On the bare floor of a police lock-up in Satna, Madhya Pradesh, 32 priests and seminarians were forced to sit through a winter night last month, like criminals. They were detained after a Bajrang Dal mob attacked them, apparently for singing Christmas carols, burnt their car and thrashed them even at the police station. After their sleepless night, the police arrested one of the priests, charging him with “forced conversions”. The attackers were barely touched, in what has become the norm in such hate crimes. Around the same time, the Hindu Jagran Manch threatened the managements of Christian schools in Aligarh that if they celebrated Christmas with their students, they would do so at their “own risk”. Similar threats have been reported from other towns in Uttar Pradesh.
Like many Indians, my family has always celebrated Christmas for its message of cheer, goodwill and compassion with mistletoe and plum cake. But in these troubled times, even wishing Merry Christmas has become an intimation of protest. In a fast-mutating India where hatred and fear are being rapidly normalised, even singing carols and celebrating Christmas have become high-risk undertakings. So in December, I attended Christmas Mass as a token of both protest and solidarity.
India is becoming increasingly unsafe for its Muslim and Christian minorities. The World Watch List 2017 ranked India as the 15th most dangerous place to practise one’s minority faith, a sharp fall from the 31st place four years earlier. Muslims are facing vigilante attacks and targeted killings by the police. The even smaller Christian minority is enduring attacks on its places of worship, shrines, prayer services, priests and nuns. The United Christian Forum has recorded 216 such attacks in 2017, but the police have registered complaints in less than a quarter of the cases; the attackers have been arrested in even fewer. The four states of Tamil Nadu, Chhattisgarh, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh account for over half of these cases. There have also been reports of social and economic boycott of Christian communities, and of them being denied work and access to water and electricity.
The Bharatiya Janata Party and other affiliates of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, in India and around the world, have long propagated the noxious canard of a powerful foreign-funded evangelist campaign to convert low caste and impoverished Hindus and Adivasis to Christianity. This is used to manufacture popular resentment, even hatred, against this small, peaceable and progressive community, which erupts in hate attacks on missionaries, priests, nuns and shrines. By way of example, here is an extract from a pamphlet published by the Global Hindu Heritage Foundation in Texas, US, in 2015:
“In India, not only Christians celebrate, but many Hindus also participate or celebrate the Christmas without knowing what Christianity is all about, what the Christians think about Hindus, what the Bible says about the ‘idol worship’, how they destroyed so many civilizations, how they are converting Hindus and making them enemies of their own religion, how the money is flowing from foreign countries, how the Hindus were mercilessly tortured in Goa…They believe that Jesus gave them the right to deceive, convert, subjugate, conquer, and proselytize any nation or religion, by any and all possible means. They are entitled to such methods as allurement, fraud, coercion and violence in converting but they criticize Hindus even if they to talk about their atrocities of conversion…This is more evident in Southern States and especially in the Andhra Pradesh are. They convert the Hindus and make them their foot soldiers to destroy Hindu deities, step on them, and also tear up the pictures of Hindu Gods and Goddesses. According to unofficial statistics, as many as 30 percent of Hindus in villages have got converted…”
Hate propaganda, of course, has nothing to do with facts. India’s Christian population has not risen beyond 2.5% in the past several decades. How could this be the case if there was a concerted evangelist campaign to convert Hindus? It is instructive that Christians constitute such a tiny minority despite the fact that Christianity came to India nearly a thousand years before it spread in Europe and the country lived through two hundred years of British colonial rule.
In the words of the senior advocate Rajeev Dhavan, the “entire conversion debate is dominated by the Hindu right whose political agenda is: (a) to declare the country and Indian civilisation as primarily, if not solely, a Hindu civilisation, (b) to insist that all past conversions over the centuries were induced by fear, fraud and opportunism, (c) to regard all past conversion as essentially suspect and (d) to pursue an intimidating policy to try and ensure that future conversions from Hinduism should not take place, and in any event, be minimised”.
Dhavan argues that the controversy over conversion is inextricably linked to the rise of political Hindutva, which he describes as “belligerent, apprehensive, uncompromising and vicious in its attitude…with plans, policies and programmes to attack and discipline all other faiths”.
