By Shehzad Poonawalla* (21 Ma6 2014)
The controversial track record and role of BJP’s (India’s right wing, Hindu nationalist opposition party) prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, with respect to India’s largest minority community namely the Muslims, has been a matter of intense introspection ever since the 2002 Gujarat riots, which saw over 2000 people being killed and lakhs getting displaced. The omissions and commissions of the BJP led state government under the chief-ministership of Narendra Modi came under severe criticism not only from the Supreme Court of India and the apex body for human rights-the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) but also from the then Prime Minister of India and undisputed leader of the BJP, Atal Behari Vajpayee, who described the 2002 riots as a “blot on Indian democracy”! Several intellectuals, liberals and those opposing the idea of communal politics have written, debated and elaborated upon the misgivings, many of them justified, that the Muslim minority community continues to harbor towards Mr. Modi and the BJP.
What hasn’t drawn as much attention however, quite unfairly one must add, is the outlook of the BJP, its affiliates and its current poster-boy Mr. Modi towards India’s third largest community- the Christians. Come 26th of May 2014 , India will have a new Prime Minister and it’s important to understand what the new government’s approach towards Christians could be. This is a question, that can perhaps be answered, based on experiences of BJP led governments and from an academic research into their ideological moorings.
A Historical Perspective:
The Sangh Parivar or the “family of organizations”, inspired by the ideology of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), an Indian variant of the Klu Klux Klan, represents the Hindu nationalist movement, whose ultimate aim lies in transforming India into a theocratic Hindu Rashtra or Hindu state. It comprises of Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP)- which is the political outfit, Bharatiya Kisan Sangh , literally, Indian Farmers’ Association , Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh , i.e. the Indian Labour Association , Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad or the All India Students’ Forum , Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha – Youth wing of BJP, Swadeshi Jagaran Manch which is the Nativist Awakening Front , the Vishwa Hindu Parishad or the World Hindu Council and perhaps the most militant of them all- the Bajrang Dal , whose members have been involved in acts of violence against Muslims in various riots, desecration of churches and most notably the gruesome murder of Australian Christian missionaryGraham Staines and his two sons.
M S Golwalkar, perhaps the most revered chief of the RSS, who is fondly remembered as “Guruji” (Teacher) by his ideological foot soldiers, reveals the outlook of the Sangh Parivar towards Christians in his second book, Bunch of Thoughts where he devotes Chapter XII to three “Internal Threats” namely Muslims, Christians and the Communists! He further writes about Indian Muslims and Christians that: “Together with the change in their faith, gone are the spirit of love and devotion for the nation. Nor does it end there. They have also developed a feeling of identification with the enemies of this land. They look to some foreign lands as their holy places.”
Another celebrated figure in the Sangh Parivar narrative is V.D Savarkar. In his book “Hindutva” he groups Indian Muslims and Christians together as ones who do not share “the tie of the common homage we pay to our great civilisation – our Hindu culture.” He adds: “Christian and Mohammedan communities who were but very recently Hindus cannot be recognised as Hindus since their adoption of the new cult they had ceased to own Hindu civilisation ( Sanskriti ) as a whole… For though Hindusthan to them is Fatherland, as to any other Hindu, yet it is not to them a Holyland too. Their holyland is far off in Arabia or Palestine.”
This world view of Indian Christians, who much like Indian Muslims, are perceived as “outsiders” or “foreigners” continues to be the guiding political narrative of the entire Sangh Parivar even today. After one of the worst anti-Christian riots in India in 2008 in the state of Orissa, where the BJP was in power in the state government along with a regional party, VHP-Bajrang Dal activists took the lead in provoking violence that lead to over 75 deaths, thousands being displaced and hundreds of churches being burnt down. Manoj Pradhan, a BJP legislator, was even convicted in 2010 for his role in the riots! Yet , the topmost leadership of the BJP, including its former President Venkaiah Naidu, virtually justified the riots by terming “conversions as the root cause of violence and social disturbances” and saying that a “strong federal law to prevent religious conversion across the country would be brought” if BJP regained power in the general elections expected to be held in 2009!
