India's Plural Culture, Secular Democracy -- Challenge and Opportunity

India's Plural Culture, Secular Democracy -- Challenge and Opportunity

Statement at the hearings of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, Washington, 18 September 2000

100 cases of hate crimes and physical violence against Christians in January - September 2000

By John Dayal

Human Rights and Religious Freedom activist
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I thank you for inviting me to these hearings of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.

There are serious reservations in India on the timing and nature of these hearings. Some feel that these hearings will embarrass the Prime Minister of India, Mr. Atal Behari Vajpayee, who is currently visiting the US. There is also a pe rception, shared among others by those in government, and some political parties as well as a few in religious leadership positions, that these hearings are tantamount to interference in India’s internal affairs. The nationalistic political and peer press ure is such as to make even many in the churches to say that they would not participate in the hearings even if they were to be invited.

I personally have been under pressure, from `friends’ as well as wishers in political, academic, media and religious circles not to participate in the hearings. I have been forcefully and persuasively `advised’ not to hurt India’s natio nal interests. Many believe that this is the jurisdiction of the United Nations, and not of the United States. Many also believe that these hearings will serve no purpose for several reasons -- among them the fact that it is the Nuclear question and NOT H uman rights which tops the US agenda in India, now seen as a political and strategic ally, a potential market, and home to the world’s best computer brains.

I am not a politician, but as an Indian, I understand and honor these sentiments and share with my fellow countrymen and women their fierce national spirit and patriotism. We reject any sanctions against our country. We abhor anything t hat will mar the flow of development funds and investment to India, which at the thresh-hold of a new future. We merely seek the implementation Constitutional guarantees, the rule of Law.

My work in religious freedom issues is my personal response and assertion of patriotism. My work in Human rights and religious liberty in India has brought me many personal threats. The Indian National Human Rights Commission has ordere d the government of India to provide me security in view of the threats to my life and my liberty. Currently, I have two plainclothes armed bodyguards who accompany me when I am in New Delhi.

I have agreed to participate in these hearings in my personal capacity for many reasons, the most important of which is to use this opportunity to reach out to the powerful and vibrant Indian community in the United States fo r their support. They, more than anyone else, have in their power to influence political processes, government and policy not in Washington but back home in India to ensure that true freedom of faith continues to be nurtured in our great and wonderful Mot herland. As ambassadors at large for India, they must tell the powers that be, in New Delhi and in the capitals of the Indian States, just how important it is for the government to ensure that minorities not only be safe, but FEEL secure in Rule of Law.

Another reason is that some organizations of the Sangh parivar such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad are seeking recognition in the bodies of the United Nations. Such recognition will clothe these fountainheads of hate and malice in a cloak of respectability. The international community must learn of the truth behind their masks.

I have committed my life to doing work for the strengthening of India’s abiding tradition of a secular democracy and plural culture. I believe that the health of any democracy can be gauged in health and freedom of its minorities, be th ey religious, linguistic or ethnic. India has a strong democratic tradition. The Christian community is a mere 2.3 per cent, down from 2.9 per cent from when India became independent in 1947. Since 0052 AD when St. Thomas first brought the Liberating Good News of Our Lord to the shore of my homeland, we have lived in peace and in a dialogue of life with our neighbors, most of them devout and God-fearing Hindus. They remain our friends, our allies and our protectors. The Indian Constitution, amongst the be st in the world, enshrined these in letters of gold, giving us Freedom to Profess, Practice and Propagate, our faith.

I have come here to give witness to this strength of the Indian Constitution. We, Christians, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists and others, remain committed to a common endeavor to ensures that nothing is done by any group, any party, a ny government to erode the spirit and letter of this constitution. It is back home in India that persons such as me continue this struggle – to ensure that the shadow of neo fascism, bigotry and political exclusivity which preaches a frightening doctrine of One nation, One people, One Culture does not drown the Pluralism of India.

The issues I will speak of are aberrations, which loom large on the horizon of the minorities now, but which I hope will be but a fleeting nightmare in India’s 5000 year old civilization, soon to be forgotten if heed the earnings of the moment.

India is a signatory to the Charter of the United Nations, and to its resolutions on Human Rights and religious freedom. The governments of the day and the people have always articulated their concern whenever there was a violation of h uman rights or religious freedom anywhere in the world. We have protested the massacres in Africa, the violence in Europe and the Human rights violations of the Tibetans in China, the Tamils in Sri Lanka, of the common people in Mynmar, and of the people of Indian origin in Fiji. The deposed prime minister of Fiji, who is of Indian origin, was feted recently in India by the government with honors befitting a Head of Government.

