On December 18, India’s National Minorities Day, Rajeshwar Singh, the head of the Dharm Jagran Manch [Faith awakening forum] declared on national television news channels that his organization had set a 2021 deadline to cleanse India of “alien Islam and Christianity”.
Another group said Christians would not be allowed in Himalayan regions that are sacred to Hindus. The hate speeches went viral on social media, and then in major newspapers across the country.
The Indian government has not indicated whether Singh is being prosecuted under India’s strict laws against religious discord.
So far the laws have been largely used to target Christian pastors, and in recent months, Muslim youths venting their anger against the government on Facebook.
Meanwhile, members of the Council of Ministers and spokesmen for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which controls many Indian state governments, have been vocal in support of the Sangh Parivar.
The Parivar is a large and almost omni-present family of Hindu militant organizations created by the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) in the past two decades. The Dharma Jagran Manch, the Bajrang Dal and the powerful Vishwa Hindu Parishad are among the more prominent of its groups with aggressive cadres.
Political analysts say it would be erroneous to assume that under the Narendra Modi government, the RSS has reoriented its goals. Each time the BJP assumes power, its ideologues get emboldened.
Atal Behari Vajpayee, the first BJP premier, was in power when major attacks took place on Christians. Over 30 village churches were destroyed in Dangs in Gujarat on Christmas Eve in 1998.
Australian leprosy worker Graham Staines and his sons were burnt alive in January 1999 and Catholic priest Fr George Kuzhikandam was murdered in Mathura, not too far from New Delhi, in his church in June 2000.
Christmas Eve violence in 2007 in Kandhamal, Orissa, was a precursor of the 2008 pogrom that occurred while the BJP was part of a coalition government.
Modi has made no bones of the fact that he was a leader of the RSS, and continues to profess its ideology.
RSS affiliated groups have launched a campaign to convert poor Christians and Muslims to Hinduism, a process they call Ghar Wapsi, or homecoming. They argue that every Indian is actually a Hindu, and Christians and Muslims are those who strayed, or were bought by missionaries.
In turn, the Sangh groups have called for a war chest for the Ghar Wapsi, earmarking 500,000 rupees (US$7,875) for every Muslim and Christian they convert, and 200,000 rupees for every Christian.
The different rates are presumably because Muslims are thought to be more difficult to convert.
In the central Indian State of Chhattisgarh, where several months ago radical groups incited villages to ban Christian pastors and religious services other than those by Hindus, the focus is now on Catholic schools.
In the state’s Bastar tribal region, Christian schools are required to erect statues of the Hindu goddess of learning, Saraswati.
Priests running these institutions can no longer be called “Father’, but need to be called “Pracharya” (teacher) by non-Christian students.
Protestant pastors are being beaten up, home churches raided almost as a matter of routine, with the police looking on, or actively participating. Santa Claus, of course, has been proscribed. Needless to say, this state has been governed by the BJP for the past 12 years.
The fact that the Sangh Parivar runs over 57,000 ideology-based schools for children in villages across several states, especially in areas populated by tribal and Dalit groups, makes available a cadre of youth and their parents ready to do their bidding.
The BJP’s response has been to suggest that the 2021 religious cleansing deadline needs to be seen in the context of fiery speeches by Muslim TV evangelists and Western campaigns to spread Christianity.
Venkiah Naidu, a former president of the BJP and a government minister, has called for a national law against religious conversions. These laws exist in six states, and have been passed by two more but are yet to be endorsed by the first ministers.
It is only a matter of a few months before they too are enacted. These laws have also led to violence against religious groups.
United Nations Special Rapporteurs for religious freedom have slammed these laws as infringing the basic rights of freedom of faith and belief, enunciated in the UN Bill of Rights, and which in fact, are an important part of the Indian constitution.
The federal minister for education, former TV actress Smriti Boman Irani, has ordered a revision of text books, particularly of history, to incorporate more ancient Indian traditions including references to Hindu sacred texts.
Various important councils in the ministry are now chaired by luminaries wedded to the thesis that India is the fountainhead of all knowledge in the world. The BJP and the minister hold that Hindu sacred texts are a 5,000-year-old source of knowledge on such diverse subjects as plastic surgery, aviation, nuclear weaponry and genetic engineering.
Her officials issued orders earlier this month that Christmas Day will now be called “Good Governance Day” to mark the birthday of — not Jesus — but former BJP prime minister Vajpayee who is now critically ill and has not been seen in public for several years.
Academic institutions from junior schools to universities were to keep their doors open and organize social programs for students. Christmas was not to be a holiday any more.
An outcry by Church and civil society, an acrimonious clash in parliament where Modi still does not have a majority in the Upper House, forced the government to dilute the order.
Christmas remains a holiday, but the “educational” programs and activities will also be held, with principals and officials told to report to the government that they did indeed comply with the order.
Muslims and Christians feel they are being strangled by a tightening noose, in the villages and small towns by Sangh cadres who have the police on their side, and nationally by the federal and state governments who seem to endorse the hate campaigns and the violence.
But for civil society, the threat is to India’s constitution, which has evolved as a great international democratic document that protects the country’s hundreds of cultures, languages, races and many faiths. All too many people in office and heading Sangh groups have said that the constitution is an inheritance from Britain that has no place in Hindu Rashtra, the Land of the Hindus.
This is something that must worry not just Indian religious minorities, but the world.
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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