Friday, December 3 2021

Dive In


Three-year-olds and four-year-olds are going to schools but adults are working from home… We will appoint somebody to administer your government.

That’s the Supreme Court venting its fury at the Delhi government—which reopened schools even as air quality plummets in the city. The Court has given it a 24-hour deadline to take immediate steps to tackle pollution. The first step: The schools have been closed again.


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Big Story

A rising tide of anti-Christian hate

The TLDR: 2021 has witnessed an escalation in attacks on Christian communities across the country—a pattern that has received far less attention than anti-Muslim violence. We look at what’s happening and why.


Editor’s note: Our big story today is free to read. So if you liked it be sure to share the link widely! It helps splainer find new subscribers:)


Researched by: Sara Varghese and Vagda Galhotra 


First, a dismal timeline of violence

A report released by human rights groups in October documented 305 attacks on Christians in just nine months—most of them in North India and which included 208 instances of mob violence. Here’s what’s happened since.


Escalating rhetoric: BJP leaders have ramped up their rhetoric—often clubbing Muslims and Christians together. One MLA in Madhya Pradesh called for a “Chadar Mukt, Father Mukt Bharat” (an India free of veil-wearing Muslims and Christian priests). During a Dusehra speech, RSS leader Mohan Bhagwat warned: “Illegal immigration in bordering districts and conversions in [the] northeast have changed the demographics further.”


Escalating violence: 

  • On October 1, more than 1,000 people gathered in Chhattisgarh for a ‘Band Karo Dharmantran’ (Stop Religious Conversions) rally—where a Hindutva leader urged the people to “arm themselves with axes to teach Christians indulging in conversions a lesson.” This after 100 people lynched a young pastor in the state.
  • On October 3, 242 members of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the BJP attacked a church in Uttarakhand—armed with iron rods. The outcome: The police filed a report against the pastor’s family for “forced conversions, promoting religious disharmony, criminal conspiracy, and even robbery.” 
  • On October 10, the Uttar Pradesh police took several Christians into custody after a mob dragged them to the station—accusing them of “converting” people.
  • In November, the local police in Belagavi, Karnataka, gave a “friendly warning” telling them not to hold prayer meetings in public halls—after months of harassment by the rightwing group Sri Ram Sene.
  • A local pastor said: “They (rightwing activists) barge into churches, break things, attack people, but finally cases are booked against pastors accusing them of forced conversion. Many are now conducting prayer meetings on Zoom calls.”
  • There have been similar incidents in other parts of the state, including most recently in Belur.
  • On the same day, the Bajrang Dal vandalised a new church in Dwarka and attacked parishioners. The mob’s chant was familiar: “Desh k gaddaron ko, goli maπo saalon ko.” See the clip here.


Point to note: Attacks on churches have become a pattern—surging and subsiding—over recent years. There were at least 351 cases of anti-Christian violence in 2017. At the time, a Catholic leader told Frontline: “2017 and the first four months of 2018 have been one of the most traumatic.”


The great fear of conversion

There are around 28 million Christians in India—and they account for less than 3% of the population. There is no evidence of their numbers increasing—by conversion or any other means. 


A history of anxiety: The fear of evangelizing missionaries is deep-rooted in our postcolonial memory. Even Gandhi-ji wrote in a 1931 article:


“Every nation considers its own faith to be as good as that of any other. Certainly the great faiths held by the people of India are adequate for her people. India stands in no need of conversions from one faith to another.”


And the fear of Hindus being overwhelmed by ‘converted’ minorities also played out during the framing of the Constitution. One member of the Constituent Assembly warned that if “the numerical strength of the Hindus…gradually diminishes,” there may once again be calls for a “separate nation.”


Anti-conversion laws: Although the Constitution enshrined the “propagation” of religion as a fundamental right, that anxiety has played out in the form of anti-conversion laws that date back to 1967—when Odisha passed the first one spurred by fears of its tribal communities converting to Christianity. (We explained this history here). 


From Christians to Muslims: In recent years, this anti-conversion frenzy has primarily focused on Muslims (see: love jihad). But as The Diplomat notes, Christians were viewed as the primary threat until the 2000s:


“Political scientist Sumit Sarkar attributed this to ideological pragmatism; there were few Christians in the country and targeting them drew little resistance, in terms of political fallout and violence, as compared to the more numerous Muslims. Many of the then coalition partners of the BJP were, in fact, dependent on Muslim votes.”


And the recent shift toward Muslims may have equally pragmatic reasons: Christians are a significant vote bloc in Kerala, Goa and the Northeast.


Back to Christians again? In Karnataka, Chief Minister Bommai is getting ready to introduce an anti-conversion law. But the rhetoric is not about ‘love jihadi’ Muslims but evangelising Christians. Ahead of the move, the government is already conducting a survey on missionary work—to identify “the number of authorised and unauthorised people engaged in church work.” The aim, however, is more far-reaching:


“Officials have been asked to check along with the police on conversion activity in these districts. Officials have been asked to initiate stringent action when reports of conversion activity are received.”


