Two Hindu teenagers in Pakistan embraced Islam. It was alleged that they were abducted and forced to change their religion. Pakistan is looking into the incident to ferret out the truth. India’s external-affairs minister trumpeted the incident into limelight. All major newspapers published her rants. Her knee-jerk was obviously intended to please Hindutva adherents, to mint political advantage and to spur anti-Pakistan sentiments. India, itself, has a long history of forced conversions, and persecution of minorities, particularly the Christians. Let us have a bird’s-eye of the problem in India.
Roots of Christianity in India
Christianity is India’s third-most followed religion after Hinduism and Islam. According to religious tables in India’s 2011 census of population, excepting counting, errors and omissions, about 28 million Christians live in India. They constitute 2.3 percent of India’s population. Thomas the Apostle introduced Christianity to India. He reached the Malabar Coast (Kerala) in 52 AD. And, he carried on preaching in every nook and corner of India until martyred.
Today, Christians live all across particularly in South India and the southern shore, the Konkan Coast, and Northeast India. Through sheer hard work, Indian Christians developed niches in all walks of Indian national life. They include former and current chief ministers, governors and chief election commissioners. To ruling Bharatya Janata party’s chagrin, Christians are the second most educated religious group in India after Jains. Christian women outnumber men among the various religious communities in India.
Arrival of Catholicism
Till 16th century, Roman Catholicism was unknown to India. It was introduced by the Portuguese, Italian and Irish Jesuits who preached the gospel of Jesus Christ among the Indians. Alongside preaching, the preachers established Christian schools, hospitals, primary health-care centres through their missions. Later, British, American, German, Scottish missionaries came to preach Evangelical. The evangelist introduced English in missionary schools and translated the Holy Bible into various Indian languages (including Urdu, Hindi, Tamil, Malayalam, Telugu, and others).
Christians now form a major religious group in three states of India: Meghalaya, Mizoram, and Nagaland with plural majority in Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh. Significant Christian population lives in Coastal Andhra, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Kanara (South India).
Disgusted with religio-economic extremism, more and more people, including dalits (down-trodden) are converting to Christianity, a class-less community. Dalits are not allowed to enter even high-caste Hindu temples. Some dalits were even killed at doorsteps of temples for daring tread foot-steps to temples. According to religious tables in India’s Census Report, 24 million Christians constitute 2.3 percent of India’s total population of 1,028 million. The Christian population includes 14 million Christian dalits. Dalits are Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist members of “untouchable” castes who convert to Christianity. The untouchable Christians are the most neglected community in India.
Despite India’s Supreme Court’s decision, Sabrimala Temple remained out of bound for even high-caste adult women. The fanatic Hindus fear lest Christianity, with its egalitarian and social- service message, should engulf Hinduism.
Beginning of Christians’ persecution
India’s present prime minister Narendra Modi, when chief minister of Gujarat state, and LK Advani could be called pioneers of anti-Christian movement. They distributed Bharatya Janata Party (BJP) manifesto, which, inter alia, spoke of enacting an anti-conversion law in states including Gujarat. The laws against conversion are meant to persecute Christian and Muslim minorities.
The BJP’s manifesto was outcome of decades of hatred, stoked up by Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) elements acting with legal impunity and state governments’ connivance. The anti-Muslim hatred created a gory situation first in Gujarat and then in Orissa. The BJP accentuated its propaganda to create an incendiary situation against the aforementioned minorities in different states during elections.
The BJP acted hands in gloves with Sangh Parivar a collection of Hindu nationalist organisations co-operating towards making India a Hindu State to weave religion and politics strategically together in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) enabling the Sangh to exploit religion for political gain.
The ostensible justification for such laws is that, in a democracy, the majority has the right to benefit from the principle of ‘majority rule. So, Hindustan (India) is primarily for the Hindus only.
The anti-conversion campaign aimed at restricting the right to propagate religion, which is guaranteed by Article 25 of the Indian Constitution. The aim of the two parties was to convert India into a Hindu state. India claims to be a secular country. But, unfortunately, the country’s legislative history, relating to the issue of conversion underscores the reality that the government always harbored grudge against conversion. Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan. Arunachal Pradesh and Tamil Nadu passed Freedom of Religion Acts. A common feature of these anti-conversion law is that they made so-called ‘forced conversion’ a cognisable offence under sections 295 A and 298 of the Indian Penal Code.
