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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 1 New Delhi December 26, 2015

A Christmas Story in the Modi Era

Saturday 26 December 2015, by John Dayal

Last year, the then brand new government of India declared 25th December to be Good Governance Day in honour of Atal Behari Vajpayee, a bachelor activist of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a founder of the Jana Sangh and its successor, the Bharatiya Janata Party, and the first of the Swayamsevaks to become the Prime Minister of India from 1998 to 2004. Twentyfifth December is also Christmas, celebrated across the world, and also in India where over 27 million Christians live. Christmas will again be a working day in many places, with Maharashtra leading the way declaring a slew of programmes, a sort of desert to follow its ban on beef earlier in the year. The Union Government, including the pro-active Minister for Human Resource Development, has so far not announced anything new.

And, for the record, the crosschecked list of violence against Christians till December 2015 is touching 120. Christmas is the season for such violence. The list may touch 150. The unrecorded ones will never be known.

On Christmas 2014, near Khandwa town in Madhya Pradesh, Shyamlal invited people of his community for a feast, and they included Karunakar, a preacher with the Friends of Missionary Prayer Band, who lived in the town of Dhulkote, about 15 km away. Karunakar, born in Odisha, came with his family and friends from Gujarat and Tamil Nadu includng three children. Abhilasha, his daughter, was the youngest being eight months old. They came to a warm welcome. Within minutes, they were ambushed by an aggressive group who accused them of distributing clothes to convert the villagers to Christianity. The police came soon thereafter, as if on cue. The local BJP leader, Naval Singh, arrived with his supporters, demanding strict action against them. The police charged them under Section 295 A for insulting the religious sentiments of the local people. In police custody, they slept on the bare floor without sheets. Next morning, the local Magistrate refused them bail. They remained in jail till December 31, 2014, New Year’s eve. The eight-month-old baby was with them in jail. The news was given short shrift in the national media. The local media said Christian missionaries had been caught converting innocent people. The truth was exposed in a detailed story by Scroll reporter Supriya Sharma many days later after she visited Khandwa and other places in Madhya Pradesh. [http://scroll.in/article/698484/How-Madhya-Pradesh-sent-8-month-old-Abhilasha-to-jail-in-an-anti-conversion-case]

Narendra Modi, the second BJP leader to become the Prime Minister of India after Atal Behari Vajpayee, won the 2014 general election with the promise of development for the emerging aspirational India, and an unprece-dented galvanising of the BJP’s majority core constituency. The pungent mix of supremacist religious and nationalist rhetoric, and the accompanying demonising the Muslim and Christian minorities raising the bogey of demographic threat to Hinduism in India, polarised the electorate. The obvious hatred was against Muslims. Much of the ground action was against Christians.

In office, Modi has spoken a few times against communal and targeted violence, without naming the victims or the aggressors. Christians and Muslims, however figure prominently, and routinely, in the statements of his Ministers, as well as the non-state actors and cadres that make the broad spectrum of his political support-base.

Modi’s failure, if not refusal, to name and chastise the Sangh Parivar conglomerate has led to a singular aggression by cadres of the party and the Sangh in small towns and villages across the country. And exacerbated the impunity inherent in the state apparatus, specially the police.

“Don’t you know this is a Hindu Rashtra,” the Station House Officer of a Greater Noida Police Station in Uttar Pradesh told a group of pastors as he beat them up to “appease” a mob from Kulesra village that had attacked them, accusing them of carrying out illegal conversions to Christianity. Unlike Madhya Pradesh, Chhattis-garh and Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh neither has the notorious Freedom of Religion Act, the ironically named law against conversions mostly to Christianity, nor is it governed by the BJP. But that is the mood prevailing in most States since May 26, 2014. [http://indianexpress.com/article/cities/delhi/villagers-allege-forced-conversions-in-greater-noida-pastors-questioned/]

The year 2014 had seen a marked shift in public discourse. The hate campaign is well docum-ented. The Evangelical Fellowship of India and Alliance Defending Freedom recorded 44 separate cases of hate speech by prominent politicians which merit criminal charges against them. But most cases go unreported, unrecorded by the police. The year 2015 kept up the tempo.

RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat has repeatedly asserted that everyone in India is Hindu, including Muslims and Christians, because this is the land of the Hindu people and civilisation. Speaking at the 50th anniversary of the foundation of its religious wing, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the RSS Sarsanghchalak bluntly stated that “Hindutva is the identity of India and it has the capacity to swallow other identities. We just need to restore those capacities.” In Cuttack, he asserted that India is a Hindu state and "citizens of Hindustan should be known as Hindus”. Bhagwat, arguably the second most politically powerful and culturally influential person in the country, has been unremitting in his pronouncements.

