“If you are not properly dressed you will be raped” is a normal justification for a rapist and his advocates in India. Today, wearing an attire of any religious identity would put you in greater trouble of being stopped at a railway station and being harassed by the rightwing Hindu fanatics in public. This was the ordeal four Catholic nuns underwent last week in a train passing via Uttar Pradesh.
Two Catholic nuns and two postulant students of the Sacred Heart congregation were en route to Rourkela in Odisha. However, when they reached Jhansi station of Uttar Pradesh, a group of Hindu youths started questioning the nuns and accused them of indulging in conversion. In a few minutes, some 150 youths gathered around them, and they were handed over to the local railway police for interrogation for allegedly violating the state’s anti-conversion law. The sisters were saved from the crowd thanks to the timely and effective interventions of the Church officials aided by top ranking police officers.
States such as Uttar Pradesh have recently passed anti-conversion laws which in effect can muddle the peaceful coexistence of various communities and lead to social imbalance by promoting Hindutva right wing. Minority communities often become victims of such laws. These laws can be instrumental in keeping the communal political agendas of the Hindutva brigade alive. Moreover, such laws can potentially intimidate anyone who is travelling through States which have similar laws. The anomaly is that the recently passed anti-conversion laws do not very well match the spirit of the Constitution and the fundamental rights it provides.
The UP’s recently passed anti-conversion law is a thinly defined one and it can be used to put any one behind bars even without having one’s ‘crime of conversion’ proved. For example, Article 3 of the law prohibits any unlawful conversion, direct or indirect, even by marriage. Article 7 says that conversion is a cognizable offense, is non-bailable and triable only by Court of Sessions, implicating that the police can arrest one without a warrant for such offences.
Journeys in Indian trains, especially if it is a long distance one, are generally interesting as they give you opportunity to enter into fascinating relationships with a wide range of people. Once, when I boarded a train to Delhi from Ujjain my seat was occupied by a feeding mother assisted by her young husband. The family had a lot of luggage packed between the seats of that overcrowded train, sparing me little space to occupy my seat. I allowed them to be comfortable in that seat but notified them that it is my reserved seat. When the train reached Bhopal, a three-hour journey, they allowed some space for me to sit, and thanked for my generosity. Then came a question from the young father: “Are you a Christian?” I, though a Catholic priest, was in a very secular dress without wearing any Christian symbol such as a cross or a badge. Though he, apparently a Hindu, was thanking for my Christian benevolence, this question scared me for some time. Your Christian identity through benevolence is more dangerous than any visible Christian symbol which can put you in trouble one day! That was a time when UP and MP had not passed anti-conversion laws.
Had this been occurring in my travel through UP last week my act of benevolence could have been dubbed as ‘coercion’ of that family to be converted to Christianity and myself as a religious influencer. Again, what makes journeys through Indian railways interesting is the range of conversations people make. Many a time I have come across people who wanted to talk about religious matters including personal faith convictions. But be sure, your conversation can lead you through a police station if a rightwing fanatic overhears your comments. Our nationalists who boast of the Indian heritage has conveniently forgotten that spiritual and philosophical discourse is part and parcel of Indian culture, whether it occurs in a tea shop in Kerala or under a banyan tree in Uttar Pradesh. They have simply destroyed the culture of discourse and dissent which India has been famous for.
Many States, especially those ruled by the Hindu rightwing political parties, have passed similar laws sabotaging the legal system and strangulating democracy. Democracy requires constant care and vigilance to thrive and produce its real fruits. Our negligence and carelessness have cost our own liberty and rights.
NGOs including Church agencies have a responsibility to be watchdogs of democracy apart from the works of peace and progress they are doing. Church leadership should not shy away from that responsibility as it constitutes the salvific mission of Missio Dei. Incidents and atrocities towards consecrated persons shall not be the only time when the Church should come up with responses and reactions. For many reasons the Church should take a lead in guiding the democracy to pursue its original values.
Missionary Reason: Church exists to give witness to Christ and all what He embodies, namely truth, justice, liberation and love. Any public and secular intervention to uphold these values is as much a missionary responsibility just because the primary concern of God is social justice of his creation. Situations of persecution is a time not only to give emphatic witness to Christ but also to state that Church exists for that. Sharing Christ and his love is the basic tenet of Christianity and woe to the Church if she fails to do that. Further harassment shall not be a vindication for playing low key.
Constitutional Reasons: Every Indian is bestowed with the fundamental right of professing and propagating a religion. Talking about Church or Christ does not violate any law of the land. It is ridiculous to think that a nun forced a stranger to be converted to Christianity during a train journey. The ecclesiastic authorities should not only state that any intrusion of ‘religious police’ is a violation of fundamental rights granted by the Constitution but should also garner social network to pressure the government to step back from such anti-democratic acts. At the same time, the Church respects individual’s right to lodge complaints against forced conversion. The anomaly in the UP anti-conversion law is that re-conversion to Hinduism, even if it is forced, is no crime at all.
Social Justice Reasons: Church is a religious entity, but simultaneously it is a social agency as well. Church is convinced of her social responsibilities dispensed through various agencies irrespective of denominations. These agencies have been engaged in nation-building through superfine educational institutions, hospitals, hospices, centres of human development, works of mercy and social justice. Moreover, various government policies in the last few years have adversely affected people’s life aggravating poverty, hunger and inequality.
Democratic Reasons: What anyone of good will, and peace and progress-loving people should be worried about our country is that it is falling in many social indices including the quality of democracy. It has considerably fallen by several notches in hunger index, happiness index, freedom of ex
There is no time to wait for a Gandhi to fight for our rights; instead, it is time for everyone to emerge as Gandhis to safeguard their rights. We should awake ourselves to claim that this land belongs to each and every one of us, and it is our right and obligation to have peace in it. Even at this crucial juncture if you pretend that your rights and liberty are safe you are befooling yourself. In a very daunting and life-threatening situation, one may be advised to ‘strip of’ one’s identity and you would be obliged to do so for your sake. That’s what those two nuns were forced to do to continue their journey. Let us not wait till that moment when you and I have to strip of our religious and national identities just to be dumbfounded loyalists of the rightwing groups to pursue our legitimate journeys.