India's Concerning 'Saffron' Tide

A man takes part in a 'reconversion' ceremony of some 200 Christians to Hinduism in Gujarat state, December 2014.

Opinion

India's Concerning 'Saffron' Tide

Sandhya Gupta

07 Apr 2015

Hindu nationalists are becoming increasingly emboldened by the Indian administration's reluctance to speak out against religious persecution, raising fears amongst India's minorities, writes Sandhya Gupta.

In the winter of 2014, while Christian and other communities around the world were preparing to celebrate Christmas holidays on 25 December, right-wing Hindu groups in India were gearing up to launch a spectacular "ghar wapsi" programme with the intention to "re-convert" 5,000 Muslims and 1,000 Christians "back" to Hinduism. "Ghar wapsi" translates into "coming home", which is how the Hindu groups driving the programme framed this initiative. They were very careful to assert that this was not a conversion, since they were simply bringing home those who had strayed from the faith decades or even centuries ago.

Ghar wapsi is largely considered to be the brainchild of the right-wing Hindu organisation Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP). It operates as a non-government organisation and is committed to the ideology of "Hindutva," or "Hindu-ness" of the Indian state. It exists to "to organise, consolidate the Hindu society and to serve, protect the Hindu Dharma [religion]." Their charter and founding principles refer to the "enslavement" of the Hindu people when much of India was under Muslim and British colonial rule, and how the presence of Parsis, Jews and Christians further undermined the prestige of Hinduism. They are committed to a return to a glorious Hindu past – as their charter says, "If at all there is any eternal society, it is Hindu Samaj [community] alone."

2014 marked the 50-year anniversary of the founding of the VHP, and was celebrated with a very public campaign to "bring home" the lost Hindus. A number of these events occurred around the country in places such as Goa, Kerala and Utter Pradesh (states known for their high Christian and Muslim populations). Reports from these places indicate that local minority families were promised economic relief and other social security benefits if they took part in mass conversion ceremonies. Individual accounts after such events indicated that many people did not fully understand the nature of the ceremony; they simply showed up, collected the offerings, signed a document and left.

In the lead-up to the mass "coming home" ceremony of 25 December in the city of Aligarh, Utter Pradesh (also the birthplace of the VHP), Prime Minister Narendra Modi of the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP, or India People's Party) was continually asked for statements against this programme. Both the BJP and the VHP are wings of the ultra-nationalist umbrella organisation, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh ( RSS, or National Volunteer Organisation), which claims a membership of several million throughout the country. The BJP is its political wing, while the VHP is one of its many social wings – albeit the most powerful one. Prime Minister Modi swept into power last May largely backed by the RSS and its many constituent parts, but has distanced himself from their more extreme and violent elements in recent times.

Opponents claim Modi's failure to criticise ghar wapsi amounted to tacit approval.

In the days leading up to the 25 December ceremony, critical development legislation proposed by the BJP was held up in Parliament, due to opposition members voicing their concern over the BJP's lack of interference in the ghar wapsi programme. As the date approached, BJP spokesperson and party president Amit Shah began speaking publicly about the party's opposition to forced conversions. The Indian media carried reports that Modi had been chastising VHP leaders for trying to derail his development agenda by insisting that the ghar wapsi programmes continue. However, other reports indicated that Modi's failure to say anything specifically about ghar wapsi amounted to a tacit approval.

In the end, the VHP was forced to postpone the 25 December event, citing instructions from senior leaders in the RSS. Speculations abound as to whether or not this was a direct order from Modi and the BJP. In a strange development just days prior to 25 December, Modi declared that date as "Good Governance Day" to mark the birth of the only other BJP Prime Minister, Atul Bihari Vajpayee. This was largely seen as a slap in the face of Christian communities, as one of their most precious holidays as a minority community had been taken over by the proclamation of a national, secular holiday.

Religious Freedom in 2015

Since December 2014, at least a dozen churches across India have been vandalised, several convent schools have been the target of attacks, and violence against the Christian community in India has peppered the headlines. In several cases, during late-night attacks Christian crosses were swapped for Hindu deities. Prominent Christian figures across the country have been insisting that Modi take additional precautions to protect their community from these attacks, stating that they feel unsafe in an environment that is hostile to their religion. A prominent RSS leader also came under fire for suggesting that Mother Theresa's service to the poor in India was an attempt to convert them to Christianity.

