Photo by ARUN SANKAR/AFP via Getty Images

The death of a dream

India’s lost vision for national harmony

Artillery Row

If the UK ever opts for a written constitution, it would be advised to check out the Indian constitution as a useful model. Thanks largely to the inspirational efforts of Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, India succeeded in creating a constitution that enshrined Mahatma Gandhi’s vision of a harmonious country. A nation where Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Christians were all treated equally. Ambedkar and his drafting committee knew that to maintain the rule of law in such a diverse state, India’s newly found freedom needed to be accompanied by justice and equality. The new federal, democratic republic established religious freedom as a fundamental right, providing for “freedom of conscience and the right of all individuals to freely profess, practice, and propagate religion; mandating a secular state; requiring the state to treat all religions impartially; and prohibiting discrimination based on religion.”

Notwithstanding the myth of secular neutrality, to a large degree India’s constitution can be seen as a success story, unifying religious, tribal and political differences into a core Indian national identity. As India marks its 75th year of independence, the world’s largest democracy has much to celebrate. By the end of the decade it is set to become the world’s most populous country and, within fifteen years, the world’s third largest economy. It seems that Prime Minister Modi’s superpower aspirations are in sight.

To those in the West who choose to ignore the crushing poverty and institutional oppression of the caste system, the country is often portrayed as a multicultural Shangri-la — even a colourful and exotic holiday destination. To our politicians, it represents an obvious mass consumer market for UK exports, and an important military partner to counter Chinese aggression in Asia. It makes sense to strengthen our diplomatic ties with a country with whom we share such deep historical and cultural ties.

But all is not well in India. Since the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in 2014, the country has been witnessing increased religious polarisation. Hindutva ideology — the idea that to be Indian is to be Hindu — is spreading and shattering civil society. In states, such as Karnataka, Odisha, Madya Pradesh and Jharkand, where there is strong support for the BJP and for the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh — a Hindutva paramilitary force), violence against religious minorities is rising dramatically. Like a battered cricket ball, Gandhi’s lofty ideals are coming apart at the seams.

The prospects for a fair ruling look remote

A report commissioned by Open Doors (which campaigns for persecuted Christians globally), and written by London School of Economics researchers, identified that Christians and Muslims in India are being harassed, arrested, beaten, raped and killed. Through demonising propaganda and the inciting of mob violence, daily life for religious minorities in parts of India is one of “imminent existential threat”, very often with the involvement of the police and the judiciary. Another recent report by an international coalition of religious groups has cited state complicity in extrajudicial killings, custodial torture, denial of fair trial, denial of assembly, curfews, vigilantism and mob lynching. It also chronicles attacks on journalists, media houses and human rights groups who seek to report what is happening. 

In order to isolate and impoverish religious minorities, the Indian state is using every means possible to inhibit international connections and support. Laws restricting aid from overseas have seen over 20,000 Indian NGOs stripped of their foreign funding licences since 2011. In 2020 the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act required NGOs to disclose their funding sources and prove that that their work is not “political” and does not harm “public interest” or “national security” — suitably vague terms that could be used to demonise all sorts of legitimate development work. As a consequence, many large NGOs providing essential aid, such as Oxfam and Compassion, have withdrawn from India. To compound things, to protest this oppression in some states can lead to your home being bulldozed by the local authorities. 

Presently, the Supreme Court of India is delaying judgement on a petition seeking investigations into and protection from rising attacks on Christians and their institutions across the nation. However, the prospects for a fair ruling look remote with Justice Nariman describing the petition as “deceptive” and declaring, “What kind of a writ petition is this? We will impose heavy costs on you … Withdraw it or argue and risk the consequences.” 

The plight of India’s religious minorities may affect us all

Christians make up 4.9 per cent of India’s 1.4 billion people, some 72.5 per cent of whom are Hindus. On the Open Doors World Watch List, it is ranked as the 10th worst place on earth for the persecution of Christians. Yet the church continues to grow in India, with conversions especially strong among the lowest Dalit or “untouchable” caste and the Adivasi rural communities — liberations which present a challenge to the dominant Hindutva powers-that-be. This explains why unjust and unjustified anti-conversion laws have been introduced. The laws were purportedly brought in to address religious coercion, despite there being no data about forced conversions taking place. These laws are spectacularly discriminatory — effectively a licence for Hindutva mobs to persecute Christian minorities with impunity. Despite the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom, 11 states have so far enacted anti-conversion laws, with punishments of up to 10 years in prison. 

With religious freedom rightly described by writer Rupert Short as “the canary in the mine for human rights generally”, this open and sustained assault on religious minorities in India is part of a broader push by Hindu nationalists to undermine and ultimately redefine human rights. Unchecked, as India flexes its economic might and extends its cultural influence, the plight of its religious minorities may affect us all. That’s why we need an international commission of enquiry to shed light on what’s happening in India. We need a greater focus of support on Indians who, in the face of great danger, speak out to protect and promote their cherished constitution. Mahatma Gandhi once gave his famous round spectacles to a colonel in the Indian Army who asked him for inspiration, telling the man: “These gave me the vision to free India.” Rediscovering those spectacles has never been more important.

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