Unfortunately, Mr.Modi has never come out in public to reject the exclusivist world view of the RSS with respect to Christians in particular and minorities in general. When asked about his views in this regard in a recent interview on ABP news, Modi simply evaded the question.
Christians under Mr.Modi’s government in Gujarat
In another television interview in April 2014 , a question was posed to Mr.Modi on what steps he would take to ensure no churches are broken down if he becomes Prime Minister to which he replied, to the utter shock of many, that he had never heard of such incidents taking place! This prompted Richard Howell, general secretary of the Evangelical Fellowship of India, which represents about 45 churches across the country to angrily retort “How can he forget the gruesome attacks on tribal Christians in Gujarat’s Dangs district in 1998 during the NDA regime when members of the Right-wing cadres burnt down churches? Atal Bihari Vajpayee, then Prime Minster, himself had visited the district to take stock of the situation.”
Perhaps this is why when there were several protests in front of City Hall in Ahmedabad about an ancient Christian cemetery being desecrated in Sabarmati no action came about against the perpetrators, suspected to owing allegiance to the Sangh Parivar.
Tehmina Arora, an attorney from New Delhi in her recent Testimony before the Committee on Foreign Affairs’ Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organizations in the U.S. House of Representatives speaks about how anti-conversion laws, co-incidentally enacted in the states primarily ruled by the BJP, were being misused often to “target and harass Christians.” She adds “The law in Gujarat state requires that the person seeking to convert to another religion must take prior permission from the district magistrate before any conversion “ceremony” is performed. The Acts, therefore, greatly impinge on the freedom of conscience of a prospective convert, and also on their right to privacy. The law renders the person incapable of taking the final decision with regard to his or her faith, and instead requires approval of the district authority.This is an invasion of the privacy and violation of both international law and the Constitution of India. This is violation of the right to freedom of association, the right to privacy and the freedom of conscience.”
An example of this was evident when in March 2012 the Gujarat High Court, in a significant judgment, restored the marriage license of a Marriage Registrar, which had been wrongfully revoked for formalizing a marriage between a Christian and a Hindu, by the Narendra Modi government, which invoked the notorious Freedom of Religion Act 2003-Gujarat’s anti-conversion law.
In the same testimony Tehmina also states “Over the past five years, attacks have been reported across the country, though primarily concentrated in the states where the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been in power and where groups associated with his party have been active. Violence is fuelled primarily by non-state actors who are guided by the Hindutva ideology, which sees India as a Hindu nation, where religious minorities are second class citizens.”
Mr. Modi’s personal antipathy towards Christians was most obvious after the 2002 riots when he constantly emphasized on the Christian name of the Chief Election Commissioner James Lyngdoh (who ironically is an atheist) in his speeches for taking a decision to delay elections in Gujarat back then. At a public rally near Vadodara Modi thundered : “Some journalists asked me recently, ‘Has James Michael Lyngdoh come from Italy” I said I don’t have his janam patri (birth certificate) , I will have to ask Rajiv Gandhi. Then the journalists said, ‘Do they (Lyngdoh and Sonia Gandhi) meet in church?” I replied, ‘Maybe they do’.”
The ‘International Religious Freedom Report 2003’ released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labour of the US State Department exposed how the Gujarat government had aggressively surveyed Christian families and Christian agencies during the reporting period, allegedly under the orders of Chief Minister Narendra Modi. “The survey activities were carried out by police, often in the middle of the night. The survey was first taken up in February, which continued through May” it added. This, even after the Gujarat High Court’s ruling in March that such a survey was illegal. Apparently, the survey included questions about the number of converts in the household or parish, the circumstances of conversion, and the sources of funding received from abroad, etc.