This is as is proper. The world is a global village and human rights and religious freedom are not bound by barriers of national boundary. Each one of us feels for our fellow human being, created like us in the Image of god. That is why I speak. Without fear of repercussions.

I will not dwell on numbers of dead and injured. Statistics really mean nothing in a country as large as India, with a billion people. We do not say every death of a Christian has a `communal’ angle. That is for the authorities to find out, to investigate not just the crime but the pattern of crimes against the Christian community since 1998 in particular. But those who spew hate, those who foment the hate campaign are not anonymous. The speeches of their leaders, the literature and the training of their cadres are well documented in secular India. We believe the Ideology of Hate is at the root of the violence against Christians in particular and minorities in General. Hate kills as surely as any gun or sword. If anything, its wounds ar e deeper, more difficult to heal for they sear the psyche.

The words Hindutva and Sangh Parivar will appear in my presentation. I make a sharp distinction between Hinduism the religion and Hindutva the political philosophy of the Sangh parivar, as I make a distinction between the government of the day and its political masters on the one hand, and the people of India on the other. The Hindus are a great people. Repeatedly, in many elections, the people have rejected the thesis of Hindutva. Political parties that have preached hatred against the Muslims and the Christians have been restrained. Parties banking on religious sentiments have never been allowed to get a majority in Parliament. They have not been allowed to reach a strength where they can alter the Constitution to dilute the secular g uarantees. Civil society is also witnessing a great movement in which secular India has stood up against attacks on the Christian community. In the face of the fact that often we have seen the Union government and the state governments refusing to show th e required political will to act decisively to stop the atmosphere of hate that is being deliberately created through falsehood and half truths, the response we are seeing on the part of the common Indian people is significant. We wish this voice of sanit y to be louder. We believe this will happen, that mainstream India will totally reject and defeat the marginal Hindutva groups that foment the hate, and mastermind the violence.

This violence will end only when there is the political will, and when the highest in the land make it clear that India will not tolerate hate campaigns against Christians, that it will not tolerate Hate crimes against the Minorities. < /P>


The founder of modern India and its first Prime Minster, the great Jawaharlal Nehru identified the Sangh Parivar right from the beginning, and pointed out to these organizations as communalist and fascist. The scholar Marzia Casorali in her definitive study `Hindutva’s foreign tie-up in the 1930s – Archival Evidence’ traced the movement’s inspiration to Benito Mussolini and to Adolf Hitler in the 1920s and subsequently. She writes: "an accurate search … is bound to show the extent and importance of such organizations and Italian fascism. (They) not only adopted fascist ideas in a conscious way, but this also happened because of the direct contacts between their representatives of these organizations and fascist Italy."

Casorali quotes from Mr. V Savarkar, Mr. BS Moonje, Mr. Golwalkar, the founders of the Hindutva ideology. In 1934 they said "this ideal cannot be brought to effect unless we have our own swaraj with a Hindu as a dictator like Shiva ji of old or Mussolini or Hitler of the present day in Italy and Germany. The Savarkar-led Hindu Mahasabha in 1939 officially stated: Germany’s crusade against the enemies of Aryan culture will bring all the Aryan nations of the world to their senses and awaken the Indian Hindus for the restoration of their lost glory.’ I need not go on quoting from archival research. The same thesis is being taught in towns and villages, study camps and morning drills of the Sangh parivar today. The present leaders of th e scores of frontal organizations of the Sangh Parivar are on record mouthing similar imprecations as they demonise the Christian and Muslim communities for the ills of India, and speak of what anywhere else would be called ethnic cleansing. It does not s urprise me that the man Dara Singh, who led the mobs that burnt alive the Australian leprosy worker graham Stuart Staines, and his two children Timothy and Philip, in the forests of the state of Orissa in January 1999 is today sought to be deified as a D efender of the Faith, a God descended on earth. Millions of copies of his speech "I Dara Speak" have been published and circulated widely to rouse passions in India. It is in the tradition of the Sangh literature, which describes `Muslims, Chris tians and Communists as the main enemies of India.’