Shortly after the RSS statement on Mother Theresa, on 14 March a 72-year old nun working at a Christian convent school in West Bengal (the same state in which Mother Theresa lived and carried out her work), was gang raped by several men. In addition to robbing the school, they vandalised the chapel, broke open the tabernacle and removed the vessel used during Mass. Although there is much more publicity about violence against women these days, it is difficult to argue that the rape of a 72 year old nun is anything other than a punishment for her religion, and by an assumption that she, too, must be engaged in religious conversion. To date, seven have been arrested, all of whom deny the rape, including three Bangladeshi immigrants, often implicated by authorities in sexual attacks such as this.

Unfortunately, this is not the first time that we have seen rape being used in relation to religious conversion and violence in India. Last August, in a video that has now gone viral, a follower of Yogi Adityanath – a spiritual guru turned BJP Member of Parliament, calls upon Adityanath's followers at a local rally to unearth the corpses of Muslim women and rape them, presumably as a punishment for their being Muslim. This is not the behaviour or the thinking that one usually associates with Hindusim in the West, but statements such as these are not inviting much media coverage outside India.

Violence against the Christian community in India has peppered the headlines.

In February 2015, Modi finally broke his silence on this issue during a speech at a Christian function where he condemned violence against any religion, committed his government to cracking down on religious intolerance, and appealed to various groups to respect the values of tolerance that are enshrined in the Indian constitution. He also cited the teachings of Jesus Christ as inspirational and called upon people to be just and compassionate in a tweet at Easter. Analysts also feel that this was a direct response to remarks made by President Obama during his visit to India in January where he stated that India would only succeed if it didn't "splinter along religious lines." Upon returning home, Obama then stated that Mahatma Gandhi would be shocked at the religious intolerance that is present in India today.

'Soft' Religious Persecution

While religious conversions and violence can pose an immediate threat to minorities, there are other, softer measures to alienate religious minorities in India. On March 9, the President of India approved a ban on the sale and consumption of beef in the state of Maharashtra, which contains the city of Mumbai, the financial heart of the country. Maharashtra was the second state to impose such a ban – the first being the state of Gujarat while Modi was its Chief Minister. Although the slaughter of milk-producing cows has always been illegal in Maharashtra, this new legislation extends the ban to calves, bullocks and oxen. This legislation was first introduced in 1995 when the state of Maharashtra was under the control of a local right-wing Hindu political party known as the Shiv Sena, aligned with the BJP. It languished for the next 20 years until the BJP, with the support of the Shiv Sena, regained control of the state government.

India is the second largest beef exporter and fifth largest beef consuming country in the world. The beef industry in India is almost exclusively owned and operated by Muslims. The ban has threatened thousands of jobs for the Muslim minority community, and is also alienating Christians and lower-caste Hindus that consume cattle meat - a cheap source of protein for most. By banning possession of meat, the law effectively makes consumption of it illegal, even if the cattle was slaughtered outside of the state. There are also fears are that it will not stop there, as Modi ran on an election promise to ban cattle slaughter throughout the country, and with the Maharashtra government issuing a statement that this represented the first step to banning the slaughter of other animals. Although the Bombay High Court heard petitions challenging the ban on April 6, it is widely feared that under this BJP government more states may ban cattle slaughter, resulting in many more Muslim jobs lost, and the loss of a staple food for other religious minorities.

While it is clear that Modi himself is reluctant to align himself with the more extremist elements of the RSS and the VHP, he has not been quick to condemn them specifically or crack down on their activities in the open. It has become obvious that the ascent of the BJP has created an opening for some of the more extreme elements of the Hindu right to spread their wings. Modi is playing a tricky game in this situation; he relies on the projection of India abroad as a secular, tolerant country in order to encourage investment and to ensure that India occupies a powerful position in international politics. However, he must also stay true to the Hindutva base that elected him, particularly to ensure their support in the next elections.

In his first nine months in power, Modi has focused a tremendous amount of his energy on technology, development and reforming India's antiquated bureaucracy, steps that have been largely welcomed by the Indian public. However, who remember the frenzy of religious violence under his rule as Chief Minister of Gujarat in 2002 are keeping a close watch on his office for signs of any overt religious agenda. They are also looking away from the major urban centres and into the countryside and the small towns, where local right-wing Hindu preachers and activists are emboldened in this new environment and are making their desire for a Hindu-only nation heard, loud and clear. Would this still be the case if Modi had not been elected into power? Although we may never know the answer to that question, it is clear that this government is walking a thin line.

 

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The views expressed by this author remain solely their own and are not to be taken as the view of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.