Religious choices are best left to the individual while ensuring the rule of law and constitutional guarantees
Punjab police stand guard at a church in Amritsar on Sept. 2 following an incident in which four masked men allegedly vandalized a Pieta statue inside the church premises and set a car parked there on fire at Thakarpura village in India's Punjab state. (Photo: AFP)
The situation is tense in India’s northern state of Punjab bordering Pakistan where militant Sikh religious groups continue to put pressure on churches and prayer halls of Catholics, independent churches, and itinerant pastors working among Dalit communities in outlying western districts.
Both communities are minorities in the Hindu-majority nation, but Punjab has a large Sikh community and a tiny Christian population. At last count in 2011, Sikhs were about 57.6 percent, Hindus 38.4 percent, Muslims1.93 percent, and Christians 1.2 percent.
Efforts at rapprochement have not picked up real traction with the National Minorities Commission actively using institutional muscle on behalf of India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which was routed in the last legislative assembly elections in Punjab.
The BJP once ruled Punjab in a coalition with the Shiromani Akali Dal, representing the Sikhs, but the coalition broke up on the issue of the contentious farm laws introduced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government.
The farmers’ protest and the long siege of the national capital New Delhi forced Modi to withdraw the laws, but it was too late. The state elections saw the Delhi-based Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) sweep the provincial polls to form a new government replacing the incumbent Congress chief minister from a Dalit community.
In its efforts to retrieve its position in Punjab — where it enjoyed support among the urban trading communities and non-Sikh middles classes — the BJP has appointed a former police officer, Iqbal Singh Lalupura, who had 40 years ago arrested the dreaded Sikh militant Jathedar Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, who was later killed by the army inside his hideout at the fortified Golden Temple in Amritsar.
"Despite its top place as an agrarian state and its wealthy diaspora in the West, the Sikhs remain sharply divided along caste lines"
The 1984 storming and destruction of the Akal Takht, the seat of the Sikh temporal authority, led to the assassination of then prime minister, Indira Gandhi, and the massacre of over 5,000 Sikhs in Delhi and other northern cities in October-November of that year.
The Sikhs, especially the upper caste Jats who are big farmers, have neither forgotten that bloodshed nor forgiven the Congress, which has had more reverses than successes in the state over the last 40 years.
Despite its top place as an agrarian state and its wealthy diaspora in the West, the Sikhs remain sharply divided along caste lines. The Dalits, who make common cause with the Christians and Muslim converts from the same caste origins, have built large gurudwaras for their worship and do not obey the political diktats of the upper caste groups.
The Dalit Sikhs are the core of thousands of people in Punjab turning to Christianity of all denominations. The first-generation converts have established their own churches and healing ministries to reach out into every nook and corner of the food bowl state, and people seem receptive.
Article 14, a research and news portal reports: “Home churches or small prayer halls in homes are attracting thousands of people in Punjab, including Dalit Sikhs who do not formally convert to Christianity though they regularly attend church services.”
By some estimates, the last three years recorded a 5-10 percent rise in the number of such churches and pastors. “Now, churches in the Majha and Doaba regions are facing violent attacks as anti-Christian rhetoric spreads, fueled by the insecurities of Sikh groups and demands for a law against religious conversion,” according to Article 14.
"Lalupura has been warning Christians against a backlash from the Nihangs, an armed group that is sworn to defend the Sikh faith"
Two major attacks have shaken the community and the state in recent weeks. Nihang leader Baba Major Singh and nearly 150 of his supporters were booked on the complaint of a pastor by Jandiala Guru Police.
Then a group of unidentified men attacked the Catholic Church of the Child Jesus in Patti, Jalandhar diocese, vandalizing the statue of the Virgin Mary and setting fire to the car of parish priest Father Thomas Poochalil. The gang held the church’s security guards at gunpoint, while others broke into the church shouting slogans.
Lalupura was supposed to be Modi’s main instrument of gaining control of the religion and community-based politics of Punjab. The highly decorated police officer has been chairman of the NCM, which for much of Modi’s rule has had no Christian member.
Lalupura has been now elevated to the BJP’s national parliamentary committee.
From June this year, Lalupura has been warning Christians against a backlash from the Nihangs, an armed group that is sworn to defend the Sikh faith and has in the past attacked the police and even moderate Sikh leaders.
It is widely believed that the NCM chairman has used his clout and proximity to the powers that be to get the Akal Takht and Gurudwara Prabhandhak Committee that manage Sikh religious places across the country, to voice opposition to the Christians.
Evangelical and independent churches, on the one hand, and the traditional British era churches, seem to be ranged against each other"
Ironically, Lalupura and his commission, mandated to protect all religious minorities, have not uttered a single word against large-scale violence against pastors and churches in the country. The majority of cases have been reported in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, and other states.
But he seems to have succeeded in dividing the Christian community. Real bishops, fake bishops, and independent pastors have made statements in the media.
The evangelical and independent churches, on the one hand, and the traditional British era churches, seem to be ranged against each other.
The most bizarre meeting was held between Akal Takht Jathedar Giani Harpreet Singh, the temporal head of the Sikh community, Bishop John Ashi, a self-styled bishop from the Anglican Church, and his relative Madhulika Joyce, who later addressed the media to repeat Sikh leader’s call to end conversions.
No one in the Punjab Christian community seems to have heard of this group.
The more formal meeting was held between a delegation led by former Church of North India Moderator Bishop P K Samantaroy of Amritsar with a Catholic presence that met with the Jathedar inside the Golden Temple premises.
As theologian Dr. Richard Howell of the Council of Evangelical Churches notes, the people of Punjab have had more than their share of tragedy, pain, and grief in the past. In the present times, it is grappling with issues of unemployment, drugs, and the fallout of an economic crisis due to the pandemic.
It is good that all communities have resolutely condemned the terrible acts of violence against churches in recent days. It is also clear that meddling or politics by religious groups or government institutions can only aggravate the situation.
The AAP government in Punjab and the BJP’s federal dispensation and its agencies must collaborate with religious communities to restore lasting peace based on friendship and amity between the people.
This is best achieved through dialogue. For this, the rule of law and constitutional guarantees are a must.
It is best left to the individual to make his or her religious choices.
*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.
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