In October 2002, Gujarat’s senior cabinet minister and a colleague of Narendra Modi, Karsan Patel, publicly threatened 400 tribal children, who were boarders at a Christian school in Subir “to decide whether they want to live as Hindus or die as Christians”. No action was taken against him.
It’s not surprising then, given the silent persecution of Christians in Gujarat, that their already miniscule population (about 0.56% in 2001) has fallen by 5% in entire decade whilst Modi was at the helm of affairs.
Christians under various BJP led governments
A report compiled in 2011 shows there have been 172 incidents across the country in which Christians have been attacked. Karnataka, under BJP rule back then, topped the list with 47 incidents followed by Odisha, which in 2008 had witnessed anti-Christian violence led by Sangh Parivar groups, witnessed 25 incidents and coming in at third position was another BJP ruled state of Madhya Pradesh with 15 incidents! BJP legislator from Karnataka Prahlad Remani even went to the extent of stating that “People must remain aware and watchful about the spread of these seeds of Christianity,” and that “Christianity must be weeded out of Karnataka” . The sentiments were echoed by VHP’s Pravin Togadia who declared in Ahmedabad that they shall declare Gujarat a “Hindu State” by 2015!
In 2003, the RSS mouthpiece, Organiser, printed a vicious attack on Mother Teresa in its special issue written by N.S. Rajaram. The article began by arguing that the Indian government should not send any representative for her beatification ceremony. It then went on to say that all the Church is known for these days is “mass child molestation, homosexual priests and even murders”.
Not to be outdone in this quoting the scriptures of hatred against Christians, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad Vice-President , Acharya Giriraj Kishore, termed Pope John Paul II as a ‘big dacoit’ who was “ changing the demography of India through illegal conversions.”
In its hard-hitting piece titled “An assault on Christians” in July 2000, a leading magazine Frontline reported that “A wave of attacks against Christian evangelists and places of worship through 1998 culminated in the murder of the Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two sons on January 23, 1999 by Dara Singh, a Hindutva fanatic with links to the Sangh Parivar,who had been arrested in that connection. “ It further added that “A second wave of terror against Christian missionaries, that now extended to the States of Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Punjab and Andhra Pradesh, had culminated in a series of bomb blasts in churches in Karnataka, Goa and Andhra Pradesh.”
All of this was happening under the wakeful watch of a BJP led-RSS bred central government in Delhi.
While the BJP off late, under its relatively moderate faces like the chief minister Manohar Parrikar from Goa, does flaunt the fact that it has six Christian elected legislators in a House of 40 members in a state that has almost 30% Christian population, it hardly re-assures those like Pastor Christopher of Hyderabad who reveals to the International Christian Concern that “There have been continuous threats from Hindu radicals,” and how “Christians continue to be treated as second class citizens in this country.” Having received several threats over the last 15 years, Pastor Christopher says that he was once threatened by RSS to stop all church activities or else they would “chop him into pieces!”
The influence of the Sangh Parivar in the sphere of communalizing education in state governments run by the BJP is also well known. The one-man committee of academic Francis D’Souza outlined several examples of “saffron tint” in textbooks from Class V to IX published under the imprint of the Karnataka Textbook Society (KTS) during the BJP regime. Francis D’Souza was shocked to report that it wasn’t just History text books but also Science text books that were distorted by unscientific myths perpetrated by the Sangh propaganda machinery.
The Road Ahead
In June 2013, a few months before Narendra Modi was officially anointed as the prime ministerial candidate of the BJP, the RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat, in what looked like his strongest endorsement for Modi said that “whether somebody likes it or not, Hindutva is the only way to bring about a change in the country. It is where the country’s respect lies.” Two months later, in Kolkata, Mohan Bhagwat stressing on the need of “Hindus having an aggressive, nationalistic stand” stated that Modi was the only person who had remained “rooted” in the RSS ideology. Modi, who has been a RSS functionary from a very young age, has revitalized the RSS. According to independent reports, in less than 3 months after his announcement as the BJP’s PM candidate over 2000 shakhas (branches) of RSS sprung up all over India. It’s clear that the RSS is pinning all its hopes on Modi and even unleashed its entire organizational and propaganda machinery to run his campaign. In return, the RSS expects that their long, unfulfilled agendas would see fruition under a Modi-led government.