Such hate, inevitably, leads to violence.

Desecration and destruction of churches, assault on pastors, illegal police detention of church workers, and denial of constitutional rights of Freedom of Faith aggravate the coercion and terror unleashed in campaigns of ghar wapsi and cries of ‘Love Jihad’. In Chhatisgarh, villages are passing orders banning the entry of priests of faiths other than Hinduism.

Chhatisgarh remains a particular focus of attacks on Christians, with Madhya Pradesh coming close behind. In both the States, the direct involvement of the State Government, including Ministers, senior bureaucrats and even the district police and justice systems upto the village level, makes a mockery of the rule of law. Odisha, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Telengana are also becoming States of concern for their anti-Christian environment in rural and tribal areas.

Christians in Chhattisgarh, especially in the Bastar area, have been facing massive politically-inspired opposition, which has manifested itself in the form of physical violence and social discrimination. The apathy, impunity and partisanship of the administration at various levels has compounded the human tragedy, and the gravity of the violation of constitutional guarantees of Freedom of Expression, Freedom of Association and Movement and, most important, the Freedom of Relgion and Belief.

Social exclusions are one of the primary tactics to victimise minorities denying basic human rights that is common to every citizen. These exclusion orders often make Christians vulnerable to excessive violence and denial of social privileges like access to water, electricity and work.

Days before United States President Obama’s Town Hall speech in New Delhi went viral for commenting on the need for communal harmony and protection of freedom of faith as intrinsic to the thrust for economic development, India’s President, Pranab Mukherjee, noted the rise of communalism and the targetting of religious minorities. In his address to the nation on January 25, 2015, that is, the eve of Republic Day. President Mukherjee said: “In an inter-national environment where so many countries are sinking into the morass of theocratic violence ... We have always reposed our trust in faith-equality where every faith is equal before the law and every culture blends into another to create a positive dynamic. The violence of the tongue cuts and wounds people’s hearts. The Indian Constitution is the holy book of democracy. It is a lodestar for the socio-economic transformation of an India whose civilisation has celebrated pluralism, advocated tolerance and promoted goodwill between diverse communities. These values, however, need to be preserved with utmost care and vigilance.” The President, and Vice President Hamid Ansari have repeated this caution against intolerance in many of their speeches through the year.

The Prime Minister, however, refuses to reprimand his Cabinet colleagues, restrain the his party members or name the Sangh Parivar which proudly proclaims it has propelled him to power in New Delhi. His response has been an aggressive rebuttal, accusing the church leaders of making mountains out of trivial molehills. He has accused them of inter-nationalising trivial incidents in a motivated campaign that injures India’s image and his development agenda. In May 2015, the Home Ministry planted reports in a compliant media saying the six incidents of big arson and discretion of churches in Delhi in 2014 were either short circuits, or petty crimes by local drunks, including three Sikhs and two Muslims. The Police Commissioner said there had been hundreds of thefts in temples and gurudwaras in the same period and no one had made a public agitation over them. The Ministry of Home Affairs published data of the last three years of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance Government to say there had been no sharp rise in violence against religious minorities. It did not release the data for communal violence since Modi took over as the Prime Minister.

Cardinal Mar Baselios Cleemis, the President of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India and the National United Christian Forum, in a statement on March 17, 2015, said: “The cultural DNA of India of pluralism and diversity is being threatened. We are anxious about the implications of the fundamentalist political thesis that India is ‘one nation, one people and one culture‘. A nation of cultural homogeneity is an impossibility and any effort to impose it is fraught with grave ramifications for the country. We are deeply concerned about the physical violence—arson, murder and rape of our religious personnel, both men and women—as with the structural violence which is manifest in urban and rural India, in social and administrative excesses, and aberrant judicial pronouncements. We welcome the occasional statements of those in authority of adhering to the Constitution of India and, in particular to its assurances of the Freedom of Faith. However, these statements fail to have any impact on the leadership of socio-political organisations that are polarising the nation with the language and acts of intolerance, hate and violence.”

We wait for 2016 to see if the situation changes for the better.

The author is a senior journalist, human rights activist and member of the National Integration Council. He can be contacted at e-mail: john.dayal@gmail.com