Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Written Evidence


Written evidence submitted by Christian Solidarity Worldwide

THE PERSECUTION OF CHRISTIANS IN INDIA, FROM THE PERSPECTIVE OF CASTE DISCRIMINATION

1.  BACKGROUND: CASTE DISCRIMINATION

  The recent Political Declaration on the India-EU Strategic Partnership, issued on 7 September under the Presidency of the UK, included a commendable commitment to "work together to uphold human rights in a spirit of equality and mutual respect". Consequent to this commitment, there is need for the EU, and therefore the UK in its outgoing Presidency, to raise concern with the Indian authorities about the widespread and egregious human rights abuses perpetrated in connection with the caste system in India.

  Caste discrimination is the single largest human rights concern in India, affecting around 250 million people. The suppression of Dalits is considerable and wide-ranging, and is well-documented. Not only are Dalits compelled to perform the most menial and hazardous tasks, but many Dalit women are sold into prostitution, and the use of Dalit child labour is widespread. As hired workers, Dalits are typically paid under 50% of the minimum wage, and the careers of educated, more influential Dalits are hampered by their caste. Dalits are widely subjected to brutal and degrading assaults.

  Several of the issues surrounding caste discrimination were highlighted during a recent hearing of the Subcommittee on Africa, Global Human Rights and International Operations in the United States Congress. In particular, the plight of Christians drawn from among the Dalits and Other Backward Castes (OBCs), who comprise the vast majority of India's Christian population, was raised. According to Congressman Christopher Smith, "Dalits and tribal peoples are often the targets of Hindu religious extremism . . . many Dalits and tribal groups have converted from Hinduism to other faiths to escape widespread discrimination and achieve higher social status. . . . Converts to Christianity are particularly targeted."

2.  RELIGIOUS FREEDOM ASPECT

  Caste discrimination, and the fact that the overwhelming majority of Christians, are drawn from the Dalits and Other Backwards Castes (OBCs) who, in embracing Christianity, leave behind their place in the Hindu caste ladder, lies at the root of the substantial problem of the persecution of Christian in India. Dalit communities which adopt Christian faith en masse constitute the chief targets of persecution. Christian and Dalit leaders speak of a "double persecution": the stigma attached to their caste remains with Dalit Christians, in addition to which their Christian faith is a further taboo, attracting social ostracism, harassment and in some cases, even physical attacks and murders. It is worth noting that caste distinctions are most pronounced in the villages, which is where the most severe persecution of Christians is taking place.

  The EU-India Strategic Partnership Joint Action Plan stated that India is a paradigm of "how various religions can flourish in a plural, democratic and open society". Nonetheless, the persecution of religious minorities, particularly Christians, indicates a need to engage with the Indian authorities to ensure the protection and full participation of all India's citizens.

2.1  Legal Discrimination against Dalit Christians

  One element of restorative justice for Dalits in post-independence India, was the introduction in 1950 of the Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order, which created a system of "reservation", or quotas for Dalits in government, employment and education. However, the 1950 Order contained the proviso that if Dalits should convert from Hinduism to another religion, they would lose their Scheduled Caste status, and the privileges that this entails. In effect, this obstructs the freedom of Dalits to freely adopt a religion of their choice, which is in contravention of international standards.

  The Order has twice been amended, to include Dalits belonging to the Sikh and Buddhist religions, but Christians and Muslims of Dalit background are still excluded from the "reservation" system. The Indian Supreme Court is currently hearing a case on the legality of the 1950 Order, which has been challenged by the Center for Public Interest Litigation, a civil rights organisation, in writ petition no. 180 of 2004. Following a hearing on 23 August, the Government of India awarded responsibility for this issue to the Justice Ranganath Mishra National Commission for Linguistic and Religious Minorities.

  Christian organisations within India have called for the system of "reservation" to be extended to Christians. It is widely argued that, although there should be no caste system within Christianity, the pervasiveness of caste discrimination throughout society warrants the application of the "reservation" system to Dalits of any religion. According to a statement by Archbishop Chinnappa of Tamil Nadu, "Dalits of all religions live in the same society ruled by caste values. A change of religion does not alter the socio-economic status of Dalits. The social stigma and ostracism in society continue to haunt them wherever they go. A Dalit is considered untouchable, irrespective of the religious faith he or she may profess. As for atrocities, there is no discrimination between a Hindu Dalit and a Christian Dalit."

