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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 11, March 11, 2023

Christian Show of Unity, Anger Catches BJP by Surprise | John Dayal

Lessons from the 19th February 2023 Rally at Jantar Mantar

Saturday 11 March 2023, by John Dayal


Days after 25-year-old Nasir and Junaid, 35, of Ghatmkeeka in the western state of Rajasthan where killed and their bodies burnt in their jeep in February 2023 by cow vigilante members of the Bajrang Dal, in distant Meghalaya in the northeast, State Bharatiya Janata Party President, Ernest Mawrie, made a startling statement. He said there are no restrictions on consuming beef in the Hindutva party. Mawrie told India today he himself eats beef and there is no issue with it.

Meghalaya is going to hold elections soon to its state legislative assembly. Rajasthan is also due for assembly elections a little later.

But while the BJP and the groups of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, the ideological mother, maintain an aggressive posture on cow, Muslims, and as an aside, on Adivasi Christians of central India, the party is bending backwards to appease Khasi, Naga and other largely Christian tribals from going away from embrace of the last five years.

The large and very visible presence of Nagas, Mizos, Khasi and Garo seen singing hymns with Adivasis, Punjabi and south Indian Christians at a historic 22,000 strong protest at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi on Sunday, 19th February, caught the government, the. intelligence agencies and the ruling national party by surprise. It also caught the church with surprise, albeit a very pleasant one.

The Indian church leadership never has claimed to be politically the bravest in the world. Faced with erosion of its rights of freedom of faith culture, violence against its priests, pastors and Nuns, desecration of it churches and small places of worship, it has chosen the party of turning the other check. Following Christ to the letter, certainly, but enthusing its approximately 3 crore following in little or no measure.

As its spokespersons said at a Press club event a day before the rally, the Christian Community in India has staged protest demonstrations in the national capital perhaps not more than five times in the seven decades since Independence. These have been against the OP Tyagi bill banning conversions [1980s], the rape of nuns [1990s], the brutal killing of Graham Stuart Staines [1999], the Kandhamal pogrom in 1998, and the issue of Dalit Christians.

Faced with the sharpest ever increases in violence in the eight years of the Narendra Modi regime, estimated by the United Christian Forum at over 600, and the Washington DC based NRI group Fiacona at over 1200, the church in Delhi decided to protest, but then allowed itself to shrink it down to a token one hour candle light demonstration at the gages of the Sacred Heart Cathedral, the seat of the Delhi Catholic archdiocese, and close to the offices of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India, the titular representative of the three Catholic Rites in India.

Legal counsel, pacificists and political intermediaries have consistently advised the church leadership that the way forward is dialogue or private negotiations with the government, the BJP and the RSS. And if push comes to shove, moving the courts to protect the rights of Catholic educational and medical institutions. Open, and secret, discussions with the ruling groups and their ideological masters have been the norm.

Not that the episcopal, evangelical, Pentecostal and independent churches are not radically braver. Instinctively the limit of their protests is in prayers, with almost little or no physical presence on the road, alone, or in conjunction with civil society.

Not surprisingly, there is usually little success in getting all denominations together in the type of mass protest that will be noticed by the government or by any political party.

Frustrated by the low tone of the candlelight vigil, and with the images of thousands of people chased out of their villages in the Bastar region of Chhattisgarh [see also earlier issues of Indian Currents], the leadership of the various denominations in the national capital region once again came together to see if a physical protest could be staged to tell the government that the community was deeply hurt, angry and was insisting on a positive response from the government to call a halt to the violence.

In the current situation of fear in the country of a crackdown by the government, and the lack of support from even state administrations controlled by parties other than the. BJP, no protest will be able to bring lakhs of people to the national capital to fill the Ramlila Ground, the birthplace of the Aam Aadmi Party and of the revived Bharatiya Janata party in the late 1970s.

