Picture credit: Sanjeev Verma/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Artillery Row

Will “The Guardian” protect justice in India?

Religious minorities face severe persecution

Ask any Indian law student who “The Guardian” is and you will get a prompt reply: it is India’s Supreme Court, known affectionately as “The Guardian of Our Constitution.”  The architect behind the giant pink and white dome and colonnaded verandah was Ganesh Deolalikar, and for him, a mere building was not enough. Only a physical embodiment of India’s Constitution would do. His earliest sketches reveal the shape of the Scales of Justice. A central beam of straight perfection — with two precisely symmetrical wings either side — and two semi-circular halls, the “pans” of the scales, balancing each wing. India’s first President loved the vision. Such a building would, he declared, help Honourable Judges “to dispense justice without inkling to the left or the right.”

To dispense justice without inkling. The words might give India’s religious minorities pause for thought today.  Since Narendra Modi’s BJP party thundered to victory in 2014, the country’s Christians and Muslims, Sikhs, Dalits, Jains, Baha’i and others have faced a frightening wave of polarisation and aggression unleashed by Hindu nationalism.  

The violations now routine in India seem to regularly go unpunished by the very courts charged with defending human rights. 

“We are seeing, repeatedly, intense political pressure,” says Dr. Yohan Murry, a constitutional researcher working with Open Doors, a Christian NGO. “We see a willingness to manipulate state machinery to achieve nationalist political goals.  It is a chronic weakening of our independent Judiciary.”

Sinister phenomena

The delays in ruling on a petition brought by the Archbishop of Bangalore, Dr. Stephen Machado, is one example.  This week the Archbishop urged the government to investigate “the sinister phenomena of violence” and “targeted hate speech” against Christian communities.  Archbishop Machado’s case faced numerous holdups;  and then, it was feebly bundled together with other cases and deferred without ruling. 

The truth is that modern India’s superpower status — and its glittering economic growth — hide cruel realities. 

Violent attacks against Christians have risen sharply in the last five years, hand-in-glove with Prime Minister Modi’s promotion of a Hindu nationalist agenda, and the growth of the Hindu nationalist organisation RSS, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. 

Data compiled by Open Doors’ World Watch List shows 67 Christian churches were attacked — and forcibly shut down — in 2022 alone; more than 75,000 Christians suffered physical assault, or attacks on their property; and 17 people were murdered in killings motivated by religious hatred. 

The frequency of attacks are such that many go unreported, according to NGOs.  In July 2021, 145 religious attacks upon Christians — including three murders — were recorded by the Evangelical Fellowship of India in the first six months of the year. One of them, an acid attack on fourteen-year-old Nitish Kumar, left him with burns covering 65 per cent of his body.  He died from his injuries. 

And yet, India’s constitution was carefully designed to safeguard religious freedoms. Article 25 enshrines freedom of conscience; including the right to practise, profess, and propagate religion. 

“What has been happening in recent years, and happening now, is a tragedy. The Supreme Court has been effectively procrastinating … it is stonewalling,” observes Dr. Murry.  “Our tradition of activist judges standing up to corruption, on human rights issues, is waning.”

Fresh battle-lines for Supreme Court

India’s BJP government is now urging the Supreme Court to allow a dramatic extension of some of the most controversial laws in India’s history.

Local “anti-conversion laws” — linked to some of the worst violence of recent years — should, the government argues, become national decrees. 

The laws — which exist in 11 states — seek to limit conversions from Hinduism to other faiths.  Penalties include the withdrawal of state welfare for anyone found to have converted.  A ten-year jail sentence awaits anyone found guilty of converting a person away from Hinduism “by force”.   Rights groups note virtually no evidence of “forced conversion” away from Hinduism exists — although the same cannot be said of “reconversion”.  Yet the bogeyman of “forced conversions” is aggressively whipped up by right-wing Hindu activists and levelled at both Christian and Muslim communities. 

In Karnataka State, anti-conversion laws have prompted officials to go door-to-door checking for families who may have left Hinduism. Across the country, mobs have used the laws as a pretext to threaten mixed-faith couples seeking to marry. The laws have been linked to numerous murders, including the heartbreaking case of Arbaz Mullah, a young Muslim who was engaged to a Hindu woman. 

“In places where these laws exist, they are simply manipulated to enable extremist right-wing Hindu groups to persecute minorities,” observes Dr. Yohan Mullah. 

“What would happen if these laws became nationwide?  We will expect more of the same — more destruction of homes, more attacks on churches, more threats to mixed marriages. The extremist groups will use it as a cover to  violate the rights of both Christians and Muslims.”

It is anticipated church leaders would be taken to court for the ordinary work of ministering to the poor. 

The rise of Hindutva ideology has changed India.

To outsiders, it may appear surprising that the Indian government might undermine its own widely admired Constitution.   

The Hindu nationalist organisation RSS once had links to European fascist parties

But the Constitution enshrines a secular, pluralist state — and Narendra Modi’s BJP sinks its roots deep into the soil of the RSS, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh group. They are set upon re-forming India into a Hindu State, insisting “to be Indian is to be Hindu”.

“It’s historically a movement that cares little for our Constitution,” says Dr. Murry. “What they want is to ensure a Hindu majority state, to prevent them from seeking any other identity other than Hinduism.”

“One nation, one faith, one India. India for the Hindus.”

The RSS traces its origins to 1925. Its exclusively male membership once had links to European fascist parties; today, it has established numerous schools, charities, and social clubs, but it is also known to have trained with weapons — and to have participated in anti-Muslim riots.  

The group has been banned three times, including when an RSS member assassinated Mahatma Gandhi, out of hatred for Gandhi’s efforts to reconcile Muslims and Hindus. 

The nationwide anti-conversion laws proposed by the Modi government would be a hammer blow to India’s secular, tolerant traditions — and a stride forward for the radical Hindutva ideology.  To achieve it, the government needs a two-thirds majority in Parliament, as well as the agreement of half of India’s states at local level, and — crucially — the blessing of the Supreme Court. 

Can “The Guardian” withstand the pressure?

“I would like to hope so,” says Dr, Murry, carefully. “But perhaps, it’s a case of let’s wait and see.”

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