Rights groups join to fight hate ahead of Indian election

Leaders meet in New Delhi to target politicians who use religious differences to attract votes
Rights groups join to fight hate ahead of Indian election

Soni Sori, a tribal rights activist from Chhattisgarh, speaks at a meeting in New Delhi on March 18 where rights activists sought ways to work against propaganda based on hate in the upcoming Indian general elections. (Photo by Bijay Kumar Minj)

Groups of Indians including Christians are on a campaign to popularize a “manifesto against hate" aiming to block political efforts to garner votes by dividing citizens on religious lines though hate speeches.

Indians are set to elect members to their 543-seat national parliament in a seven-phase election from April 11 to May 19. The world’s largest democratic exercise has almost 900 million eligible voters, an estimated 80 percent of them Hindus.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which won the 2014 election primarily on a plank of pro-Hindu promises, is seeking a second term covertly campaigning for majority Hindu votes.

“This election is not about a minority or majority. It is about ensuring the basic rights of every Indian irrespective of religion,” said Christian leader A.C. Michael, who has joined the campaign. “We need to ensure secular democratic rights, working beyond caste, creed and religion.”

Michael, a former member of the Delhi Minorities Commission, represented the United Christian Forum at a March 18 meeting of 100 civil rights leaders in New Delhi to discuss ways to popularize the manifesto against hate.

The manifesto was prepared by United Against Hate, a confederation of rights group formed in 2017 after a series of incidents of mob lynchings and violence targeting religious minorities, tribal and Dalit people.

The manifesto demands the revocation of certain laws enacted by the Modi government that target and discriminate against religious minorities such as Christians and Muslims. The new government should make a law to prevent violence targeting particular communities, it says.

Christian and Muslim leaders complain that BJP governments in New Delhi and several northern states tacitly approve of Hindu groups targeting Christians, Muslims and socially poor Dalit and tribal people.

An atmosphere of intolerance spread across the nation after pro-Hindu groups began to push for establishing a nation of Hindu hegemony after they took the BJP’s election victory as a mandate to step up their actions, critics say.

Fawaz Shaheen, a rights activist and Muslim leader, said his Quill Foundation has recorded 759 hate crimes during the BJP’s five-year rule.

“Crimes of this proportion are a national crisis … it is being perpetuated in a planned manner” targeting religious minorities. Hate speeches are “a prominent constituent of such violence,” he said at the New Delhi meeting.

Persecution Relief, an ecumenical Christian forum, claims it recorded 600 incidents in 2017 of violence against Christians, including destruction of churches, threats and harassment, social boycotts, hate campaigns, abductions, murder, physical violence and attempted murder.

Soni Sori, a tribal rights activist from Chhattisgarh, told the meeting that they will work in the villages to help people understand “the time has come to use votes to choose a person who will fight for our rights and safeguard our livelihoods.

Rajeev Yadav of Rihai Manch, which fights hate crimes in Uttar Pradesh, pointed out the need to organize more people to work in villages to counter the hate propaganda of pro-Hindu groups.

Political party leader Yogendra Yadav of Swaraj India stressed the need to safeguard India’s composite culture through progressive and secular forces. People need to stand together against fanatical forces, he said.

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Swaraj (self-rule) was the slogan and movement when Indians, forgetting their differences of religion, language, caste and culture, stood together against British colonialism.

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