‘The Hindu is in Danger’

John Dayal

Perhaps no one will be as anxious about the election results as India’s estimated 200 million Muslims and 30 million Christians. The numbers remain an approximation, extrapolated from the 2011 census. The 2021 census was not held in the wake of the Covid pandemic. It is not known when the census will now be held.

For the 543 seats in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament, approximately 970 million people out of a population of 1.4 billion people are eligible to cast their vote. Among them would be about 22.31 million Christian voters. This is seemingly a large number, but Christians are all but invisible in the election debate.

Expectedly, Mr Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have reverted to their political strategy of pandering to the religious right sections of the country’s billion-strong Hindu community. He has roused them with slogans that their existence is threatened by a sharp rise in the Muslim population through birth, conversion and migrations from neighbouring Bangladesh.

“The Hindu is in danger” was the catchphrase of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the 95-year-old militant Hindu group that launched the BJP.

“The Hindu is in danger” is now also a catchphrase on the WhatsApp groups run by the ruling party to target the hinterland and the villages as much as they do the high educated segments of society.

Mr Modi has used a tame media–two thirds of it owned by his cronies–and government agencies to build his own image as a savant ruler, a protector of the faith. Government and private media follow him faithfully as he is photographed doing yoga in the heart of the national capital, meditating in Himalayan caves, and most recently, diving to the sea floor off the coast of his native Gujarat state to worship what many believe is the lost capital of Lord Krishna, a major avatar in the Hindu pantheon.

Government funding went into infrastructure after a new temple to Lord Ram was built on the ruins of Babri Masjid, a mosque in the town of Ayodhya, dating back to 1528. The ancient town now boasts of a new airport, a railway station and hotel chains for local and foreign pilgrims and tourists.

Inevitably, Mr Modi’s autocratic rule has sharply eroded constitutionally guaranteed freedom of religion and belief. “Anti-conversion laws” in 12 states which once targeted Christian evangelism have been amended, and weaponised, to also target Muslims who marry Hindu women. Penalties are heavy, with sentences that can go up to 10 years in prison.

International charity to Christian groups has been choked. As a result Church outreach to the poor, the Dalits and indigenous groups has been restricted. In many ways, it also robs these groups, totaling some 23% of the population, of their own freedom of faith. They lose scholarships, jobs, and political representation, if they convert to Christianity or Islam.

Prejudices have infiltrated independent institutions, such as the police and the courts. The impunity empowers Hindu militant groups to threaten, harass, and attack Muslims and Christians with impunity. Christians have documented more than 50 attacks on churches, clergy and schools in the four months of 2024.

The hate finds an echo in the campaign speeches of the prime minister, his home minister, and the senior BJP leaders. It remains to be seen if the dog whistle will work again.

[John Dayal is a former member of the National Integration Council of the government of India and a former national president of the 105-year-old All India Catholic Union]

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Vol 56, No. 47, May 19 - 25, 2024