IN the first week of January, a mob of Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) members tried to storm St. Mary’s College in Vidisha, Madhya Pradesh, to conduct an aarati (Hindu ritual) in praise of “Bharat Mata”. The mob clashed with the police and said that it wanted to promote patriotism among students. The college director, Father Shaju Devassy, reportedly said that it was a symbolic attempt to impose Hindu dominance over minorities under the garb of promoting patriotism. It challenged the constitutional right of religious and ethnic minorities to own and manage institutions to help their communities, he added.
According to Alliance Defending Freedom, a United States-based Christian non-profit organisation, there were 21 violent attacks on Christians and hundreds of cases of harassment, threats and intimidation at the hands of Hindu groups from January to November in 2017 in Madhya Pradesh. Christians constitute fewer than 1 per cent of the State’s 72 million people.
According to Open Doors USA, a “non-denominational mission supporting persecuted Christians worldwide”, in 2017 India jumped to the 11th position in the 50 most dangerous countries for Christians; it was at the 15th position in the previous year “amid the continued rise of Hindu nationalism”. The first six months of 2017 witnessed 410 incidents of persecution against Christians, compared with 441 incidents for the entire previous year. Some 40 incidents were reported a month on average, according to Open Doors USA. These included pastors being beaten, churches being burnt and Christians being harassed. “While the source of persecution for Christians in India depends on their location within the country, most of it comes from Hindu radical groups. Because Hindu radicals view Christians as outsiders, they experience increased persecution. These radicals are intent on cleansing the nation of both Islam and Christianity, employing violence to this end. The government continues to look away when religious minorities are attacked, indicating violence may only increase,” Open Doors USA said.
M.S. Golwalkar, the second “Supreme Leader” of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), had famously said that “non-Hindu people in Hindustan must either adopt the Hindu culture and language, must learn to respect and revere Hindu religion, must entertain no idea but the glorification of the Hindu religion, that is they must not only give up their attitude of intolerance and ingratitude towards this land and its age-long tradition but must also cultivate the positive attitude of love and devotion instead; in one word they must cease to be foreigners or may stay in the country wholly subordinated to the Hindu nation claiming nothing, deserving no privileges, far less any preferential treatment not even citizen’s rights.”
Hindus who converted to Christianity bore the brunt of most of the attacks and were constantly under pressure to return to the Hindu fold, Open Doors U.K. said. “Ghar wapsi”, or homecoming, was used as a tool to bring them back to Hinduism.
Coercive means, such as dragging them to a nearby temple, performing rituals and smearing them with cow dung or urine for purification, were also employed.
Freedom of religion is enshrined in the Constitution of India, but States such as Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Chhattisgarh, and Arunachal Pradesh passed their own anti-conversion laws.
In Jharkhand, Christian organisations under the banner of Rashtriya Isai Mahasangh (RIM) submitted a memorandum to the Governor against the government’s anti-conversion Bill, stating that the proposed Bill was “aimed at harassing the Church and missionaries”.
The RIM memorandum said that Section 5 of the Bill made it mandatory to get permission from the Deputy Commissioner in advance before performing any conversion. The Christian organisations said that this was against constitutional provisions of the right to privacy and the right to practise one’s religion. It was widely felt that the law was used to register cases against Christians. The RIM is often accused of large-scale evangelising and conversion of Hindus, especially tribal people. It asked the government its basis for such a claim, stating that it if it were indeed true, the number of Christians would have risen much above the current 2.3 per cent of the population.
According to Open Doors U.K., at least eight Christians were killed last year and nearly 24,000 physically assaulted. “As a result, the level of fear and uncertainty among the majority of Christians was increasing,” it said.
Sunday sermons in a church in central Delhi revolved around taking stock of the increasing violence against people of the faith. “On an average, 10 churches were burnt and one person of the Christian faith was killed in India over the past year,” said a pastor while addressing the congregation. Each person who was part of organising a public event recently was individually targeted, he added.
Soon after the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power, two churches in the national capital were attacked—one was gutted in a fire while holy objects in another were desecrated. As Christians protested outside the Sacred Heart Cathedral and marched towards Home Minister Rajnath Singh’s residence, the police detained them. The police initially blamed the fire on faulty wiring, but after the protests they registered a first information report against unknown persons. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has not made any statement on the violence against Christians but has instead said that there is no persecution of minority communities, Muslim or Christian.
Open Doors USA has classified the persecution level in India as “extreme”. According to its profile of persecution, 86.5 per cent of the incidents involved direct violence, 77 per cent was around disruption of church life, 79 per cent community life, 76 per cent family life and 75 per cent private life. Apart from physical violence or beatings, other forms of persecution were also employed. Pastors were targeted and forced to move out of the community or village. Social boycotts were imposed where Christians were not allowed to draw water from wells, buy ration from local stores, or keep a job.
In September 2016, stones and countrymade bombs were thrown inside Christ Church in Lakhimpur Kheri district of Uttar Pradesh by men on motorbikes, damaging window panes and furniture. Last Christmas, carol singers were attacked and Christmas celebrations disrupted in many places.
