Conversion, diversion or distraction? Why attacks on Christians now?

India is drawing international attention for growing attacks on the miniscule Christian community. Why the orchestrated campaign and why now?

Protests against Karnataka's anti-conversion bill led by Christian community in Bengaluru on Wednesday, Dec 22, 2021
Protests against Karnataka's anti-conversion bill led by Christian community in Bengaluru on Wednesday, Dec 22, 2021

Naheed Ataulla

Several Christian priests called on Prime Minister Narendra Modi in December 2014. BJP had swept to power six months ago and Christmas had been declared as “Good Governance Day”. A notification had been circulated to ministries in the national capital, intimating that December 25 would be a working day. Almost on cue, several churches in Delhi were vandalised and the Christian clergy were clearly alarmed.

The New York Times this week reported about that meeting seven years ago. “Christian leaders pleaded with Mr. Modi for help. He was disinterested, mocking them and never addressing the attacks,” it reported three clergymen who attended the meeting recalling. “He acted like a don, said Father Dominic Emmanuel, a former official with the Delhi Catholic Church who now lives in Vienna,” the report added with the caveat that a spokesman for the prime minister denied the ‘unsubstantiated allegations’.

NYT was referred to a speech in which Prime Minister Modi declared that he would not allow “any religious group, belonging to the majority or the minority, to incite hatred against others” and that his government would be one “that gives equal respect to all religions.”

In October this year, the RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat voiced his concern on ‘religious conversions’ distorting India’s demography, especially in states in India’s North-East, where Christians are in much larger number than in North or Central India. The same month Prime Minister Modi visited the Vatican and met Pope Francis, inviting him to visit India. Earlier this month, while addressing a political rally in Goa, the Prime Minister recalled his meeting with the Pope and boasted that the Pope had described the invitation as the ‘greatest gift’ he had received.

Cynical or otherwise, such statements from the PM has done nothing to stem increasing attacks on Christians in Madhya Pradesh, Chhatisgarh, Karnataka and Uttarakhand. Rights Groups listed as many as 300 incidents in October when churches were vandalised and pastors beaten up. Burning literature, attacking Christian schools and assaulting worshippers, vigilante groups with police complicit in most cases have made it difficult for Christians to attend church or celebrate Christmas wherever they are scattered and in small numbers in rural India.

RSS and BJP leaders on record have said they are not opposed to conversion, which is a Constitutional right. They say they are opposed to conversion of the poor through ‘allurements’ or because of inter-faith marriages. As a result even if a pastor shares a cup of tea with someone or buys someone an ice cream, he is likely to face prosecution in PM Modi’s New India.

For almost a century, since the 1930s, Christians have been targeted and accused of converting the poor. While missionaries in the 19th Century did convert large number of adivasis and the poor, Christianity in India is 2000 years old. “Apostle Thomas and Bartholomew came to India over 2000 years ago with the Gospel and they lived and died here in our country. The St. Thomas Mount in Chennai is a testimony,” points out Dr Abraham Mathai.

Indeed, Syrian Christians in Kerala believe that the Apostle Thomas—the one who famously questioned Jesus—visited the Kerala coast in AD 52 and baptised their forefathers. Historians have speculated that the diverse, and rich trading centres in Kerala might have drawn this Palestinian Jew of the Roman Empire to preach the Gospel and set up one of the oldest churches in India at Kodungallur.

Dr Mathai adds, “the western world got the Gospel several centuries later and became Christian nations. Christian missionaries in India on the other hand focused more on health, education and social justice” to explain why the Christian population in the country has remained by and large static at around two percent. He claims that the Christian community runs more than 1,24,000 educational institutions, a majority of them in rural areas, and 40% of the country’s healthcare institutions for the poor. But there is no mistaking the dog whistles and the rising number of attacks on Christians.

Media reports from across India suggest that Christians have been barred from using community wells, from visiting non-Christian homes and from even celebrating Christmas. Leaked documents have shown that in districts the police stations have been asked to monitor ‘suspicious activities’ of Christian priests.

