The Christians in the Dangs district of Gujarat are indistinguishable from the non-Christians. They live in the same kinds of homes, they are the same kind of small farmers, they look as wiry and lean. Some of their houses have a picture of Christ, or a cross, hanging outside. Other than that, there's no way to tell them apart from their neighbours.
But if you read the propaganda that's circulating about them, you'll find that they are likely to be "separatists and terrorists". Or, at least, it's couched like this: "Conversion to Christianity is invariably associated with separatism and terrorism."
The simple-mindedness of this would be almost funny; in any case, that debate can happen another time. Here in the Dangs, you see the state of these tribals in the Dangs and the propaganda is not funny in the least. It's perverse and nearly obscene. How does anyone accuse these utterly forgotten Indians -- Indians -- of being separatists and terrorists?
And what's more, what place does such an accusation have in the midst of what should be a massive celebration of a warm story? In the Ramayan, Shabari hosted Ram and Lakshman in her home and fed them. Leave aside any possible controversy about precisely where in the country she might have done that; let's accept that, as a matter of faith, she did it right here on a hilltop in the Dangs. So there's ample reason to have a huge Kumbh Mela here, and over this weekend (Feb 11-13) that's what's going to happen.
So why the hostility towards Christians? Which other religious festival is as steeped in rhetoric directed at another religion? At the Mela office in the Dangs, some friendly men will gladly sell you a CD titled "Shabari Kumbh 2006". It has a 15 minute film about the Mela. Repeatedly, the voiceover tells you about the sly doings of the "foreign" religion, complete with pictures of crosses and churches. On the Kumbh Mela's website, you'll find plenty more hostile rhetoric, including the statement about separatism and terrorism quoted above.
What is the reason for a Kumbh Mela: celebrating a beautiful story? Or frightening a few thousand Christians?
"Few thousand", yes. That very CD tells us that Christians number 0.5 per cent of Gujarat's population -- about 300,000 people. But in the Dangs, the CD says and you're supposed to feel alarmed, they are about 5 per cent of the population of 200,000.
That is, by the Shabari Mela's own accusation, there are about 10,000 Christians in the Dangs. 10,000 Indians who look and live no differently from every other Indian there.
This is the danger of separatism and terrorism they are talking about.
Go to the Dangs, feel that fear; these days, you are also likely to see paramilitary forces all over the place. And wonder, as I do, what it means to reduce a great celebration of faith to this much: fear, hostility, men in uniform.