Cancelling Christmas in India? Coerced ‘conversion’ and good governance

By Savi Hensman
December 17, 2014

India's government and media are arguing over whether a minister tried to make students come to school on Christmas Day. Controversy continues over coerced mass conversions. It is a time of deep insecurity for religious minorities.

There was uproar in early December over a remark by Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti, a government minister from the far-right Bharatiya Janata Party. At an election rally, she said (to translate her remarks into English) that Indians "who do not choose the sons of [Hindu deity] Ram are illegitimate".

She later apologised for causing offence and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, also of the BJP, tried to smoothe matters over. But those opposed to hardline Hindu supremacism (which many Hindus reject) have been increasingly marginalised.

A circular was then issued implying that schools should stay open on Christmas Day, the Times of India reported. Modi had rebranded this ‘Good Governance’ day in honour of veteran BJP politician Atal Bihari Vajpayee and the late Madan Mohan Malaviya, who helped to create a Hindu Mahasabha (Great Society of Hindus), whose birthdays falls on 25 December.

Schools were asked to screen documentaries and hold speechmaking contests on good governance, and an essay competition was announced. Another minister, Smriti Irani, claimed the reports were false and that the competition was online and voluntary. However the Business Standard published a photograph of the circular.

It now appears that children will not be forced to attend school on Christmas Day but public service officials may not be protected from having to go to work that day.

In addition controversy over coerced conversions has led to stormy scenes in parliament. Freedom of religion is one of the core values in the Indian Constitution, but some Hindu supremacists seek to ‘re-convert’ those of other faiths. Groups linked to the BJP have allegedly used incentives, such as ration cards, deception and intimidation.

Over fifty Muslim families in Agra reportedly turned up to register for BPL (below the poverty line) cards, which would entitle them to various benefits, only to find themselves expected to agree to become Hindu. “We're poor people and anyone can do anything with us. We can't afford to lose our lives over religion and conversion," said Ismail, a leading figure in the local community.

"We were taken to a place where a fire ceremony was on. We were made to sit there. We became panicky. We were told to pray to Hindu gods. We did whatever they told us,” another resident, Munira, told the ABP news channel.

Further such ‘conversions’ are planned for Christmas Day, and many in religious minority communities are afraid. A ceremony planned for 25 December, involving Christian and Muslim families, has been banned by the Uttar Pradesh authorities on public order grounds.

There are reports that Modi has asked his followers not to push the Hindu supremacist cause too hard for the time being in case it gets in the way of a ‘development’ agenda (focused largely on bolstering big businesses). However Christians, other religious minorities and indeed Hindus who believe in pluralism and human rights for all, may not feel in a celebratory mood as Christmas approaches.

Yet the Christmas story is highly relevant, whether seen through the lens of faith or as an example of ancient wisdom pointing to deep truths about human existence.

The Gospels tell of a young woman rejoicing in the hope of social transformation, in which the mighty are brought down and the lowly exalted, the hungry fed and the rich sent away; and an old man looking forward to light amidst darkness and guidance in the ways of peace.

Love is born among the poor and seemingly powerless, though a ruthless ruler willing to kill the innocent in large numbers tries in vain to stamp out hope, foreshadowing further violence.

Interfaith relationships play a part, as wise men from the East seek and recognise wisdom and holiness wherever these may be found. They are not obsessed with power-games. But the religious leaders too closely allied to the ruling class stay away, missing out on justice, truth and joy.

Christmas signals that, even if death-dealing and oppression seem dominant, good will ultimately triumph. This is a highly relevant message for India today.

* More on Christmas from Ekklesia: www.ekklesia.co.uk/christmas

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© Savitri Hensman is a widely published Christian commentator on politics, welfare, religion and more. An Ekklesia associate, she works in the equalities and care sector.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.