Dr. Pradip Thomas is Associate Professor in the School of Communication and Arts, University of Queensland, Australia. He was at Centre for Culture, Media and Governance, Jamia Millia Islamia, to participate in an international conference India at Leisure: Media, Culture & Consumption in the New Economy where he gave a key note and also found time to speak to Arshad Amanullah on various issues related to the interface of media and religion in contemporary India. Excerpts:
Arshad Amanullah- Why did you choose to work on Christian fundamentalism while it’s not fashionable to do so in the Indian academia?
Dr. Pradip Thomas-I was motivated by the fact that when I started working on issues around fundamentalism and media in India, the only material available at that time was on the rise of Hindu religious nationalism. But I’ve always felt that in our country minority fundamentalism and its relationship with media requires a scientific exploration. So in 1999 when I was in England, I read an article by William Dalrymple in which he talked of issues in Gujarat and where he also mentioned the presence of Christian mission agencies and their websites. So, that was the beginning for me. I explored those websites and found them really fascinating: in those websites there was a kind of an imagery of India as a Christian nation and all those kinds of things that are an exact replica of what you find in websites linked to Hindu nationalism. So I did some work on web based contestations between the Hindu Right and the Christian Right. And that was the beginning of this project and then I decided to go to Chennai and work for few months to see if I could do some work on how Christian broadcasting is contributing to Christian fundamentalism. The way I see it is that Christian fundamentalism is a kind of soft fundamentalism. It is not that hard, they don’t go around killing people or ransacking temples, they don’t do that…..it is a kind of soft fundamentalism.
Arshad – What were the specificities of Christian broadcasting in India?
Pradip- Christian broadcasting has been on the fringes in one form or another for a long time. So the issue of course is that until deregulation, we had a state monopoly broadcaster and there was no space for minority broadcasting on All India Radio. So, what these people did was, they got slots on these transnational radio stations that beamed into India from various parts of the world. So there was the presence of Christian broadcasting in India. But there was also a feeling that the then government was giving tacit support to the Hindu broadcasting through All India Radio. For example, support for classical music, etc. They didn’t give any space to minorities and the only time minorities were given space was on their religious holidays. That’s how it all started. Then with deregulation, it became open house for anyone to be involved in broadcasting. So from mid-1990s onwards, you see a steady rise in Christian broadcasting TV channels especially. There is some variety among these channels. There are transnational Christian broadcasters who are now available over satellite and cable channels and we’ve got domestic players who’ve also come on to the scene. And there are a variety of these channels available only on the net.
Arshad – You mentioned that some Christian broadcasting was happening through foreign channels, so if you could quote some examples.
Pradip- For example, The Far Eastern Broadcasting Associates was a key conduit through which radio signals were transmitted within India and they are still around and many evangelical groups buy time on that radio station.
Arshad – Which language(s) these Christian channels are broadcasted in?
Pradip- It varies. I have mentioned in my book that many of these evangelical groups are very sophisticated in their understanding of the so called unreached people in India. So they’ve got very good statistics on our so called tribal population, for example. I looked at an organization called Hindustan Bible Institute and you can see the kind of data that they gave me and I have used some of them in my book. They have information on how many people heard the broadcast, how many people were so called saved by those messages and who became Christian, etc. So their agenda is basically propagating the Gospel and they want to see how many people can be saved, so that they can use this to get more money from US.
Arshad – So what is the present scenario of Christian broadcasting in India?
Pradip- There is a huge network of Christian channels now available in India. You can buy a whole bouquet of Christian channels if you want. It is available in South, I am not sure if it is available in the North as well.
Arshad – Do they cater to any particular language-speaking group?
Pradip- Yes, in Malayalam, in Telugu and Tamil. You are also talking about the range of different kinds of channels, domestic and transnational. One of the problems that I see is that many of the mainstream churches do not get involved in broadcasting. The older, established churches are not involved, except for the Catholic Church. The people who are involved are mainly, evangelical groups. And there is I suggest a certain danger here because the message that is coming out is a very conservative message related to India as a Christian nation. At the same time there is also an uncritical acceptance, for example, of Israel of Israel as the Promised Land for Christians, a certain type of acceptance of Christian Zionism, which is also very problematic. People generally don’t question such messages although I find it very problematic because Israeli politics can be a very problematic politics and there is an acceptance in the message of these Christian broadcasting channels that the Israeli politics is ok. They argue that Muslims are the problem and toe the lines of the Israeli government. Of course in some of the transnational networks, like Christian Broadcasting Network, this is an open agenda. God TV for example, is based out of Jerusalem and they have Christian Zionist agenda. They have a base in South India and their headquarters are in Chennai. But what is also interesting about these broadcasters, especially the transnational ones, is that they are facing the same issues as some of those Christian broadcasting networks face in the US. So many of these televangelists have been implicated in adultery related scandals and financial scandal and the same thing is happening to an extent here. However it is a big money-making operation.
