IAPS Dialogue: The online magazine of the Institute of Asia & Pacific Studies

Recognising Structural Forms of Violence against Christians in India

Written by M. Sudhir Selvaraj.

Recently, the Jharkhand state assembly passed an anti-conversion bill: the Religious Freedom Bill 2017 (also known as the Jharkhand Dharma Swatantra Adhiniyam).  The bill now awaits the approval of the Jharkhand governor and subsequently, the president of India for assent. If it is approved, Jharkhand will join Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh as states which have active anti-conversion laws. Arunachal Pradesh,  despite passing the legislation, awaits the framing of its rules for the enactment of the law. The Rajasthan bill was passed ten years ago but still awaits assent from the President of India. The Tamil Nadu Prohibition of Forcible Conversion of Religion Act 2002 was repealed in 2014 due to pressure from minority groups.

…if these laws are viewed as a limit on a Christian’s ability to practice, propagate and promote a religion and infringes on his/her rights, then we must subsequently also view these laws as a form of violence.

Political Scientist, Johan Galtung defines violence as “the cause of the difference between the potential and the actual, between what could have been and what is.” Therefore, he considers violence as anything that prohibits an individual from attaining their maximum potential. Galtung identifies ‘structural violence’ as that which occurs when there is no clearly identifiable perpetrator of violence, rather it is caused by unequal structures. We may be familiar with acts of physical violence directed towards Christians in India, however, we must also consider other forms of violence which are equally harmful. I contend that the anti-conversion laws should be considered as a form of violence directed towards Christians in the country.

I suggest here that a person’s “potential” are the rights promised under international and national law. With specific reference to these bills, I point to Article 25 of the Indian Constitution which provides that “all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practice and propagate religion”. This has resonance in international law, as well. For example, Article 18 (1) of the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) provides for the “right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom … to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.”

While I agree that forced conversions are not compliant with the provisions outlined in these instruments and should be punishable, it appears that the piece of Jharkhand legislation (much like other variations) is more directed against Christian missionary activities rather than forced conversions. The anti-Christian sentiment of this bill is evident in the words of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s chief whip Radha Krishna Kishore who said “In 2001, Christian population (in Jharkhand) was 1,093,380. In 2011 census, this was 1,418,608 — an increase of around 30 percent,” he said. “And who are the people being converted? The poor, the Dalit and the tribal population living in interior areas”. This notion is reaffirmed in other similar legislation in the form of higher penalties if the person converted is a minor, woman or a member of Scheduled Castes or Scheduled Tribe.

Figure 1: General and Enhanced Prison Terms for Anti-Conversion Violations
Source: Anti- Conversion Laws in India/Library of Congress

Figure 2: General and Enhanced Fines for Anti-Conversion Violations
Source: Anti- Conversion Laws in India/Library of Congress

The words force, fraud, and inducement are present in all the states’ bills as the means used to convert; however, their specific meaning is nebulous. Can the access to missionary-run education and healthcare be considered “allurement”? In the Jharkhand legislation, the term “force” also includes the “threat of divine displeasure”. In that case would the Christian belief in going to heaven for living a good Christian life count as force? Further, rationalists would argue that anything to do with religion could be considered “fraud” or misrepresentation. Therefore, if these laws are viewed as a limit on a Christian’s ability to practice, propagate and promote a religion and infringes on his/her rights, then we must subsequently also view these laws as a form of violence.

Another example of structural violence is the denial of state resources for Dalit Christians and Tribals who (by conservative estimates) comprise 70 percent of India’s Christian population. Dalit Christians may have been able to change their religious identities but are unable to shake off their caste identity. This is ironic because most Dalits who convert to Christianity are drawn by the egalitarian nature of Christianity which stands in direct opposition to the hierarchical oppression they faced within the shackles of Hinduism.

According to the Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order, 1950 only Hindus are considered as Scheduled Castes and able to avail themselves of the positive discrimination measures of the state. It says, “no person who professes a religion different from the Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist religions shall be deemed to be a member of Scheduled Castes.” It is said that once Dalits convert to another religion, they do not belong to the caste system because Christianity and Islam are egalitarian religions. However, both Sikhism and Buddhism profess egalitarian values.

Another reason given for excluding Christian Dalits from accessing reservations is that their economic and social conditions on conversion to Christianity are likely to improve due to the availability of increased assets from their new co-religionists. However, numerous high-profile initiatives have recommended inclusion of Christian Dalits within reservation policy on the grounds of continuing unfair treatment following their conversion, both within and outside the church. These include the 1980 Mandal Commission report which laid out the future of government reservations towards Dalits saying, “there is no doubt that social and educational backwardness among non-Hindu communities is, more or less of the same order as among Hindu communities. Though caste is peculiar to Hindu society, in actual practice, it also pervades the non-Hindu communities in India…” More recently, a 2008 report conducted on behalf of the National Commission for Minorities  concluded that Dalits are “invariably regarded as ‘socially inferior’ communities by their co-religionists” and therefore face ostracization from their families and communities.  Additionally, special protections under the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 are denied to Dalit Christians when they convert to Christianity.

Following Galtung’s lead and adopting a rights-based approach, we can better identify the many forms of violence that Christians in the country experience. Both the discriminatory legislation and deprivation of state resources to Christians in the country amount to structural violence as defined by Galtung as they prevent Christians from attaining their full enjoyment of rights and cause a high degree of harm. It is only when we adopt a holistic understanding of violence and recognize these multiple forms of violence that we will be better able to address it.

M. Sudhir Selvaraj is a doctoral student at the King’s India Institute, King’s College London. He is the editor of Revisioning Paradigms. You can follow him on Twitter @sudhirselvaraj. Image Credit: CC by Indian Christians/ Flickr