Days after 25-year-old Nasir and 35-year-old Junaid of Ghatmkeeka in Rajasthan were killed and their bodies burnt in their jeep in February 2023 by cow vigilante members of the Bajrang Dal, in distant Meghalaya in North-East, Bhartiya Janata Party state president Ernest Mawrie made a startling statement. He said there are no restrictions on consuming beef in the Hindutva party. Mawrie told India Today that he eats beef and there is no issue with it.
Meghalaya is going to hold Assembly elections on February 27. Rajasthan is also due for elections a little later.
While the BJP and its ideological mother Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh maintain an aggressive posture on cow, the party is bending backwards to appease Khasi, Naga and other largely Christian tribals so as to keep them in its fold.
Hence the visible presence of Nagas, Mizos, Khasis and Garos -- singing hymns with Adivasis, Punjabi and South Indian Christians -- at a historic 22,000-strong protest rally at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi on 19th February, caught the government, the. intelligence agencies and the ruling national party by surprise. The Church too was caught by surprise, albeit a very pleasant one.
The Church leadership in India has never claimed to be politically the bravest in the world. Faced with erosion of its right to freedom of faith and culture; violence against its priests, pastors and nuns; and desecration of churches and other places of worship, it has always chosen the part of turning the other cheek.
As its spokespersons said at an event a day before the rally, the Christian Community in India has staged protest demonstrations in the national Capital perhaps not more than five times in the seven decades since Independence. These have been against the O.P. Tyagi Bill banning conversions [1980s], the rape of nuns [1990s], the brutal killing of Graham Stuart Staines and his two minor sons , the Kandhamal pogrom in 1998, and the issue of Dalit Christians.
Faced with the sharpest ever increase in violence in the eight years of the Narendra Modi regime, estimated by the United Christian Forum at over 600 incidents, and the Washington DC-based NRI group Fiacona at over 1200, the Church in Delhi decided to protest, but then allowed itself to shrink it down to a token one-hour candle light demonstration at the gates of the Sacred Heart Cathedral, the seat of the Delhi Catholic Archdiocese, and close to the offices of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India, the titular representative of the three Catholic Rites in India.
Legal counsel, pacifists and political intermediaries have consistently advised the Church leadership that the way forward is dialogue or private negotiations with the government, the BJP and the RSS. And if push comes to shove, move the courts to protect the rights of Catholic educational and medical institutions. Open, and secret, discussions with the ruling groups and their ideological masters have been the norm.
Not that the episcopal, evangelical, Pentecostal and independent churches are not radically braver. Instinctively the limit of their protests is in prayers, with almost little or no physical presence on the road, alone, or in conjunction with civil society.
Not surprisingly, there is usually little success in getting all denominations together in the type of mass protest that will be noticed by the government or by any political party.
Frustrated by the low tone of the candlelight vigil, and with the images of thousands of people chased out of their villages in Bastar region of Chhattisgarh [see also earlier issues of Indian Currents], the leadership of various Christian denominations in the national capital region once again came together to see if a physical protest could be staged to tell the government that the community was deeply hurt, angry and was insisting on a positive response from the government to put a halt to the violence.
In the current situation of fear in the country of a crackdown by the government, and the lack of support from even state administrations controlled by parties other than the BJP, no protest will be able to bring lakhs of people to the national capital to fill the Ramlila Ground, the birthplace of the Aam Aadmi Party and of the revived Bhartiya Janata Party in the late 1970s.
With the government permitting but a tiny protest at Jantar Mantar, the designated place for protests and agitations, the organizers staged a coup in galvanizing the two communities of indigenous people – Tribals of the North East, and Adivasis of the Chhota Nagpur and Bhilwara regions of central India spanning from Bengal in the east to Rajasthan in the west.
The North East is represented by a strong student body in Delhi’s various educational and coaching institutions, and among shop workers and central government officers. The Adivasis are a major presence in government jobs, education and trained and untrained labour. Most Catholic parishes have a strong and very visible presence of Adivasis; the Nagas worship in scores of communities renting time in major churches, halls and educational institutions. Both are vibrant faith communities, covering the ecumenical spectrum.
They turned out in their munificent numbers. Dressed in their traditional dresses, or in plain white shirts and black trousers or dresses, the young and the old prayed, sang and danced on a large scale. In one stroke, it filled two major check boxes. The first was of unity, of course, and vigour. The second was of cultural connectivity with their past. The Sangh often accuses the Church of weaning away people from their roots. Here was a celebration of roots as seldom seen in a metropolis. The South Indian contingent was complemented by a strong Punjabi choir and a very vigorous cultural group, and a small but Rajasthani Hindi singers and dancers who won the hearts of the massive crowd.
As the spokesperson noted at the press conference on the eve of the rally, “The protest is not so much to oppose, as much is it to bring to the authorities’ notice – to the government, the Supreme Court and local authorities – this sharp rise in the violence against Christians on a national scale.”
“While the community continues to have faith in the leadership and the legal system of the nation, it makes a heartfelt and earnest appeal to fellow citizens to stand in empathy and solidarity with it, to raise their voices at the targeted, violent and organised injustice happening across the nation against their brothers and sisters, outraging their religious freedom and inherent dignity,” he added.
Since 2017, eight states have enacted or re-enacted anti-conversion laws which are often misused by religious fanatics and Hindutva proponents to target minorities for their faith. There is also a petition re-filed in the Supreme Court for the third time, seeking measures to curb “forced conversions” at a national level. This petition is plagued with baseless allegations and unverified social media “findings” and several minority groups have filed impleadment applications against it. In the last hearing, the Supreme Court directed the petitioner to withdraw an additional affidavit containing false claims. The Court is also contemplating tagging all challenges to anti-conversion laws in various High Courts with this petition.
The Christian community in the national capital region expressed its commitment to the concept of fraternity enshrined in the Indian Constitution, and a basic tenet of their faith. Their exposition of fraternity was most evident in their demands in the memorandum they wrote to the President of India, Mrs. Draupadi Murmu, whom many identified as one of their own -- a tribal, a woman.
Their major demand was the simplest one. They said if and when they are attacked or suffered a crime, the police must register a complaint. The grassroot reality is that the police do not register what is popularly called a FIR. And if it does, the FIR is more often against the family of the victim than against the criminal and the assailant.
The Supreme Court directive is clear. “In view of various counter-claims regarding registration or non-registration, what is necessary is that the information given to the police must disclose the commission of a cognizable offence. In such a situation, registration of an FIR is mandatory.”
Other demands include strengthening of law and order situation in the country. They pertain to lack of CCTVs in police stations and the matter of illegal detentions.
District administrations in various states frequently arrest Christians or persons of other religions who hold their faith in Jesus Christ on the pretext that their religious activities are likely to breach peace in a region.
An illegality is being perpetuated in police stations across many states by detaining persons in the police station premises for more than 24 hours. The simple demand is for CCTV cameras in local police stations to prevent violation of any fundamental right of the citizens of the state.
There is need for a National/State Redressal Commission/s headed by a retired Supreme Court Judge with representation of the community and civil society to address the issues of targeted violence against minorities. Strict action is called for against vigilante mobs who round up individuals, trespass private property belonging to people of other religions who have faith in Jesus Christ or raise communal slogans outside police station premises.
The memorandum submitted to the President will find resonance with every citizen of the country.