Arshad – It emerges from your book that the Pentecostal Churches in India have contributed to the strengthening of Christian identity among Dalit community.
Pradip- Traditionally, the Pentecostal churches in India, catered to the interests of the so called lower caste groups and so they had a strong base in the Dalit communities. But in the recent past, I was told, they are catering to much wider audience. It is no longer to a Dalit community. They cater to all sections of the population. Now, whether that catering to the Dalit communities has made the Dalit communities stronger, more vocal, more empowered – there is currently little clear information on whether that has occurred. I don’t think they have done all that. This is purely a Christian message, it is more moralistic rather than messages linked to social awareness.
The issue with the church and the Dalits in India is a very critical issue. Even the mainstream churches have an issue with it. For example, in the Mar Thoma tradition that I belong to, we continue to have separate churches for Dalits, which is mindboggling and crazy. But the mainstream churches provide various reasons for this separateness. They say Dalits do not feel like worshipping in the larger church, that they are happy being with their own people, etc. But at the heart of it, I think, there is an issue with Dalits not being accepted as core members of the church.
Arshad – You have used Bourdieu’s Field Theory to understand mediated Christianity in India. So what made you to do so?
Pradip- Bourdieu is not known for his work on religion mainly, but he has written one or two very interesting pieces on religion. And I used Bourdieu also because he was able to bring political economy and cultural analysis together. He gives space to both and that was useful for my analysis of mediated Christianity. He also talks about things like misrecognition and that was very useful for me when I was dealing with televangelism and televangelists. There is a massive misrecognition of what these prophets for example stand for. So people have been duped in many ways. They are involved in the Health & Wealth Gospel and they try and focus on the ordinary fears and anxieties that people have. Healing, for example, is something that is very difficult to explain but people want to be healthy and the televangelists promise that in return for a fee. This is a big investment that people make hoping that they’ll get healthy and more often than not, nothing happens. Everything is staged. So it is a staged environment. You just can’t go on stage and be healed. His supporters will bring chosen people in and he’ll do healing on the stage. At the same time the problem with all this is that there are people who’ll say that they were healed and this is where the problem lies. You can’t be too dogmatic about these characters, you have to be critical because there is big gap between principles and practices. At the same time if ordinary people say, they like listening to the televangelists or they are feeling happy because they are listening to them, it is difficult to question that.
Arshad – Is religious broadcasting synonymous with televangelism?
Pradip-No. There are different kinds of religious broadcasting: there are channels that only feature rituals. In another type of broadcasting you have key anchor, who is the televangelist, who has a very strong presence on that channel. These are people who are involved in preaching and conventions and selling the organization and all that stuff. But increasingly you do find televangelism not only in Christianity, but also in other religions. For example, Islam has got lots of examples of it whether in Indonesia or Egypt or elsewhere and the volume that I edited with Philip Lee tries to kind of deal with this phenomenon. Basically what we are trying to say is that this is not a Christian phenomenon, this has gone across the board, you’ve got Buddhists like this and it is important that we try and understand what they do, why they do it, why at this particular moment and time in Egypt, you have someone like Amr Khaled. While they tend to be conservative generally, the way they engage with the audience is very different. That is why people like them. They are not like the typical priest and are much more reasonable. They come from a middle class background. Televangelist programmes are like talk-shows on the Indian television. So that is what I think people like. Generally, they are not allowing any changes to take place, they are not reformist. But you also occasionally have people who can be radical in their own thinking with respect to faith.
Arshad – So the instrumentality of media for the sake of religion or preaching is very much common in all the religions…
Pradip- Instrumentality also differs within different religions. In Christianity, because I know that faith better than the other faiths, the instrumentality is clearest in the context of evangelical groups. To them every new technology is a gift from God, to be used for what they call the great commission, to propagate the gospel. So first radio, then television and now new media, everything is a gift, they have no problem accepting this, whereas, for the other mainstream churches, they have always had a problem with media. My church is still not involved in any media in a big way. They seem to think that it is frivolous. Only over the last ten or fifteen years has there been an awakening in the mainstream churches that media can be used by the church. So this prohibition of graven images, etc. is very strong in my tradition. For example my grandmother could never go and watch a film because there was a prohibition against that. That way of thinking is definitely changing, but many still have an issue with media.
