Religious freedom suffers in the push for a majoritarian or Hindu nation framework in India with laws targeting minorities.
The absolute sense of impunity generated in the administrative apparatus of India by the pandemic lockdowns, and the consequent absence of civil society on the streets and in the courts, has aggravated targeted hate and violence against Christians by non-state actors in major states and the National Capital Territory, as seen in the 327 or so cases recorded up to December 2020.
The Evangelical Federation of India’s Religious Liberty Commission and other Christian agencies, including a national helpline co-founded by the ecumenical United Christian Forum five years ago, recorded the murders of at least five people. Six churches were burned or demolished, while in 26 cases Christian communities faced social exclusion.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of incidents. The near-collapse of the media, and the inability of activists to investigate cases in distant villages because of lockdowns and restrictions on transport, have severely constrained more accurate data collection of targeted hate and violence. Even in normal times, the police were loath to register cases. Covid-19 seems to have aggravated that. Victims also find restricted access to courts for relief.
There was ample warning for all religious minorities in the consummately organized hate campaign against the Muslim population in December 2019 and the massive targeted violence in New Delhi in January 2020. And much is common in the police complicity, the methodology of violence and the use of social media.
The state of religious freedom must be seen in the context of an unbridled push for a majoritarian or Hindu nation framework in India with laws tweaked against minorities in various ways.
Social scientists, political scholars and activists have lamented the shrinking democratic space. As one of them wrote, “federalism has ceased to exist and the last vestige of trust has been exterminated. The space for free speech has been drastically curtailed: dissent has been rechristened as anti-nationalism and sedition, and dozens of academics, social workers, students, activists and journalists have been incarcerated for being critical of the government. Hate speech laws are being applied selectively, sending a clear signal that remarks against a particular community will attract no punishment.”
The laws ostensibly punish forced or fraudulent religious conversions, but in practice they are used to criminalize all conversions
The most alarming development has been the expansion and scope of the notorious Freedom of Religion Acts, popularly known as the anti-conversion laws and earlier enforced in seven states, to many more states ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the pro-Hindu party the supports the Hindu nation agenda.
Once targeting only Christians, they are now also armed against Muslims in the guise of curbing “love jihad.” This is an Islamophobic term coined some years ago to demonize marriages between Muslim men and non-Muslim women and the resultant conversion. The laws ostensibly punish forced or fraudulent religious conversions, but in practice, they are used to criminalize all conversions, especially in non-urban settings. Punishment can be as much as 10 years in prison.
Last October, Ajay Bisht, alias Yogi Adityanath, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, announced that a law to curb love jihad would be passed by his government. With no legislative discussion, it became law by an ordinance passed by the government.
Similarly, in December, Madhya Pradesh state in central India approved a similar bill even though it already had strict anti-conversion laws. Anti-conversion laws now cover eight states — Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand. Arunachal Pradesh and Rajasthan have anti-conversion laws that are not in force for various reasons, while Tamil Nadu passed but soon repealed its anti-conversion law.
By December, 14 anti-conversion cases had been filed in Uttar Pradesh with 51 arrests, of whom 49 persons are now in jail. Only in two cases did the female “victim” sign a complaint. The rest of the cases were filed by others including relatives. Two of these cases were against Christians.
Responding to several writ petitions, the Supreme Court of India agreed to examine the constitutional validity of laws enacted by Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand if they were first challenged in the respective state high courts.
Christian activists fear that the expanding footprint of the anti-conversion laws brings a step closer to the BJP’s manifesto promising a nationwide law to check evangelization by “missionaries,” a term designed to impute a Western conspiracy to Christianize Dalits and tribal people.
This propaganda, together with the accusation of a Muslim population explosion because of a high birth rate, feeds the orchestrated rhetoric that the Hindu population will become a minority, which underpins electoral propaganda in India.
Undercover of anti-conversion laws, religious minorities can now be targeted by just about anyone, especially vigilante groups often complicit in the mob violence of earlier years in campaigns against beef and the slaughter of cows.
The burden of proof lies on the person accused of illegal conversion to prove that it is not illegal
The former chairman of the National Law Commission, Justice A.P. Shah, has called out this law, saying it “reflects the philosophy” of tribal courts and strikes “at the very root of right to life and liberty guaranteed under the constitution.”
He added: “In any criminal case [where] conversion is presumed to be illegal, the burden of proof is usually on the prosecution. In this ordinance, every religious conversion is presumed to be illegal. The burden of proof lies on the person accused of illegal conversion to prove that it is not illegal. So there is a presumption of guilt. The offence is cognizable. It is non-bailable and the police can arrest anyone.”
Uttar Pradesh once again heads the list of states where the Christian minority has been targeted. The Religious Liberty Commission registered 95 incidents against the Christian community in the state in 2020, followed by Chhattisgarh with 55 incidents, most taking place in the tribal area of Bastar, now saturated by volunteers from Hindu right-wing organizations posted to counter Christian influence. In Chhattisgarh, as in contiguous tribal regions, these groups face almost no political challenge. The Catholic Church has been present in the state and in the region for the last 200 years.
The push of the Hindu right-wing in Jharkhand is ominously similar to that in Chhattisgarh and has resulted in violence and social boycotts of Christians. Jharkhand and Madhya Pradesh registered 28 and 25 incidents respectively. Tamil Nadu in southern India had 23 incidents.
The most horrendous case of 2020 was the lynching of a 14-year-old boy in Odisha’s Kenduguda village in Malkangiri district on June 4. He was allegedly crushed to death with a stone by a group of people who then chopped his body into pieces and buried them in several places.
In the preliminary case sheet, police noted that the victim and his family including his father had adopted Christianity three years earlier. Christians in this village have been facing many threats and harassment from religious fanatics.
A social boycott and attacks followed when villagers refused to denounce their Christian beliefs or leave the village as demanded by local political groups
A typical attack happened in May 2020 in Budhakaman village of West Singhbhum district of Jharkhand when a group of people set the church cross on fire.
Last September, in three villages of the Kondagaon district in Chhattisgarh, around 16 houses were razed by villagers egged on by Hindutva groups. A social boycott and attacks followed when villagers refused to denounce their Christian beliefs or leave the village as demanded by local political groups. The police did not take any concrete action. Instead, the administration sought to condone the violence and solve the matter through negotiations.
The most bizarre incident, which caught the eye of the international media, took place in March this year in Jhansi in Uttar Pradesh state. Two nuns and two student nuns from the Delhi Province of the Sacred Heart Society were removed from a train on their way to Odisha. A group of Hindu youths, also on the same train, accused the nuns of taking the students for religious conversion. The youths approached the police when the train stopped at Jhansi station. The police arrested the women without listening to them.
Around 150 youths, mobilized by phone calls and social media, accompanied the women in a procession to the police station. The terrified nuns were released at 11.30 pm after strong intervention by advocacy groups and scrutiny of their documents.