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The Caste of Right to Religion: The Peculiar Case of Umashankar

The Caste of Right to Religion: The Peculiar Case of Umashankar



Bobby Kunhu

Amidst all the #acchedin of ghar wapsi and the demands for anti-conversion laws, a peculiar case has been brewing in Tamil Nadu – a case that would have been amusing – if not for the tragic locations surrounding it. As I write this piece, I am watching an interview on Thanthi TV with Umashankar regarding this very case.

Who is this Umashankar?

Let me start this narrative with a brief introduction to the main character in this entire drama – C. Umashankar. Born in poverty as one amongst 12 children in a Pallar family to a Hindu father and Christian mother, he never could even dream of becoming an IAS officer by his own admission. He did become one though, from the 1990 cadre. He soon became popular for his uprightness and best known for being the whistleblower in the Cremation Shed Scam during the first Jayalalitha Ministry (1991-96). This led to the conviction of T. M. Selvaganapathy: a minister from that period and a sitting Rajya Sabha MP from DMK, along with three other bureaucrats.


What this means is that Umashankar, apart from his peers in the bureaucracy, has been incorruptible and a persona non grata for all practical purposes between the two most powerful political fronts of Tamil Nadu – DMK and AIADMK. His efficiency is also unquestionable: the introduction of e-governance in Tamil Nadu is attributed to him and he is also known as one of the three pioneers of e-governance in India. Moreover, he has also shifted the government computer usage from proprietary to open source. On one hand – he has raked up issues of corruption and impropriety regardless of the person on the other side, while on the other hand – he has shown exemplary integrity throughout his career. One instance of his integrity would be his pointing out to the appropriate authorities that his wife worked for a particular company that had approached the Government of Tamil Nadu for a loan and the loan was rejected on the basis of conflict of interest. He could have remained silent on this issue and had no need to declare that his wife was working for that company. A testimonial to his efficiency, integrity and his ability to open various cans of worms resulting in discomfiture for many in power can be found in this article posted in Pragoti in 2010.

As can be expected or rather imagined, the career graph of such an impeccable first generation bureaucrat with no mentors looks like a roller coaster. Though he made the best of all the situations that he was thrown into, he also has had to face the wrath of successive governments. Out of 24 years of service, he has gotten a proper posting based on his seniority for hardly 5½ years – but he managed to make an impact even within that small window. An IAS officer who is a close friend of mine told me off the record that: Umashankar’s integrity and efficiency is impeccable, that he has not gotten a fair deal because he has irritated all shades of political parties and also that he borders between Genius and Eccentricity. A number of cases and enquiries were foisted on him but he walked away unscathed through all of it. He could do that by the sheer dint of his integrity, his faith in the constitution and another interesting and personal faith – that in Jesus Christ.

Why did Umashankar surrender to Christ?

The latter faith is the beginning of this narrative. Now what is fascinating about Umashankar’s faith is that he has not converted officially but accepts Christ as his master. This is very reminiscent of one of my favorite poets, Kamala Surayya’s conversion to Islam and her carrying Krishna with her! There is a context to Umashankar’s surrender to Christ – he says that at a point of time (2009 to be precise) that he could not tolerate the taunts from the politicians and his colleagues with reference to his caste – Pallar – a Dalit caste from South Tamil Nadu. Because of this along with his career problems, when he was contemplating suicide – Christ reached out to him and he embraced Christ. His faith is evangelical as well – and he preaches to his fellow travelers as well. And he has been doing this since 2009.

A small relevant diversion for the story here, Tamil Nadu has a strong charismatic evangelical tradition across Christian denominations and castes from Roman Catholics to CSI denominations to various shades of Pentecostal beliefs, from Nadar Christians to Dalit Christians. Also, evangelists attract people from across religions in huge numbers. The late D.G.S. Dhinakaran’s family (mainly his son Paul Dhinakaran) has founded the evangelist ministry “Jesus Calls”. It attracts huge crowds even today without any disruption and owns a Television Channel as well as a University. The reason is simple; he comes from the Nadar community – a politically and economically dominant caste in Tamil Nadu (regardless of religious affiliations) classified OBCs by both the Government of India and the Government of Tamil Nadu.