More dangerous is perhaps the rewriting of history that has been undertaken in a large way in India. Indian scholars have expressed their deep concern that books now being prepared under the patronage of the Pariv ar, often with the tacit support of government, are presenting the past in a manner as to incite hatred against the Christians and Muslims. These books are not for voluntary reading -- many of them form part of compulsory curricula in schools in several s tates of the Indian union. The damage to the child’s mind can be gauged. Its implications for the future should make people shudder.


Accompanying this is an serious effort to pack various segments of the official machinery, including the administration and the police forces, with those who believe in this ideology. The represe ntation of Muslims and Christians in police forces has been grossly inadequate; a point referred to in commissions of inquiry ordered by the government itself. It is not surprising that the Justice Sri Krishna Commission of enquiry which investigated the anti-Muslim violence in the city of Bombay in 1992-93 indicted the city police of conniving with the killers. Other enquiry commissions of the past have similarly indicted police forces of a communal bias. In a blatant challenge to secular India, the Stat e of Gujarat – site of the destruction of more than 30 churches in 1998, and home of Mahatma Gandhi – last year made a serious effort to encourage its police and administration officials to join the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, the mother organization of the Sangh Parivar. The government order had the support of the highest ministers in the central government. The nation was outraged. The order was withdrawn after a vigorous protest by the sane majority. Nonetheless, several judicial officers and director s general of police have joined the Sangh Parivar after retiring from government service. It is a moot question how unbiased they were when they were in uniform, or sat on the Bench. It is a matter of record that few, if any, of those responsible for anti -Muslim or anti-Christian violence have ever been punished under the law.


Muslims and Christians are the main targets of a very focused, deeply organized and well-funded hate campaign throughout India. Islam and Christianity are branded as alien religions, and Hindus and Budd hists are constantly exhorted to give a united `Asian’ challenge to these faiths. It is forgotten that both Islam and Christianity were born on the soil of Asia. The patriotism and loyalty to the motherland of minority groups is constantly being questione d. Muslims are branded as agents of Pakistan, a country with India has fought four wars since Independence. Their Babri mosque was demolished in 1992 in a symbolic gesture of `correcting historical wrongs’. The demolition has seared the psyche of the nati on, and brought death, destruction and pain in its aftermath. The wounds are yet to heal.

The hate campaign against Christians questions our roots, attacks the tenets of our faith, targets our priests and nuns, institutions and social work. Despite 20 centuries of Christianity in India, the Sangh Parivar pillories the commun ity as a remnant of the British colonial empire.

Senior members of the parivar, including some who are in the current Union government as Ministers or head various frontal organizations, mock Virgin Birth, blaspheme against the Resurrection. Official organs of the Sangh parivar, inclu ding the English language Organizer and the Hindi language journal Panchjanya, rail against the community and its faith on a regular basis. These journals are the basic literature used in the formation of the cadres of the Sangh Parivar.

The main charge is that Indian Christians use foreign funds to convert Hindus by force and fraud. Senior ministers have taken part in this campaign of falsehood. We have repeatedly asked the government to come up with figures of how muc h money is being received by various groups – Christians, Hindus, Muslims, and the government itself – from the US and other western or eastern nations, and how this money is being spent. Under India’s legal regulations on foreign remittances and donation s, the government of India has all this data. But it has refused to give the full list. Systematic leaks of partial information has been cunningly used to make it seem that all the money is coming to Christians and is being used by them for forcible conve rsions. In fact the very term missionary has been absurdly used to imply that there are tens of thousands of White Christian missionaries are work in India. Government’s own figures show that there are just over 1,000 foreigners, including priests and tea chers, in Christian institutions in India. Most of them are old, and have been living in India for decades. Their number is rapidly dwindling by death, and by the fact that the government has systematically denied extensions of their visas without giving any valid reason. Almost all Christian evangelist workers of all denominations are Indians, born and bred, Indian citizens and yet the image is created of a foreign army of missionaries converting innocent people.

The Indian National Commission for Minorities during the chairmanship of the jurist Mr. Tahir Mehmood, repeatedly urged Union and state governments to come up with official statistics on the number of forcible conversions, or conversion s by fraud and inducement, recorded in their states in recent years. Not one state could authenticate a single allegation of forced or induced conversion. Yet, the lie is perpetrated, and used to target the Christian community. Little wonder that when the Nuns were ganged raped in the forests of Jhabua, Mr. Baikunth Lal Sharma Prem, a leading light of the Bajrang Dal, said "They deserved to be raped."


