24, Dec 2017 | Deborah Grey
Winters in Central India are cold and dry. Parishioners can often be seen huddled together, despite their layers of winter wear, as they sing the Lord’s praises in the run up to Christmas. But the winter of 2017 was particularly harsh for men of faith in Satna district of Madhya Pradesh. Over 30 seminarians and priests ended up in a police lock up, huddling together for comfort as they tried to find a sliver of reason for their sudden and rather odd incarceration.
Turns out their caroling had enraged the members of a right wing group of the majority community in the area. One young man had even alleged that the Christian priests had forcibly converted him by dunking him in the waters of the local pond and handing him Rs 5,000/-, proclaiming that henceforth he would go forth in the world as a Christian with the name of apostle Thomas replacing his original surname!
The newly Christened Dharmendra Thomas sought the help of men from a group called Bajrang Dal who filed a complaint with the police, who immediately took the carolers into custody. As the priests and carolers cooled their heels in lock up, another group of priests approached the police and were promptly detained as well, even as someone torched a car belonging to one of them.
“Shamefully the situation outside the police station was allowed to be so hostile that even those who wanted to approach the detained persons could get no access to them,” said Bishop Theodore Mascarenhas, SFX, Secretary General, Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India. The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India has expressed its “shock, pain and hurt at the unprovoked violence against Catholic Priests and Seminarians.”
But, human rights activist and senior member of the Christian community Dr. John Dayal, says this is the “new normal”. In a damning indictment of how the present dispensations appears reluctant to check the increasing acts of violence against minorities, Dayal says, “With impunity at its peak, and much of the young cadres of the police force indoctrinated in the Hindutva theology, it is the Dalit, the Muslim and the Christian victim of violence who finds himself in jail.” He adds, “Churches across the countries now have more closed circuit TV and long lengths of bared or blade wire on their high walls. Police, many armed, will be deployed in front of major churches in the National Capital, and elsewhere. It is the new normal.”
Indeed, attacks against Christian priests, nuns and churches, are not new in India. One still recalls the chilling incident in Odisha when Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two children were burnt alive in 1999. There were several instances of hate crimes against the community in the year 2000 as well. But it cannot be denied that the hate has been renewed and the campaign of bigotry has received a shot in the arm ever since the present dispensation came to power. Churches were attacked in Mumbai, Delhi, Agra, Jabalpur, Raipur, Haryana, Rajasthan and many other parts of the country. Services were disrupted, hate crimes against the community increased and all the while allegation of forced conversions were used as justification. Whataboutary matches are seldom incomplete without a mention of noise pollution where caroling is put in the same league as high decibel extravaganzas during other festivals, religious processions or wedding ‘baraats’.
Even the young, educated, urban Christian is not left unscathed by this hate campaign. Musician Rossi D’ Souza of “Bar Bar Phenko” fame, grew up singing carols. He is surprised at the support for incidents of attacks on minorities social media with even educated people suddenly posting against something as innocuous as caroling. Rossi insists that far from a “conversion tactic” that it is made out to be, caroling is an expression of joy during festivities where children go from door to door singing carols to spread cheer. “It is about meeting people. Infact, once in Bangalore we went to the homes of senior citizens living alone and sang to them,” he reminisces. “Polarisation is happening. The whole discourse against the community has become strategic and it is a little unnerving,” he shudders.
Dolphy D’ Souza, a social activist and former President of the Bombay Catholic Sabha (BCS), believes hate groups aiming to gain prominence are the ones behind such attacks. He says, “These are sadistic people who attack to get into the limelight. Christians are especially vulnerable because they are non-retaliatory.” D’ Souza believes it is time for all secular voices to unite and demand justice for each other. “Martin Luther King said that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” he reminds us.
However, many in the community are cautiously optimistic. Advocate and social activist Godfrey Pimenta is confident that the Christian community will thrive and celebrate Christmas 2017 despite the environment of fear. “We are a million strong in Mumbai and have integrated well with people from other communities. Therefore, I don’t foresee anything untoward happening in Mumbai. However, in the heartland where such incidents are taking place, I think we need the Central Government to take a strong stand and put an end to the threat to Christians across India.”
All this while India, country founded on the principles of equality and respect for diversity, is slipping miserably as it struggles to hold on to its reputation in the international community. In August 2017, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) ranked India’s persecution severity at “Tier 2” along with Iraq and Afghanistan. In the past five years, India has risen from No. 31 to No. 15 on Open Doors’ World Watch List, ranking just behind Saudi Arabia in persecution severity.