Attacked, harassed and ostracised: Christians in India continue to suffer as the country slides further still into ethno-religious nationalism

Last week, the Religious Liberty Commission of the Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI) released its annual report on Hate and Targeted Violence against Christians in India in 2021. It documented 505 individual incidents of violence across the country in 2021, including three murders, as well as other forms of harassment against Christians including disruption to worship services, social boycott and ostracisation, and forced conversion to Hinduism.

The report states: “No denomination – whether organized or a lonely independent worshipping family or neighborhood group – none has been spared targeted violence and intense, chilling hate, the worst seen since the general election campaign of 2014. The year 2021 saw calls for genocide and threats of mass violence made from public platforms, and important political and religious figures on the stage.”

Reverend Vijayesh Lal, General Secretary of the EFI, spoke to CSW about various issues facing Christians in the country today:

Anti-conversion laws

“The trend of using anti-conversion laws to falsely accuse Christians of forceful conversion or fraudulent conversion has been a common practice for some time. Wherever these laws have been passed, they have been misused by right wing elements to harass Christians. This has been the tactic for a long time, but has increased in the last three years. The newly passed laws have also given a good handle for these groups or anyone who wants to accuse a pastor or a Christian of being involved in forceful or fraudulent conversions.

The anti-conversion laws are of two kinds – laws that are framed from a converter’s point of view, and those from the point of view of the person being converted. The earlier laws (Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, and by extension Chhattisgarh) were from the converter’s point of view. They asked the basic question: ‘do I have the right to convert anyone?’. The answer was no. So after you convert someone, you had to inform the district administration after 30 days.

The laws that were framed in 2006 and 2007 in Gujarat and Himachal, and the laws that were passed since then are from the point of view of the person being converted and ask the question: ‘do I have the right to be converted?’. The answer again is no. So before one gets converted, one needs to seek permission, and if they do not, the conversion will be invalid.

The intention behind these laws is to make conversion per se illegal. They view every conversion as illegal.

It is very important for these laws to be repealed because they go against the spirit of the constitution. They go against the various declarations and documents India is a signatory to in guaranteeing fundamental freedoms and freedom of religion or belief (FoRB). They curtail not only FoRB, but also freedom of expression.”

A culture of impunity

“When irresponsible statements are made by public figures, figures who are constitutional authorities like Chief Ministers and Union Ministers, they automatically provide impunity to the perpetrators of acts of violence. It is sort of emboldening them. Hate speech emboldens impunity, as does the lack of punishment.

Christians are being attacked and it is Christians who are being booked, while the attackers go scot-free, further emboldening the perpetrators. Hate speech is rampant and people have been brainwashed. My biggest disappointment is that hatred has been normalised; people have been brainwashed into believing an agenda, a propaganda, against the Christian community and other religious minorities. Christians used to be viewed as people who provide education and healthcare, but now when you say the word Christians, they are often seen as people who convert.

One of the major reasons Christians are scared to register First Information Reports (FIRs) is because police are not cooperative. The police in any area, if they are not complicit, will try to wriggle out of an FIR, because it means extra work. A communal incident also is a bad reflection on the police themselves, so they always try to use the word compromise. We have seen this repeatedly over the last 20 years. There’s usually an attack where Christians are beaten up and there will be an FIR filed against the Christians by the attackers. When the Christians go to file an FIR, that will not be entertained, the police will say let’s have a compromise. That also leads to a lack of FIRs being filed because the Christians know that the police will not entertain their requests. Most of the time, the reason for not filing an FIR is because of fear.

We’ve been told many times by victims that they don’t want to unnecessarily agonise the people who control the area because they have to continue living there anyway.

The radicalisation of the police is not a secret, especially in BJP-ruled states because they want to please their political masters. In many cases, the police themselves have told us that they can’t help it because there is a lot of pressure on them. Sometimes, the police themselves are the perpetrators who believe in a particular ideology.”

The Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA)

“The Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) is a little more complicated. When Indira Gandhi brought in the FCRA, it was to neutralise political opponents who might be getting funding from other countries. The whole threat of the foreign hand was there. But after the state of emergency [from 1975-1977] was abolished, the subsequent governments did not do away with the FCRA. They only strengthened it and used it as a tool of oppression.

It was strengthened by the Manmohan Singh government in 2010, and again by the current Modi-led government, who have used it in a way that Singh’s government hadn’t been able to, although they too used it to an extent. The government essentially views the non-profit sector with suspicion, particularly those organisations that work on empowerment and advocacy, including Christian organisations, who according to them are involved in conversions. The whole sector is facing the heat. There were almost 22,000 plus organisations that had FCRA licenses, the list has now dwindled to around 16,000. Christian organisations have been targeted, as have others.”

More details on these and other issues facing Christians in India can be found in CSW’s extensive reporting on the country and in EFI’s report, which warns that its statistics may be a conservative estimate of the incidents facing India’s Christians: “Even in normal times, it is difficult to document all incidents of persecution. Much of the crime takes place away from the big stages, often in large villages and tribal areas deep in forests. In many cases, victims are too scared to report persecution.”

“The real figures may be much more – even without the additional hardship and difficulties faced in a period when India was raged by the second wave of Covid. The nation was trying to cope with unprecedented disaster — which saw patients gasping for oxygen, which was in short supply in hospitals, others dying on the way to hospital, and bodies being thrown into the Ganges and other rivers as cremation grounds were overwhelmed by the death count. It had little time to investigate violence on a small minority community. Covid did not prevent the perpetrators of such crimes.”

Click here to read the EFI report in full.