Christmas in India?
In our final post this year, the nearing event of Christmas inspired us to highlight exclusion many face because of their faith. The focus of this post on India was chosen due to its growing political and economic influence while the worsening situation for Christian and Muslim believers has gone largely unnoticed. Unfortunately, there are many other countries were celebrating Christmas will be rather restrained.
Hindi carols are sung in the Aligarh Church of Ascension every Christmas since their first Christmas service in 1858. Until recently, armed police on the grounds have not shared in this tradition. Police protection has been granted following an attack on a group of carol singers gathered in a private home a few days earlier, as reported in The Guardian. “Days earlier in Aligarh, hardline Hindu activists distributed letters warning Christian schools in the city against involving Hindu students in Christmas activities. In nearby Mathura, seven Christians were arrested by police while praying inside a home. In Satna, Madhya Pradesh state, an entire choir was detained while going door to door. “
Politics of Toleration
Violence against Christians in India is on the rise, and protection such as this is rare. India’s constitution guarantees freedom of religion or belief. However, Hindu nationalism propagated by Hindu-extremists groups is making life for Christians, Muslims and human rights activists of all faiths in India more difficult and increasingly dangerous. According to author and political journalist Dhirendra K Jha, “Modi would never come out and openly help them”, and would rarely criticise the perpetrators. “Because of his silence, the message goes to the state machinery that they don’t have to take action against them.”
On the 2018 Open Door's World Watch list, India has dropped from its 15th to 11th place, just short of being among the 10 worst countries to live in for Christians. Churches are being shut, destroyed or damaged . Pastors are regularly interrogated. Campaigns are run to get new believers to denounce their faith. They are often physically attacked and sometimes killed. Other actions include the blocking of access to places of worship.
Open Doors reports on their website in August 2018: since June, more than a dozen houses belonging to Christians have been attacked by local extremist groups across five villages within Gadchiroli district. In other villages, Christians were told that they would be cut off from water supply and government subsidized groceries. Christians are being told to leave their villages and new believers are being ostracised by their families and communities.
In a populous country like India, the publication of individual incidences of violence against Christians (and other faith groups) may appear comparatively few. However, the subtle worsening of discrimination emboldened by politics is certainly cause for concern. In 2015, a year after Modi's BJP came to power, the persecution helpline United Christian Forum was established. Every year, it handles more cases of persecution.
Recently, Uttarakhand has become the seventh Indian state to pass anti-conversion laws. According to Release International: “The new law requires clergy who lead a person to Christ to give one month’s notice before doing so, which will spark a police investigation into the proposed conversion. And individuals wanting to change their religion must first get permission from the state government.” A “forced conversion” of a woman or minor carries a two year prison sentence.
In March 2017, U.S.-based Christian charity Compassion International, India's largest international donor, closed due to of increasing governmental restrictions including their international funds transfers. This is to prevent Christian organisations from “buying conversions”.
The Presidential Order
The Indian constitution abolished “untouchability” in 1950 that applies to members of the lowest caste, the Dalits. It enshrined some special privileges for the socio-economic uplift of Dalits, such as quotas in government jobs and educational institutions. Nevertheless, Dalits are still economically and politically ostracised as highlighted in The Diplomat: “they are prevented from upper-caste streets, sharing sources of drinking water and other public resources, and being made to walk around with brooms tied to their waists.” Fittingly, Dalit means “broken” or “trampled upon”.
A special dispensation applies to Christian and Muslim Dalits, who according to a presidential order on August, 10th, 1950 are no longer part of the caste system: “... no person who professes a religion different from the Hindu religion shall be deemed to be a member of a Scheduled Caste.” It was modified twice to exclude Sikhs and Buddhists from this presidential order but continues to apply to Christians and Muslims. The estimated number of Christians among Dalits ranges from 30% to 70%.
The Diplomat explains the reasoning behind the denial of this affirmative action to Dalit Christians. “The first argument is that on conversion, they do not belong to the caste system because Christianity’s egalitarian nature does not recognize caste. The second suggests that their economic and social situations improve as members of Christianity and therefore, they should not receive added benefits from the government.” The religions of Sikhs and Buddhist are also egalitarian in nature which therefore contradicts the first argument. In respect of the second argument, there is very little evidence that Christian and Muslim Dalits are able to escape the caste system and improve their lives in a society deeply divided by castes.
It is interesting to note that inclusion is rarely mentioned in connection with religion. Worldwide, hundreds of millions of people are being denied opportunities or even persecuted because of their faiths. Santa Claus and reindeer are not in danger in those countries but Christians who merely want to celebrate the “Christ” in Christmas are. May the freedom of religious expression granted to us fill us with special joy and gratitude this Christmas!
We will be taking a break between Christmas and New Year. New posts will appear again from mid-January 2019. In the meantime, we encourage you to ramble through our published posts and leave us a comment or two.
Wishing you a Merry Christmas and a prosperous 2019!
Sources & Further Reading:
Dhirendra K Jha: Shadow Armies: Fringe Organizations and Foot Soldiers of Hindutva (City Plans)