Cognisability of the offence licensed police to harass missionaries and converts under influence of Hindu fanatics or Government functionaries. Some Indian courts intervened to stop persecution of nouveau converts or Christian preachers. For instance, Chief Justice A.N. Ray in Reverend Stainislaus v. State of Madhya Pradesh (AIR 1977 SC 908), and Yulitha v. State of Orissa and others, ruled that propagation is different from conversion. Ray observed adoption of a new religion is freedom of conscience, while conversion would impinge on ‘freedom of choice’ granted to all citizens alike. But the state governments remained nonchalant to the courts’ observations. The courts’ decisions being declaratory (certiorari), not mandatory (mandamus), remained un-implemented. Interestingly, India’s Ministry of Home Affairs (February 1981) advised the State Governments and Union Territories to enact laws to regulate change of religion on the lines of the existing Acts in Madhya Pradesh, Orissa and Arunachal Pradesh (The Statesman, Delhi, November 16, 1982).
There are iron-clad guarantees in the Constitution for religious freedom. Yet, not only the born Christians but also Hindus who become Christians complain of persecution. It is not only Orissa, but also several other Indian states that have passed anti-conversion bills forbidding Hindus to convert to other religions. Such legislation violates the UN Charter of Human Rights which gives a person right to change his or her religion.
Harassment and social boycott
To discourage dalits from converting to Christianity, not only the Centre but also the Indian states have deprived ‘dalit Christians’ of minority-status privileges. Any Hindu who converts to Christianity is socially boycotted and tortured in different ways. Six women at Kilipala village in Jagatsinghpur district (Orissa) had their heads tonsured by influential Hindus. Their offence was abandoning Hindu faith at their own free will. Christian missionaries are harassed, deported and even killed. Indian government ordered ‘deportation of three American preachers from Church of Christ in North Carolina on the first available flight to the US.’. To add insult to their injury, the preachers were even attacked by Hindu fanatics. They had a narrow escape. Courts rarely punish people who manhandle Christian preachers. Dara Singh murdered Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two minor sons.
A few years back, Hindus attacked Christians as tit-for-tat for a book which allegedly insulted Hindu deities. Investigations revealed that the book was not written by any Christian. But, it happened to be displayed on one of the Emmanuel Mission’s book-shops for sale. The Mission is a Christian organisation that runs a chain of schools in various Indian states.
Hindus ignore the fact that Christian missionaries started coming to India, particularly the North-East, in the late 19th century. They promoted education and socio-economic developmental work in the region. In Rajasthan, the Emmanuel Mission, alone, runs over 50 schools.The bill makes religious conversion a non-bailable offence. While giving vent to their wrath against Christians,
Secret survey of Christians
Indian states sometimes conduct secret surveys of Christian population. With Narendra Modi, then as chief minister, the Gujarat government harboured xenophobic attitude not only towards Muslims but also Christians.
A survey of the Christians’ living in northern and central Gujarat, in February 1999 was withdrawn after protests. Modi restarted the survey March 2003 and May 2003 in Christian – inhabited areas (Ahmedabad, Sanaskantha, Jabarkantha, Kutch, Rajkot, Patan, Vadodara, Anand and Banaskantha).
The purpose of the survey was to ‘pinpoint Christians and sort them out, if they become a headache like Muslims’. Indian Express dated June 13, 2003 (dateline Ahmedabad, June 13, 2003) reported Gujarat police has again started a survey of Christian localities. The Christian community in Indian state of Gujarat came to know of the survey when policemen in plain clothes visited a few institutions in Kheda district of central Gujarat and made enquiries about their source of funds, origin and items of expenditure.
The Christian community was rueful at the recommencement of the survey. To them, it negated the state’s then chief minister Narendra Modi’s assurance to visiting team of the National Commission for Minorities, “No survey or census of Christians or other minorities would be carried out in the state”.
The policemen allegedly had a list of 42 Christian institutes, including Don Bosco School and Pushpanjali Society, in Kheda district. The Don Bosco is a secondary school run for poor students from nearby villages, with 150 boys staying in the boarding. Puspanjali is a medical centre with boarding capacity for 60 girls studying in the school.
The Christian trustees refused to give information for fear of harm at the hands of the fanatic Hindus. The analysts point out that the survey of institutions or homes to note down addresses of people on a communal basis are usually a prelude to focused violence against minority communities. Similar surveys were conducted some year ago when Sangh Parivar stalwarts targeted Christian tribes in the Dangs area. Such surveys are akin to door-to-door survey of Jewish localities in pre-World-War-II Germany.
In a resolution, the RSS has called upon the Hindus, particularly Swayamsevaks, to be vigilant about `anti-national and terrorist’ Christian groups, posing a threat to the country’s internal security. It urged the Government to take strong measures against said groups. They condemned Pope John Paul II’s statement criticising Indian states’ legislations banning conversions of the Hindus by missionaries. The executive declared that such conversions were a direct challenge to the sovereignty of the country. It is significant to mention that the Pope had just said that ‘‘free exercise of the natural right to religious freedom was prohibited in India”. RSS’s resolution ignored that the right to change one’s religion was enshrined in the UNO’s Charter of Human Rights, also.
