With about two hundred thousand people, the Dangs is the smallest district in Gujarat. People here are mostly tribal. Not that they live in trees and wield clubs, but like tribal areas elsewhere in this country, the Dangs remains poor and uneducated. No, this is not where you'll find call centres and malls, the rise-and-shine India that's captured a planet's imagination. This is the age-old, but still easily visible India: poor roads, small farmers, substantial poverty and illiteracy. This is the India that Amy Waldman caught sight of, writing for the New York Times last December:
"[T]he poor seem poorer than ever. India now juxtaposes pre- and post-industrial societies: citizens who live on dirt floors without electricity and others who live like 21st-century Americans, only with more servants."
And of course, for years the Dangs has attracted Christian missionaries of every denomination. Some have set up schools, whereas others do little more than proselytise. Not very successful proselytisers, though: in 1991, there were all of 8,000 Christians here.
From what we gathered during a recent trip through the Dangs, two things have happened after 1991. One, Hindu political organisations grew annoyed by what they think Christians are doing in the Dangs. In 1998, there was a series of assaults on Christians and their institutions, including on Christmas Day itself.
Two, there has been an increase in Christian missionary activity, with apparently greater success this time. While nobody was sure of the figures, even Christians in the Dangs told us that the number of Christians is up to between 15,000 and 20,000.
Double or better in a decade: growth like that, of course, comfortably outstrips normal population increase. It cries out for an explanation. Until then, it continues to annoy Hindu political organisations.
Cut now to what's planned in the Dangs for February 11-13: a huge "Kumbh Mela", or gathering of Hindu pilgrims. Over half a million are expected. The attraction is the celebration of the charming tale of Shabari from the Ramayan. The royal brothers Ram and Lakshman, on their journey to rescue Ram's wife Sita, met a woman called Shabari. She sat with them on some rocks and fed them berries, then sent them on their way.
That's the legend. Two modern-day Hindu holy men, Swami Aseemananda and Morari Bapu, have pronounced that those very rocks are on top of a hill called "Chamak Dongri" (Shining Hill) in the Dangs. Prompted by them, Hindu organisations are building a temple on that hill. Prompted by them, as well, they decided to organise this Shabari Kumbh Mela.
All very well so far: a tender story, a revered spot, why not a pilgrimage?
Only, that's not all. The Kumbh has its own official website: www.shabarikumbh.org. On the "About Kumbh" page there (subtitled "Rekindling the social spirit of the Kumbh"), you need only reach the second paragraph -- yes, that early -- to understand what this event is really about. You will read:
"[Christian missionary activity] has fanned separatist and terrorist activities. The Shabarikumbh has been organized to deal a death blow to such anti-dharmic and anti-national activities."
Visit the page titled "Shabrikumbh: towards a massive Hindu awakening" to find, again starting from the second paragraph:
"Conversion to Christianity is invariably associated with separatism and terrorism."
"In the period 1991-2001, the Christian population grew by a massive 400 per cent!"
"Christian missionaries asked [Swami Aseemananda] 'What brings you here?' The Swami posed them the same question. 'We have come here to serve the people,' replied the Christian missionaries. 'I have come here to drive away those who have come here to serve,' retorted the Swami."
"'Hindu jaage, Christi bhaage' [has become] a popular slogan." ("Hindus awake, Christians flee").
There's more. Last October, Mukesh Daga at the Kumbh office in the Dangs told Tehelka: "The main objective of the... Kumbh is to put a full stop to conversion of tribals."
The main objective, after all, is not the celebration of that story from the Ramayan.
Such hostility -- and these are just samples -- is disturbing, if not entirely unexpected. But for the Christians in the Dangs, it's not just disturbing, it's real. Christian tribals -- indistinguishable from their neighbors and every bit as miserably off, these separatists and terrorists -- told us how even village children now taunt them.
"When the Mela comes," the kids say, "you'll be either gone or dead!"
These days, India yearns to be synonymous with prowess, for example, in IT. Power to that vision. But what might still characterise us better are our regular, and especially never-punished, convulsions of bloodshed across religious lines. To address that, the government has just drafted new legislation, the "Communal Violence (Prevention, Control and Rehabilitation of Victims) Bill, 2005". As you read this, it is making its way through public discussion and Parliamentary debate. It has already been criticised by every shade of opinion, as well as praised for being at least a recognition of a cancer within us.
Yet as you read this too, there is a storm brewing in the Dangs, of just the kind this Bill is designed to head off. Enough that the Government of India has sent paramilitary forces to the district to keep some peace between February 11 and 13.
Yet that's the stuff of law-and-order, and for those days. In the Dangs, I wonder, first of all, what will happen after the Kumbh is done? I wonder, what about attitude? Do we in India really want to prevent sectarian violence before it happens?
I don't know. But in the Dangs, a lot of people's very real fear forms the substance of an answer.