a distinct communal group, indifferent or hostile to Indian traditions and culture and with affinity to foreign culture".

The questionnaire and the methods of data collection were critiqued in great detail by Christian organisations. G.X. Francis, president of the Christian Association, Nagpur, who was an observer during the committee's fact-finding tours, registered his protest at the leniency shown to communal Hindu witnesses and the disproportionately long time they were allowed to present their case. The 11,360 'interviews' that the committee claimed they had conducted were actually large public meetings where people could make speeches and level public accusations. Francis filed a petition in the High Court against the constitution of the committee. Justice M. Hidayatullah dismissed the petition, but not before criticising aspects of the committee's functioning, the infamous questionnaire in particular. "Some are amazing," he observed. "A question which invites opinion on whether different religions in the land can exist peacefully and cooperate in realising a just order of society is a little too late in the day. We are existing in this vast subcontinent for generations, and centuries…, but we have done very well together". He warned that the inquiry and the report should not insult religious sentiments as "Christians may have no redress and the mischief against them will have been done."

The assumptions underlying the questionnaire were exposed in well-substantiated arguments by spokespersons of the Christian community at that time. These arguments are of relevance even today, as many of the findings of the Niyogi Report, such as forcible conversions of tribal populations by missionaries and the alleged "foreign allegiances" of the Christian community, continue to be the stuff of anti-Christian propaganda. In a sharp rebuke to the committee, Archbishop of Nagpur Dr. Eugene D'Souza tore apart the assumptions of the questionnaire. He wrote that it should not be assumed that illiterate persons were "sub-human" beings incapable of choosing their religion. This doctrine opposed the principle on which adult franchise was granted in the Constitution, he said. To state, as the questionnaire did, that Christians were compelled by force, fraud or monetary temptation begged the question which the committee had been called on to investigate, D'Souza said. He told the Committee that it should look into the allegations and not create new ones. He declared that the assumption that Christians could not be loyal Indians as they had changed faith was "a reflection on the entire Christian minority of 10 million". D'Souza argued that the assumption that Christian missionaries had ulterior motives other than preaching the message of Christ was "the unkindest cut of all", and that in the absence of any evidence it was highly discriminatory. "It damns the Christian for a suspected motive against which he can only offer a bare denial." Any questionnaire, even an unbiased one, is "notoriously unreliable" as a method of inquiry in scientific investigation, D'Souza stated, and must be used with adequate safeguards.

The Christian organisations did not, however, boycott the committee. Although only 55 written replies were from Christian organisations and individuals, they took the questionnaire seriously, protesting against objectionable questions and/or giving reasons for not answering them. One of the lengthiest and most detailed replies from the Christian community was given by Catholic Sabha of the Raigarh District.

The committee's findings were submitted to the Government of Madhya Pradesh in April 1956. Many findings were statements of fact, for instance, that there had been an increase in missionary activity since 1950. Others were unsubstantiated assertions, such as conversions were made by material inducements and false promises. Another finding was that "missions are in some places used to serve extra-religious ends". A later commentator pointed out that "extra-religious activities" included agricultural and village development projects. Some other statements in the report were that "as conversion muddles the convert's sense of unity and solidarity with his society, there is a danger of his loyalty to his country and state being undermined"; the Christian had a supranational loyalty to Christ and the strategy of the missionaries was "to detach the Indian Christian from his nation"; and schools, hospitals and orphanages were used as means to facilitate conversions. The report noted that the actual project of the missionaries was to "revive Christendom for re-establishing Western supremacy", and "…to create Christian minority pockets with a view to disrupting the solidarity of non-Christian societies." These statements drew immediate protest from Indian Christian leaders.

Based on these findings came a set of recommendations, which stand out as proof of the committee's lack of knowledge of the subject it spent two years studying, its ignorance of the law and the Constitution, and its sympathies with totalitarian methods of social control. The report said that missionaries "whose primary object is proselytisation should be asked to withdraw". Indian churches were offered the gratuitous advice of forming a "United Independent Christian Church without being dependent on foreign support". One recommendation was that offering professional services as a means of conversion should be prohibited by law and another was that the Constitution should be amended so that only Indian citizens had the right of religious propagation, and such propaganda should not be done by force or fraud. Other suggestions were that non-official organisations should run social service institutions only for members of their own religious faith and the circulation of religious literature without the prior permission of the State government should be prohibited. The committee recommended the creation of a department of cultural and religious affairs in the State government, with powers of censorship. There were many other such recommendations.

Several books and compilations of articles appeared in response to the Niyogi Report. Dr. Oscar Sevrin, the

Bishop of Raigarh-Ambikapur, in his 'Annotations on the Niyogi Report Relating to Raigarh and Surguja' gave a paragraph by paragraph rebuttal of the report. In addition to the charge of using concocted evidence, he accused the committee of deliberate mistranslation of books written on Christianity. Bombay Governor Hare Krishna Mahatab was among the prominent Hindus who repudiated the report. Expressing sorrow over the controversy, he stated that it was caste Hindus and not Christians who had exploited the tribal people. Dr. A. Krishnaswami, a member of Parliament, was among the nine non-Christian signatories to a statement which took note of the "indiscriminate and extravagant attacks on missionaries" although it did not mention the Niyogi Report by name.  M.M. Thomas, the Christian leader who started the ecumenical movement in India, criticised the report for the "…political idea it represents and its effect on the future of the state in India…" He wrote that the "infant secular democratic state of India has yet to find roots in the indigenous cultural soil and is imperilled by totalitarian ideas finding their place in government committees."



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