Freedom of Conscience and Attacks on Christians

The idea that fundamental rights are enjoyed by all, without any distinction of race, sex, language, ethnic origin, nationality and religion, is a basic principle of democracy and international human rights law. Violent attacks on the Christian minorities in different parts of the country are an assault on the very notion of democracy and universal human rights. Despite the country’s obligation to respect and protect the right to freedom of conscience and religion, the wave of killings, beatings, sexual assaults, looting, destruction of property, and displacement have created a climate of fear and insecurity, particularly among the Christians. Representatives of Christians and minorities are exposed to the grave risk of communally motivated verbal abuse and physical attacks.

Worst, the governments of Orissa and Karnataka continued to deny the extent of violence prevalent, and failed to face up to their minimum responsibility of securing the life of their people. If India has to live up to any human rights standards, it must show a clear political will to combat attacks on Christians: speaking out strongly, and at all levels of governance; publicly acknowledging the seriousness of the issue; and the need to take concerted action. This is not ‘hooliganism’ or ‘anti-social’ activity, motivated by some hooligans and anti-social elements. It is a violent, and apparently a communal attack, carried out by organized groups. Crimes which are communally motivated must be effectively and thoroughly investigated and prosecuted as such. Treating communally induced violence and brutality on an equal footing with cases that have no communal overtones would be to turn a blind eye to the specific nature of the acts that are particularly destructive of fundamental rights.

Religious conversion is not the issue. The important matter at stake is the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion that is guaranteed by our constitution, and a wide array of instruments of national and international laws. The right to freedom of religion declares that ‘everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion’ and the freedom ‘either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching’. The principle of non-discrimination is inherent in the enjoyment of the right to religion. Targeting Christians, Churches, campuses, and communities is clearly striping away these rights. Committed within the society generally, and at the hands of official omission and commission, as amply demonstrated in Kandhamal and Mangalore, are serious abuses of civil and political laws. Equally worrisome is the immunity continued to be enjoyed by those responsible for such heinous acts.

The large-scale violence against Christians in Orissa, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Kerala, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand is indicative of several developments in our country. It reflects the rise of communalism and conservatism. It reveals believes and practices of some organized groups, who openly justify contempt for other groups of people based on their religion. They want to carry out notions of superiority against any rule of law. Within this broad canvass, hate crimes are becoming one of the most brutal manifestations of intolerance and discrimination in our country today. Hate crimes have a more devastating effect on us than ordinary crimes. As various reports and testimonies suggest, they are reviving old, and creating new, biases, prejudices, and negative imaging of the ‘other’, and are also generating cycles of mistrust and tension within the affected states. Hate crimes have been allowed to recuperate themselves through crude and simple hate speeches – through word of mouth, graffiti, posters, newspapers, meetings, yatras, rumors, gossip, and internet. Speeches at rallies have been used to instigate attacks in Orissa and Karnataka, in fully view of official eyes.

It needs to be also noted that violence by the non-state actors on religious minorities is on an increase. It is indeed a sorry state of affairs that state authorities do not provide any official statistics on the number of reported incidents of violence against Christians. However, monitoring carried out by the press, human rights groups and NGOs working in these states indicates that there has been an alarming rise on violent attacks against the Christians over the last two years particularly. Many of them have been carried out by well-known groups like the Bajrang Dal and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. The State has an obligation to prohibit, and bring to an end by all appropriate means, including immediate ordinance or legislation as required by pressing circumstances, attacks on minorities by any leader, group and organization. Violence inflicted by government forces and by communal and terrorist groups — both should be our concern. We should also try to establish systems for recording and monitoring communal incidents, and also see how these incidents are prosecuted.