For many years, this lie was given legal sanction in the so called Foreign Contributions Regulation Act (challenged by secular NGOs as well as by us) and has been used by the authorities to harass Christian Non Government al Organizations (NGOs), churches, and Institutions.

The Visa regulations are used in a discriminatory fashion. It is almost impossible for a foreign Christian church worker, preacher or evangelist to come to India unless it is as a tourist. In contrast, Indian non-Christian missionaries roam the world preaching about their religion, and the Sangh parivar itself proudly speaks of the evangelizing effort of its monks and `saints’ in all parts of the world, including the United states, a favorite destination of these people.

There are recorded cases of inordinately long time taken to process applications for land for new churches, cemeteries, and institutions. There have been cases where existing buildings are threatened with demolition, and there are cases where even after allotment of land, Church authorities have not been able to even get the plot of land measured out on the ground. Surveyors have been chased away from the site, even in the national capital of New Delhi. The state of Uttar Pradesh recent ly sought to bring forth new legislation to curb the construction of mosques, Islamic schools called madarsas and churches. it claimed that the madarsas were being used to train terrorists. The legislation was aborted in the faces of a united national pro test.

Christian schools are under considerable stress. Nuns and priests and secular management’s are being constantly harassed and questioned in highly bigoted surveys about the sources of their funded and whether they represent foreign inter ests. Across the country, the police and civil authorities under different pretexts periodically order such surveys.

The Muslim community had documented how the dreaded National Security Act and the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities Act, TADA, have been misused against them. There is an effort to target Christian activists too. So overwhelming and all-pervasive is the fear that many in the church leadership are afraid to speak, lest their patriotism be questioned, or their institutions are targeted.


There is persistent effort to negate, dilute and contain the Constitutional guarantees of the Preamble of the Constitution – the Freedom of Faith – and in various Articles, specially in Articles 25 through 30 . These articles assure the minorities freedom to profess, practice and propagate their faith. The Fathers of the Constitution recognized that the Propagation of faith, the spreading the Good news of the Lord, was integral to the Indian Christian’s freedo m in free India. Despite this three States – Arunachal Pradesh, Orissa, and Madhya Pradesh -- years ago passed laws that put unacceptable restrictions on freedom of faith. Ironically, these laws go under the generic name of Freedom of religion Act. Gujara t has tried to enact such a law. At the Union level, various luminaries of the Sangh Parivar have sought to bring in legislation to curb Christians’ right of propagation of faith. In a major ruling, the Supreme Court of India has held that the right to co nvert someone else is a fundamental right. But the courts have upheld the right of any and all individuals to profess any religion, or change their religion if they wish to. Recent amendments in the laws in Orissa impose severe restrictions even this righ t of the individual, and make the local policemen, bigoted as he is, the arbiter of whether a villager can, or cannot, profess the faith of his choice.

We have challenged these laws in the courts of the land.

Mr. Fali Nariman, arguably India’s foremost jurist and currently nominated by the President of India as member of the Rajya Sabha, the Upper House of the Indian Parliament, notes: "It is not necessary that the right to be convert be declared fundamental, simply because the right to be converted (emphasis Mr. Nariman’s) to a different religious persuation – a matter of free volition and choice – is basic to one’s spiritual existence. No one can deny it. It is recognized i n the Universal declaration of Human Rights (1948) which proclaims that everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, which right includes the "freedom to change one’s religion or belief.’ This is also reproduced in Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which India ratified in 1979. There are some rights so basic that they transcend written Constitutions: as for instance the right to adopt a religion, or to change one’s religion: the right to marry and raise a family, and the right to choose not to do so. Such rights inhere in all human beings. No state can presume to confer them, and no civilized State dare take them away."

The current Prime Minister of India, Mr. Vajpayee lost a historical opportunity to heal inner wounds. In 1999 January. After seeing the debris of the 30 or so churches destroyed by Hindutva gangs in the forests of the Dangs district of south Gujarat, Mr. Vajpayee was widely expected, in keeping with his image as a liberal, to denounce hose who had committed the violence. Instead, he called for a national debate on conversions. The Parivar then knew that it had the highest support in its actions


Perhaps the biggest assault on the secularism of the Constitution of India has been in the official actions and attitude in relation to the Christians of Dalit Origin, converts from what were once called the untouchable castes. Estimate s are that about 60 per cent of the Christians in India are converts from these castes in the last five centuries, and mostly in the last two centuries. This is not a forum to dwell on the plight in general in India. Even today, Hindu Dalits are periodic ally massacred in the states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, are humiliated and tortured in Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh, are discriminated against, their dignity assaulted. The Dalits have articulated their story in the forums of the United Nat ions., including the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights.

