In India, conversions to Catholicism – like to any non-Hindu religion – are illegal in several states. In order to better enforce this legislation, and to carry out its program of expanding “Hinduism,” the ruling party is preparing to launch a national campaign.
The week of hate. The phrase – immortalized by Georges Orwell in 1984 – evokes a propaganda ritual in which the people must indulge in an outpouring of hatred towards so-called “enemies” of the nation. This is more or less what religious minorities in India are about to experience—notably Christians, who represent 2.3 percent of the population.
Two ruling Hindu nationalist groups in several states – the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) – are preparing to launch a national campaign against religious conversions, seen as heinous crimes in the land of the Maharajas. Several Indian media, as well as the religious news agency Ucanews, reported on October 8, 2020.
The RSS and the VHP claim that there are many such conversions in predominantly indigenous regions, and say they want to bring converts back to Hinduism, by force if necessary.
To achieve their ends, Hindu nationalists intend to mobilize social networks: videos of attacks against Christians – in order to incite fear or hatred, possibly – are already starting to be played on a loop. In these montages, the fiery voice of a commentator evokes alleged crimes committed by these Christians, thus justifying the images of lynchings, very real ones. Simple and effective, when you remember that the Facebook application has about 33 million subscribers in the country.
Vinod Bansal, spokesperson for VHP, also explained that his organization would provide personalized follow-ups, through home visits to indigenous regions, in order to “sensitize” citizens on the Hindu religion.
“We even call on the federal government to verify that converted Christians and Muslims do not enjoy the benefits reserved for ‘identified’ castes [granted to certain disadvantaged groups of the Indian population, including Dalits and indigenous populations],” insisted Vinod Bansal.
The national coordinator of the United Christian Forum (UCFHR), A.C Michael, refutes the charge of forced conversions: “Census after census, the Christian minority still represents about 2.3% of the Indian population. Do these Hindu organizations have hidden data that we do not have? These are just excuses to pursue their own interests.”
Sajan K. George, President of the Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC), points out what he believes to be the real purpose of the RSS and the VHP: “To spread hatred against Christians by germinating the seeds of an anti-Christian spirit. The violence that took place in Kandhamal (Odisha) in 2008, the worst anti-Christian massacre, would not have been possible if there had not been a violent campaign against the Church and missionaries in the region, prepared more than ten years before,” he says.
It was in 1967 that the first anti-conversion laws appeared in India, in the state of Orissa (now Odisha). These laws are based on a Supreme Court ruling issued at the time, according to which the right to “practice and propagate one’s religion” – written in stone in the Indian constitution – does not include the “right to convert.”
After Odisha, anti-conversion legislation has, over the years, been extended to other states: Madhya Pradesh in 1968, then Arunachal Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Tamil Nadu, and finally Uttarakhand, in 2018.
With chosen words – because the survival of Catholicism in the country is at stake – Fr. Nicholas Barla, secretary of the Commission for Indigenous Affairs of the Indian Bishops’ Conference, recalls that the Church “is not engaged in promoting religious conversions,” in the states where the legislation applies.
“If the RSS and the VHP affirm it, let them prove it,” protests the priest who fears for the survival of the numerous charitable works which are still allowed to the Church, and which could be denounced as devious means of conversion. “The best thing to do still is not to listen too much to the recriminations of the Hindus and to continue our work,” concludes the priest.
At the same time, the Ghar Wapsi – “homecoming” – rites intended to convert, by force if necessary, neophyte Christians to Hinduism, are multiplying in the country. Winter is likely to be particularly harsh for Catholics in India.