Discussing the persecution of the Christian community in India in light of the recent Delhi incidents
In 1857 the subcontinent was rocked by the largest challenge to British dominance in India until the independence struggle began around 60 years later. The ‘mutiny’ (so labelled by colonial historians) or the ‘first war of independence’ (so labelled by nationalist historians) began with a religious controversy. It was claimed that the cartridges for the new Enfield rifles introduced into the Bengal army of the British East India Company were greased with the fat of cows and pigs.
This was considered sacrilege by Hindus and impure by Muslims, and neatly slotted into the religious narrative of disaffected soldiers. It was believed that the British were trying (either by trickery or coercion) to convert the people of India to Christianity. Generally, aside from the odd zealot missionary or official, the East India Company were far more interested in commercial enterprise than the crucifix. Regardless of the reality, however, the Hindu and Muslim soldiers who believed this scandal rose up into a revolt which nearly dislodged the ‘jewel in the crown’ of the British Empire.
In the past ten weeks, six separate incidents of crime have taken place at a number of churches across Delhi. These have varied in severity, from the theft of a DVD player to having a stone thrown through a window. These incidents have been decried by the Christian community in Delhi: “A clear pattern of orchestrated attacks”, were the words used by one priest, whilst another suggested there was “a definite pattern” to the incidents.
This narrative of religious oppression has been spurred on by the rise of the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) to a massive majority in national politics. Mistrust of the BJP is deepened by their association with aggressive Hindu sects such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Hindu Mahasabha. It has been reported that the leader of the latter sect, Swami Omji, recently threatened to kill the new chief minister of Delhi, Arvin Kejriwal, saying: “We killed Mahatma Gandhi … we will shoot down Kejriwal too”. Christians (as well as Muslims) have begun to fear for their faith.
The most striking note in this narrative of oppression, however, is the recent phenomenon of Hindu ‘reconversions’. The RSS claim that Indian Christians were forcibly converted from Hinduism under the influence of the British and that it is therefore their duty to re-convert those who have lost their way. This was followed up by a claim last December that they would re-convert around 4,000 Christians and 1,000 Muslims on the 25th of December (quite a controversial date in the Christian calendar). The article in which I heard about this event had a charming comment below from another reader, an excerpt of which reads: “BOTH HATE-FILLLED SEMETIC CULTS ISSSLAM AND CHRISSSSTAINTY MUST BE BANNNED NO WONDER EDUCATE AND ENLIGHTENED INDIAN MUZZLIMS AND CHRISTAINS ARE LEAVING THEIR RACIST AND HATE FILLLED CULTS AND COMING BACK TO THEIR MOTHER RELIGION HINDUISM WHICH THE ANCESTORS WERE FORCED TO CONVERT DUE TO TERROR TACTICS AND MONEY BRIBING TACTICS AND SO MANY OTHER DIRTY ENTICEMENT TRICKS!”
Such occurrences do seem to lend a certain credibility to the narrative of current Christian oppression in India. A religiously charged political landscape, increasing Hindu fundamentalism and recent physical attacks on churches all suggest as much. However on closer inspection of the reality underlying these situations, one comes away with a different perspective.
In 2014, there were 253 incidents of theft reported at religious places: 206 temples, 30 gurudwaras, 14 mosques and only three churches were targeted by thieves. Such crimes didn’t start in 2014 (when the BJP came to power); they happen every year in Delhi. Evidence from the past crime catalogue suggests that in fact, Christians have gotten off lightly.
When one looks at the individual instances it becomes clear that there is little evidence to show that they are part of an organised communal campaign. At the incident in Jasola, where a stone shattered one of the church’s windows, the ensuing investigation revealed that it was the work of a group of children playing outside the church. The other five incidents also have similarly un-communal explanations.
It is claimed by Christian authorities in Delhi that these attacks are part of a systematic plan to make Christians in Delhi feel insecure. However, as of yet, they seem to be little evidence to suggest that this is all part of a BJP master plan to eradicate Christianity in India, as some would like to suggest.
Likewise, the reconversion phenomenon has far more bark than bite. The mass conversion that was supposed to take place on Christmas day was called off. Instead, the Christian community in Aligarh (the proposed sight of the conversion) happily went about their traditional Christmas customs of frying gujiyas and preparing the bajre ki tikiya.
It has also been shown that the ‘reconverted’ have been offered economic incentives. Sufia Begum, a convert from Agra, said: “The RSS people assured us that they will provide us better place to live, better food and schooling for my grandsons. I don’t mind change of religion, as religion doesn’t give us food to eat.” It is also claimed that they have been offered the opportunity to join the caste of their choice. This is unheard of in Hindu tradition and is a particularly unorthodox move by the orthodox Hindus orchestrating the events.
What we can glean from these facts is that the Christian community in Delhi is not really being persecuted. The evidence available about the various ‘desecrations’ of churches shows that they are unconnected, and generally have little communal significance. Likewise the ‘orchestrated attacks’ of Hindu fundamentalists have been blown out of proportion by the media and an anxious Christian community.
However this doesn’t really matter at all. What matters is the fact that the Christian community feels persecuted. The claims that it has been throwing out are not those of a self-confident community. Being a minority group, this is understandable. What people need to realise is that religious persecution often has as much to do with perception as with reality.
Therefore, it is up to the current government to put the community at ease. Regardless of whether the church attacks were motivated by communal tension, there should be total denunciation of these attacks by the government. Communal groups need to enter into dialogue to resolve perceived hostilities before an attack that is actually motivated by religion takes place.
Comparing the situation now with that of the past is very revealing. One only has to look to 1857 to see the disastrous implications of failing to extend sympathy to those of different beliefs.
It is often said that history repeats itself. In future the word ‘irony’ should perhaps be added to this epithet. The case in India now shows a religion that has the feeling of being under threat by another politically dominant religion. Said religion is witnessing attempts to convert parts of its community and is being physically threatened. However, this time around, Christianity and Hinduism have swapped places.