  The system of "reservation" may be considered as no more than a first step towards addressing the wider problem of caste discrimination. At present, the lack of "reservation" for Christian Dalits is an important tool for the subjugation of all Dalits, as it discourages conversion from Hinduism. To alter the law would be to cut at the root of this systemic discrimination.

2.2  Anti-Conversion Legislation

  The freedom to embrace Christianity is curtailed in a number of states by anti-conversion legislation. According to Dr Kancha Ilaiah, testifying before the recent US Congress hearing, anti-conversion laws "perpetuate Dalit slavery" by obstructing their freedom to leave the Hindu religion.

  Despite India's constitutional protection for religious freedom (Article 25), anti-conversion legislation is currently in place in Orissa (1967), Madhya Pradesh (1968), Arunachal Pradesh (1978) and Chhattisgarh, which inherited that of its parent state, Madhya Pradesh. A Bill was passed in Gujarat on 26 March 2003, though its rules are yet to be framed and it is therefore not yet in force. A similar Bill is being proposed in Rajasthan, and the state governments of Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh are working on making their respective anti-conversion laws more stringent.

  The chief object of the state Freedom of Religion Acts is the prohibition of so-called forcible conversions. Article 3 the Orissa Freedom of Religion Act (OFRA) 1967 provides that "No person shall convert or attempt to convert, either directly or otherwise, any person from one religious faith to another by the use of force or by inducement or by any fraudulent means nor shall any person abet such conversion".

  A number of specific concerns may be raised in connection with these Freedom of Religion Acts. Firstly, the terms used in connection with conversion are potentially open to wide interpretation, which has contributed to a fear among Christians that the laws can easily be misused against them. The definition of "inducement" as given in the OFRA is that which includes "the offer of any gift or gratification, either in cash or in kind and shall also include the grant of any benefit, either pecuniary or otherwise". This ambiguous definition may potentially be misused to interpret charitable acts as "temptation" to convert. Christian groups are involved in extensive charitable work throughout India, particularly among the lower castes and tribals, which is considered to be threatened by anti-conversion legislation. The definition of "any fraudulent means" is yet more ambiguous: "misrepresentation or any other fraudulent contrivance". Such loose definitions are considered to render the laws subject to capricious interpretation.

  Secondly, if the purpose of the state Freedom of Religion Acts was to restrict forcible conversion, the requirement for all conversions to be registered with a District Magistrate seems superfluous. This provision is, furthermore, based on the false assumption that a ceremony must take place in order for conversion to Christianity to occur (see for example Article 5(1) of the Gujarat Bill). In reality, the ceremony of baptism takes place only after a person has adopted the Christian faith, and indeed many Christian denominations in India are only prepared to baptise after at least three months of instruction in Christian faith. This provision is therefore in violation not only of the right to freely adopt, but also to manifest a religious faith.

2.3  Hindutva Groups

  The activities of the militant "Sangh Parivar" groups in promulgating a "Hindutva", or Hindu nationalist, agenda, are of particular concern to the Christian community in India. These Sangh Parivar groups, of which the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and its daughter organisations are the largest, are responsible either directly, or through incitement, for a considerable number of attacks on Christian targets.

  There has been increasing international awareness of the nature of the activities of the RSS, particularly within the USA. The US-based Terrorist Research Center recently labelled the RSS as a hate group, while a document entitled "Exploring Religious Conflict", published by US-based think-tank, the RAND Corporation in August 2005, categorised the RSS as a "New Religious Movement", affirming that, "[i]t espouses a strong and militant religious philosophy based on exclusivity and hate". During the recent hearing of the Subcommittee on Africa, Global Human Rights and International Operations in the US Congress, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), the religious and cultural wing of the RSS, was singled out for vilification. Its militant wing, the Bajrang Dal, has been responsible for perpetrating many of the violent attacks on religious minorities.

  One manifestation of the Sangh Parivar's incitement to religious hatred has been the VHP programme of "Trishul Dikshas", or ceremonies for the distribution of three-pronged trishul knives, which is a source of concern for the Christian community. Reportedly, the ceremonies are used to promote support for Hindutva, often among illiterate labourers, and are likely to include inflammatory speeches and the distribution of provocative literature against religious minorities. The trishul knives function both as religious symbols and as weapons, six to eight inches long and sufficiently sharp to kill. Recent distributions of trishul knives by the VHP have been well-documented in Gujarat, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Orissa. A large-scale distribution of trishuls was undertaken by the VHP in Madhya Pradesh on 4 September, the day after a ban on the knives was repealed by the BJP state government. On 16 August 2005, The Deccan Herald, a national newspaper, reported that around 200 Bajrang Dal workers were supplied with trishul knives by VHP General Secretary Praveen Togadia on 13 August at Rampura, in Surat, Gujarat.

