Chellakani Umashankar: "I have every right to preach my faith".
Chellakani Umashankar: “I have every right to preach my faith”. (C Umashankar / Facebook)

Chellakani Umashankar, an elite Indian bureaucrat in southern Tamil Nadu state, has decided to challenge the order by the government of southern Tamil Nadu state that asked him to stop preaching and cancel his evangelical conventions.

“This is nonsense. I am going to challenge it in the court” 51-year-old Umashankar, who entered the elite IAS (Indian Administrative Service) in 1990, told World Watch Monitor on February 2.

Thiru K Gnanadesiken, Chief Secretary of the Tamil Nadu government, in a letter to Umashankar on 24 January, told him that his Christian preaching was “unbecoming” of an IAS official.

Quoting the relevant section of the All India Services Rules, the Chief Secretary reminded Umashankar that “every member of this service shall at all times maintain absolute integrity and devotion to duty and shall do nothing which is unbecoming of a member of this Service”.

The letter further pointed out: “It has been brought to the notice of the Government that on 16.01.2015, you have indulged in activities which created disturbance to public order and resulting in registration of two cases… It has now been brought to the notice of Government that you are going to take part in preaching and propagating activities… from 24.01.2015 to 26.01.2015, 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 the service, failing which necessary and appropriate action would be taken under relevant provisions,” cautioned the government in its letter.

The dates referred to in the letter were public holidays in India so Umashankar would not have been carrying out his preaching during normal working hours.

Following the order, Umashankar cancelled the three preaching programs he had fixed for 24-26 January at Tirunelveli, Thoothukudi and Kanyakumari districts.

“As a responsible government official, I decided to cancel the programmes. But, I am going to challenge the legality of this government order,” Umashankar told World Watch Monitor from his residence in Chennai, capital of Tamil Nadu state.

“The government is acting at the behest of some groups. To please them they are infringing my fundamental right. I have every right to preach my faith,” pointed out Umashankar, born of a Christian mother and Hindu father, who embraced Christianity in August 2008.

Elaborating on the “latest trouble for his faith,” Umashankar recounted that when he went to address a prayer meeting at Pudukadai in Kanyakumari district on January 16, police denied him permission to hold the prayer meeting. There was a mob attack by Hindu fundamentalists on him as well as the more than 100 Christians who had gathered there.

“My (personal – not official) car was damaged and Christians were attacked. They even registered false cases against me,” said Umashankar who has had several run-ins with powerful politicians and others for clamping down on corruption while holding different offices in government in the past quarter century.

In 2000, The Week, a leading national English weekly, chose him as ‘the Man of the Next Millennium’ for bold and innovative government service.

“The government has succumbed to the pressure of the Hindu Munnani (Front) and gone to the extent of trying to stop me from preaching. The cases filed against me have to be seen in this context,” pointed out Umashankar.

Hindu Munnani (Front) is one of the prominent Hindu fundamentalist outfits in southern Tamil Nadu state, and it wasted no time in hailing the government order.

“The government should dismiss him and take action against him for conversions,” the Hindu group said in a statement on January 28 welcoming the government order.

Umashankar said that his problem with the Hindu fundamentalists started after he embraced Christianity and made it public in 2008.

“First they challenged my Dalit credentials in 2010 and I was suspended from service. But the court came to my rescue,” pointed out Umashankar.

Hindu fundamentalists groups, he added, had been trying to create trouble for him since he started preaching his faith.

“My promotion has been withheld on technicalities and I face trouble of different sorts in service with frequent transfers. But I will not bow down to such pressure,” reiterated Umashankar.

The Tamil Nadu Chief Secretary’s order, he pointed out, violates the freedom of conscience guaranteed as a fundamental right under article 25 of the Indian Constitution”.

Article 25. (1) of the Indian Constitution lays down: “Subject to public order, morality and health and to the other provisions of this Part, all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practise and propagate religion.”

While Umashankar prepares for his legal challenge against the government order, many Christians have rallied behind him, while some have expressed concerns about his style of preaching.

“We admire this faith commitment and courage to preach the faith,” said Bishop Ezra Sargunam, head of the Evangelical Church of India, who had invited Umashankar to address gatherings in his church.

However, Bishop Sargunam told World Watch Monitor that “his style of aggressive preaching could be offensive”. He said that Umashankar described the devastating flashfloods in the hill state of Uttarakhand in north India that killed over 5,000 people, including many Hindu pilgrims, in June 2013 “as God’s punishment” for the crimes of Hindu fundamentalists.

“You can preach your faith but you cannot hurt the sentiments of others,” pointed out Bishop Sargunam whose church has a growing presence in several parts of the country.

“All the same being a Dalit convert and an IAS official his preaching is a big hit. We pray for this guy,” he added.

Selwyn Thancadurai, a Christian and a retired police officer from Madurai in Tamil Nadu, told World Watch Monitor that “the Christian community and human rights activists should rally behind Umashankar. There is nothing in the rule book that prevents one from preaching his faith. Anybody can file false cases to tarnish your reputation. The cases against him cannot be seen in isolation”.

Meanwhile, Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Mumbai, president of the Conference of the Catholic Bishops of India (CCBI – that groups 131 dioceses), told a press conference on 2 February in Bangalore that “Reports on the Ghar Wapsi (“homecoming” – ie. re-conversion of Christians to the Hindu fold) campaign show a clear element of threat and force. This is unacceptable. The freedom of conscience and human rights is being trampled upon by Ghar Wapsi”.

“The silence of the government on Ghar Wapsi is frustrating and disappointing,” pointed out Cardinal Gracias, one of the eight advisors of Pope Francis, while briefing media about the 27th Plenary Assembly of the CCBI in Bangalore during 3-9 February.