Interview: Sunny Jacob

Sunny Jacob: ‘Prejudice or vendetta’

Print edition : January 28, 2022

Sunny Jacob. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Interview with Sunny Jacob, member of the International Jesuit Education Commission.

It is not easy being a Christian in India these days. On the one hand, there are frequent attacks on churches and schools run by missionaries, on the other, there are unfounded allegations of conversion. Amidst these challenges, things took a turn for the worse when the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA) licences of several churches and Christian organisations working in the field of education and social welfare were revoked.

In many cases, the licences were cancelled barely days before the last date for application, leaving little room for appeal. Among the organisations whose FCRA licences have been revoked is the Missionaries of Charity, founded by Mother Teresa in 1950. (On January 7, the Ministry of Home Affairs restored the FCRA for Missionaries of Charity until 2026.)

The move has evoked reactions from the minority community, with its members believing that the cancellation stems from prejudice. Dublin-based Sunny Jacob, hailing from the Jesuit Global Network of Schools, said: “One sees a biased, targeted and anti-Christian attitude of the government. One can see a hostile attitude towards Missionaries of Charity, too. Two years ago a lot was made out of them in Ranchi. More recently [there was this controversy] in Baroda where it was alleged that conversion was taking place [as Bibles with names of some students on them were found in the library]. Now comes the FCRA cancellation. Actually, the FCRA issue must be understood against the background of majoritarian politics pursued by the ruling dispensation.”

Jacob, who is a member of the International Jesuit Education Commission, feels the allegations of conversion against Christian organisations are “a ploy to create an enemy” within the nation. The government’s move to cancel the licences of many organisations engaged in social work will “ultimately [hit] the beneficiaries of Christian NGOs, the poorest of the poor, the marginalised, the rural folk, and women and children”, Jacob says.

Also read: Weaponising FCRA

He told Frontline in an interview that “the recent utterances against Gandhiji and the minorities by the so-called sadhus and sants [at the Dharam Sansad in Haridwar] are a disgrace to India. It shows how much hatred has spread in the minds of many” and “has hurt India’s image abroad”.

Excerpts:

Why do you think the government of India has taken the decision to cancel or revoke the licences of a number of Christian organisations, including Missionaries of Charity?

My understanding is that there are several organisations whose FCRA licences have been cancelled. I think some 589 organisations were taken out of FCRA, which is saddening. I think there is some type of vendetta or prejudice. It does not seem to be a fair call.

Licences of even institutions such as Indian Institute of Technology Delhi and Jamia Millia Islamia have been impacted. How can one accuse the government of being partisan in this case?

It is important to understand the whole pattern of the government’s role. I am not looking at this in a narrow-minded way but in a holistic way, whether it is environmental policy or education policy. There is a clear-cut allocation of budget for the minorities which is, however, constantly declining. There are vulnerable institutions such as the Jamia Millia. The Satyajit Ray Memorial is also impacted. Under the circumstances, when a number of Christian organisations’ licences are not renewed, its gives rise to fear.

Non-governmental organisations cutting across faiths have been affected by the decision. What is the explanation for the higher proportion of Christians in comparison to their actual population?

In this respect you must look at the kind of institutions being attacked, most of which cater to the needs of poor people. In these places people are doing wonderful service and are attacked under the bogey of conversion. You cannot tarnish all organisations accusing them of conversion. Where is the proof?

In recent weeks, a number of churches in Karnataka and even Delhi have been attacked for alleged conversions. A Sunday prayer has been disrupted without any proof of conversion. How does one tackle or counter such acts?

There is a concerted effort by a special ideological group, I do not want to name it, which can be held responsible for these incidents, and action should be taken against it. They are acting on prejudice. The kind of crowd [sentiment] they have created against the Christian community is dangerous and unacceptable. If there is irregularity in the functioning of any of the organisations, the authorities should take action. But they do not act. So, it is a crowd-created problem. The idea is to create a sentiment against the community using the bogey of conversion. The attempt is to create a feeling of hostility against a section of citizens.

Also read: Hate conclaves targeting minorities

You say action should be taken, but Article 25 of the Constitution allows every Indian to practice or propagate his/her religion. In the light of this, even if one is working for conversion without coercion or inducement, how is that against the law?

The Constitution grants freedom of religion, but here it is being claimed as ‘forced conversion’, which is why it is said to be unlawful. Forced conversion is not done by anybody. It is only in the minds of political organisers. Even if, for argument’s sake, we assume that there are several forced conversions, there are provisions under Indian law that deal with this kind of mishap. Nowhere has it been suggested to create a prejudiced crowd against one community or more. This is unjustifiable. Such attacks and allegations affect social harmony.

You talk of ideological prejudice against Christians as well as Muslims. Do you think Christians are the new Muslims in India? For a long time, the Hindutva forces have been attacking Muslims, now Christians are facing the ire.

Both communities have been viewed as an enemy of the Hindutva ideology. It has been mentioned clearly since 1923 and based on that book [Hindutva] only the organisation of Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh [RSS] was formed and this political attitude is being reflected in the current times. So, both Muslims and Christians and also those who follow the Leftist ideology are under attack.

Do you think this act of targeting Christians, by way of revocation of licences or attacks on churches, is basically a move to implement M.S. Golwalkar’s philosophy that India belongs only to those whose motherland and sacred land falls within the geographical confines of the country?

These are all politically motivated things, and now specific organisations are working towards it. The aim is to create divisions between the majority community and the minorities. For example, the recent meetings of sants and sadhus [in Haridwar] and the kind of statements they made. All this stems from the age-old ideology of exclusion.

You are based in Dublin. How is the West reacting to something like a Dharam Sansad and its hate-filled utterances in India?

The image of India in the West has been shattered completely. Our image as a tolerant nation has taken a hit. Instead of peddling hate, attacking churches or the minorities in general, it is time we considered everybody as a global citizen and thought of others as brothers and sisters. No country where violence or hatred for one another is present can flourish. It is important not to be narrow-minded and biased.

Coming back to the FCRA issue, where do you think Christian voluntary organisations had gone wrong? Did they fail to comply with the legal requirements?

That may be the case in a handful of instances. They may have failed to upload their documents properly or on time, but in most cases it cannot be true. They are simply being victimised. They are being falsely branded as agents of forced conversion. It is a sign of prejudice, and one hopes the government will rectify it and adopt a holistic approach. There is an urgent need for dialogue and negotiations.

Also read: Christians at receiving end amid growing violence

It is important for the government to appreciate the role of NGOs. They have worked even in the most remote areas where the government has failed to reach. They have worked among the poorest of the poor. Unfortunately, the government has failed to appreciate that. Even an organisation such as Missionaries of Charity has not been spared. If they are persecuted, I can only imagine the fate of others.

The cancellation does not affect only the organisations working in the social sector but even churches. Catholic churches have been affected. What is your view?

Again, it all stems from prejudice and false apprehension. They have painted everyone with the same brush. Even orphanages, medical facilities and schools working among the poorest of the poor will be impacted. One worries for the poor, their books, medicines and meals. The NGOs in general are complementary to the government. I hope the Christian community appeals to the government and places its opinion before it. Dialogue is the only way out.

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