Free Press Journal

For the right to differ, religiously


swapan dasgupta

Last week, at a conference organised in Delhi to showcase the buoyancy in the Indian markets, Congress MP Shashi Tharoor struck a slightly discordant note. Referring to reports of attacks on churches and the alleged harassment of minorities, he said that such incidents would affect India’s attempts to woo investments from Europe and the Arab countries.

Tharoor is right to be distressed over any incident, however small, that conveys an impression that India is intolerant towards its religious minorities. He would even be right in suggesting that economic growth presupposes a large measure of social harmony. However, he was treading on dangerous ground by extending his argument to suggest that European and Arab countries have a special interest in ensuring the safety and security of India’s minorities. Ensuring the civil liberties of Indian citizens of all faiths is enshrined in the Constitution and is the duty of all governments in India. Yes, violations do take place—and religious minorities aren’t the only people who are affected—and correcting the distortions is the responsibility of both the state and civil society. But this is an internal matter of India and beyond the scope of other sovereign governments, unless, of course, they happen to be directly affected by any fallout.

The isolated thefts and vandalism in churches and the criminal assault on a nun in West Bengal are unfortunate, even shameful. However, these incidents don’t warrant internationalisation and certainly don’t necessitate India being at the receiving end of a gratuitous sermon by a visiting President of the US. In the past, and under successive governments of different political complexions, India has always protested against other countries meddling in its internal affairs. It is, therefore, unbecoming of a Congress MP with a rich background in international affairs to link incidents such as the theft in churches, the criminal assault of a nun and perhaps even the beef ban in Haryana and Maharashtra to religious sensitivities in West Asia and Europe.

At the possible risk of being unfair, it may well be argued that Tharoor’s intervention wasn’t entirely innocent. Over the past three months, there has been a concerted campaign by India’s opposition parties, the English language media and some members of the Christian clergy to exaggerate the significance of crimes directed at churches and individual Christians. A fire caused by an electrical short-circuit, a bout of window breaking by a handful of louts and the assault of a nun by ordinary criminals lured by the large amounts of cash kept in a seminary have been quite consciously painted as part of a larger design to harass and intimidate India’s Christians. It has been claimed that these incidents are the direct consequence of the ghar wapsi programme launched by Hindu evangelists and the tacit encouragement of ‘majoritarian’ impulses by the Narendra Modi Government.

The pattern isn’t new. It is fashionable today to posit the ‘intolerant’ Modi against the ‘large-hearted’ Atal Behari Vajpayee. However, those with longer memories will recall that the very same forces who are suggesting the imminent arrival of Hindu fascism, had launched savage attacks on Vajpayee for his alleged encouragement of the people who murdered the Australian missionary Graham Staines in Odisha, unsettled some improvised churches in the Dangs district of Gujarat and allegedly attacked a Christian shrine in Bengaluru. Quite systematically, an attempt was made to suggest that religious minorities would be unsafe under any dispensation that had the BJP at its helm.

The pattern is being repeated in today’s India. The charges of Hindu intolerance are just a precursor to a larger political intervention aimed at suggesting that there is a hidden agenda of the Modi Government that has nothing to do with improving the material well-being of Indians. The aim is also to tarnish India’s social record in the international community and, in the process, call into question the ethical viability of its economic programme. That this psychological warfare is based on the premise that everything must be done to undermine the Modi regime is quite obvious. But what is the basis of this fear?

Yes, there has been some change in ground realities, but this change doesn’t correspond to stereotypes of cowering Christians and alienated Muslims. Under the UPA, the evangelical excesses of those committed to ‘harvesting souls’ were overlooked. In large tracts of southern India, there was a show of unwarranted indulgence towards those committed to debunking the ‘false’ ancestral faiths of people and showing them the ‘true faith’. These resulted in social tensions and a sense of disquiet among people who were otherwise content keeping their faith separate from public life. Today, these misgivings have manifested themselves in a determination to tell generously funded religious predators to keep off.

Does the new mood constitute an attack on people’s civil liberties? The answer is a definite Yes if the right to change faith is placed on top of the agenda. However, if equal importance is attached to the right of people and communities to retain their faith, the tables are turned. When poachers suddenly assume the role of gamekeepers, there is bound to be some disorientation. India’s Christians aren’t becoming strangers in their own country. Those who believe that only one mode of worship should prevail over all else, are encountering the resistance of those who believe in a plurality of gods and faiths. The rest is all rhetoric, propaganda and hyped-up politics.