According to the Evangelical Fellowship of India, a national alliance of evangelical Christians, 14 incidents of persecution were reported in November alone. On November 1, 2017, five Christian families of Mura village in Dhamtari district of Chhattisgarh were socially boycotted by the village council. They had earlier been threatened by the villagers to stop participating in Christian activities and renounce their Christian beliefs. As they did not pay heed to these warnings, the village council decided to deny them access to drinking water and essential commodities from the village market and blocked access to food rations. The growing tensions brought the Superintendent of Police to the village, who ordered the Christian families to immediately stop conducting all prayer services.
On November 4, in Haryana’s Faridabad district, RSS activists barged into a Christian meeting at the New Industrial Township and accused those present there of running a conversion racket. Before the incident, the pastors had requested for protection and permission from the local police but none had come. On the same day, in Sathyamangalam taluk of Erode district, Tamil Nadu, Pastor K.S. Jaisujanth of India Every Home Crusade was summoned to the Bangalaputhur police station on the basis of a complaint filed by some RSS activists against him. The police questioned him and ordered him to stop all Christian prayer services he had been conducting in the area.
Similarly, incidents of threats by Hindu groups to pastors and believers to stop worship, in connivance with the State administration and the police force, were reported from Morappur village of Dharmapuri district, Tamil Nadu; Gabitwada village of Uttara Kannada district, Karnataka; Ward 2 of Lanji town in Balaghat, Madhya Pradesh; Ahladpur village of Kaushambi, Uttar Pradesh; and Balod and Bhilai Charoda of Durg district, Chhattisgarh.
Unrelated incidents were also used to fan communal fires. On September 15, a mob attacked St. Anthony’s Convent School in Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh, after an 11-year-old boy committed suicide. Several schools and missionaries in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh recently came under attack. Bishop Gerald Almeida of Jabalpur told Union of Catholic Asian News that the attacks were part of an organised campaign by Hindu nationalist groups to tarnish the image of Christians and also involved false accusations against missionaries.
The National Christian Federation counted over 20 attacks on Christian schools across north India. Many incidents are not reported for fear of a backlash.
Nityanand Rai, president of the Bihar BJP unit, while speaking at a function in Patna on August 8 to honour Ministers of the coalition government, said that the “sound of ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ should replace azaan from mosques and sounds of bells from churches”. After the statement became controversial, he backtracked and said: “I said that the sound of Bharat Mata ki Jai and Vande Mataram should come from mosque and church and did not mean in place of azaan and bell.”
The Christian leadership has been vocal against the persecution. In an open letter to Catholic and Protestant leaders, 101 Christian theologians, academics and members of different organisations expressed concern over Hindu nationalism and called upon the community to safeguard pluralism and fight fringe elements targeting Christians, Muslims and other minorities. “What used to be fringe has now become mainstream,” the letter said. “In unison with members of all faiths, ideologies, we should marshal India’s tremendous spiritual resources in consolidating peace, resolving conflicts and infusing a sense of values in the body politic,” it said.
India’s largest and oldest forum of lay Catholics, the All India Catholic Union (AICU), urged President Ram Nath Kovind to initiate action against “hate mongers” who polarise society against religious minorities. Responding to the June conclave of Hindu organisations in Goa, where sentiments of establishing a Hindu Rashtra were expressed, the union released a statement denouncing the “hate speeches that emanated” from the conclave and said that such talk further vitiated the already “surcharged atmosphere, and aggravated the communal polarisation in the country....The politics of the cow has targeted Muslims and other communities whose food habits and economy depended on the trade in bovines. Its ramifications have not been fully understood, and AICU fears they will irretrievably damage the economic health of the farmers and the poor”.
In June 2017, Christians in Surat, Gujarat, protested against a Class IX Hindi textbook published by the State Board that referred to Jesus Christ as a “hevaan” or demon. Chapter 16, titled “Bharatiya sanskriti mein guru-shishya sambandh” (teacher-student relationship in Indian culture), said, “Is sambandh me hevaan Isa ka ek kathan sada smaraniya hai (In this context, one statement of demon Jesus is always memorable). Jesus Christ was quoted as saying, ‘My followers are much greater than I am and I am not worthy enough to even untie their shoes’.”
After BJP leader Amit Shah met bishops in Kerala in June, the Kerala Catholic Bishops Council (KCBC) expressed anguish over the Centre’s ban on the sale of cattle for slaughter in animal markets and said that they would not accept a government that dictates what people should eat.
In Goa, Muslims and Christian groups came together to fight the anti-slaughter order. With influential Muslims and the Roman Catholic Church in the State backing a civil society collective called Goa for Beef-Beef for Goa, the Qureshi Meat Traders Association filed a writ petition on June 12 before the Goa bench of the Bombay High Court seeking a stay on the May 26 Central notification banning the sale and purchase of cattle from animal markets for slaughter.
Even as Christians join hands with Muslims and other minority groups against the Hindu right wing in the political domain, they find recourse in their religious doctrine. “It is well known that Christianity thrives under persecution and that is what will happen here. The more the right wing attacks us, the more we will grow in strength,” a believer told Frontline .