  There is need for a European condemnation of the activities of the Sangh Parivar groups, particularly the RSS and its daughter organisations, in inciting and carrying out violent attacks, especially against Christian and Muslim communities, which are drawn largely from among the Dalits, tribals and OBCs.

2.4  Violence Against Christians

  Christian individuals and communities across India, have suffered a considerable number of attacks at the hands of Hindu fundamentalist elements. A recent statement issued by the All India Catholic Union, whose President, Dr John Dayal, is a member of the Government's National Integration Council, projected that the number of recorded incidents against Christians in 2005 may exceed 200. This report noted that the violence is most severe in those states with a BJP government, given its likely Hindutva sympathies.

  Spontaneous violence sometimes occurs, largely where communal tensions have been inflamed. However, many attacks are reportedly carefully planned or incited by Sangh Parivar groups, whose grievance is consistently against the activities of Christian individuals or groups among Dalits, OBCs and tribals, which, whether evangelistic or relating to social welfare, are construed as attempts to convert. Among the chief targets of these attacks are churches, educational establishments, healthcare programmes and other welfare projects.

  The Roman Catholic Church, which undertakes much charitable work among Dalits and tribals, has experienced ongoing threats and considerable persecution. Among the most deplorable incidents of 2005, the Teresian Carmelites Convent in Mumbai, which operates a home for the elderly, was attacked on 23 January 2005. After the door and an exterior cross were damaged, a hand-written notice was left, which read, "Run away, we will come back. Go away, this country is ours; now it is the cross, next time it will be your heads".

  In 2005, a number of Christian leaders are known to have been murdered at the hands of Hindu extremists. They include pastors K Daniel and Isaac Raju, killed in Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh, in May, and Fr Agnos Bara, a tribal Catholic priest stabbed by upper caste Hindus while leading a peaceful rally for tribal rights in Jharkhand on 14 September. A number of other church leaders murdered in 2005 may have been the victims of Hindu extremists.

  Of a considerable number of attacks on Christian targets which have been reported through 2005, a number of illustrative examples are given. It is thought that a large number of attacks have remained unreported.

  On 14 October, a group of 10 Hindu extremists attacked a large prayer meeting in a community hall in Dayal Pur, Karaval Nagar Road, Delhi. They physically assaulted Pastor K Y Babu, who was injured and taken to hospital, and pastors Victor Masih, Justine and Robin Masih. The attackers also damaged some equipment in the church. When members of the church went to the police station to lodge a First Incident Report (FIR), they were confronted outside by the local BJP Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA), Mr Mohan Singh, together with a group of 150 people. The mob threatened to kill the Christians if they should continue to conduct prayer meetings at this locality.

  On 11 September, two churches in Raipur, Chhattisgarh, were attacked by Hindu extremist group, Dharam Sena. The Teacher Disciple Vineyard church in Jagannath Nagar, Raipur, was subjected to physical damage, as a mob tore a cross from the building and threw it into a septic tank. They also damaged other property. The church had previously been attacked by the same group on 14 August. The Dharam Sena extremists also attacked a meeting of the Christian Evangelist Assembly Full Gospel Church on 11 September, physically assaulting the wife and brother of the pastor, and accusing the church of undertaking conversions.

  On 29 May, the Believer's Church in Lamding, Thoubal District, Manipur, suffered its fourth attack in eight months, with gunmen opening fire on the church. Although 30 were present, none was harmed.

  On 15 May, in Jamanya village, Jalgaon District, Maharashtra, a community court asked eleven Christian families to surrender their Christian faith, but all refused. On the following day, a group of Hindu villagers attacked the male Christians and violently sexually assaulted the female members of the families. Pastor Sarichand Chauhan, area coordinator of the Indian Evangelical Team, in reporting the incident to National Minority Commission, stated that women and children were brutally beaten, that the women were forcibly stripped naked and even that a stick was inserted into the vagina of one woman. An FIR was registered by the police, but it failed to record the alleged sexual assaults. Seven Hindus were arrested on 18 May in connection with the attack, and later released on bail. A counter-accusation was levelled against the Christians on 18 May, of having desecrating Hindu gods. This was denied by Pastor Chauhan, who suggested that local RSS members had urged the villagers to break the idols and to accuse the Christians. Thirteen Christians were arrested under sections 295, 506 and 34 of the Indian Penal Code, and subsequently released on bail.