Rabid Hindu organisations have called for ‘Chadar-mukt and Father-mukt Bharat’ while priests have prescribed ‘beheading’ for the crime of conversion. In a report Al Jazeera recorded chilling details of an attack in Roorkee. “Pearl Lance, the daughter of the church’s pastor, was allegedly molested by men, abused and attacked by women, and her phone snatched. Rajat Kumar, a staff member at the church, was hit with iron rods on his head, resulting in serious injuries,” the news outlet reported.

Addressing an anti-conversion rally in Madhya Pradesh, far-right leaders exhorted people to arm themselves with axes in order to “Roko-Toko-Thoko” (stop, warn and assault) people engaged in conversion. Church services have been disrupted by vigilante groups who have engaged in singing ‘bhajans’. ‘Friendly warnings’ were given to Christians in Karnataka to stop going to Churches till the assembly session got over.

People returning from a Sunday Mass in Karnataka’s Hosadurga taluka of Chitradurga district on December 19 spotted local MLA Goolihatti D. Shekhar from the BJP waiting outside the church in a car. Shekhar was video recording responses of church-goers to his queries.

In a 2:26 minute video, the MLA is seen stopping a woman outside Calvary Bethel Church and ask: "Where do you stay? How long have you been visiting the church?"

The video was ostensibly recorded three days before the BJP government in the state tabled the controversial Karnataka Protection of Right to Freedom of Religion Bill, 2021. It is the ninth state to have introduced a legislation to penalise forcible conversions.

Even before the BJP government tabled the Bill in the Karnataka legislature, opposition parties ---the Congress and JD(S)---and various organisations were up in arms that it was against the Constitution which guaranteed the right to freedom of religion under Article 25 and has been brought solely to target the Christian community.

“There have been 39 incidents of attacks on members of the Christian community from January to November 2021 without a law. If the anti-conversion legislation becomes a law, everyone will be walking with this license as marshals. The Christian community will constantly be under the CCTV scanner,” fumed Bengaluru Archbishop Peter Machado.

A report brought out by the Karnataka People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) earlier this month titled ‘Hate crimes on Christians in Karnataka’ noted, “The targeting of the Christian community is not a new phenomenon. When we look back, in 2008 when the BJP was in power, there were attacks on several churches in different parts of Karnataka, such as Chikkamagaluru, Udupi, Mangaluru and Dakshina Kannada. Similar patterns can be observed in 2021.” National and Karnataka state trends, the report pointed out, however show a steady decline in the population of Christians in the last five decades.

The Karnataka legislation was triggered by a letter from the Karnataka Directorate of Minorities on July 7, 2021, to all district headquarters to conduct a survey of churches along with details of the pastors. This was followed by BJP MLA Shekhar raising the issue in the Assembly in September and allege that rampant conversions were happening in his constituency and that his own mother, who had health issues was also converted with the promise that she would be healed. His mother had a “Ghar Wapasi'' and returned to Hinduism a month later.

Since then, the government was hinting at legislation to prohibit conversions by allurements such as promises of free education, free medical treatment, free jobs and marriage. No data, however, have been shared with the public so far.

The Bill addresses ‘Love Jihad’ and says, “Any marriage which has happened with the sole purpose of unlawful conversion or vice-versa by the man of one religion with the woman of another religion either by converting himself before or after the marriage or by converting the woman before or after the marriage shall be declared as null and viod by the Family court.'' The punishment carries a minimum jail term of three years, going up to 10 years with penalty up to five lakh rupees.

Stating that Christians were against conversion under coercion, the Archbishop questioned why there was no provision to punish or even establish that re-conversions might also take place under duress.

Even BJP insiders admit that certain provisions of the law may not stand the test in courts. In Gujarat, where the law is in force since 2003, the Gujarat High Court has stayed the provision that stipulates requirement of prior permission from district magistrates for religious conversion.

