ACHR WEEKLY REVIEW

Embargoed for: 25 January 2012
Review: 237/12

India’s Christianophobiat


By – Suhas Chakma, Director, Asian Centre for Human Rights

Also available in Seven Sisters Post

That secular India suffers from entrenched Christianophobia is well-established but not publicly acknowledged by the State and the society at large. Nothing reflects it more than the denial of reservations to the Dalits who converted into “Christianity” under the Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order, 1950 which provides that no person other than those who profess the religion of Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism will be considered as Scheduled Castes. India’s Christianophobia has come to the fore after the UPA government promised 4.5% quota for the backward Muslims, believed to be Dalits who converted into Islam, in the run up to the forthcoming UP Assembly elections while the same government has been ducking reservations to the Dalit Christians before the Supreme Court. Sadly, the Supreme Court itself took six years to frame the substantive issues of the writ petition on the issue in January 2011.

Historically, the British ruled for 190 years from 1757 to 1947 but the British did not impose their religion which was the case for the previous rulers. No major group which had formal religions converted into Christianity. In the North East India which has the largest concentration of Christian populations in the country, those who were practicing formal religions did not convert into Christianity. The tribals like the Chakmas and Mogs who practiced Buddhism from time immemorial did not convert into Christianity. Similarly, Tripuris and Manipuris who practiced Vaishnavaite also did not convert. It was only the ethnic groups who had their local religions, termed as animism, who converted into Christianity. 

The Christian populations throughout post independent India remained static. They constituted about 2.35% of Indian population in 1951, 2.44% in 1961, 2.59% in 1971, 2.45% in 1981, 2.32% in 1991 and 2.3% in 2001 census. Yet, India enacted a number of laws to prohibit conversion which were essentially meant for the Christian missionaries.

The self-proclaimed secular Congress Party was the first one to enact the Freedom of Religion Act in Orissa in 1967 followed by Madhya Pradesh in 1968 and in Arunachal Pradesh in 1978. The Bharatiya Janata Party followed suit and introduced the Freedom of Religion Act of Gujarat in 2003 and in Chhattisgarh in 2006. While the Congress opposed the Bill of Gurajat, it enacted the Himachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act in 2006. Under the Freedom of Religin Acts, conversion into Hinduism is certainly not an offence. The Hindu groups have been openly converting the tribals into Hinduism under the Ghar Wapasi movement while the Churches were kept under strict vigil and many missionaries had to face prosecution.

Conversion into Christianity has not emancipated the Dalits from the repressive caste system. The Church itself practices caste system. Across India, cemeteries for the Dalit Christians are different from the upper castes so is the sitting arrangements. The Dalit Christians are not selected in the hierarchy of the Church. While in mainland India, the Catholics were mainly blamed for the practice of caste system, in the North East India, which has the Baptists, the complaint of domination by the Bishops from South India is often echoed.

Apart from the Freedom of Religion Acts, the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act, 1976 has been used to monitor the missionaries. The Restricted Area Permit has been used to control the entry of the foreign missionaries in the North East India. The Foreign Contribution Regulation Act, 2010 specifically prohibits any conversion.

In post independent India, conversion has essentially been a direct consequence of expression of negation and the failure of the State to reduce destitution and discrimination.

The Tripuris who did not convert into Christianity during the British period started converting to Christianity mainly from the 1980s as an expression of negation against the domination by Bengali Hindus. The same Tripuris who are known as Reangs/Brus in neighbouring Mizoram and had converted into Christianity have been re-converting into Hinduism since 1990s as an expression of negation against domination by the Mizo Christians. The conversion into Christianity by the Dalits despite caste discrimination within the Church has also to do with expression of negation against the repressive caste system. Across mainland India Adivasis live in absolute poverty and the Christian missionaries played a critical role to provide food, education, medical assistance etc.

Since India launched its Tribal Sub Plan and Special Component Plan in 1971-72, the contours of conversion have changed. Many of the front organizations of the Hindu religious groups received grants made by the Ministry of Social Justice, Ministry of Human Resources Development, Ministry of Tribal Affairs etc for running schools and hostels etc for the Scheduled Tribes and Scheduled Castes. These Hindu religious organisations increasingly adopted the same methods as of the missionaries i.e. provide food, medicine, shelter, education etc. In this contest, the role of the Indian state irrespective of whichever party is in power has been partisan.

Religion as a matter of faith is a private issue and must not be regulated by the State. It is a well-known fact that there are a number of Dalits who identify themselves legally as Hindus to obtain the benefits of reservations but practice Christianity. The denial of reservations to the Dalit Christians has indeed kept a large chunk of India’s discriminated population into backwardness.

India must address caste discrimination with re-newed vigour. The Dalits to a large extent have been politically empowered but caste system remains alive and kicking. The government however has stopped public campaign against the caste system as if it does not exist. The matrimonial pages of Indian newspapers are full of advertisements giving caste preferences. Even the Railways still clear human excreta manually though manual scavenging is illegal. Indian state must not interfere in religious matters but it ought to realize certain religious practices like caste discrimination are defined as criminal offences under the national laws and it ought to educate people and enforce the law. However, when the State itself practices manual scavenging and promotes one particular religion by not enforcing the Religious Freedom Acts against the Hindu religious groups who convert Adivasis, it can no longer claim as “secular” and “non-casteist”. The denial of reservation to the Dalit Christians solely based on their religion also makes India Christianophobic.  [Ends]