The RSS urged the Centre to lodge a protest with the Pope for exhorting the Christian missionaries to carry on their campaign of conversions defying the law of the land. The persecution continued for five more years. On 12 October 2008, he Pope Benedict XVI was compelled to draw Indian government’s attention the continuing anti-Christian violence in India.
On 28 October, the Vatican called upon the memory of Mahatma Gandhi for an end to the religious violence in Orissa. In a written appeal addressed to Hindus, the Vatican office said Christian and Hindu leaders needed to foster a belief in non-violence among followers (“Vatican invokes Gandhi in plea to end Orissa violence“. In.reuters.com. 28 October 2008).
Christians dubbed `insurgents’
In his interview with India Today (April 4, 2005, Christian Missionaries are with Naxals, page 80-81), K. S. Sudersan (Rashtrya Swayem Sevak Sangh) says, ‘Naxals have a safe base in Andhra Pradesh because Christian missionaries are with them. They attack mandir (temples) and other Hindu institutions but never attack a Church. Because the Chief Minister is a Christian, he has given them abhaydaan (freedom from fear)and crowds of two lakh or more they can gather’.
Sizeable number of Christians (Catholics) also lives in Pondicherry and Goa. A much smaller number live scattered amongst the majority Hindu population in the rest of India.
Trajectory of anti-Christian violence
Incidents of violence against Christians have occurred in nearly all parts of India, it has largely been confined to north, central, and western India, in the states of Gujarat, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and the capital area of New Delhi.
Most incidents remain un-reported for fear of reprisal. Reported incidents date as far back as back as 1964. Human-rights body incorporate reported incidents.
The genocide of Christians in India’s north-eastern state Orissa was outcome of Hindus’ muffled hatred against Christians. Over 500 Christians, including some nuns, were burnt alive. Countless churches, houses and shops were gutted. Even Christian orphanages were not spared. India is, constitutionally, a secular country.
In 1999 a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report stated that Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP), Bajrang Dal, and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (the sister organisations of the Bharatiya Janata Party) are the most accused Hindu organizations for violence against Christians in India. The National Commission for Minorities has stated that the State governments ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party and its allies provided support to the perpetrators. In most reported cases the named perpetrators are members of the Sangh Parivar organizations. The Sangh Parivar are small subgroups that formed under the umbrella of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), an umbrella organization whose roots date back to 1925. The RSS, who promote a form of Hindu nationalism called Hinduvata, oppose the spread of “foreign religions” like Islam and Christianity. According to Human Rights Watch, Sangh Parivar and local media were also involved in promoting anti-Christian propaganda in Gujarat. Mainstream Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox Christians are targeted far less frequently than Evangelical and Pentecostal Christians. There was an increase in incidents of violence against Christians after the new BJP government under Narendra Modi came to power after the general election in April–May 2014. Maximum number incidents were reported from Uttar Pradesh. According to a report by Open Doors, the persecution of Christians in India increased sharply in the year 2016.
Attacks on churches
In June 2000, four churches around India were bombed (Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu). A church in Maharashtra was ransacked. In September 2008, two churches were partly damaged in Kerala. In 2015, a church building under construction was vandalised in Haryana. St. George church in Mumbai was also attacked by masked persons. In the same month, the cathedral of Jabalpur was attacked and more than a dozen people were injured. The same cathedral had also been attacked in 2008 and the entire altar burnt down. In April 2015, St. Mary’s Church in Agra was vandalised and statues of Mother Mary and the Infant Jesus were damaged. A Church in Kachna area of Raipur was attacked by a mob during a Sunday service and five people were injured when they tried to stop the assailants.
Several churches were attacked in the capital Delhi in recent years. They include St. Sebastian’s Church (burned), St. Stephen’s college chapel May 5, 2018 (vandalised and the cross desecrated with pro-Hindutva slogans).
In Madhya Pradesh a church was destroyed and bibles were burnt in Mandla district in September 2014. In March 2015, a Bible convention was attacked in Jabalpur, with allegations that religious conversions were taking place. So on.
Christian Council protests
The All-India Christian Council’s president, Joseph D’Souza, alleged, “The State Government was been a passive spectator and often connives, by its deliberate inaction, in the violence against Christians’. According to the Council, ‘Apart from ignoring the distress calls of the community, the Central Government nurtures a hate campaign against it. There should be a halt to the calumny unleashed by the Sangh Parivar leaders”. The Council regretted that the Indian constitution was secular only in name. In practices, the minorities’ life and prestige was at the mercy of the armed RSS gangs’ _ Four nuns and three Brothers belonging to the Missionaries of Charity were attacked by a 40-member gang chanting pro-RSS slogans at a Scheduled Caste colony in Nallalam near Kozhikode in north Kerala.
With likely BJP’s win 2019 elections, hard times await Christians and other minorities. Till a let up in Kashmiri protests, the Christians can sleep well.