With government permitting but a tiny protest at Jantar Mantar, the designated place for protests and agitations, the organizers staged a coup in galvanizing the two communities of indigenous people – the Tribals of the North east, and theAdivasis of the Chhota Nagpur and Bhilwara regions of central India spanning from Bengal in the east to Rajasthan in the west.

The North east is represented by a strong student body in Delhi’s various educational and coaching institutions, and among shop workers and central government officers. The Adivasis are a major presence in government jobs, education and trained and untrained labour. Most Catholic parishes have a strong and very visible presence of Adivasis, The Nagas worship in scores of communities renting time in major church es, halls and educational institutions. Both are vibrant faith communities, covering the ecumenical spectrum,

They turned out in their munificent numbers. Dressed in their traditional dresses, or in plain white shirts and black trousers or dresses, young and old prayed, sang and danced on the large scale. In one stroke, it filled two major check boxes. The first was of unity, of course, and vigour. The second was of cultural connectivity with their past. The Sangh often accuses the church of weaning away people from their roots. Here was a celebration of roots as seldom seen in a metropolis. The South Indian continent was complemented by a strong Punjabi choir ce and very vigorous cultural group, and a small but Rajasthani Hindi singers and dancers who won the hearts of the massive crowd.

As the spokesperson noted at the press conference on the eve of the rally, “The protest is not so much to oppose, as much is it to bring to the authorities’ notice – to the government, the Supreme Courts and local authorities – this sharp rise in the violence against Christians on a national scale”.

“While the community continues to have faith in the leadership and the legal system of the nation, it makes a heartfelt and earnest appeal to fellow citizens to stand in empathy and solidarity with it, to raise their voices at the targeted, violent and organised injustice happening across the nation against their brothers and sisters, outraging their religious freedom and inherent dignity”, he had said.

Since 2017, eight states have enacted or re-enacted anti-conversion laws which are often misused by religious fanatics and Hindutva proponents to target minorities for their faith. There is also a petition re-filed in the Supreme Court for the third time, seeking measures to curb “forced conversions” at a national level. This petition is plagued with baseless allegation and unverified social media “findings” and several minority groups have filed impleadment applications against it. In the last hearing, the Supreme Court directed the petitioner to withdraw an additional affidavit containing false claims. The Court is also contemplating tagging all challenges to anti-conversion laws in various High Courts with this petition.

The Christian community in the national capital region expressed its commitment to the concept of fraternity enshrined in the Indian Christian, and a basic genet of their own faith. Their exposition of fraternity was most evident in their demands in the memorandum they wrote to the President of India, Mrs. Draupadi Murmu who many identified as one of their own, a tribal, a woman, or empathy.

Their major demand was the simplest one. They said if and when they are attacked or suffered a crime, the police must register a complaint. The grass reality is that the police does not register what is popularly called a FIR. And if it does, the FIR is more often against the family of the victim than against the criminal and the assailant.

The Supreme court directive is clear. “in view of various counter claims regarding registration or non-registration, what is necessary is only that the information given to the police must disclose the commission of a cognizable offence. In such a situation, registration of an FIR is mandatory.

Other demands are as basic to strengthening the law and order situation in the country. They pertain of a lack of CCTVs in police stations and the matter of illegal detentions.

District administration in various states across the country, frequently arrest Christians or persons of other religions who also hold their faith in Lord Jesus Christ on the pretext that their religious activities are likely to breach the peace in a region.

An illegality is being perpetuated in the police stations across many states by detaining persons in the police station premises for more than 24 hours in many instances. The dimple demand is for CCTV cameras in local police stations to prevent violation of any fundamental rights of the citizens of the state.

There is need for a National/ State Redressal Commission/s headed by a retired Supreme Court Judge with representation of the community and civil society to address the issues of targeted violence against minorities. Strict action is called for against vigilante mobs who round up individuals, trespass private property belonging to other religions who also have their faith in Lord Jesus Christ or raise communal slogans outside police station premises.

This memorandum will find resonance with every citizen of the country.

[A version of his article was published also in the Indian Currentd]

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