The Indian parliament in its wisdom passed a law on Friday that seeks to further restrict the flow of foreign funds to NGOs, which it fears induce religious conversions. On the face of it there is nothing wrong with the new law except that it is perhaps not as impartial as it claims to be. For no other reason was it quickly passed in the Lok Sabha with the support of the Hindu revivalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
There are two main groups whose resources, including hospitality, a major issue in the new legislation, stand to be affected — the small Christian community and the country’s largest minorities, the Muslims. It is true that as proselytising religions they both seek new followers but, contrary to claims by rightwing Hindus, there is next to no evidence that they use force or monetary inducement for the purpose, unless we consider the vast missionary networks of charitable schools and hospitals as an illegal lure.
The real culprits in religious pillorying are the vigilante groups, primarily among Hindus but now also surfacing among Muslims in certain southern states. In Kerala, for example, an obscurantist Muslim group has become a raging menace. Its members intimidate fellow Muslims to follow their rigid and often suffocating codes and on one occasion they chopped off the hand of a Christian priest for alleged blasphemy. This sickening phenomenon has been a bane of civil societies in Pakistan and Bangladesh, but now it looks like India is not being spared.
Yet vigilantism may not be as directly related to proselytising as we imagine. Rabid Hindu groups though are known to double up as both — vigilantes as well as missionaries seeking converts — by force. Earlier this month a people’s tribunal headed by well known activists such as filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt, lawyer Vrinda Grover and presided over by former chief justice of the Delhi High Court, Justice A.P. Shah, unearthed disturbing details of an anti-Christian pogrom that was carried out by Hindu fanatics in Kandhamal, in Orissa in August 2007.
At the heart of the violence, which was reportedly backed by police and sections of the state administration in which BJP was a partner, there was a brazen attempt to drive back Christian converts from among the tribespeople and Dalits to a hurried version of Hinduism.
When with regard to foreign contributions the parliament was told that there were over 40,000 organisations receiving funds in the country and that only 18,000 of these reported their accounts, a crucial omission pertained to Hindu groups that are believed to have their sources of funds within India, that too from powerful business syndicates. They are nearly invincible and on one occasion when a probing tax commissioner unearthed undeclared funds allegedly belonging to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a proselytising ally of the BJP, he was transferred from the post.
The tribunal led by Justice Shah heard evidence from scores of victim-survivors from Kandhamal district who saw two rounds of vicious anti-Christian violence in December 2007 and then in August-December 2008. Over 400 villages were purged of their Christian population, with close to 6,000 houses destroyed in mass arson and loot. As many as 295 Church buildings, big and small were destroyed, apart from dozens of Christian social centres and technical training institutions. It is estimated that as many as 110 persons were murdered. John Dayal, a leading Christian activist, says the real figure may never be known “because the government does not want to record and acknowledge the death of people who were injured and then crawled into the forests and succumbed days later.”
For the 54,000 persons — which is over 10,000 families — it will take years more before they can say they have nearly recovered from the trauma of the pogrom. It led to one of India’s largest internal displacement after Gujarat 2002 not connected with large dams or natural disasters such as the tsunami.
As the tribunal heard from witnesses one third of the displaced people “still cannot return to their villages for they have been plainly told they will have to become Hindus before they can come.” They are destined to live in ghettos or in urban slums. According to the findings, a few who dared were forcibly made Hindus in a simple process in which their hair was shorn. They were reportedly made to endure dehumanising rituals.
The violence had also impacted on 13 other districts of Kandhamal, and saw copycat incidents in other states, notably Karnataka, but also in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhatisgarh. “The violence died out when there was nothing more left to burn. Neither the Centre, nor the State authorities can really lay claim that it was their initiative or their work that brought the fires and the killings under control,” says Dayal.
There has been independent comment on the issue of forced conversions by violence. Former Indian revenue secretary K. R. Venugopal wrote to the Orissa government: “There can never be any dignity if people practising a particular religion — here Christianity — are told that they can return to their homes only as Hindus.”
He said such threats were unconstitutional and the State had a duty to intervene proactively to put a stop to that and guarantee peaceful residence to the citizens with a right to their religious conviction. All these involve the relevant fundamental rights guaranteed to citizens, “not to mention the articles that guarantee the right to equality before law and equal protection of the laws and the right not to be discriminated on any account.”
It was during the anti-Christian violence in Gujarat’s Dangs district in the 1990s that a visiting Pakistani historian had remarked: “We too mistreat Christians and other minorities in Pakistan. But we do so under military rule, you do it under parliamentary democracy.” Clearly there is a greater threat to the secular fabric of India from within its political fault lines. The foreign funds law sounds more like a ruse to tame dissenting NGOs that keep a close vigil on the state’s waywardness towards a vast majority of oppressed Indians.
In this regard Home Minister P. Chidambaram’s comments about “saffron terrorism” should be taken as nothing more than a convenient slogan that purports to show the government’s agenda as secular while it allows communalism to expand and flourish. The government knows that communalism conveniently divides the poorest and the dispossessed majority into spurious and mutually hostile interest groups, which are oblivious of the corporate greed that drives the country’s elitist politics today and leaves them to wallow in their pathetic state.