A Muslim Prayer Cap would have been more Effective, Mr. Modi

AN OPEN LETTER TO THE PRIME MINISTER: Mr. Narendra Modi, India’s Prime Minister, does not take kindly to advice, specially of the unsolicited variety. But let me risk it

Mr. Prime Minister, you would have done better, achieved a thousand times more, and  helped India’s cultural integrity, unity and amity – and therefore its prosperity – by the simple visual action of putting on a Muslim prayer cap, delicately crocheted in white cotton thread, in front of the global TV news cameras. You need not have gone to a Juma Masjid, or even to a meeting of your favourite Muslim leaders in Gujarat, or a private function at the homes of the three Muslim ministers in the Union government and the Bharatiya Janata Party top leadership.

That would have perhaps undone much of the damage to your reputation among religious minorities since you infamously refused to wear a cap innocently offered with much love by an insignificant moulvi some time ago. It could not have undone culpability in the 2002 massacre of Muslims, but would have been a salve, no doubts about. One of the fascinating things about you is how impressive and even magnificent you look wearing the various head-dresses of various communities and groups in the beautiful and diverse country that is your and my motherland.

Muslims are the second largest majority in India, as they say, five times larger than the Christians in the land. They came a few decades after Islam was founded, and are indistinguishable from anyone  of us. They have beards, but both you and I also sport facial hair, albeit neatly trimmed.  In the 1,000 or so cases of targetted violence against religious minorities, Muslims  have been victims perhaps 8,500 times. Christians about 150, as recorded by the Evangelical Fellowship of India report for 2014. They are subject of much targetted hate. They have been called “traitors” by your ardent followers and political aides, “Pakistani agents”, “breeding like rabbits to overwhelm the One Billion Hindu population”, and “seducing young Hindu women in Love Jihad”. In contrast, Christians are accused merely of  using dollars to harvest souls. Just two Christians have been killed last year. We are still awaiting data on the number of Muslims killed.

But you, Sir, chose a Christian,  a Catholic, platform to articulate your commitment to secularism.

The Syro-Malabar Catholic Church invited you to a function to celebrate the  canonization of two Catholic saints born in Kerala. We would be ingrates if we did not therefore thank you for speaking up at last on hate crimes, as we had been urging you to do for the past six months, and specially as we requested you to do when a delegation met you at your residence on Christmas eve last. You were not exactly very warm at that meeting, blaming the Christian community of “exaggerating” minor incidents in the international media, even insinuating their “compulsions’ which prevented them from standing with you on your development agenda.

You made the statement now, at a time of your choosing, and in many ways, at an audience of your choosing. There was no occasion for questions, no opportunities to request you to explain some ambiguities in your address, deliberate it would seem, and a few omissions. A major omission is  any reference to the 60-year-old issue of Dalit Chrisians [and Muslims] and their demands for parity in Scheduled Caste rights with Sikhs and Buddhists [and of course Hindus] of Dalit origin.

But your statement now is a change from what you had said then, after first ordering the cameras to be switched off. I would like to hope you wants it to address the trust deficit of religious minorities – not just Christians -- in your Bharatiya Janata Party and the Sangh Parivar, now certainly quite the mainstream of political discourse with its religious nationalism, which claims to have brought it to power. In many ways, however, it is addressed to an international audience, and specially the investing bankers and corporate giants, whose concern at the human rights and freedom of faith issues in India – which ranks as a “Country of Concern” in many international lists – was articulated by United States President Mr. Barack Obama as much as by the editorial in the New York Times.  The Indian development agenda depends on massive infusions of western capital.

It will be of abiding intellectual speculation why you did not chose to make your statement at public meeting of the Muslim Ulama.  Muslims outnumber Christians in India by a factor of five as I said earlier. That may have been more effective in repairing the damage done to your image by the 2002 Gujarat riots and the recent abuse on Muslims by popular BJP leaders in the party’s electoral campaigns and public programmes. But perhaps it may not have helped you in the context of the current wave of Islamaphobia in parts of the Western world and its media.

Freedom of Faith is a part of the Indian Civilisation, of that there can be no doubt. Buddha and Mahavira’s rejection of Vedic hegemony is a part of that intellectual and expressional freedom. And the birth, much later, of the Sikh faith. The incorporation of freedom of faith and expression in the Constitution of India was also a consequence of the Freedom Struggle that saw the participation of all ethnic, linguistic and religious communities in the cause of Independence, equality and justice.  India is also a signatory to the United Nations Charter and its Declarations on Freedom of Faith and on Civil Liberties, stressed once again in the documents of the Hague convention which was called to celebrate them.

As Prime Minister, you and your government have taken an oath to protect the Constitution, and all that it guarantees to citizens of India, and in fact, to even others who may be resident in the land.

There has been much tragedy and human suffering because the Constitutional guarantees have not been fully practiced. And because some political groups with  an ideology of religious nationalism and peculiar definition of patriotism have enjoyed immunity and government patronage, and protection.

We are happy that you did not call for a "ten-year moratorium" as you had in your speech on Independence Day last year, but said, "We cannot accept violence against any religion on any pretext and I strongly condemn such violence. My government will act strongly in this regard." The talk of moratorium had not gone down well with civil society, and had seemed very cynical.

The minorities have not been attacking anyone. Neither have they exceeded, or violated, the limits set by the law of the land in their exercise of their rights to profess, practice and propagate their faith. You nonetheless brushed over the warning against both minority and majority intolerance. The attempt at parity has its own meaning, and implications in small towns and villages where police seem to believe it is the Muslim, or the Christian, who is the cause of all troubles.

