The Corona-19 virus pandemic impacted India as much as it did the world, leaving, till December end 2020, more than 10.5 million Indian hospitalised, and 151,000 dead.
The Prime Minister, Mr Narendra Modi, in a national telecast announced a nation-wide total lockdown on March 24. With all industrial, business and tertiary economic activity at a standstill, more than 400 million workers would be poverty stricken, as per estimates by the International Labour Organisation. Though the government has not released figures, the Chief Labour Commissioner’s office, in June 2020, counted over 26 Lakh migrant workers stranded across the country, of which 10% were said to be in relief camps or shelter homes, while 43% were in situ at workplaces and 46% in other clusters. This was said to be an extreme underestimation, going by the other assessments made by Central and State governments, including Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s estimate of 8 crore stranded migrants used to determine extra ration provisions in the Atmanirbhar package. Tens of thousands were still on the road home even when these estimates came in. The scenes of an infant snuggling up to a mother who had died on railway platforms, and others dying on the road as they walks hundreds of kilometres, shook the conscience of the citizens.
The national [federal] government and states governed by Mr Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, were accused of using the environment of fear of the virus and of police action, to curb freedom of expression, and protest. Several state governments and senior members of the ruling party were named for fomenting targeted hate that often led to violence against religious minorities.
While Muslims were the main targets, Christians, especially pastors in rural areas of several states across the country, were victims of violence, their congregational prayers disturbed, and places of worship attacked. Political excoriation, police impunity, and vigilante groups on their trail, marked the experience of many Christian communities in several parts of the country at the height of the COVID-19 spread.
The EFI Religious Liberty Commission and other Christian agencies including a national Helpline co-founded by the EFI five years ago, documented 327 cases, in which at least five people lost their lives, at least six Churches were burnt or demolished, and 26 incidents of social boycott were recorded. This is by no means an exhaustive list of incidents, many of which remain mostly unreported and unrecorded even in normal years because of the fear of victims of further atrocities if they stand up to their tormentors, and the victims in the rural settings, in particular, are hesitant or outright refuse to register cases of religious persecution because of fear.
The religious freedom situation has to be seen in the context of an unbridled push for a majoritarian political framework in the country with laws tweaked against minorities in various ways.
The most alarming development has been the expansion and scope of the notorious Freedom of Religion Acts, which are popularly known as the anti-conversion laws, earlier enforced in 7 states, to many more states ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party. Once targeting only Christians, they are now armed also against Muslims in the guise of curbing ‘Love Jihad’. This is an Islamophobic term coined some years ago to demonise marriages between Muslim men and non-Muslim women, particularly those belonging to the Hindu upper castes. The laws ostensibly punish forced or fraudulent religious conversions. But in practice, they are used to criminalise all conversions, especially in non-urban settings.
The laws also take away all agency from Hindu women, rejecting or controlling their free will, and leaving them at the mercy of the patriarchy, further strengthen by political patronage and encouragement. Rulings by High Courts that adult men and women have the freedom to choose their partners have had no impact.
On 31 October, Yogi Adityanath, the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh announced that a law to curb ‘Love Jihad’ would be passed by his government. With no legislative discussion, it became law by an ordinance passed by the state Governor, Mrs Anandiben Patel.
With the passing of the Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Ordinance, 2020, Uttar Pradesh has become the eighth state in India to enforce an anti-conversion law. Similar laws are in force in the states of Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand and Uttarakhand. The states of Arunachal Pradesh and Rajasthan have passed anti-conversion laws that are not in force for various reasons, and Tamil Nadu has passed and repealed its anti-conversion law.In December, Madhya Pradesh approved an anti-conversion bill like the Uttar Pradesh one. Madhya Pradesh already has an anti-conversion law. By end of 2020, BJP-ruled states, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana and Karnataka have designed to prevent “forcible conversions” through marriage. Punishment can be as long as ten years in prison.
Christian activists fear that the expanding footprint of the anti-conversion laws bring a step closer the BJP’s manifesto promising a nation-wide law to check evangelisation by “missionaries”, a term designed to impute western conspiracy to Christianise Dalits, Tribals and others in rural areas, small towns and urban slums. This, together with the accusation of Islamic population explosion because of the high birth rate, feeds the orchestrated rhetoric that the Hindu population will become a minority which underpins electoral propaganda in India.
As a result of the anti-conversion laws, religious minorities can now be targeted by just about anyone, especially vigilante groups many of whom are complicit in the mob violence of earlier years in campaigns against beef and the slaughter of cows. Moreover, this law places the burden of proof on the person who has been accused of conversion.
This report of the Religious Liberty Commission of EFI illuminates the hate and targeted violence against the Christian community in 2020. It is again important to remember that the numbers of cases recorded by RLC or any other agency are only indicative, and the actual numbers may be much larger. The Christian community wherever it is in small numbers, remains fearful. Legal literacy is grossly inadequate, the police almost as a rule do not want to register cases. Even if a case is registered by the police, the assailants seldom face prosecution in a court of law. On the other hand, the complainant runs the risk of retributive action.
The incidents in this document are first recorded by volunteers who pass on information to the RLC. The RLC verifies it with the victim or witnesses. Effort is made to contact the local police station in each instance to reconfirm the details of the incident.
Uttar Pradesh once again heads the list of regions where the Christian minority has been targeted the most. RLC registered 95 incidents against the Christian community in the state in 2020.
It is followed by Chhattisgarh with 55 incidents, most taking place in the tribal region of Bastar, now saturated by volunteers from Hindu right-wing organizations posted to “counter Christian influence. In fact, there is a well-planned political campaign by these groups to ‘Hindutvaize’ tribal society. In Chhattisgarh, as in contiguous tribal regions, these groups face almost no political challenge. The Church has been present in the state and in the region for the last 200 years.
The push of the Hindu Right wing in Jharkhand is ominously similar to that of Chhattisgarh and has resulted in violence and social boycott of the Christians. Jharkhand and Madhya Pradesh registered 28 and 25 incidents, respectively.
In Madhya Pradesh, all the incidents took place from the months of March till December and no incidents were recorded in the first two months. Incidentally, it was in March that the BJP wrested power from the Congress in the state. Majority of the incidents in the state happened in the last four months of the year.
Tamil Nadu in south India had 23 incidents. The state had the second largest number of cases in 2019, registering 60 incidents of some sort of violent action against the Christian community. It is the fifth highest in 2020.
The months of March and October saw the highest number of incidents recorded in the country against Christians, with 39 and 37 incidents, respectively. May was the lowest with only 12 incidents. This was perhaps due to the lockdown in the entire country.
EFIRLC appeals to the Government of India and the respective State Governments of the States named in the report to ensure the rule of law and the security of religious minorities in India.
We especially appeal to the State Governments of Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Madhya Pradesh to deal stringently with the various right-wing organizations operating in these states whose primary agenda is to create an atmosphere of fear among the Christian community and other religious minorities.
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Released by: Rev. Vijayesh Lal
National Director – EFIRLC
General Secretary – EFI