Freedom of belief under threat, says new book on India

By Ecumenical News International
19 Oct 2007

Despite India remaining the world's most populous and vibrant democracy, freedom of religion is steadily on the decline, says John Dayal, a journalist-turned-Christian activist, who is now secretary general of the All India Christian Council - writes Anto Akkara.

"Many of the rights have been systematically diluted over the years by governments, courts and fundamentalist forces," Dayal told Ecumenical News International in an interview about his soon-to-be-released book on religious freedom in India.

A Matter of Equity: Freedom of Faith in Secular India is a critique of religious freedom in the country. Dayal says that this freedom, or lack of it, ranges from the steady dilution of constitutional guarantees to harsh treatment meted out to Christians and minorities in every corner of the country.

The book is a collection of articles Dayal wrote when he was a journalist, and before he became outspoken on issues concerning India's Christian community. In his writings, Dayal describes a steady upsurge in anti-Christian violence from the late 1990s, when the Hindu nationalist BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) emerged as a strong political force.

"Even before the BJP came up, religious freedom had been facing curbs both by the government and the judiciary," says Dayal, who lists several documents in his book to support his claim.

He points out that the first anti-conversion bill, which restricts people converting to Christianity was introduced by the avowedly secular Congress party in the 1960s. The BJP, now emulates this legislation, Dayal asserts.

He adds that Christians enjoyed "better religious freedom three decades ago than now," and notes that often lower courts in several areas have been "hostile to Christian grievances where they get little relief".

While India stopped allowing missionaries to enter the country decades ago, Dayal notes that, "Christian missionaries who have done exemplary service to the nation have been unceremoniously packed off by the government denying them visa extensions on one pretext or other."

Apart from that, the author says that the State machinery has been used to harass Christians and their institutions, even by secular governments.

"In this context, one will wonder what is the meaning of the religious freedom spelt out under fundamental freedom in our constitution," Dayal adds.

"But, what we (Christians) have faced from 1990s has capped it all," argues Dayal, who has visited almost every troubled spot in the country following attacks on Christians.

A Matter of Equity cites systematic and orchestrated attacks on Christian targets by Hindu fundamentalist forces that the author laments as being rooted in a "belief in violence".

Dayal says that during recent times India has recorded hundreds of incidents of deliberate violence against Christians, including the murders of priests, rapes of nuns, and brutal assaults on missionaries, besides attacks on Christian gatherings and buildings.

On the other hand, following the steady rise in atrocities, Dayal says, churches have also begun to speak up and come out on to the streets.

However, Dayal says that church leaders have failed to provide strong leadership for the 26 million Christians in India, or "to demand from the government what has been taken away over the decades".

A Matter of Equity: Freedom of Faith in Secular India, by John Dayal, is published by New Delhi-based Anamika Publishers and Distributors Pvt Ltd, 500 pages, 800 Indian rupees.

[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches.]

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