He cites the destruction of the Babri Masjid, the murder of the Australian missionary Graham Staines and his young children, and the intimidation and killings of Christians and Muslims as part of the “policy of disciplining other faiths”, which includes “both a programme to impose fear on others as well as a legal policy to intimidate non-Hindu minorities through the processes of the law”.
In the bitter discussions about religious conversion, it is often forgotten that the Constitution took care to guarantee the rights of every individual to not just practise but also propagate their faith. As Dhavan points out, “Historically, India is a country of converts. There were conversions from Hinduism to Jainism, to Buddhism and to Islam and Christianity. Over time, all this had added a richness and uniqueness to India. Today, a Muslim or a Christian is a Muslim or a Christian, not a past Hindu. If people want to convert, they have the right to do so – without requiring the permission of the state or setting up a system whereby police officials and magistrates will be watching conversions under a system of conversion by surveillance.”
The Constitution guards our right to follow any faith, including the right to abjure the faith. In the Constituent Assembly, M Rathnaswamy had suggested adding the word “propagate” to Article 25, which guarantees the right to practise and propagate religion. KM Munshi declared unambiguously that “under freedom of speech which the Constitution guarantees, it will be open to any religious community to persuade other people to join their faith”.
However, the Sangh Parivar never acquiesced to this Constitution guarantee. In their imagination, Hindus were being stolen from their community through money, fraud and coercion. Therefore, they and the devious missionaries who misled them needed to be continuously policed by a hawk-eyed state. Accordingly, anti-conversion laws were legislated in many states even though they run counter to the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom. It is interesting that anti-conversion laws have mostly been passed by non-Congress governments. (Laws banning cow slaughter, in contrast, have been legislated mostly by Congress-ruled states despite the opposition of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru to such laws.) Odisha passed an anti-conversion law under the Swatantra Party government in 1967; Madhya Pradesh under the Samyukta Vidhayak Dal coalition, which included the BJP’s forerunner Jan Sangh, in 1968; Gujarat and Chhattisgarh under the BJP in 2003 and 2006, respectively. In Tamil Nadu, the J Jayalalithaa government passed an anti-conversion law in 2002 but repealed it two years later. The only Congress government to pass such a law was in Himachal Pradesh in 2006. Rajasthan passed an anti-conversion law in 2006, again under the BJP, but the governor refused to sign it. Arunachal Pradesh passed such a law in 1978 under the People’s Party of Arunachal, but it was never enforced. Most recently, the BJP government in Jharkhand passed a stringent anti-conversion law in 2017.
Although anti-conversion laws exist in many states, they are more actively used in states ruled by the BJP. Even though there have been few convictions under these laws, cases are registered almost every month. Clearly, the purpose is to punish by process. In today’s shrill anti-minority climate, these laws are used mainly to intimidate, stigmatise and, in some cases, criminalise the local Christian communities and clergy. In August last year, the Jharkhand government published full-page newspaper advertisements, with pictures of the chief minister and a misquote attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, attacking religious conversion. On three occasions in 2017, Christian children travelling by train to Christian camps were taken into custody by the Railway Police in Madhya Pradesh on the grounds that they were being “kidnapped to be converted”. On May 22 and 23, at least 71 children travelling to a summer Bible camp in Nagpur were detained with their adult caretakers; on June 3, a Catholic nun and four girls were detained at Satna railway station; on October 21, two adults and seven children going for Bible studies were detained, and not even allowed to meet their parents.
The Sangh considers Islam and Christianity to be foreign religions and their practitioners wanting in loyalty to both Hinduism and India, which for them are one. But as Gandhi pointed out, Islam and Christianity are as much Indian faiths as Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism and Jainism. In the homes for former street girls and boys that my colleagues run, our children look forward to Christmas as they do to every festival, with equal fervour and anticipation. We tell them that Jesus was born a homeless child, yet grew to spread the message of compassion and love around the world. I am not a person of faith. But even so, Christmas and Eid are as much my festivals as Diwali, Holi and Gurpurab. I won’t allow anyone to take this away from me. I will fight for my right.