Propaganda Piece by @SwarajyaMag Falsely Claims 80% of Bhutanese Refugees have Converted to Christianity

Image credit: Swarajya Magazine

[NOTE TO READERS: I have just changed the settings on my blog to disable anonymous comments.  I know that will discourage conversation on some level.  However, I find it a bit unfair to all critics to hide when I'm not.  For those of you who want to dialog personally, you can email and I will eventually respond]

[UPDATE: Swarajya has updated their article to change the 80% figure to "large number". Of course, unless they have also updated their research methodology, their argument hardly gains weight.  Also they have yet to amend the other terrible errors in the piece I discuss here.  I doubt they will.  Too much ego involved.  The author has dismissed me as a "pastor" going "ballistic" instead of engaging my critique of her article. I hope she will do the right thing and withdraw her article. I know it can be difficult to get published and Swarajya is a magazine that can amplify one's voice a lot, but if what you are saying is false, you are only amplifying error.  It seems hat Ms. Singh is doing important work in the realm of climate change and clean water access.  I fear that evidence of faulty research on display in this article will cast doubts on her credibility elsewhere.  I hope she will choose the greater good and retract.]

I can't help but respond to an article that is being shared widely from the Indian social issue and current affairs magazine, Swarajya.  The piece is provocatively entitled, "Persecution to Proselytization: Bhutanese Hindu Refugees in America" and is authored by Sahana Singh.  Poor journalism is always sad, but I always feel worse when it comes from a nation for which I am constantly rooting.  I want to say to India, "PLEASE DON'T LET THIS PASS FOR JOURNALISM!"  Let me hit the highlights:

1. 80% of Bhutanese Refugees have Converted -- Singh quotes "anecdotal" statistics in claiming that 80% of Bhutanese refugees have converted to Christianity since arriving in Houston, Texas (USA).  Let me just say, that I can't imagine a scenario in which unnamed, "anecdotal" sources can be considered worthy of inclusion in a journalistic article.  How does Swarajya print such a figure? How does Singh include it in her article?  If a journalism student came to me with an unnamed, anecdotal statistic in an article, I would immediately give her a failing grade.  This is just inexcusable!

Now as for the figure itself, we are talking about a level of inflation difficult to imagine.  In reality, not more than 5-10% of the Houston Bhutanese community would identify itself as Christian and this includes those who were already Christian before arrival in the USA.  And, while I will protect the anonymity of my source, I will tell you that it is from a Bhutanese Christian living in Houston who is heavily involved in community development activities.  I also know demographic researchers on the ground who haven't published their data yet, but who would laugh at this 80% figure.  Actually, I can't wrap my head around the type of person from Houston who would even give such an estimate.  Perhaps the number came from someone who didn't understand mathematics or maybe the source was intentionally trying to mislead Singh or else was pranking her.  But she says, "anecdotal numbers".  That's plural! Are we to believe that multiple people gave this figure to Singh and that none of them are willing to go on record?  Actually, these aren't even "anonymous" sources, which would indicate that she spoke with someone who asked not to be named.  They are just unnamed anecdotes.  Which means, Singh could have gotten the number from one of my baristas in Uganda. Or she could have just made it up.  We have no way of knowing.  All we do know is that it is utterly false.

2. Houston as the epicenter for Bhutanese Resettlement -- Singh compounds the egregiousness of her 80% fabrication by calling Houston the city which has "absorbed the largest number of exiled Bhutanese".  There is no sense in which this is true!  First of all, no serious study has been conducted to determine the population of Bhutanese refugees city by city in the United States.  There are figures that resettlement agencies have but these only consider initial points of arrival.  The Bhutanese are highly mobile and secondary resettlement is very common.  There are a lot of Bhutanese in Houston. But also in Atlanta, Pittsburgh, Akron, and a hundred other cities across the United States.  But, Singh needs to inflate the role of Houston because of her incredulous 80% "numbers" which come from unidentified sources there.  This gives her justification (but only in her own mind and apparently in those of her editors) to lead the article with this shocking sentence, "About 80% of Bhutanese Hindu migrants in the US have been converted to Christianity."  What is really shocking is that anyone should consider this to be legitimate journalism.

