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Jeevan Prabhu SJ Jeevan Prabhu SJ
26 Feb 2024

The United Christian Forum (UCF), in its shocking statistics released on 14th December 2023, revealed that there have been 687 attacks against Christians and their institutions across India in the year 2023. In 334 days, 687 incidents. It means roughly two attacks a day! Unfortunately, neither the major newspapers nor the national media care to report incidents of this magnitude.

The communal carnage that took place in Manipur has shaken the conscience of the country. The violence against the Christians there has reduced to ashes 642 places of worship as per a petition filed in the Supreme Court of India. The UCF data does not include these incidents in its statistics. From 2014 till 2022, the incidents of Christian bashing have seen a sharp rise – almost four times more. In 2016, it was 247, while in 2021, it saw 505 incidents. The attacks increased further in 2022 to 599.
The attacks on Christians take different forms.

1. Attack on churches and prayer halls: Several attacks on churches and prayer halls have been reported from all over the country. These attacks have been carried out either while the Christians gathered for their prayer meetings on Sundays or on their holy day prayer gatherings. Church buildings or prayer halls were sometimes broken open and ransacked at night. Many churches and prayer halls were vandalised, statues were broken, and holy articles were desecrated.

2. Attack on Christian communities: There have been reports of violence targeting Christian communities and congregations. Physical assault, threat, intimidation and expulsion from the villages have been reported. Pastors have been harassed, intimidated and even physically attacked, causing fatal injuries.

3. Allegation of forced conversion: This is the most common and unsubstantiated reason for an attack on Christians anywhere and at any time. Some states have even passed anti-conversion laws. Christian missionaries, education institutions and social workers have been accused of forcibly converting non-Christians to Christianity. Unfortunately, the state administration, as well as the state police, join hands in harassing and arresting Christians.

4. Legal challenges and discrimination: Laws have been used against Christian communities. Religious activities have been restricted on flimsy grounds. Permissions to construct churches or prayer halls are denied. Hurdles are created for legal recognition of Christian organisations. Bank accounts have been impounded, and FC accounts have been cancelled or frozen. The rights granted by the country's Constitution, such as the freedom to practice and propagate religion, have been denied to Christians.

5. Social discrimination and social exclusion: Many times, a Christian name or Christian identity becomes the reason for denial of access to public services, educational institutions and employment opportunities. Dalit Christians are doubly victimised on account of being Dalits and Christians.

Although Christian presence in India is traced back as early as 52 AD, according to the 2011 Census, the Christian population is merely 2.78 crores, 2.3% of the total population. In contrast, the Hindu population is 96.63 crores, representing 79.8 per cent of the total population. Then why is a whopping 80% of the population scared of 2%? Does this minuscule minority pose a threat to the massive majority? What is the Christian way of life or practice of their religion that intimidates the more significant majority? Or is there any hidden agenda in trying to suppress and annihilate this religion?

The Undercurrent

Historically, India is a multi-religious and multi-cultural country. Hindus have been living with Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists and several other religions peacefully and harmoniously for centuries. While educated and intellectual Hindus maintained a respectful relationship with their Christian counterparts, at the grassroots level, the ties transcended all barriers. There was free and open interaction by sharing spaces in the neighbourhood and at workplaces. All overlooked occasional skirmishes and misunderstandings, if any, as part of everyday social living.

However, the ill feelings against and tension with the Christians in India began with the advent of Hindutva – a politico-religious narrative propagated and perpetuated by Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and its political outfit, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). This narrative is associated with Hindu nationalism and socio-cultural foundations based on sacred texts such as Manusmriti. The socio-political dynamics, cultural differences and historical grievances have contributed to the tensions and conflicts. The English education with which Christians are closely associated was perceived as a threat to the cultural practices and 'Sanatanic' values of Hinduism. As a result of Christian missionaries reaching out to the so-called lower caste, marginalised and untouchables, the upper echelon of the caste hierarchy began to lose its grip on the lower strata of the society. The emergence of the Hindutva narrative is perceived as an instrument to regain this power and control.

Why are Christians perceived as enemies of Hindutva?

In India, Christians are identified with their educational institutions, social welfare activities and modern way of life. The involvement of these Christian institutions has challenged the Hindutva mindset and social practices. The unhampered association of Christians with Dalits, untouchables, women and tribals have upset the hegemony of Hindu social stratification. Some of the key factors that are perceived as threats to the Hindutva narrative are:

1. Education: Dalits, women and untouchables who were deprived of education for centuries have gained access to educational institutions administered by Christians. These groups, along with tribals, particularly in rural and far-flung areas, where even government departments could not reach out, were introduced to English education, thereby changing their thinking and lifestyle. Qualitative education at a lower cost and at times free of cost, vocational training of young boys and girls and support for higher education empowered these deprived and depressed classes, enabling them to break the cycle of poverty and discrimination. Their education helped them raise their heads before feudal lords and challenge their exploitation. They are liberated from the clutches of exploiting landlords, money lenders and high-caste village monarchs. This angered the oppressive forces, and Christians, who were responsible for such a transformation, were targeted.

2. Health Care Facilities: Christians and Church institutions are instrumental in opening clinics and healthcare centres in remote places. They have provided healthcare services to Dalits and tribal communities at affordable costs. These institutions offer medical treatment and educate people on preventive care, hygiene, and maternal and child health issues. As a result, the mortality rate has plummeted considerably in rural areas. This general improvement in health has reduced their dependence on the village moneylenders and landlords. This development has angered the rich and the powerful, who invariably belong to high and dominant castes.