Coming to the main thread of our story, after his surrender to Christ, Umashankar adopted a charismatic evangelical relationship vis-à-vis his faith. His claims of being able to cure people of illnesses through Christ – along with his reputation of integrity and efficiency – increased the demand for his sermons. Particularly from amongst people who practice evangelical Christianity in South Tamil Nadu. But, unlike Dhinakaran and Company – he has continuously faced both – the ire of the Hindutva right wing (directly) and that of the caste Christians (subtly). His meetings on religion were almost always disrupted by the Hindutva groups and there are many cases registered based on the violence against his meetings in various police stations. One of the main persons who regularly attacked him verbally and officially made complaints against him is the current Union Minister of State for Road Transport & Highways, Shipping Pon Radhakrishnan – and he is interestingly – from the Nadar community.

Now, till Mr. Radhakrishnan became an Union Minister – Umashankar seemed to have freedom of movement in his private time and space to practice and propagate his faith. With the caveat that what I am going to say next is speculative – I wonder out loud, why suddenly there has been a flurry to shut Umashankar up, after Mr. Radhakrishnan became a Minister? Also given is, that the leaders of dominant (Dravidian) political parties in Tamil Nadu do not like Umashankar. As an aside I need to point out again, that Pon Radhakrishnan is a Nadar!

Umashankar: Civil Servant Vs. Private Individual

Let us take a look at what happened “co-incidentally” ever since. Umashankar was travelling to Kanyakumari to meet a personal friend who is a fellow evangelist. The police filed an FIR against that friend. Again he was travelling to Thirunelveli with friends to address a congregation on his personal time. He was stopped because Hindutva groups objected to it. Then the Chief Secretary of Tamil Nadu K Gnanadesikan sends him a Memo telling him not to address scheduled conferences:

“It has been brought to the notice of government that you are going to take part in preaching and propagating activities in Tirunelveli, Thoothukudi and Kanniyakumari districts from January 24 to January 26 which are likely to cause communal disharmony and disturbance to public order. You are directed not to indulge in such activities which are unbecoming of a member of the service, failing which, necessary and appropriate action would be taken under relevant provisions of All India Services (conduct) Rules, 1968 read with the All India Services (Discipline & Appeal) Rules, 1969.”

Then suddenly all hell breaks loose – the media descends on questioning his evangelism as an IAS officer alongside the state. The distinction between Umashankar as a civil servant and a private individual is suddenly obliterated.

We need to remember two things here. Firstly, Umashankar is not on a post where he is a 24 hour civil servant (as in a District Collector or Quasi-Judicial body or in the Secretariat). Secondly, as a private citizen outside his office or when he is off-duty the All India Services (conduct) Rules, 1968 and All India Services (Discipline & Appeal) Rules, 1969 do not apply and are subject to Freedom of Religion guaranteed under Article 25 of the Constitution of India.

When Thanthi TV tries to colour Umashankar as a “fanatic”

As I have earlier referred to Umashankar’s interview conducted by Rangaraj Pandey. He is the chief anchor of Thanthi TV, and was trying to corner Umashankar, firstly by accusing him of his Islamophobia (they played a video of him saying Mohammed was not a prophet – within his congregation) and then discussing his alleged “private” statement on the Uttarakhand disaster being God’s wrath against idolatry.

But the worst part was when he asked Umashankar whether he believed in “the Constitution of India” or “the Bible”. The articulate Umashankar refused to comment on the first two allegations saying that was in his private realm – which legally it is and the last question he hit back brilliantly saying that the Bible and Jesus wants him to believe in the Constitution of India and both the books were equally important to him – one at a spiritual level and the other at the “secular” level. But what was the worst slur in that interview was how Rangaraj Pandey tried to depict him as a Fanatic who was trying to convert Hindus and Muslims to evangelism – a claim which he had no proof to substantiate with.

I am personally uncomfortable with many of Umashankar’s prejudices like his Homophobia and Islamophobia, but I have no doubt that he is being targeted because of his caste. There can be no question in his belief in the Constitution because he has fought against all the harassment unleashed upon him throughout his career through Constitutional means.

I have only one thing to sum up: let faith be, but not caste!

(Thanks Rajashree Gandhi for the copy editing)



Bobby Kunhu is a human rights activist and lawyer.

Picture courtesy: the net.