Of course most of the article is devoted to Singh casting Christian organizations in a bad light by claiming that while the Indian Hindu organization, Sewa, is busy teaching refugees practical life skills, the American Christians are offering money and gifts to Bhutanese people in order to convince them to convert.  Here, I suspect, is the real motivation for Singh's writing.  This old "rice Christian" attack is a tired sensationalist strategy of isolationist Hindus which has nothing at all to do with true dharma and which hinders efforts by sincere Hindus, Buddhists and Christians to engage in inter-religious dialog and partnership for community transformation.  To be sure, there is the occasional Christian group that is guilty of this kind of religious baiting, but the Bhutanese Hindus should be insulted by Singh's suggestion that so many of them would be so easily duped by such worn out tactics.  I know many Bhutanese of various religious stripes, and precious few would fall for this kind of approach.

But, of course, Singh is just simply making stuff up.  From 2008, when the Bhutanese began to arrive in the United States, it was overwhelmingly the case that Christian organizations, agencies, and churches were the first responders.  English classes, job classes, computer training, business coaching, tutoring, family counseling, and much more were made available for free in nearly every city where the Bhutanese landed and the volunteers who provided the help were almost always directly or indirectly connecting through their local church or a Christian agency.  And, almost all of these very same agencies, churches and Christians will be the first in line to welcome the next wave of refugees be they Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, or Muslim.  To say that this is not the case betrays a truly blinding ideology of hatred toward the religious other that any sincere Ishwar Bhakta would quickly reject as antithetical to a Hindu worldview.

Sadly, Hindu organizations, even the very well-funded ones, were very slow to get involved with the Bhutanese refugees.  Indeed, today they largely stay aloof.  The city where I live (Aurora, Illinois) has a medium-sized Bhutanese population which is about 98% Hindu and Buddhist.  There are three Hindu temples in the city and except for one or two social events over seven years, these organization have remained entirely uninvolved in the affairs of the Bhutanese community.  Now, we see arising in almost every city Bhutanese-led organizations which are taking on the needs of their own community.  They are organizing citizenship classes, collecting relief funds, organizing development programs, applying for government grants, and more.  These associations are imperfect, but they tend to be multi-ethnic, multi-caste, and inter-religious.  Indeed, such organizations exist in Houston (e.g., a fact completely ignored by Singh's article.

In the end, let me say that this is not the kind of article that either Bhutanese Hindus or Christians need.  It is a propaganda piece designed to invoke fear in the hearts of Indian Hindus rather than compassion and constructive engagement.  It insults the gullibility and ingenuity of Bhutanese people who have proven their resilience through years of suffering in Bhutan and Nepal (during which times India's help was non-existent, by the way).  It further denigrates the fruitful partnerships and deep friendships that have been forged between many Bhutanese and Americans which may often involve spiritual matters but which far transcend religious barriers.

The Bhutanese-Nepali peoples have survived a long journey of displacement without the help of Swarajya Magazine and will continue to do just fine without their hollow attempts at advocacy through shotty journalism.  I call upon Singh and Swarajya to retract their article immediately in light of its patent fabrications and insulting implications.


  1. Anonymous6:38 AM

    Let me understand this. You are attacking Ms. Singh for using what you call "anecdotal evidence" with your own anonymous "anecdotal evidence"?! This is a surreal exercise in logic. Second, you take umbrage at a figure of "80%", while even a figure of 1% is far too many. It is a shame that you are an agent of cultural destruction, but choose to use meaningless euphemisms of "spiritual matters, far transcend religious barriers". Bearing that overwhelming White Man's Burden civilizing the natives must have made you blind to your thinly-disguised contempt for the indigenous faith of the Bhutanese. For shame!

