News Analysis Indian Church steels itself for govt onslaught

Indian Church steels itself for govt onslaught

Federal government appears bent on cornering minority community on issues of land and properties besides conversion

An Indian Supreme Court order on Sept 26 seeking a government response to a petition that pleaded for strict action against “religious conversion through fraud and intimidation” will not translate immediately into a national law against conversions to Christianity and Islam.

The general allegory among those who accuse Christians of converting through fraud and allurement is that missionaries use their educational and health services to attract and trap poor Hindus and tribal people.

The church is possibly right in steeling itself for government action on various fronts. At the top of its apprehensions is the government seeking a greater role in running educational institutions, and possible revocation of British-era land leases on which these are built.

Places of worship — India has some majestic and historic cathedrals, churches, and hilltop chapels — may perhaps not be threatened for fear of international rebuke. But the process of safeguarding the land and buildings could take years of court battles and hundreds of millions of rupees in legal fees.

The clamor for action, as well as the threat to church lands, comes in the wake of a sustained political campaign that began soon after the demolition of the 500-year-old Babri Mosque in Ayodhya in 1992 and has taken a life of its own since Narendra Modi became prime minister in 2014, surfing rhetoric of freeing Hindus and Hinduism from the “slavery” of Islam and Christianity.

The demand has since then been raised with increasing frequency and acrid stridency, in statements by government officials and activists of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

“The presidential order still acts as a major deterrent to poor Dalits converting to Christianity”

A Supreme Court bench of Justices M R Shah and Justice Krishna Murari took cognizance of public interest litigation by Ashwini Kumar Upadhyaya, a spokesman of the BJP, demanding action to end the “menace” of conversions by the church. The BJP leader said the government had failed to end conversions through force and fraud. The court will resume hearings on Nov 14.

It is, however, not a simple matter of the government immediately passing a nationwide law against religious conversions. The constitution guarantees not just the freedom to profess and practice any religion or belief but to also propagate it in the country.

The statutes also enable religious and linguistic minorities to own and manage educational institutions which nurture and propagate their culture.

Soon after the constitution was promulgated, the government amended it by a presidential order in 1950 to deny Christian and Muslim converts from the former untouchable castes the benefits given to Hindus by way of quotas in jobs, education, and elected political office.

These converts were also not given special protection from physical atrocities, abuse and social ostracizing. The presidential order still acts as a major deterrent to poor Dalits converting to Christianity and acts as an anti-conversion measure.

Various governments, including the earlier BJP-led regime of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee that ruled from 1998 to 2004, failed to find any evidence that force or fraudulent practices had been used in conversions.

“Muslims, the current targets of the BJP regime, have now been brought under the ambit of the laws made to tame Christians”

But arguing that changing of religion causes social tension and threatens peace, a dozen state governments have enacted laws against conversions by force and fraud. The Supreme Court upheld these laws in an earlier challenge by church groups. The courts have held that while a person has the right to change his or her religion, a pastor or anyone else does not have the right to convert anyone.

In the last two years, the laws have been made even harsher with pastors threatened with jail terms of up to ten years, about the same or more than given for major felonies.

Muslims, the current targets of the BJP regime, have now been brought under the ambit of the laws made to tame Christians. This has been done by making it a crime for a man to marry a woman with a view to making her change her religion.

What has kept the Modi government from enforcing them on the entire country is that the core issue of “law and order” is the jurisdiction of states, and not of the federal government. But these are niceties that will not deter Modi if he sees political advantage in enacting such a national law.

The ruling party seems surer of itself in cornering the church on issues of land and properties.

Other than in the state of Kerala and regions once government by Portugal, Holland, and France before their assimilation into the Indian union at various times after independence, the major expansion of Christianity took place after the advent of missionaries who came with the East India Company of the United Kingdom. The British Crown, or Raj, succeeded the company in 1857.

“The hate rhetoric against the church has, however, continued unabated”
Many, but not all, of the churches, schools, colleges, and hospitals in India were built by various missions on land either leased from the government of the day or private owners, typically for 99 years. Not every church remembered to renew the leases, leading to the current crisis.

Since independence, every church and its institution has been built on land donated by the faithful or bought from government and private owners. The church is not a monolithic organism in India, with its more than a hundred rites, denominations, and major associations of independent pastors buying their own property.

This is different from how properties are owned and managed in other faiths including temples of Hindus, Gurdwaras of Sikhs and the wakf mosques and madrasas of Muslims.

The hate rhetoric against the church has, however, continued unabated, often fooling even Christian leaders into alleging that the church is the biggest landowner in the country. Sangh ideologues such as S Gurumurthy continue to allege that the British Raj land leases are a scam.

While the Catholic Church is not immune from such insinuations, particularly vulnerable are the Protestant churches, especially those that are rooted in the traditions of the Church of England, or the Methodist, Baptist and Presbyterian denominations.

Erring churchmen make it easy for the government to make sweeping allegations or to launch fishing expeditions looking for loopholes and violations of the law.

“There is a possibility of the funds being invested in illegal activities, including illegal religious conversion”

The recent arrest of Church of North India Jabalpur Diocese’s bishop P.C. Singh in connection with a cheating case has been used by the state’s Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan to expand the investigations into church affairs.

Chouhan claims “there is a possibility of the funds being invested in illegal activities, including illegal religious conversion.”

In the past, courts have thrown out government orders in some states to acquire church land. One such case was in Kerala where the Marxist government wanted to acquire more than 2,000 acres (810 hectares) of land belonging to a Christian denomination for a proposed airport.

A former judge of the Supreme Court K T Thomas who has recently been handpicked by the Modi government as a trustee of the PM Cares fund — whose assets have not been disclosed to the public — is among the major voices speaking against the church on the issue of properties. Another is former Congress minister Eduardo Faliero.

Thomas says Christians fear judicial scrutiny as it “is likely to expose the expenses and magnitude of wealth of the denomination.”

This article is published in

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