The Founding fathers of the Constitution recognized that the untouchables were victims of a 3,000 year history. They enacted pro-active legislation and sanctioned affirmative action to help these people to achieve dignity and equality, giving them a level playing field. Reservations were kept in government jobs for the Scheduled castes, as they were described in law, or Dalits as many of them term themselves. Protective regulations banned untouchability (though it did not ban the caste system which gave birth to this untouchability) and prescribed punitive action against those practicing it. The stigma of caste and accompanying infirmities affects all these people irrespective of their religion – be they Hindus, non-Hindus, atheists, o r converts to Islam, Christianity, Sikhism and Buddhism. A change in religion could internally heal them, but externally brought no change in their social status and how high caste society discriminated against them

While in many other countries, the first amendments to the Constitution were to add to civil liberties and fundamental rights, the early amendment in the Indian Constitution took away the rights of Dalits who did not profess the Hindu f aith. The Presidential Order of 1950 changed the law to give the protection and strength of affirmative action only to Hindus, and deny it to others. In affect, this communalised the law. It also violated Constitutional provisions that there should be no discrimination on the grounds of religion. The Sikh and Buddhist communities agitated for decades before they were once again given the protection of the affirmative action. Christians of Dalit origin have been denied these benefits despite a long and e xtremely peaceful agitation. They must be given the same rights as are given to their brethren of the Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist community, for they suffer the same historical trauma. As Dr. James Massey, former Member of the National Commission for Minor ities, notes in a recent statement : "Does not the Presidential order of 1950 offer a legal inducement for not renouncing Hinduism, reconversion to Hinduism by Dalits and Scheduled castes?"


Dr. James Massey has made significant disclosures from the report of a high-powered Commission investigation that he chaired. He says "Besides the attacks on the religious freedom of the national religious minorities, the violati on of the Constitutional cultural, educational and economic rights of the minorities have been either curtailed or not implemented, both at the central as well as the various state levels. This is particularly true of Article 30, which gives the religiou s and linguistic minorities right to establish and manage educational institutions according to their choice. During the last 50 years from the time of the adoption of the Indian Constitution, except the states of Tamil Nadu (which was forced by the High court to implement Article 30 with regards to religious minority rights), no other states in the country have cared to implement Article 30 fully."


Does it surprise anyone that there has been violence against Christians? In 1997, I published the first Unofficial White Paper on Violence against my community, following it up with a more detailed one in September-Octo ber 1998. Since then, other colleagues have kept record. We will soon publish the Unofficial White Paper of Anti-Christian Hate and Violence 1997-2000. Unofficial, because the government does not want to document the incidents and the pattern of violence against the Christian community. The Union Home Minister, Mr. Lal Krishna Advani, has admitted in Parliament that there has been a rise in such violence against Christians. Newspaper headlines have said Mr. Advani has failed to explain why there has been rise in such violence. Persistently, the official machinery has labeled them as `isolated incidents’ denying there is a pattern. It has held criminal gangs responsible for every incident, refusing to explain why criminal gangs have turned against Churche s, priests and Nuns.

Since 1998, there have been more than 400 recorded cases of violence and hate crimes. The real figures may be much higher. Churches are reluctant to register complaints unless the violence is such that it cannot be ignored. `We forgive, ’ say the Nuns. Many of them do not know how to register a case with the police, and many others fear that if they do register a complaint, there may be even more severe retribution. They have before the example of priests who have been beheaded, their bo dies quartered, of Nuns gang raped. In Mathura, Brother George was murdered this year, and then the eyewitness to his murder, his cook Vijay Ekka, was tortured to death by the local police. Fear is the key.

`Mr. Prime Minister, Long ago we left our Fathers and our homes. We have worked without fear in distant forests and villages. Now, for the first time, we are feeling afraid," Sister Dolores, the National Secretary of the Catholic R eligious in India, the association of priests and nuns in India, told the Prime Minister, Mr. Atal Vajpayee at a meeting we had with him some months ago. She spoke for us all.

The violent hate crimes against Christians will end when the hate campaign ends. "Your silence kills, Mr. Prime Minister," the late Archbishop Alan de Lastic told the Indian Prime Minister in one of his last meetings with Mr. Vajpayee.

The time has come to speak.

Thank You

John Dayal

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