A few of the RSS agendas even found their way in the BJP manifesto, with renewed vigour, this time around. This includes their favorite themes of pursuing a uniform civil code in India- which invariably hinges on the plank of stifling non-Hindu religious and cultural freedoms, abolishing Article 370 that gives autonomy to the state of Jammu and Kashmir, building the Ram Temple at Ayodhya, cow protection, etc. In fact, the manifesto even declared India to be a “natural home for persecuted Hindus” who shall be “welcome to seek refuge here.” So a Nepali Hindu could very well make India his home but if a Keralite Christian with a UK passport was being persecuted, he wouldn’t get refuge in India as per the current formulation in the BJP manifesto.
The ultimate agenda of the RSS is to see the creation of a Hindu Rashtra or a Hindu state. This would require the “undoing” of the current Constitutional scheme of “secularism” – an idea which has always been under attack by the Sangh Parivar. The RSS would require a Modi-led government to systematically “harmonize” independent institutions that can pose a challenge to the accomplishment of this goal.
Firstly, the RSS would require a Modi led BJP to get a majority in Parliament so that he can amend the Constitution accordingly. Since, “secularism” is a part of the “basic structure” of the Constitution and has been put out of the bounds of legislative amendment by the Supreme Court in its earlier judgment, the RSS will also need the executive government to ensure, perhaps through amenable appointments, that the Supreme Court goes along with the proposed changes to the Constitution itself. To those who find this to be far-fetched, may I remind you about the “National Commission to review the working of the Constitution” set up by the BJP government under Prime Minister Vajpayee. It’s quite another thing that the BJP never ended up getting the majority in Parliament they were expecting to push these agendas through back then!
But this time around, with Modi securing a majority in Lok Sabha, the RSS will seek the completion of its “unfinished agenda”. The potential next steps would be, as a senior leader of the BJP who draws all his backing from the RSS -Dr. Subramanian Swamy suggests, to disenfranchise the non-Hindu citizens of India. This would require the “taming” of the Election Commssion of India too, which has co-incidentally been on the radar of the BJP in the last few weeks. Recently, top RSS ideologue told the Hindu newspaper that Modi is expected to deliver on the Ram Temple and the RSS means business when it says that. Once these long cherished goals are attained, it would become easier to facilitate socio-economic and socio-cultural changes that would be needed to transform India into a theocratic Hindu state, ironically modeled on the same exclusivist plank that led to the creation of Pakistan as a “homeland for only Muslims”.
In this mission, the RSS would obviously need a supportive media that does not question its agendas or create roadblocks and hence Narendra Modi’s assistance- governmental and otherwise, would be sought to co-opt or intimidate the owners of media groups and intellectuals into playing along with them. Already, we find that many a media organizations, thanks to their varied business interests,prostrating before Narendra Modi, even before he has been sworn in as Prime Minister.
Those who think only Muslims ought to be cautious about Mr.Modi, think again! Evidence suggests that Christians too will have to brace themselves up for a rather challenging period as Modi’s “majority government” exhibits “majoritarian symptoms”.
Mr. Modi’s campaign slogan reads “Good days are near!” Ironically, it is this very lure of a “great days ahead” that blinded Germany into seeing Hitler as their leader and ignoring what he truly represented. One can only hope and pray that India doesn’t go down the same path.
* Shehzad Poonawalla is a 1st generation, self-made, 26 year old, lawyer-activist engaged in politics and civil rights movement. He is the youngest Additional Private Secretary to Ministry of Parliamentary Affairs, Govt of India.
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