Despite the existence of laws against religious conversions, called Freedom of Relgion Acts, in six states – and with your government ministers demanding such a law for the entire country -- even politically hostile governments have not been able to indict anyone for inducing anyone to become a Christian through force or through fraudulent means. Yet you chose to allude to “fraud”. It was clear where your mind lay. You did not refer to the issue of Dalit Christians, raised by Bishops who spoke before you at the function. Your party and your government are opposed to restoring Dalit Christians [and Dalit Muslims] rights given to others of these castes, arguing this would open the floodgates of conversions out of Hinduism.

One cannot but welcome any direction from government that anticipates and prevents targetted religious violence and hate.  This actually needs a comprehensive law. The BJP has consistently opposed such a law, which Congress governments half-heartedly tried to bring in the last two Parliaments. But even in the absence of such a law, there are provisions and regulations that can be substantially used by the governments in the states to control hate campaigns, coercion and violence. It remains to be seen if state governments and their police forces will act against hate crimes and hate mongers.

And the future will tell if groups professing religious nationalism have you as the Christian leaders have heard you. TV debates suggest the Sangh Parivar has not heard you. Or perhaps they think the Prime Minister does not mean what he says.

The Christian community in India is concerned at the intensity of the targeted and communal violence directed against it almost on a pan-India basis. Violence against Christians picked up in independent India in the early 1990s reaching its peak in 2008 – 2009 with more than 1,000 incidents of violence and hate crimes reported against the Christian community. This continues today in the form of vicious hate campaigns, physical violence and police complicity. State impunity contributes to the persecution of the Christian community in many states of India.

Human Rights and Civil Society groups have documented the death of at least two persons in 2014, killed for their Christian faith. The list of incidents reflects 147 cases, with many more going unreported and undocumented. The two cases of death in communal anti-Christian violence were reported from Orissa and Andhra Pradesh.

An analysis of the data shows Chhattisgarh topping the list with 28 incidents of crime, followed closely by neighbouring Madhya Pradesh with 26, Uttar Pradesh with 18 and Telengana, a new state carved out of Andhra Pradesh, with 15 incidents. Much of the violence has taken place after the new government of the NDA came into power on 26 May, 2014.

The violence peaked between August and October with 56 cases, before zooming up to 25 cases during the Christmas season. The violence has continued well into the New Year 2015, with more Catholic churches in the capital city of Delhi targeted as incidents continue in other states.

Much of the violence, 54 percent, is of threats, intimidation, coercion, often with the police looking on. Physical violence constituted a quarter of all cases, (24 %), and violence against Christian women, a trend that is increasingly being seen since the carnage in Kandhamal, Odisha, in 2007 and 2008, was 11%. Breaking of statues and the Cross, and other acts of desecration were recorded in about 8 % of the cases, but many more were also consequent to other forms of violence against institutions. A disturbing trend was violence against Christians in West Bengal, where though one case was formally reported; there have been increasing incidents of hate speech and intimidation.

Police inaction and its failure to arrest the guilty in most cases, its propensity to try to minimize the crime, and in rural areas especially, its open partisanship has almost become the norm. Police ineptitude in forensic investigations has been seen even in New Delhi where four of the five cases in the months of December 2014 and January 2015 have seen no progress in the investigations. In the one case where there were arrests, the Church and the community have cast doubts on the police version of the motives of the suspects whose images were recorded in the Close Circuit TV cameras installed in the church.

The President of India, Mr. Pranab Mukherjee, noted the rise of communalism and the targeting of religious minorities in his ad- dress to the Nation on 25th January 2015, the eve of Republic Day. President Mukherjee said, “In an international environment where so many countries are sinking into the morass of theocratic violence ... We have always reposed our trust in faith-equality where every faith is equal before law, and every culture blends into another to create a positive dynamic. The violence of the tongue cuts and wounds people's hearts. The Indian Constitution is the holy book of democracy. It is a lodestar for the socio-economic transformation of an India whose civilisation has celebrated pluralism, advocated tolerance and promoted goodwill between diverse communities. These values, however, need to be preserved with utmost care and vigilance.”

Mr. Mukherjee touched a point that has worried many among even those who voted for you, hoping you would bring about a change from the corruption and economic coma in which the country had found itself in the last few years. The Union and state governments have been dismissive of the Christian complaints of targeted violence and persecution, both by political non-State actors and other elements.

Words alone will not be sufficient, Mr. Modi. The government must take urgent and effective measures to restore the rule of law and curb the targeted and communal violence. The guilty must be traced, and action under the law should be taken. Police officers must be held accountable for communal crimes in their jurisdiction.

EFI-RLC and others have made some recommendations to your government. I would wish your staff in the Prime Ministers Office convey them to you. These are simple:

  • Enact a comprehensive hate crimes legislation to safeguard the rights of religious minorities.       
  • The Ministry of Home Affairs should provide trainings on human rights and religious freedom standards and practices to the 
state and central police and judiciary; 

  • Although maintenance of public order is a state responsibility, the central government should issue an advisory to the state 
governments to repeal the anti-conversion laws; 

  • The government should ensure an active Commission for Human Rights and Commission for Minorities is operational in every 
state, and that members of each commission are appointed by transparent and non-partisan procedures; 

  • Prevent and pursue through the judicial process, all violent acts against religious and tribal minorities and Dalits. 

We would be even more grateful if some of these could be implemented.

God bless you 
And God Bless India
John Dayal

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