By Dr Ranjan Solomon
Christians have traditionally adopted a posture of social leadership to the wider community in multiple ways. Education, medical care, social services, rural development, services to the hungry and poor, vocational training, community development, and a host of other development models were introduced by the church and its lay affiliates through Indian history. The post-independence model of community development adopted by the Government in 1952 when Five Year Plans were inaugurated by the Government had its origins in YMCA philosophy and ideology. One could reel off unending and vibrant specifics about Christian contribution to Indian society; the facts are astounding. Christians have imbibed the notion of ‘Antodya’ – welfare of the people in the bottom of the socio-economic pyramid. It is, therefore, a shocker that the persecution of Christians today is currently on overdrive countrywide despite its historical and continuing accomplishments in favour of the least and last of society.
In 2014 the Ministry of Home Affairs reported a “steep 30 per cent rise in the number of communal violence incidents in 2013 as compared to 2012. Reported incidents of abuse carried out against Christians in India went up to 177 in 2015, and have, since, steadily escalated. Those figures have sharply risen and today the escalation is full-fledged.
The Pew Research Centre has noted that conversion is now a dangerously contentious issue in India. Nine states have enacted laws against proselytism as of early 2021. While Christianity is a proselytizing religion, many other religions in India are non-proselytizing, and religious conversion is rare in the country. Overall, just 2% of respondents report a different religion than the one in which they were raised, including 0.4% who are converts to Christianity. Christian converts in India are former Hindus and tend to belong to lower castes – that is, they identify with Dalits, Scheduled Tribes or Other Backward Classes. Most converts also come from poor backgrounds.
It was during and after the Kandhamal riots in August 2008, which left 39 Christians dead, over 395 churches vandalized, 600 villages ransacked; over 5,600 houses were looted and over 54,000 people left homeless, that it became clear to Christians that communalism did not draw boundaries among minorities.
Anti-Christian hate crimes have doubled since 2014. Catholic churches in New Delhi, have faced vandalization. Christian leaders pleaded with PM Modi for intervention only to be rebuffed. The United Christian Forum reports that growth in recorded incidents is increasing “not just year-on-year, but even month-on-month.” UCF counts a total of 511 incidents reported as of Nov. 21 this year as against 505 in 2021. PM Modi’s promise of “inclusive growth” has gone astray. There is resentment that Christian communities now exceed on indicators of human development. Therefore, schools, including those where the major percentage of students are non-Christian, are frequently attacked in anti-Christian riots.
In almost all incidents of Christian persecution, reported from across the country, vigilante mobs comprising extremist elements were involved. They construct allegations of religious conversion, attack prayer gatherings, attack individuals or small groups of Christians. Mob crimes are carried out with impunity as the police turned a blind eye. They even arrested Christians under charges of forced conversions. UCF’s President A C Michael further observes: “This is despite a slew of directions to the government from the Supreme Court of India to stop the horrendous acts of ‘mobocracy.” There are 79 cases registered against pastors in the country alleging their involvement in religious conversion activities, though not a single case has been proved in court so far. Several lay people are languishing in jail under denial of bail by courts.
Human Rights Watch has classified violence against Christians in India as a tactic by right-wing Sangh Parivar organizations to encourage and exploit communal violence and advance political ends. Persecution often includes: arson of churches, conversion of Christians by force, physical violence, sexual assaults, murders, rapes, and the destruction of Christian schools, colleges, and cemeteries.
Multiple sources have reported an increase in the number of incidents of violence against Christians after the new BJP government under Narendra Modi came to power after the general election in April–May 2014. In 2016, India was ranked 15th in the world in terms of danger to Christians, a sharp surge from rank 31 in 2012. A church was burnt down or a cleric beaten on average 10 times a week in India in the year to 31 October 2016, a threefold increase on the previous year. The All India Christian Council testified to an attack on Christians recorded every 40 hours in India in 2016. Persecution Relief reported from its study that crimes against Christians increased by 60% from 2016 to 2019.
Upper-caste Hindu nationalists fear that with the arrival of non-Hindus, higher fertility rates among minority groups and conversions to Christianity, the Hindu majority might become a minority. The fear of being overtaken is irrational. Christians have remained 2.3 percent of the population since the 1951 census. Still they seek to integrate a larger section of middle castes, Adivasis and Dalits to sustain a majority.
The Centre must declare a zero-tolerance policy to persecution. It would have dramatic impact. 93 Former Civil Servants in an Open letter to the PM described the ‘Climate of Fear among Christians’ and underline increasing incidents of outright discrimination. The Union government is inert and not protecting Christians. The PM must guarantee Christians that they will get justice from the executive and the law, they suggest.
Article 25 of the Constitution of India asserts “all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right to freely profess, practices, and propagate religion subject to public order, morality and health.”
In Goa, Christians feel defenseless at the frenzied anti-minority sentiment being whipped up in the name of rebuilding temples destroyed by the Portuguese. The claim about the Portuguese is plausible. The matter obliges political prudence, rather than communal propaganda.
Ranjan Solomon is a political commentator and a human rights activist. Views expressed are the writer’s own.
10 March 2023