  On 1 May, in Mangalwarapete village, Karnataka, a mob of extremists, reportedly belonging to the Bajrang Dal and BJP and numbering around 500, attacked a house church in the village, beating and injuring Pastor Paulraj Raju and his wife, and a church elder. Raju had previously been beaten by local people in January.

  On 19 February, in Kota, Rajasthan, Hindu militants, armed with sticks, iron rods, bicycle chains, knives and swords violently attacked Christian students and seminary staff arriving at the Evangelical Mission in Kota. The Additional District Magistrate warned the mission head that he would not give any protection to those associated with the mission. A similar attack took place on arriving students on 24 February. The Christians were dragged to the police station, where they were beaten in the presence of police officers. The authorities forced the Christians to sign papers stating that they were Hindus who had arrived in Kota for conversion to Christianity.

  In some cases, the police has also been implicated in violence against Christian individuals, or in failing to take proper action in response to attacks against Christians. This is most frequent in those states under BJP governance, or where there is significant public sympathy for Hindutva and the Sangh Parivar, manifested in prejudice against minorities, and occurs for a number of reasons. Firstly, state police are under the control of the state governments, and tend to closely reflect their political sympathies; there is therefore substantial potential for political authority to veto police activity. The structure of the police force is currently governed by the Police Act of 1861, implemented under British rule, which was designed to keep the police acquiescent to political authority. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has indicated a willingness to reform the policing system in India, which the Christian community in principle welcomes. The second reason given for anti-minority prejudice within the police, was that individual police officers may be afraid of pressure faced from local RSS leaders. Thirdly, in addition to the issues of police subjection to political authority and to popular pressure, there is alleged to be a prejudice endemic among the higher authorities of the security forces against minorities.

  One instance of police prejudice against Christians occurred on 6 June, in Moti Chowk village, Durg District, Chhattisgarh, which is under a BJP government. A group of 200 Bajrang Dal militants attacked a church during a Sunday service. Pastor Jaichand Dongre and other church members were physically assaulted during the raid, and Bibles, Christian literature and musical instruments were looted by the mob. Subsequently, nine church members were taken to the police station and charged with "disturbing the peace" under Section 151 of the Indian Penal Code. The nine were held for two days before being released on bail. During his custody, Pastor Dongre was reportedly physically abused by police. Evidence of an anti-Christian bias on the part of the local police was supplied when Mr Patras Habil, a representative of the Minority Commission in Madhya Pradesh, telephoned the police station and was initially informed that the beatings and arrests were "deserved" by the Christians on account of their conversion activities.

  Anti-Christian prejudice is exemplified also by the case of Mr Montu Babubhai Dabhi (also known as Mr Amit) in Gujarat. On 28 April, the police received a report from an anonymous informant concerning a person named Montu being in possession of a firearm. Of three suspects with this name, only the Christian Montu was arrested by police. No complaint was filed by the police office, and no evidence was brought against him. Mr Montu was tortured in police custody: his legs were forced into a T-shaped position, and stamped upon to the extent that his right leg has become paralysed. Moreover, Mr Montu was discharged prematurely by the hospital superintendent, allegedly under covert pressure from senior police officials. Only following the intervention of the High Court, in response to a legal appeal, was he readmitted into hospital and the police questioned about his severe mistreatment. This is an important and alarming example of the brutality and anti-Christian stance taken by the state police.

3.  RECOMMENDATIONS

  While mindful of the need for each issue to be tackled in a systematic and comprehensive manner, CSW calls upon the United Kingdom to engage constructively with the Government of India to raise concern about the discrimination and persecution against Christians, particularly those drawn from among the Dalits, tribals and OBCs. In particular, the Government of India should be encouraged:

    —  to introduce legislation akin to the Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order Amendment Bill 1996 to enumerate Dalit converts to Christianity among the Scheduled Castes, and to grant them the concomitant benefits of "reservation";

    —  to intervene for the repeal of the Freedom of Religion Acts in Arunachal Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, and to prevent the implementation of Freedom of Religion Acts in Gujarat, and its enactment in Rajasthan, on the grounds that they are unconstitutional and in breach of international standards on religious freedom;

    —  to call the RSS to account for its activities in inflaming communal tensions, and in inciting violence against Christian communities;

    —  to take measures to obstruct the VHP programme of Trishul Dikshas;

    —  to implement measures to guarantee the independence of the police force from political authority, and to increase its accountability, towards the protection of minorities.

Christian Solidarity Worldwide

November 2005





 
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