In its recently released report, Freedom House downgraded India from ‘free’ to ‘partly free’ due to the atmosphere of intolerance, and the treatment of journalists, protestors and religious minorities. The events of 19th March at Jhansi railway station in Uttar Pradesh more than reflect this fact. Two nuns belonging to the Sacred Heart congregation, who were travelling from Delhi to Odisha along with two postulants, were forced to de-board the train. Some Bajrang Dal/ABVP activists alleged that the nuns, who were in their habit, were taking the girls for conversion. These vigilantes asked for the identity cards and religion of the teenager postulants and the circulating video shows they were aggressive in their tone all through.
The postulants said they are Christians and intend to become nuns. The police were brought in and the four women were forcibly taken to a police station. They were permitted to travel again the next day after the intervention of the Jhansi Bishop’s House and others. The frightening incident, where the women had to face male vigilantes and male police personnel, has sent shock waves around.
A statement issued by the Kerala Catholic Bishops’ Conference (KCBC) stated that the nuns were taken into custody without any reason and were humiliated. The KCBC also demanded suitable action against those who harassed the women. As the nuns are from Kerala, State’s Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan wrote to Union Home Minister Amit Shah demanding his intervention. Shah, whose party is facing elections in Kerala, has promised to look into the matter.
The ABVP/Bajrang Dal activists were quoting the UP anti-conversion law as they were intimidating the women. The activists have been increasingly indulging in such actions during the last few years. The sense of impunity is deep in their minds as those indulging in such crimes are not only treated with kid gloves but are also duly rewarded. While this incident has come to light, many similar incidents have not been highlighted in the media.
‘Persecution Relief’ report (2019) points out: “The frequency of attacks on Christian gatherings is escalating especially during Sunday morning worship service and house prayer meetings. Pastors and congregation members are beaten up, sometimes so badly that they break their legs, vandalize the churches and the Hindu fundamentalists make reports to the police that the Christians are converting people to Christ. Hundreds of Christians are being imprisoned on false charges of converting Hindus to Christianity.”
The ‘Freedom House’ report mentions the attacks on Muslims prominently as the attacks on them are glaring while those on Christians are generally sub-radar and reported less often. The very nature of anti-Christian violence beginning in the decade of 1990s has been a bit different. The first major anti-Christian violence was the brutal burning alive of Pastor Graham Stewart Stains and his two minor children in 1999. Bajrang Dal’s Dara Singh (Rajendra Pal), who is currently in jail, was the one who mobilized people on the pretext that Pastor Stains was a threat to Hinduism as he was converting people on the pretext of treating Leprosy patients.
That time, it was the NDA government, led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee with Lal Krishna Advani as Home Minister, in power. Initially, Advani stated that it could not be the work of Bajrang Dal workers as he knew them too well. The incident was so horrific that President K.R. Narayanan lamented that the ‘Killings belong to the world’s inventory of black deeds.” Shaken by this, the NDA Government sent a top-level ministerial team with Murli Manohar Joshi, George Fernandez and Navin Patnaik as members. The team opined that the killings were part of an international conspiracy to destabilize the NDA Government.
At the same time, Advani appointed the Wadhava Commission to investigate the incident. The Commission concluded that Bajrang Dal activist Dara Singh, who was also participating in the activities of Vanavasi Kalyan Ashram, Vishwa Hindu Parishad and others, was the culprit and that there was no statistical increase in the number of Christians in the area where Pastor Stains was working.
Later, we witnessed anti-Christian violence in Adivasi areas of Dangs (Gujarat), Jhabua (Madhya Pradesh) and Orissa. Every year around Christmas such violence took place and it peaked in August 2008 in Kandhamal wherein nearly a hundred Christians lost their lives, hundreds of Churches were damaged or burnt and thousands displaced. National People’s Tribunal headed by retired Chief Justice of Delhi High Court Justice A. P. Shah opined that “What happened in Kandhamal was a national shame, a complete defacement of humanity.”
The anti-Christian violence has been preceded by ceaseless propaganda that Christian Missionaries are getting huge foreign funding, and they are indulging in conversion through fraud and allurement. All Christian denominations don’t operate on similar ground. There may be few who proclaim conversion as their goal, but a majority of the denominations are not out for canvassing for conversion. Christianity in India is very old. One version is that it began in AD 52 when St. Thomas arrived on the Malabar Coast and set up churches. Since then, many missions are working in remote areas and cities. Their primary work is in the sectors of health and education. Incidentally, many leading lights of Hindu nationalists like Advani and late Arun Jaitley have been products of Christian mission schools.
The major reason for the anti-Christian propaganda is to pose obstacles to the activities of the missionaries, particularly in Adivasi areas where they are giving succor to the sick on one hand and empowering the Adivasis through education on the other. From the decades of 1980s, the VHP and the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram have been focusing on the Adivasi belt where Swamis belonging to these organizations have been active -- Aseemanand in Dangs, Gujarat; Laxmananand in Odisha; and followers of Asaram Bapu in Jhabua, MP.
In these areas, Shabri and Hanuman are also being promoted as icons of Adivasis and religiosity is being promoted along with anti-Christian propaganda. It is this propaganda that forms the root of violence and it is the electoral power at the Centre that encourages the vigilantes to do such acts as witnessed in Jhansi.