‘Freedom of expression and the courage to express oneself go hand in hand’ – an interview with John Dayal

Indian human rights activist, senior journalist and Secretary General of the All India Christian Council John Dayal is this year’s winner of the prestigious annual Louis Careno Award for Excellence in Journalism, awarded to an individual or institution for their outstanding contribution to the press by the Indian Catholic Press Association (ICPA). Dayal has spent over four decades as a champion of minority rights and the right to freedom of religion or belief in India and is a household name within the Indian Christian community.

The award will be conferred by the ICPA on 10 December, Human Rights Day, which follows International Human Rights Defenders Day, during the 27th National Convention of Christian Journalists in Chennai. The ICPA described Dayal as “a prophet of our times who is among India’s foremost voices against human rights violations, particularly on the persecution of religious minorities.”

Last month, CSW spoke to Dayal about his early years as a journalist, the state of freedom of religion and belief in India today, role of the press and more.

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Intolerance towards Christians in many tribal communities in India does not end even in death

Janki Sori’s family were not given much time to grieve. Having laid her to rest in their own land on 1 November, only two days passed before her body was exhumed against her family’s wishes by members of a tribal group known as the Sarv Adivasi Samaj – all because of her conversion to Christianity.

Ms Sori, who was 35 years old when she died, lived in the village of Antagarh in India’s Chhattisgarh state, where the majority of the community are animists who worship nature and spirits, while also drawing some influence from Hinduism.

Those who exhumed her body claimed that their village belongs only to those who follow their religion, and, after burying Ms Sori in a different village on 4 November, the group claimed that they would continue to target converts to Christianity in the same manner until they ‘re-convert’ to the religion or their ancestry and culture.

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“Jai Shri Ram” on the streets of Leicester as India’s Hindu nationalism stretches beyond its borders

“Jai Shri Ram”, translating from Hindi as “hail Lord Ram” or “victory to Lord Ram”, is meant to be a harmless informal greeting, a proclamation of one’s faith and an expression of praise for a well-known Hindu deity.

Sadly, the expression has taken on far more sinister connotations in recent years. For far-right Hindu nationalists in India, who have been significantly emboldened over the past eight years under Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the slogan has been appropriated as a rallying cry for violent extremists.

CSW receives regular reports of communal violence in which the perpetrators have either chanted those three words while carrying out their attacks, or in some cases pressured their victims to declare them, forcing them to contradict their own religion or belief.

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India at 75: A nation under siege

India celebrates its 75th year of independence from the British on 15 August. Every year this day is commemorated by remembering the innumerable sacrifices Indians made in their pursuit of freedom and self-rule. But year after year the question of whether this is the vision of India that the nation’s forefathers and freedom fighters gave their lives for becomes ever more pressing.

Even as there was much to celebrate on 15 August 1947, independence came with a heavy price. Just a day before, on 14 August, India was torn into two; the painful partition of India and Pakistan along the lines of religion has continued to have profound effects on the lives of people on both sides.

If anything, 75 years later, these communal divides seem to be growing bigger. There has been much debate on the partition in the intervening decades – who is to blame, what went wrong and what could have been done. But just as the debates continue, the hatred continues to grow.

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From Nicaragua to India: The global community must stand up for the work of independent civil society 

On 28 June, the Nicaraguan parliament stripped the Missionaries of Charity – the order founded by Mother Teresa – of its legal status. Days later, they were expelled from the country entirely, with local media reporting that 18 nuns were driven to the border by migration officials and police officers before crossing on foot into neighbouring Costa Rica. 

No doubt the incident drew particular attention as a result of the high profile of the organisation in question, however the targeting of the Missionaries of Charity in this manner marks just the tip of the iceberg in a nationwide crackdown on civil society and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) which has been ongoing for several years. 

Ever since protests erupted across the country in April 2018, and particularly since the re-election of Daniel Ortega as president in November 2021, the Nicaraguan government has acted with increasing antagonism towards anyone it perceives as critical of the current regime. This has included the Roman Catholic Church, to which the Missionaries of Charity belong, and which in February 2022 saw a number of its affiliate private universities and aid organisations targeted in a similar manner. 

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