3. Livelihood Support: Christian churches, as well as Christian charitable non-government organisations (NGOs), operate one of the most extensive networks of livelihood support systems, especially with Dalits and tribal communities as their target groups. Their socio-economic programmes and projects in skill training, agricultural projects, microfinancing, self-help groups, and other small income-generating activities have empowered individuals and families and enhanced their financial capabilities. As their financial dependence on the village money lenders and high-caste landlords is reduced, their self-respect and social status have received an impetus. This has naturally challenged the village caste hierarchy, depriving the higher castes of free labour and cheap services.

4. Human Rights Education and Movement: Christian scriptures and church teachings propagate social equality and human dignity. Hence, human rights advocacy is inherent in the activities undertaken by Christians. Christian institutions advocate the rights of Dalits and tribal communities and challenge caste and sex-based discrimination, social exploitation, bonded and forced labour and unjust land grabbing. Christians provide legal literacy and assistance, social and political conscientisation at the grassroots level and promote constitutional values of equality, justice and awareness of fundamental rights. This newfound awareness and knowledge have enabled Dalits, tribals and those marginalised to challenge caste and sex-based discrimination and stratification.

5. Social Transformation and Community Development: Christian institutions and NGOs have invested their resources and manpower to bring about social transformation by empowering the marginalised. While education has transformed the younger generation, non-formal education through self-help groups, human rights movements, community participation in joint welfare projects, capacity building, leadership training and conflict resolution at the grassroots level, have brought about radical changes in the illiterate and semi-literate adult population among Dalits, tribals and those living in the margins of society. These measures have brought self-respect and self-reliance as well as community sense among those who were victims of oppression and exploitation for centuries.

Hence, the involvement of Christians in the lives of Dalits, tribals, women, outcastes and marginalised has posed a significant challenge to the caste hierarchy and oppression sanctioned and perpetuated by Hindu texts like Manusmriti. Consequently, it has upset the caste-based social and economic order in the village, thereby challenging the socio-cultural hegemony of the upper caste. Obviously, the Christians and their institutions are held responsible for such rebellion and upheaval in Hindu society. One section of Hindus, predominantly belonging to the upper castes, has worked out a mechanism to counter the Christian involvement in social reformation and transformation by projecting Christians as anti-Hindu and a threat to the country as a whole. The rise of Hindutva, thus, is a strategy to counter the influence of Christians and other minorities who have been breaking the barriers of caste and creed and bringing to the mainstream that section of humanity which once was considered the scum of Hindu society.

Hindutva is a political narrative with a garb of religious sentimentality. This narrative utilises popular Hindu religious sentiments. The Hindutva brigade is aware of the fact that nothing affects people as much as their religious identity. Hindutva is a powerful weapon to rake up religious sentiments in the masses, posing imaginary threats to their religion. Hence the slogan – Hindus are in danger. The gullible people who fail to apply a critical mind to this Hindutva ploy easily fall prey to the designs of the perpetrators, get instigated and jump into violent attacks on the same people with whom once they had lived peacefully and amicably. In these violent wars, to protect their religion, they lose their livelihood and lives while the instigators withdraw themselves into their protective enclosures.

It is crucial to know that the section of Hindus who have engaged in negative propaganda against Christians is not representative of the entire Hindu population. Many Hindus do not subscribe to Hindutva propaganda. Many actively promote and participate in mutual dialogue, cooperation and understanding between the two communities. While recognising the excellent work done by the Christian institutions in the field of education, health care and social upliftment, they appreciate the commitment of Christians to the nation building activities. Recognising the multi-religious nature of Indian society, the broad-minded Hindus join hands with other people of goodwill in promoting tolerance, compassion and mutual respect. Hindu religious leaders and organisations often advocate for harmony and peaceful coexistence among all religious communities in India.

It is the political ambition of some groups in the majority religion that has targeted Christians. They are fully aware that a mere 2% of the population can never threaten the existence of 80%. But they also know that religion is the best weapon to flare up emotions in simple and unguided people and reap rich political dividends. Therefore, as long as ordinary people are kept in the illusion of impending danger from Christians and other minorities, the Hindutva agenda will thrive and win elections.

Truth about Conversion

Responding to a PIL on religious mass conversion filed in June 2022 by advocate Ashwin Kuma Upadhyay, a BJP member, the Supreme Court said: "What is the basis for your prayer? There is no material basis on record. No document, no instance. You have given three Supreme Court judgments, and the rest is your averment…. You have said mass conversion. Where are statistics? Has any aggrieved come forward?"

These remarks of the court are sufficient proof that the negative propaganda against Christians about religious conversion is utter lies. Notwithstanding Article 25 of the Constitution of India, which guarantees the freedom of conscience, the freedom to profess, practice and propagate religion to all citizens and Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that asserts that "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion…" some of the states in the Indian Union have passed anti-conversion laws criminalising religious conversion. But it is ironic to note that within the first 23 days of passing the anti-conversion law by the Madhya Pradesh government, as many as 23 cases were filed alleging religious conversion. But none of them resulted in conviction. In Uttar Pradesh, out of sixteen cases, only one was convicted by the lower court.

Thus, it is sufficed to state that the bogey of conversion – by force, intimidation, threatening, deceiving, luring through gifts and monetary benefits – is a well-planned and executed strategy to malign and harass Christians and their institutions. And thereby creating a narrative of antagonism. This Hindutva narrative against Christians perpetuates a casteist and patriarchal mindset that women, Dalits, tribals and other marginalised are vulnerable, need protection and are incapable of making the right decisions on their own. In fact, it is an outright insult and disrespect to these groups. For centuries, the higher caste groups considered them low, unclean and untouchable. Now, they treat them as people who are imbecile, immature and incapable of managing their own lives. These people sell their faith, gods, integrity, and dignity for a bag of rice and food grains, housing, clothing, health and education! In that case, the central and state governments should be sued and penalised for keeping these people vulnerable when India is celebrating its amritkaal of independence.

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