More quietly, the state is also engaged in a “massive intelligence gathering” operation—where the police have been tasked with identifying all churches and gathering names and phone numbers of their priests—and of anyone who rents their homes or halls to religious gatherings. The Quint notes:


“Viewed in its totality, the intelligence wing has aimed to identify people who practice or preach Christianity in all places of their worship—from established churches that have stood for centuries, to newer churches of younger Christian denominations, and even homes where community prayer gatherings are held.”


Quote to note: In 1999, Christian missionary Graham Staines and his two children were burned to death by a mob. At the time Sumit Sarkar wrote


“What is worrying is the confusion the question of Christian conversions can still evoke, even among well-intentioned and progressive people. There are very few who would not condemn the Staines murder, yet this could be accompanied by something like a sotto voce ‘but’ about conversions.”


Some key contradictions of note

The human rights report released in October flagged the fact that most of the targets of such attacks are Dalit and tribal Christians. But the Prime Minister has been openly courting Roman Catholics in states like Kerala and Goa—and his recent meeting with the Pope was part of the campaign. At the time, a party leader told Indian Express:


“The Goa experience has taught BJP that the majority of the Hindus and a section of Christians could make a formidable vote base for us, be it in the case of Kerala, Manipur or other north-eastern states.”


The papal meeting was warmly welcomed by high-ranking cardinals who said “This has a historical importance” and will “bring in positive efforts in India for a mutual trust and collaboration between people of different religious groups.” All this is part of an increasingly cosy relationship between the Catholic Church and the BJP in Kerala.


Not all Christians: In Kerala, an internal conflict within the Church is driving two key sects—Orthodox and Jacobite—into the arms of the BJP. Also attracted to the BJP: Syrian Christians who view themselves as ‘upper caste’—i.e. Brahmin converts who also belong to the upper echelons of Kerala society. They are unhappy with the state government for ‘favouring’ Muslims. In fact, the recent anti-halal drive in Kerala were instigated by Syrian Christian groups—and the church leaders have been some of the most vocal supporters of the anti-‘love jihad’ campaigns.


Quote to note: Delhi University academic Apoorvanand offers a thought-provoking reason why some Christians have once again become a target:


“By choosing a different target (apart from Muslims) for a supposedly different crime, the ‘Hindutva’ (Hindu supremacist) project in India is adding diversity and objectivity to its anti-minority hatred. To the followers, this makes anti-minority hate and vigilante justice look rational and more natural.”


The bottomline: Divide and rule. That has always been the maxim of our leaders. Our old colonial masters must be laughing in their graves. 


Reading list

  • Al Jazeera offers a great overview of the recent spate of anti-Christian violence—while you can read the recent human rights report here
  • The Quint has more on the intelligence-gathering operation in Karnataka. 
  • The News Minute has a good read on Bommai—and his transformation from a moderate to a rightwing loyalist. 
  • This Frontline cover story from the archives reminds us that very little has changed since 2018. 
  • The Quint and The Wire report on the schisms within the Christian community in Kerala. 
  • Asim Ali in The Diplomat has a very good historical analysis of the fear of conversion. 
  • For more on anti-conversion laws and love jihad, read our explainer
  • Also worth your time: This 1999 Economics & Political Weekly essay by Sumit Sarkar on conversion and the politics of the Hindu Right.


Headlines that matter

Just WhatsApp Uber!

You can now book your cab ride via the company’s official WhatsApp chatbot. Nope, you won’t need the app anymore: “Everything from user registration, booking a ride, and getting a trip receipt will be managed within the WhatsApp chat interface.” This is a first-ever feature for Uber in any of its markets—and will be introduced in Lucknow, followed by the other major cities. (Mint)

The biggest streaming music hits

Apple and Spotify have released their lists of the most streamed songs of 2021. On Apple Music, BTS’ single ‘Dynamite’ was the most-played song of the year. For Spotify, that was Olivia Rodrigo’s ‘Driver’s License’. The top three artists in the world as per Spotify: Bad Bunny, followed by Taylor Swift and BTS. Meanwhile, topping the YouTube India list: ‘Lut Gaye’—followed by the Bhojpuri song ‘Kunware Me Ganga Nahile Bani’ and Badshah’s ‘Paani Paani’. (BBC News)


A dino with a big tail 

A new species of dinosaur found in Chile has a “battle axe for a tail.” Named Stegouros elengassen, it has a “bony tail shaped like a club that was wielded by Aztec warriors.” Why this is notable: “The tail is extremely strange, as it is short for a dinosaur and the posterior half is encased in dermal bones (bones that grow in the skin) forming a unique weapon.” Below is a 3D gif of the tail. If you want to see the dino, then you can check it out at the New York Times or CNN.



In today’s edition

Sanity Break

  • The oddest news pictures of 2021


Weekend Advisory 

  • Good stuff to watch this weekend
  • A list of good reads

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