Arshad – So your argument is that the approach of the evangelical religious groups to the media has been completely different from the same of the traditional religious groups?
Pradip- Yes. But the evangelicals are the most instrumentalists in terms of media use. To them every new media technology as a blessing from God to be used to spread the Word of God, particularly to the ‘unreached’. Pentecostalist traditions have been described as a religion that has been made to travel in a globalising world. Evangelists and preachers linked to that tradition accept the fact that wealth creation is important to today’s middle classes. Their religion is integrated into a neo-liberal ideology.
Arshad – It seems that not much work has been done on this intersection of media and religion in India.
Pradip- Yes, not much has been done. The work that has been done has focused on the politics of Hindu fundamentalism. I think in India there is so much that can be done because it is a country that is suffused with religion, suffused with media and all these [evangelists] are using media in so many different ways and there is no reason why this should not be explored. I think much more efforts need to be made to understand the relationship between religion and media in India. Even within Christianity for example, North-East India is a place with a strong Christian presence and strong presence of different types of media and yet there is hardly any major studies available on the specific uses of media in that forgotten part of India. South India again is a place full of Christian mission groups doing all sorts things. One of the issues that I raised at my talk at the conference India at Leisure: Media, Culture & Consumption in the New Economy is that it was very difficult to get access to information of many of these groups, especially information on finances because they’re all not-for-profits organisations, they are not accountable to anyone, they are not companies so they don’t have to submit their annual returns. So the question is: where do they get money from for broadcasting, who supports them, where did they get funds from, how much of the money that they get from outside is diverted into other activities.
Arshad – So the difficulties that the researchers face in getting access to the data on televangelism and religious broadcasting, have been responsible for the paucity of work on the interface of religion and media in the context of India?
Pradip- Partly. But if you’re a Christian, working on Christians is seen as problematic by some people. On the other hand, if you are a Christian then it is easier to get access to these people. I was involved in typical ethnographic work: you become part of them to understand them better. So I could go meet them, have interviews with them. But there is a strong conviction that Christian identity in the context of religious nationalism should not be questioned. It is dangerous to question that identity of Christians because it is already under attack. So why should you question that and make it more problematic.
Arshad – How will you deal with appropriation of your work by the Hindu Right?
Pradip- That is very difficult. They use what I have written very selectively.
Arshad – Those who work on Indian Muslims, also face this kind of problem. So one should not question politics and political economy of madarsas and shrines, one should not criticize the religious establishment and televangelists like Zakir Naik because they are already under attack from the Hindu Right. So if you criticize them then your argument will be used.
Pradip- Yes, of course, but I think that is the price that you have to pay. If you don’t do that then you’re allowing certain cultural politics to get away, problematic cultural politics not to be questioned at all, and that is not a good thing. I think that before we point fingers at the majority communities, we have to address intra-community cultural politics which is problematic in many ways. So that is my take and position.
Arshad – do you feel the need to revisit your arguments about Christian fundamentalism in India?
Pradip- Definitely not, I think people are raising the ante at many levels, but that doesn’t mean that you don’t look at your own community. I think there’s a lot that need to be cleaned up in the Christian community. Even the mainstream churches – just look at the churches in South India, who are among the third or second largest property owners in this country. Many of these properties are under litigation. The British left a church in every small village of south India. So they are sitting on large amount of properties and what is happening today is many of them, much of them are under litigation because real estate values have gone up, there is a lot of corruption, people are making huge amount of money, bishops are doing that, moderators of the church are doing that. Who is investigating all that? There is a lot of corruption in the community, the Catholic churches are no better.
Arshad – Why do you think these issues are not reported in the media? Is there some community media, the Christian media where you can find mention of all that?
Pradip – No, not necessarily. I think there is a silence here that is problematic. Basically you don’t touch the church. For example there are these academic Christian newspapers like the People’s Reporter, that occasionally contains critical articles of the certain incidents that have happened. But how many people read the People’s Reporter? It’s circulation is small. So at a much larger level none of the information is accessible to Christians. Although most people know that there is corruption of one sort or the other, people will keep their distance from critiquing the church. But then these have become huge institutions, these are multimillion dollar institutions, the money is mega, many bishops are power brokers who live the life of wealth. And that is not what the church or its representatives should be. The church is for the poor and the way I see it, Christ was a radical figure. He came to change the world and its power structures. Where is that Christ today in this world? Most of these institutions are in the business of making money, there is nothing spiritual about these institutions because they function like any other company.