Indian Hindu leader's criticism of Mother Teresa adds to religious tension

Just days after the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, assured church leaders that his government would ensure the right of every citizen to “retain or adopt” any religion, the country’s foremost Hindu nationalist leader questioned the work of Christian missionaries by accusing Mother Teresa of having served the poor in order to persuade them to become Christians.

“Her service would’ve been good, but it used to have one objective, to see that the person who was being helped felt obliged to become a Christian,” said Mohan Bhagwat, the head of the National Volunteer Corps (known by its acronym RSS), a powerful Hindu organisation which counts Modi among its members.

Bhagwat said that if conversions are done “in the name of service, then that service gets devalued”. “In our country, service is neutral.” He members of an NGO in a village in Rajasthan on Monday. “Here, the service isn’t like Mother Teresa’s,.”

Since Modi came to power nine months ago, Christians and Muslims have felt besieged by a strident Hindu nationalist propaganda campaign, and in some instances have even been “reconverted” at highly publicised “homecoming” events, in line with the RSS belief that all Indians were originally Hindus.

Bhagwat had earlier described religious minorities as “stolen goods”, and declared: “I will take back my goods.”

Parliament had come to a standstill on the issue, and until last week Modi had steadfastly refused to defend religious freedom and the rights of minorities.

There was uproar in parliament again on Tuesday in response to Bhagwat’s comments. “Last week Modi was in a reconciliatory mood,” said Dominic Emmanuel of the Delhi archdiocese. “How come Bhagwat is again attacking Christians, particularly an icon like Mother Teresa? Is he somehow trying to obstruct Modi’s economic development agenda?”

The RSS later tried to downplay the issue. Bhagwat’s comments on Mother Teresa were replayed on TV, but an RSS tweet said another speaker had made them and “the media had reported wrongly”.