It is difficult to imagine anyone getting angry or even displeased with Christmas carols. Yet on Thursday, the Madhya Pradesh police detained a group of Catholic seminarians and priests as they were out singing carols in Satna, booking six of them for outraging religious feelings and also charging them under the state’s draconian anti-conversion law. In the ensuing chaos, Hindutva groups set the carollers’ car on fire and allegedly assaulted some of the singers. Eight priests who later went to the police station to inquire about the situation were also detained.
This isn’t all. In Uttar Pradesh on Saturday, the Hindu Jagran Manch warned Christian-run schools in the town of Aligarh not to celebrate Christmas at all. Like in Madhya Pradesh, this was also driven by the bogey of conversions. Earlier in the week on Wednesday, Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis’ wife, Amruta Fadnavis was attacked on social media for simply supporting a Christmas-themed charity event. One prominent right-wing columnist accused Amruta Fadnavis of encouraging Christians in their alleged efforts at “harvesting souls”. Amruta Fadnavis had to counter this charge by reaffirming that she was a “proud Hindu” and celebrated “every festival in my country”.
Carols were under attack in Mumbai too. On Saturday, Ashish Shelar, a BJP MLA who heads the party’s Mumbai unit, was trolled for inviting Mumbai residents to attend a Christmas festival in the city. Among Shelar’s detractors was the chief strategy officer of right-wing magazine Swarajya, who criticised the event – which features a music competition, food stalls and sand football on Mumbai’s Chowpatty beach – as “a cultural war against Hindus”.
The grinch of Christmas
Targeting Christmas is not new. In 2014, within six months of Prime Minister Narendra Modi taking office, the Union government had declared that December 25 would now be celebrated as “Good Governance Day”. Rather than celebrate the Christmas holiday, schools, colleges and government offices would need to stay open in order to mark this new government occasion. Facing a backlash, the Union government played down “Good Governance Day” in 2015.
According to the 2017 report of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, Christians have increasingly come under attack over the in recent years. It quotes an estimate by an NGO called Open Doors to suggest that a church was attacked or a cleric attacked on the average of ten times a week between January and October 2016, three times the number of incidents reported the previous year.
Using the bogey of conversion, Hindutva groups have started mass programmes to convert minorities to Hinduism. Called “ghar wapsi”, literarily homecoming, the programme is often accompanied by violence and assisted by a mostly supportive state apparatus.
Six states in India have strict laws that all but penalise conversion away from Hinduism. Christian clergymen are a particular target of both Hindutva groups as well as the police under this law. In November, for instance, seven Christian children in Madhya Pradesh were detained by the police as their Bible reading teacher was booked under the accusation of converting them – an absurd charge given that the children were all born Christian.
As it turns out, the statistics do not support the Hindutva fear of mass conversions. Over the past four decades, the proportion of Christians in the population has actually fallen: to 2.3% in the last Census of 2011 from 2.6% in 1971.
Much of this anti-minority sentiment is driven by the internal logic of Hindutva. As defined by Vinayak Savarkar, the man who coined the term “Hindutva”, anyone who did not consider India his “punyabhumi” (religious land) was not a Hindu and therefore was a second-class citizen in a Hindu nation. Both Islam and Christianity, which originated not in the subcontinent but in West Asia, are therefore suspect.