It is quite noticeable that the state authorities of Orissa, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and others have failed to protect the rights and freedom of Christians. They have failed to ensure a prompt, thorough, impartial and an independent investigation of reported assaults on minorities. They have thus also been unsuccessful in preventing the emergence of a climate of impunity with regard to such assaults. Immediately acknowledging the communal aspect of these assaults, which is to say that they are directed against the freedom and rights of members of a particular minority community, would have been a necessary step towards countering violence, discrimination and impunity. Instead, however, the state and its vital agencies restrained in applying even the existing legislation. The failure of the local administration and police in Kandhamal, Phulbani and Gajapati districts of Orissa, and in Mangalore and Udupi in Karnataka, to acknowledge the gravity of these communally motivated crimes and respond adequately, has led to virtual impunity for the perpetrators.

Sadly, it is also true that in many cases the victims did not report the crimes, as they had no confidence that they would get justice. Even if the victims do complain, the authorities are reluctant to take action. If the case manages to reach the court, the perpetrators will usually be prosecuted for ‘law and order’ problems, while the communal nature of the crime will go unacknowledged and unrecorded. This has led us to a situation in Indian polity, also realized in the past, where religious and ethnic minorities are exposed to a continuous risk of communally motivated abuses and violence from members of the public and officials. The present political dispensations cannot be relied upon to stop religious discrimination and fundamentalism, unless we have binding obligations under the national and international human rights laws to eliminate religious discrimination from state policies and practices, to completely protect minorities from violence by non-state groups and public officials, and to ensure constitutionally that the right to live freely from communal violence is enjoyed by all who live in India.

We all hold that communal violence is a particular affront to human dignity. In view of its perilous consequences, a special vigilance and vigorous reaction is required from the state and society. It is for this reason that we ask that the authorities must use all available means to combat communalism and communal violence, thereby reinforcing democracy’s vision of a society in which diversity is not perceived as a threat but as a source of enrichment. However, our state and society has so far failed to evolve a strategy to protect the potential victims, before the violence escalated further.

The language of communalism is often violent. Violence can come from different quarters. However, it is equally true that the language of communalism is often silent: hostile comments and suspicious glances, threatening letters, stone throwing, and abuses. It is also embedded in the official practices that do not care for the everyday practices of communal organizations. It is worth recalling hear a comment of the Delhi Catholic Archdiocese Director, Dominic Emmanuel: ‘The biggest worry of the Christian community is not that the Sangh Parivar is coming down heavily on the peace-loving community. What is shocking to the Christian community is that millions of Hindus who study in their institutions and hold great posts or businesses or in government today and who never even got so much as an indirect indication of the missionaries so called nefarious plans to convert them to Christianity are all quiet. We ask them to stand up and speak up.’

2 thoughts on “Freedom of Conscience and Attacks on Christians”

  1. Just one qualification, Mukul, to your overall argument. You say “religious conversions are not the issue.” But they are. Conversions are an important issue considering that some of the Hindutva claims seem to have become common sense: Even people with liberal sensibilities, in the media and elsewhere have taken it in hook, line and sinker. Christians and Muslims are bad because they convert; we are great and tolerant because we don’t.
    I would like to come to this issue later at some length but for the time being, let me just underline what Ambedkar once said with utter brilliance to Lala Hardayal. He told the Lala that if Hinduism is not a missionary and proselytizing religion, it is not because of some inherent greatness; it is because caste oppression and subjugation is incompatible with conversion. To be able to convert a stranger to its religion, it is not enough to offer its creed; it should be able to admit the convert among the kindred.
    Bascially, Ambedkar scathingly suggested that Hinduism could only ever see the convert as impure/mlechchha and thus the only liberation for Hinduism’s oppressed was by abandoning this religion – or whatever you prefer to call it. Thus he converted to Buddhism, escaping from this fraud.
    Hindutva goons might do want they want, try whatever violence they please – as they are currently doing – under the benign eyes of the state and the political class (also sold to the idea that conversion is bad) but nothing can stop the desire for liberation.
    Pious Hindus often tell us that this is done through fraud and material inducements. There is no bigger nonsense than this. For centuries you kept people illiterate and made them lift your shit. Now, thanks to missionary activity, they have education, dignity and have done well in life. So what if they changed their religion for material gain. Why did you not give them that material gain?! Did somebody prevent you – other than your own perverted minds?

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