Indonesia’s elections reveal a nation at the crossroads between pluralism and intolerance

When the official results confirming the re-election of Joko Widodo as President of Indonesia were announced on 21 May, supporters of his rival, former General Prabowo Subianto, took to the streets. Riots led to carnage in the capital, Jakarta, with at least six people dead. The divisions unleashed by the election campaign were exposed in their ugliest form.

Until that point, Indonesia’s elections had been peaceful and orderly, despite what almost all observers describe as the most divisive campaign in the country’s recent history. On 17 April, over 190 million people cast their votes for the presidency and the national, regional and local legislatures, in one of the world’s biggest and most complex democratic exercises in recent times. To conduct such a poll, in the world’s third largest democracy and fourth most populous nation, across the world’s largest archipelago of 17,508 islands stretching from the Indian to the Pacific Oceans, is a significant feat.

I spent three weeks in Indonesia during the election period. I witnessed the final week of the campaign, election day itself, and the first twelve days after the elections. I travelled to four cities – Jakarta, Medan in North Sumatra, Surabaya in East Java, and Pontianak in West Kalimantan – where I met civil society activists, religious communities and government advisers. I left Indonesia with profoundly mixed feelings.

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India: A rude awakening in an election year

Dr Shashi Tharoor, the former Under Secretary-General of the United Nations, once described Narendra Modi as a paradoxical Prime Minister who says one thing and does another.

Coming into power in 2014 on egalitarian slogans like “ache din aane wale hain” (good days are coming) and “sabka saath, sabka vikas” (togetherness with all and development for all), Modi appealed to the corporate and middle class groups who were already beginning to resent the Congress Party, which was plagued with a series of corruption scandals. Posturing as the “development visionary” while presiding as Gujarat’s Chief Minister (2001-2014), he was fielded as the best candidate who could fix India’s decaying economy and good governance.

This clearly was not the case, as the reckless almost overnight demonetization had a drastic impact, particularly on lower income groups.

The promise of good days is far from being realised. For the religious minorities that make up approximately 16.3% of the population the last five years have been anything but favourable.

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India’s general election: The church in Jharkhand under direct attack by the state government

In the lead up to India’s elections from 11th April-19th May, CSW is focusing on some of the issues faced by religious minorities in the country.

Last month, CSW’s South Asia Team Leader detailed the anti-conversion narratives that are often used to fuel religious intolerance. In this post, a guest contributor from Jharkhand state, whose name has been kept anonymous for security purposes, outlines the spread of hate speech by government officials in the state:

“On 11 August 2017 the front page of all newspapers in Jharkhand published an advertisement sponsored by the state government with a photograph of Jharkhand Chief Minister Shri Raghuvar Das and Mahatma Gandhi which misused the statement of Shri Mahatma Gandhi claiming that “If Christian missionaries feel that only conversion to Christianity is the path to salvation, why don’t you start with me or Mahadev Desai? Why do you stress on conversion of the simple, illiterate, poor and forest-dwellers? These people can’t differentiate between Jesus and Mohammad and are not likely to understand your preachings. They are mute and simple, like cows. These simple, poor, Dalit and forest-dwellers, whom you make Christians, do so not for Jesus but for rice and their stomach.”

“There is enough place in state prison for all the pastors and preachers if they continue to carry out missionary activity in the state.”

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Will the Surabaya church bombings serve as a wake-up call for Indonesia ahead of next year’s presidential elections?

Santa Maria
Santa Maria Tak Bercela Catholic Church, Surabaya

Father Aloysius Widyawan opened the door of an upstairs room in the Santa Maria Tak Bercela Catholic Church. “Three months ago, this room was completely filled with blood, body parts, teeth, even the faces of the bombers, strewn by the force of the blast,” he told me.

He pointed out windows that had been blown out, and the icons of St Luke and St John, damaged but not destroyed. He told me about the two young Catholic boys, Evan and Nathan, aged 12 and eight, who died as a result of their injuries. They had been baptized only two years before and had just received their first Communion. He described the Muslim security guard who lost both eyes and legs in the explosion, and later told the priest: “Please forgive me because I was not able to protect the church and the people, and am unable to work again.” Six people were killed and more than 30 injured in that one church alone.

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Extremists Emboldened As Religious Intolerance Rises in India’s Tamil Nadu state.

It has been two months since Persia Jacob was repeatedly kicked in the face when she resisted a mob of Hindu extremists who tried to snatch her Bible away from her. She wakes up with a heavy head every morning, having to take medication to relieve her of the trauma, even if temporarily, so that she can get on with her day.

The 38 year-old Christian remained persistent that she would die and couldn’t be without the Bible as they pushed and slapped her, stripping off her saree as they tried to grab it [the copy of Bible] from her. The Bible was then set ablaze along with several other copies of Christian literature.

As well as attempting to force her to convert to Hinduism, the mob of men raided four other prayer halls in Madurai District of Tamil Nadu state, as Christians gathered for Sunday worship.

Continue reading “Extremists Emboldened As Religious Intolerance Rises in India’s Tamil Nadu state.”