In January 2021, the Supreme Court agreed to examine anti-conversion laws of Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Madhya Pradesh that criminalise religious conversions through marriage and mandate prior clearance by district authorities. Later, the apex court asked petitioners to approach the concerned high courts first.

In BJP ruled Arunachal Pradesh, Chief Minister Pema Khandu had planned to scrap the law which was enacted in 1978 but not implemented till now. He had to drop the plan following pressure from party higher-ups.

Arunachal Pradesh was the third state after Odisha (1967) and Madhya Pradesh (1968) to enact an anti-conversion law. They were followed by Chhattisgarh in 2000, Gujarat in 2003, Himachal Pradesh in 2007, Rajasthan in 2008 and Uttar Pradesh in 2020.

Former Law minister T.B. Jayachandra said the BJP government should first address the issue of untouchability, a prime reason for people belonging to scheduled castes converting. “As self-appointed protectors of Hinduism and Hindutva, they should first put a stop to this practice.''

While there is a consensus that conversions have declined, what explains the intensified attacks on Christians during the past few months? While a majority of Christians in this country happen to be either poor or modestly well off, the Church institutions, with their centuries led history, have historically enjoyed access to vast estates. Is that what is provoking the attacks orchestrated by the state? Are economic reasons driving the campaign or are political factors at play?

There are no clear answers with some observers saying that it is a diversion created to draw attention away from the economic crisis and increasingly uncomfortable questions on governance being put to the BJP governments. With Muslims marginalised, Sikhs and Christians are now being targeted ahead of elections in Punjab, Uttarakhand, Goa, UP and Manipur in order to polarise BJP’s own ‘vote bank’. Karnataka also will elect a new assembly by May 2023, a little over 15 months from now, they point out.

Al Jazeera on the other hand quoted Apoorvanand, the Delhi University professor who has extensively written against communal violence and discrimination, as saying, “By choosing a different target (apart from Muslims) for a supposedly different crime, the ‘Hindutva’ (Hindu supremacist) project in India is adding diversity and objectivity to its anti-minority hatred.”

Criminalising conversion, but not re-conversion, raises questions that remain unanswered. In Uttar Pradesh a Muslim was recently accepted into the Hindu fold and he claimed to have become a Brahmin.

Can Dalit Muslims and Christians too become Brahmins through Mohan Bhagwat’s ‘Ghar Wapasi’?

Wapas Ghar, or else…

Which caste were you born into? Are you not Hindus? Why do you go to church? How much have they paid you? Are they giving you food, petrol or promising a car? These are the questions that Christians now are required to answer to vigilante groups and at police stations. The assumption is that all Christians have been converted through allurements.

Where is the permission to hold a meeting, is another question put to priests and pastors. Who gave you permission to use loudspeakers?

Members of a vigilante group were said to be upset because the church in the locality could be located easily on Google Maps. This, they said, was unacceptable, that there was no way the church should be found on Google Maps.

Christians in some places were told to vacate their houses by landlords. Employers have been intimidated into sacking Christians employed by them and vigilante groups have ensured that they are denied jobs by others in the locality.

Christians have been facing threats from school teachers, who said they would expel their children from school. Ration shops and grocers have ‘started refusing to sell to Christian customers’.

“Because of visits by the police, my landlord asked me to vacate the house and gave me a month to find a new accommodation. I finally found a house after two weeks, and was beginning to shift my belongings…”

“One day, when I was in the police station for the purpose of the inquiry, the police officer asked, “Where do you live now?” “I found a new house, sir.” “Do you have a rent agreement?” I said yes and agreed to send them a copy. They called my new landlord and told him to evict me as soon as possible. Now I live 37 kilometres away…”

(Courtesy: PUCL, Karnataka report on hate crimes against Christians)

(co-authored by Shalini Sahay)

(This article was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

Follow us on: Facebook, Twitter, Google News, Instagram 

Join our official telegram channel (@nationalherald) and stay updated with the latest headlines

Published: 24 Dec 2021, 5:30 PM