    1. Thanks for reading. Yes, I am criticizing Singh's unnamed "anecdotal" number which is fundamentally different from an anonymous, expert witness combined with qualitative demographic data. "1% is too many" suggests that you prefer a world in which no one is permitted to explore other spiritualities. Sounds a bit like shariah law to me. It certainly isn't the way of bhakti. The rest of your comments make no sense to me. I have adopted far more of the Bhutanese Hindu tradition than they have of mine. Maybe try keeping your comments on the level of substance instead of trying to attack my character. If you insist on making this personal, let's know who you are.

    2. Anonymous12:42 PM

      No, you are not using any better data than you presume to use, and you do not have a case here at all. Mere assertion does not constitute a fact. You presume to know what Bhakti is, and bring a negative association with "shariah law" - showing your ignorance and biases. Just because you have inculturated and acculturated Bhutanese Hindu traditions with a predatory mind-set, does that give you the right to demand that they follow your history-centric exclusive methods? Do you think "Bhakti" is a synonym for "anything-goes" with respect to a religious-doctrine? I am not attacking your character, but your presumption of privileged thinking. Don't dismiss my comments as lacking in substance - it reveals a mind that is glossing over the facts, and does not show you in a good light, nor make your call for retraction sound valid.

  2. First, the magazine has just now retracted its ridiculous 80% claim. So, my call for retraction was apparently considered by some there to have a level of validity. They have other errors in their article such as the claim that Houston has absorbed most of the refugees and their lopsided portrayal of Sewa as seemingly the only organization providing practical help -- omitting not only the work of Christian organizations but also of governmental and especially Bhutanese-led agencies.

    A Houston-based, Bhutanese community leader who prefers to remain anonymous is indeed a better source than an unnamed set of anecdotes. That is a simple and widely accepted principle of journalism. If you or the author provides a credible reason to doubt the 5-10% figure, I will upgrade my source by asking someone go on record.

    Bhakti means devotion in Sanskrit. I did not associate it with Shariah law as you seem to suggest. Perhaps this is a problem of your phrasing.

    I do not have any problem associating Shariah with negative ideas and actions such as intolerance towards religious change or other issues that would take us off course. Are you suggesting that shariah's demand to execute anyone who would convert from Islam to, say, Hinduism is a good principle?

    I would argue that the Dharmic tradition understands conversion in a different way than does the paradigm of historic comparative religious study. And suggest to you that a great deal of religious change is historically and philosophically embraced -- especially in later reform movements since Siddhartha.

    If you want to debate orthodoxy versus orthopraxy, you are surely aware that this is an ongoing and vigorous in-house debate for Hindus. If I hold to a view of Hinduism which emphasizes the latter, I not only have ample anthropological evidence in my corner but also a great deal of renowned Hindu scholars. Your argument would be as much with them as with me.

    You suggested that I hold Bhutanese culture in contempt and that I have a kind of "white-man's burden". How is this not a personal attack? Why don't you ask my Hindu mothers and fathers who put tika on me every dashain and whose daughters bless me every year in bhai-tika if this statement is true. Ask my Hindu sister who was declared unclean by the poojari who refused to perform the naamkaran for her child if I showed contempt for Bhutanese culture or if instead I personally studied under a guru to learn and perform the ceremony myself. Or ask Leela herself when my bhanji is grown which priest gave her name.

    As for the "white man's burden", why do you make generalizations about race or give credence to the notion of racial whiteness. I know that in Bollywood it is the accepted practice to uplift whiteness over darkness, but I am of the opinion that dark is lovely. I also believe that the work of social transformation transcends boundaries of religion and geography. It is the burden of every woman and every man.

    Again, thanks for reading and interacting. I hope our conversation will be helpful for all parties. I have received a tremendous amount of support from both Bhutanese and Nepalis (mostly Hindus, by the way) who were insulted by the magazine article. I stand in solidarity with them.