A recent outpouring of support for Prime Minister Narendra Modi's development agenda by several Catholic and Protestant leaders is not likely to reduce the deep and seemingly abiding distrust the Indian political and social system holds toward what are popularly known as the "missionaries". Nor will it mitigate the hate that is now erupting in India against religious minorities.
Missionaries was a term once used in the Indian subcontinent to describe clergy, religious and social workers who arrived during the course of three centuries from Europe and later the United States. They set up schools, hospitals and mission stations across much of the Indian land mass.
The coming of foreign, and almost entirely white, religious personnel stopped soon after World War II, but there was still a sizable number in the country at independence. In 1993, India had 1,923 registered foreign missionaries. By 2001, the number was 1,100. No official data exists for 2013-14, but estimates vary from 200 to 500. Most have lived in India for periods ranging from 20 years to 60 years.
This is far removed from the image that the Sangh Parivar and the government paints of a land teeming with Western missionaries. But since the 1960s, it has been impossible for any priest or nun to obtain a religious visa to India, and many who come on tourist visas have to sign papers at Indian consulates that they will not indulge in religious activity.
It is not entirely correct to suggest that it is just the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and its political wing the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that oppose mission work on grounds of ideology and religion. The larger Indian political leadership, both in the Congress and in other parties, including those emerging from the socialist movement of Ram Manohar Lohia of north India, have seen the community as an appendage of the British Raj. The leader of the freedom struggle, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, already called a mahatma and later formally named the father of the nation, had serious doubts about missionaries. E. Stanley Jones in his book The Christ of the Indian Road, records an encounter with the mahatma. He asked Gandhi, "though you quote the words of Christ often, why is it that you appear to so adamantly reject becoming his follower?" The reply was clear: "Oh, I don't reject your Christ. I love your Christ. It is just that so many of you Christians are so unlike your Christ". Gandhi's statement molded the political discourse in independent India.
India's constitution promulgated in 1950 nonetheless gave Christians the right to profess, practice and propagate their faith, with some lawmakers stressing that the propagation of faith was integral to the religion. But among the first acts of the then government was to withdraw affirmative action from untouchable groups other than those who were Hindu. The issue has agitated the community ever since. The absolute ban on freedom of faith of these people, who constitute 16 to 20 percent of the population, was ostensibly to prevent conversion to Christianity or Islam.
The bane of the Christian community has been anti-conversion laws, ironically called Freedom of Religion Acts, which brought officialdom firmly into a process that was otherwise between a person and his conscience. Six states have these laws, another has enacted but not yet implemented them. The BJP said in its election campaign it intends to make this a national law. Governmental permission and severe penalties are the cutting edge of these laws. Political parties, barring perhaps the Marxists, and even the Supreme Court of India tend to agree to the need of the anti-conversion laws. The UN Human Rights Council, European Union and international freedom of faith organizations have called them a grave violation of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The premise that no one converts unless he is being lured, cheated or coerced into Christianity or Islam is now a major political slogan in the BJP’s mission to control every regional government after coming to power in New Delhi in May.
The Muslim community has been the object of suspicion since the 1947 partition of the subcontinent, which saw widespread violence, and has left an unspoken but virulent Islamaphobia in Indian society. Recent acts of terror in India have deepened this chasm.
This officially sanctioned suspicion, and the political hate emerging from it, underpins the current campaigns by the RSS and its subsidiaries, which target both the Christian and the Muslim communities, especially in north and central India.
A new dimension was added this year in the electoral rhetoric of the BJP in the run up to the general elections, and elections to the legislative assemblies of several states in north and west India. This is a campaign to evoke the fear in highly patriarchal feudal societies in rural India that young Muslim and Christian men are threatening the security and sexual purity of their women.
It began innocently enough in Kerala with the state High Court asking police if there was a strategy in cases of interfaith marriages to coerce Hindu women into converting to Christianity or Islam. Police could not find any design and the matter seemed to have ended, until it re-erupted in north India. But now, the police are on the side of local political thugs, and both seem acting under the patronage and protection of powerful leaders in New Delhi.
Love Jihad, as it is called, has been presented as a grand design in which young Hindu women are seduced by Muslim and Christian men, lured into marriage, and then converted in a conspiracy to alter the demographic profile of Hindu India.
The result has been the hounding of young men, and the humiliation of Hindu women across the country. In Madhya Pradesh, a district police chief annulled the marriage of a Christian man and a Hindu woman under pressure from a Hindu mob.
The state governments, and more than that, the federal government, have maintained an intriguing silence, with no official condemnation of this criminal intimidation of young couples in love.This has led civil society groups to believe that the hate campaign has the blessings of the government. The inaction of the superior courts and the national human rights commission in failing to recognize these extrajudicial intrusions into the personal life of citizens compounds the crisis.
John Dayal is the general secretary of the All India Christian Council and a member of the Indian government's National Integration Council.
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