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Mainstream, VOL LIII, No 10, February 28, 2015

Will Mr Narendra Modi be Able to Check the Sangh Loonies? Perhaps Not

Sunday 1 March 2015, by John Dayal


In retrospect, the Prime Minister of India, Mr Narendra Modi, would have done better, achieved a thousand times more, and helped India’s cultural integrity, unity and amity—and therefore its prosperity—by the simple visual action of putting on a Muslim prayer-cap, delicately crocheted in white cotton thread, in front of the global TV news cameras. Mr Modi need not have gone to a Jumma Masjid, or even to a meeting of Mr Modi’s favourite Muslim leaders in Gujarat, or a private function at the homes of the three Muslim Ministers in the Union Government and the Bharatiya Janata Party’s top leadership.

That would have perhaps undone much of the damage to Mr Modi’s reputation among religious minorities since he infamously refused to wear a cap innocently offered with much love by an insignificant moulvi some time ago. It could not have undone the culpability in the 2002 massacre of Muslims, but would have been a salve, no doubts about that. One of the fascinating things about Mr Modi is how impressive and even magnificent he looks wearing the various head-dresses of various communities and groups in the beautiful and diverse country that is Mr Modi’s and my motherland.

 Muslims are the second largest majority in India, as they say, five times larger than the Christians in the land. They came a few decades after Islam was founded, and are indistinguishable from anyone of us. They have beards, but both Mr Modi and I also sport facial hair, albeit neatly trimmed. In the 10,000 or so cases of targeted violence against religious minorities, Muslims have been victims perhaps 8500 times. Christians about 150, as recorded by the Evangelical Fellowship of India report for 2014. They are subject of much targeted hate. They have been called traitors by Mr Modi’s ardent followers and political aides, Pakistani agents, breeding like rabbits to overwhelm the One Billion Hindu population, and seducing women in Love Jihad. In contrast, Christians are accused merely of using Dollars to Harvest Souls. “Just” two Christians have been killed last year allegedly by the Sangh activists. We are still awaiting data on the number of Muslims killed.

 But Mr Modi chose a Christian, a Catholic, platform to articulate his commitment to secularism.

 The Syro-Malabar Catholic Church invited Mr Modi to a function to celebrate the canonisation of two Catholic Saints born in Kerala. We would be ingrates if we did not therefore thank Mr Modi for speaking up at last on hate crimes, as we had been urging him to do for the past six months, and specially as we requested Mr Modi to do when a delegation met him at his residence on Christmas eve last. Mr Modi were not exactly very warm at that meeting, blaming the Christian community of [exaggerating] minor incidents in the international media, even insinuating their “compulsions” prevented them from standing with Mr Modi on his development agenda.

 Mr Modi made the statement now, at a time of his choosing, and, in many ways, at an audience of his choosing. There was no occasion for questions, no opportunities to request him to explain some ambiguities in his address, deliberate it would seem, and a few omissions. A major omission is any reference to the 60-year-old issue of Dalit Christians and their demands for parity in Scheduled Caste rights with Sikhs and Buddhists [and of course Hindus] of Dalit origin.

 But Mr Modi’s statement now is a change from what he had said then, after first ordering the cameras to be switched off. I would like to hope Mr Modi wants it to address the Trust Deficit of religious minorities—not just Christians—in his Bharatiya Janata Party and the Sangh Parivar, now certainly quite the mainstream of political discourse with its religious nationalism, which claims to have brought it to power. In many ways, however, it is addressed to an international audience, and specially the investing bankers and corporate giants, whose concern at the Human Rights and Freedom of Faith issues in India—which ranks as a Country of Concern in many international lists—was articulated by the United States President, Mr Barack Obama, as much as by the editorial in the New York Times. The Indian development agenda depends on massive infusions of Western capital.

 It will be of abiding intellectual speculation why Mr Modi did not choose to make his statement at the public meeting of the Muslim Ulema. Muslims outnumber Christians in India by a factor of five. I said earlier, that may have been more effective in repairing the damage done to Mr Modi’s image by the 2002 Gujarat riots and the recent abuse on Muslims by popular BJP leaders in the party’s electoral campaigns and public programmes. But perhaps it may not have helped Mr Modi in the context of the current wave of Islamaphobia in parts of the Western world and its media.

Freedom of Faith is a part of the Indian Civilisation, of that there can be no doubt. Buddha and Mahavira’s rejection of Vedic hegemony is a part of that intellectual and expressional freedom. And the birth, much later, of the Sikh faith. The incorporation of freedom of faith and expression in the Constitution of India was also a consequence of the Freedom Struggle that saw the participation of all ethnic, linguistic and religious communities in the cause of Independence, equality and justice. India is also a signatory to the United Nations Charter and its Declarations on Freedom of Faith and on Civil Liberties, stressed once again in the documents of the Hague Convention which was called to celebrate them. As the Prime Minister, Mr Modi, and his government have taken an oath to protect the Constitution, and all that it guarantees to the citizens of India, and, in fact, to even others who may be resident in the land.

