Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (left) and BJP president Amit Shah celebrate their landslide victory in May but it has only served to perpetuate the persecution of minority religions. (Photo by Money Sharma/AFP)
A tumultuous year in India is drawing to a close marked by widespread protests against the apparent determination of Narendra Modi’s government to turn India a nation of Hindu supremacy. Secular principles and religious harmony are, sad to say, losing relevance fast.
Several leaders like Archbishop Leo Cornelio of Bhopal, based in central India, believes the violent protests in New Delhi and elsewhere characterize how Indians felt in 2019.
The current protests began after Prime Minister Modi’s pro-Hindu government amended a citizenship law on Dec. 11, allowing migrants from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh to become Indian citizens … but only if they are not Muslims.
“The year saw a series of events and moves that discriminated against religious minorities like Muslims and Christians. Divisions based on religion have been increasing, disturbing peace in society,” Archbihsop Cornelio said.
Christian leaders say that since Modi began his second term in office in May 2019, winning a landslide for his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), pro-Hindu groups have become emboldened in their push for India to become a Hindu nation.
The worst victims of this agenda are religious minorities, Muslims, and Christians who together make up 200 million in a population of 1. 2 billion. Christians are a tiny minority of some 28 million.
The persecution of Christians continued unabated with the jailing of priests and pastors, the vandalizing of their education institutions, the destruction of Churches and forced reconversions.Christians suffered 331 incidents of hate crime in the first nine months of 2019, according to data gathered by Persecution Relief, an ecumenical forum that records Christian persecution in India.
The number is probably much higher since many victims fear reprisals from powerful right-wing Hindu radicals, said Shibu Thomas, the founder of Persecution Relief.
“At least three Christians, two in Chhattisgarh and one in Odisha state, were martyred for their faith this year, Thomas said.
“The persecution of Christians has now become a pan-India phenomenon with India’s most populous state Uttar Pradesh topping the list of hate crimes against Christians.”
Priests arrested, nuns harassed
The BJP government in the eastern state of Jharkhand, as in previous years, continued its sustained attacks on Christians.Two Catholic priests in the state were jailed on trumped-up charges such as grabbing indigenous people’s land, molestation and conspiracy to commit mass rape, among other offenses.
The worst was the harassment of an 83-year-old Jesuit, Father Stan Swamy. His home was raided on Oct. 21 after he failed to attend court after being charged with liking a Facebook post, which allegedly carried an anti-India message.
The first sedition charge was filed against him and nine other rights activists in August 2018, when police said the accused had collaborated with Maoist rebels.
Church leaders say Father Swamy was targeted for supporting the struggle of indigenous people, which forced the government to abandon its move to remove legal clauses that protected tribal people’s land.
The state witnessed scores of targeted attacks on Christian institutions in the Jharkhand and other parts of the country.
In a major attack, some 500 right-wing armed activists raided Jesuit-run St. John Berchmans Inter College on Sept. 3 and its hostel for tribal students in the Sahibganj district of Jharkhand.They selectively beat up students, injuring two of them seriously. Police had to use force to take the injured to hospital, the school said in a complaint to the governor.
Another shocking move that made international headlines was the continued harassment of a Missionaries of Charity nun based in the Jharkhand capital Ranchi.
It began with the arrest of a nun in June 2018 following an allegation that she was involved in the sale of infants from a house they ran for unmarried mothers. The nun was denied bail several times, forcing her to stay in jail or 15 months.
After her release on Sept. 27, two more cases were filed accusing the Missionaries of Charity nuns of selling babies, at which point Church leaders demanded an impartial probe into the allegations.
“These complaints coming one after another are a conspiracy to tarnish the Christian community and their services,” Father Anand David Xaxo, public relations officer of Ranchi Archdiocese, told ucanews.
“Very strategically, they use the media to project the Missionaries of Charity nuns, the most reputed Christian entity, as involved in criminal activity. The aim is to tarnish the Church and all missionaries,” he said.
A year of calamities
The year also witnessed a series of floods and cyclones across the country, killing hundreds and displacing thousands, especially in remote villages.
Cyclone Fani became the strongest tropical to hit eastern India in 20 years when it attacked Odisha coast on May 2. At least 89 people were killed and property worth an estimated $8 billion was damaged in eastern India, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Sri Lanka.
“It was destruction unlimited,” said Divine Word priest Baptits D’Souza, who recalled that at least a million people were rendered homeless and their farms destroyed.
Floods hit 14 of India’s 29 states at different times and killed some 200 people, forcing millions into relief camps in states such as Bihar, Kerala, Maharashtra and Karnataka, plus northeastern Assam.
The Catholic Church’s charitable arm Caritas India pitched in to help them with food packages, mosquito nets, essential toiletries and other things to help rebuild their shattered lives in flood-hit areas.
Indian media continued discussions on sex abuse and Church people, particularly linking with a nun in southern India, who refused to leave her congregation even after being dismissed.
Sister Lucy Kalappura was sacked by her Franciscan Clarist Congregation in August for her disobedience and violation of vows. She claimed, however, that the congregation moved against her after she supported the public demonstration of five nuns in 2018 who sought the arrest of Bishop Franco Mulakkal of Jalandhar.
The prelate is accused of raping a former superior general of the Missionaries of Jesus, a diocesan congregation under his patronage, no less than 13 times from 2014-16. He was arrested last year, bailed and now faces court proceedings.
But Kalappura continued her campaign, accusing Church leaders of oppressing and sexually violating nuns. She also continued to live in her convent, awaiting a response to her appeal in the Vatican against her dismissal.
Her biopic released in December also accused unnamed priests and bishops of sexually abusing nuns, keeping the sex abuse issue alive in the media.
Another unsavoury issue involving the Church was the demand for a law to govern Church-owned assets. A forum of lay groups and Christian priests wanted to end clergy-dominated systems in which Christian assets were misused.
The spark for the debate was an allegation last year that Cardinal George Alencherry, Major Archbishop of the Eastern rite Syro-Malabar Church, incurred losses of $10 million in land deals. Asset-linked disputes in some other Christian denominations were also cited.
A silver lining amid the gloom of persecutions and allegations against the Indian Church was the canonization of Mariam Thresia, who became the seventh Indian saint.
The Kerala-born nun was canonized in the Vatican on Oct. 13 along with British Cardinal Henry Newman, Swiss laywoman Marguerite Bays, Brazilian nun Dulce Lopes and Italian nun Giuseppina Vannini.
*Saji Thomas is a journalist based in Bhopal. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of ucanews