Thursday, September 14, 2017

Church calls for Jharkhand CM's ouster

New Delhi, Sept. 13: The apex body of Roman Catholic Christians in India today appealed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi to "curb the spread of hatred by CM Raghubar Das" a month after the Jharkhand government passed a bill restricting religious conversions on August 12.

In his strongly worded letter, Catholic Bishops Council of India (CBCI) secretary-general Theodore Mascarenhas said he was compelled to write to Modi as he was disturbed over the politics of hate unleashed in Jharkhand.

Mascarenhas said Modi had personally campaigned before elections in Jharkhand in 2014 on the inclusive plank of sab ka saath, sab ka vikas that "made Raghubar Das the chief minister of the state", but Das had begun "vitriolic attacks against the Christian community".

"If the chief minister is unable to control his ideological hatred, then it is time for him to go," he said.

Calling last week's effigy burning of Ranchi archbishop Cardinal Telesphore P. Toppo by Hindu Jagran Manch his trigger for the letter today, Mascarenhas expressed apprehension that this hatred being spread against Christians could soon "turn into physical violence".

He reminded the Prime Minister that the whole nation "applauded" him when on Independence Day this year he said violence couldn't be allowed in the name of faith.

"Mr Raghubar Das and his advisors at least in the past few months have not shown affiliation to the ideology you are proclaiming. I appeal to you, honourable Prime Minister, with trust and hope to intervene and curb the spread of hate created by the chief minister of Jharkhand. Jharkhandis and Jharkhand deserves better," the senior cleric said.

Referring to full-page government advertisements released in papers a month ago before the anti-conversion bill - which hands out stiff prison terms and cash penalty to organisations and individuals forcing conversions - was passed by the state Assembly, Mascarenhas said it contained "a spurious quote of Mahatma Gandhi without naming the source to vilify the Christian community".

Calling it a first for any chief minister, the cleric said the state government ad accused Christian missionaries of converting poor Dalits and tribals who are described as "simple and mute as cows", and sarcastically asked if the Das government had come into power with votes from these simple creatures. The ad, in Hindi, also called Christian adivasis "rice Christians", he said.

The senior cleric wrote that the church had not responded to the provocations of the chief minister not because it was afraid or weak.

"We are not speaking about ourselves, we are speaking about the people of Jharkhand," he said, wondering why so much money was spent on full-page ads sowing hate when healthcare for children in the state lay in a shambles.

Mascarenhas also questioned if there was any hidden logic behind Jharkhand's new land acquisition amendment bill that was passed with the religion bill on the same day "in record time, practically without discussion".

"One wonders if the hatred-filled advertisement and the Freedom of Religion Bill were smokescreens for the real act of the amendment to land acquisition Act. Is there something more than meets the eye, especially since the governor had earlier refused to sign amendments to the CNT and SPT Acts," he asked.

Jharkhand is the eighth Indian state to pass a bill to restrict the conversion of a citizen's religion.

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Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Why Jharkhand’s anti-conversion bill is against Constitution and not necessary

It is a difficult time to be a part of the minority community in India today with threats of various sorts coming from different quarters. But a new assault on them is the approval by the Jharkhand Cabinet of a stringent anti-conversion law, titled in characteristic double-speak, as the Religious Freedom Bill, 2017. It contains stiff jail sentences and fines for converting people through “allurement” or “coercion”. 

A day before this Cabinet decision, residents of Jharkhand awoke to front-page advertisements with pictures of Mahatma Gandhi, and a toxic quote attributed to him attacking conversions by Christian missionaries. As a columnist wrote in an online publication, the words were pulled out of context and distorted. Gandhi must not be appropriated by an ideology that is violently opposed to all he stood far: An India with full religious freedom and equal rights. And it is intensely worrying that taxpayers’ money is used to foment hatred against a segment of people of the state.

Christians constitute a small 4.3% of the population of Jharkhand. The same tribal family may have adherents of the animist Sarna faith (comprising nearly 13% of the population), Christians and persons who identify themselves as Hindus. Left to themselves, tribal families and communities live with peace with this diversity of faith practices. But the propaganda of the Right-wing, now backed by the state government, aggravated by the draconian anti-conversion law, will tear apart these families and communities. 

The proposed anti-conversion law in Jharkhand has fostered enormous disquiet among Christians everywhere in India. The ultra Right-wing regards Islam and Christianity to be a “foreign” religion, and therefore requires its adherents to respect “Hindu” culture and practices. But to advance its political juggernaut objectives, it has built alliances with Christian community leaders in some parts of India, such as Kerala and north-eastern states. However, particularly in large tribal states of central India like Jharkhand, Odisha and Chhattisgarh, the political strategy of choice has been to target, defame and intimidate Christians, with violence against their shrines, priests, nuns and women, and with laws that criminalise conversions to Christianity.

But it must be stressed that Jharkhand will not be the first government to pass an anti-conversion law if this is voted for by the state assembly. Anti-conversion laws were passed in Orissa in 1967 under a Swatantra Party government; in Madhya Pradesh in 1968 under the Samyukta Vidhayak Dal coalition (which included the Jan Sangh); and in Gujarat in 2003 and Chhattisgarh in 2006 under BJP governments. The Jayalalithaa government in Tamil Nadu passed the law in 2002 but repealed it in two years after its passage in 2004. The only Congress government to pass such a law was in Himachal Pradesh in 2006. Rajasthan passed an anti-conversion law in 2006, but the governor refused to sign the law. Arunachal Pradesh passed such a law in 1978 under the People’s Party of Arunachal, but it was never enforced as rules have not been framed to date.

Members of the Constituent Assembly took great care to uphold the freedom of religious belief in India’s Constitution. After extended debate, it decided that this freedom should not just be to practise and profess one’s faith, but also to propagate it. KM Munshi declared that “under freedom of speech which the Constitution guarantees, it will be open to any religious community to persuade other people to join their faith”.

However, organisations like the RSS never reconciled to this fundamental guarantee of the Constitution. They rail against the “menace” of Christian conversions allegedly funded by big foreign money. It matters little that the facts don’t bear out their claims. Christians constituted 2.5% of India’s population in 1981, and 2.3% in 1991, 2001 and 2011. If large-scale conversions were indeed occurring, their numbers would have swelled. This sustained misinformation has resulted in profound and sometimes violent schisms between Christian and other tribal people.

In this divisive competition for the religious allegiance of India’s poorest and most vulnerable people, marked by stridency and hate, it is important to recall the gentle counsel of one of the world’s tallest public figures, the Dalai Lama: “It does not matter which God you worship, or even if you worship no God. What is important is to be a compassionate human being”.

Harsh Mander is author, Looking Away: Inequality, Prejudice and Indifference in New India

The views expressed are personal

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