 There has been much tragedy and human suffering because the constitutional guarantees have not been fully practised. And because some political groups, with an ideology of religious nationalism and peculiar definition of patriotism, have enjoyed immunity and government patronage, and protection.

 The religious minorities are happy that Mr Modi did not call for a “ten-year moratorium” as he had in his speech on Independence Day last year, but said: “We cannot accept violence against any religion on any pretext and I strongly condemn such violence. My government will act strongly in this regard.” The talk of moratorium had not gone down well with civil society, and had seemed very cynical.

The minorities have not been attacking anyone. Neither have they exceeded, or violated, the limits set by the law of the land in the exercise of their rights to profess, practise and propagate their faith. Mr Modi nonetheless, brushed over the warning against both minority and majority intolerance. The attempt at parity has its own meaning, and implications in small towns and villages where police seem to believe it is the Muslim, or the Christian, who is the cause of all troubles.

 Despite the existence of laws against religious conversions, called Freedom of Relgion Acts, in six States—and with BJP Ministers demanding such a law for the entire country—even politically hostile governments have not been able to indict anyone for inducing anyone to become a Christian through force or through fraudulent means. He yet chose to allude to “fraud”. It was clear where his mind lay. Mr Modi did not refer to the issue of Dalit Christians, raised by Bishops who spoke before him at the function. Mr Modi’s party and his government are opposed to restoring Dalit Christians rights given to others of these castes, arguing this would open the floodgates of conversions out of Hinduism.

One cannot but welcome any direction from the government that anticipates and prevents targeted religious violence and hate. This actually needs a comprehensive law. The BJP has consistently opposed such a law, which Congress governments half-heartedly tried to bring in the last two Parliaments. But even in the absence of such a law, there are provisions of regulations that can be substantially used by the governments in the States to control hate campaigns, coercion and violence. It remains to be seen if the State governments and their police forces will act against hate crimes and hate-mongers.

 And the future will tell if groups professing religious nationalism have heard Mr Modi as the Christian leaders have really heard Mr Modi, and are willing to fall in line. TV debates suggest the Sangh Parivar has not heard Mr Modi. Or perhaps they think the Prime Minister does not mean what Mr Modi says.

 RSS chief Mr Mohan Bhagwat’s statement reported in the media this week, saying the motive of Mother Teresa’s work with the poor, the orphans and the dying destitute was motivated by her desire to convert people to Christianity is the latest bit of absurdity from his mouth. Mr Bhagwat has continued to stress that India is a Hindu Rashtra, with one people professing one religion, a sort of a theocracy and not the polyglot, multi-ethnic country with just about every religion of the world, knit into a secular and functional democracy. Several leading lights of the ruling party also seem to believe this to be the case. There has been remarkably little toning down of the rhetoric despite a severe drubbing the party received some weeks ago in elections to the Legislative Assembly of the National Capital Territory of Delhi.

 His remarks also come on the eve of the RSS-affiliate Vishwa Hindu Parishad [VHP], which works amongst indigenous Tribes, celebrating its golden jubilee on February 28 in the Kandhamal district of Orissa State, which saw massive religious violence against Christians in 2007 and 2008 in which more than 120 persons were killed, a nun and other women raped, 6000 houses and 300 churches destroyed. Dr Praveen Togadia, the international head of the VHP, is the chief guest at those celebrations. His role in precipitating that violence, which followed the assassination of a senior VHP leader in the district, was alleged, but never investigated. The district’s Christians have sought protection from the State Government to ensure there is no hate, and no violence.

 The Christian community in India is concerned at the intensity of the targeted and communal violence directed against it almost on a pan-India basis. Violence against Christians picked up in independent India in the early 1990s reaching its peak in 2008. State impunity contributes to the persecution of the Christian community in many States of India.

 Human Rights and Civil Society groups have documented the death of at least two persons in 2014, killed for their Christian faith. The list of incidents reflects 147 cases, with many more going unreported and undocumented. The two cases of death in communal anti-Christian violence were reported from Orissa and Andhra Pradesh.

 An analysis of the data shows Chhattisgarh topping the list with 28 incidents of crime, followed closely by neighbouring Madhya Pradesh with 26, Uttar Pradesh with 18 and Telengana, a new State carved out of Andhra Pradesh, with 15 incidents. Much of the violence has taken place after the new government of the National Democratic Alliance came to power on May 26, 2014.

 The violence peaked between August and October with 56 cases, before zooming up to 25 cases during the Christmas season. The violence has continued well into the New Year 2015, with more Catholic churches in the Capital city of Delhi targeted as incidents continue in other States.

 Much of the violence, 54 per cent, is of threats, intimidation, coercion, often with the police looking on. Physical violence constituted a quarter of all cases (24 per cent), and violence against Christian women, a trend that is increasingly being seen since the carnage in Kandhamal, Odisha, in 2007 and 2008, was 11 per cent. Breaking of statues and the Cross, and other acts of desecration were recorded in about eight per cent of the cases, but many more were also consequent to other forms of violence against institutions. A disturbing trend was violence against Christians in West Bengal where, though one case was formally reported; there have been increasing incidents of hate speech and intimidation.

The author is a senior journalist, human rights activist and member of the National Integration Council.

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