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Sedition In The Air As Love Takes A Beating.

India, May 9 -- Sedition is in the air. From students of the Jawaharlal Nehru University agitating in Delhi to political opponents in various states have faced charges of sedition in recent weeks, coincidentally with the run up to state legislative assembly elections in Assam and West Bengal, both with significant Muslim minority populations who can thwart the Bharatiya Janata party's aspirations to establish itself in the Eastern part of the country after its stinging defeat in Bihar.

But Christians have not so far faced such charges. Not formally.

And therefore when Madhya Pradesh minister of state for Backward Classes and Minority Welfare, Mr. Laxmi Yadav, said he wanted to get sedition charges framed against a pastor and a family in the town of Satna, there was sense of disbelief in the community. The media, which reported it in some detail, was not sure whether the minister was being serious, or it was one of those moments of comic relief like when Pentecostal pastors are termed agents of the Pope.

It was the circumstances that were curious. According to reports in the media, Mr. Yadav was among the Bajrang Dal activists who stopped Arun Kushwaha and Subhadra Kushwaha from solemnising their wedding at a church in Satna on 27 April, alleging that the couple had converted to Christianity just to get married. The Bajrang Dal wanted them to have Hindu wedding in a temple.

The next day's newspapers quoted Mr. Yadav as saying "This is the first case in the country when Christians were caught red-handed converting and marrying OBCs. We will reconvert them, purify them after sprinkling Gangajal, holy water from the Ganges, and hold a Hindu marriage for the couple. I am seeking legal opinion on whether a sedition charge could be invoked against Christians for waging a war against the country." Madhya Pradesh, with Odisha, was among the first of the six states that have enacted the so called Freedom of Religion Acts which criminalize conversions which the government feels are by force or by fraud. Not just the police, but local Hindu activists, including political cadres of organisations such as the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal have arrogated to themselves the responsibility of defining when a conversion is lawful, or is illegal.

Arun and Subhadra told reporters they have not formally converted to Christianity, but underwent a "man parivartan (change of heart)" towards the religion after their unwell parents, who could not be cured by doctors, were restored to health. "We went to five doctors, and then the sixth (Christ) cured them, so we started believing in him," says Arun. The Indian Express quoted Pastor Sam Samuel of the church saying: "The presence of so many Hindus, many of whom believe in our way, had the right wing worried. Police abused us in front of the activists and later apologised saying they had to put up an act."

The police arrested nine persons saying Subhadra's school examinations mark-sheet showed her 10 days short of her 18th birthday, when she would have been a legal adult. A case was registered under the anti-conversion law, the strict prevention of child marriage law and India's version of the anti-blasphemy laws under section 153 and 295 of the Indian Penal Code for "hurting religious sentiments." It was not known if charges were also registered against the Bajrang Dal members.

India traces its sedition laws from the colonial British jurisprudence, though ironically the United Kingdom has abolished it from its law books.

India shares such provisions for sedition with such monarchies as Saudi Arabia and a few other countries, mostly in the block of theocracies, dictatorships or developing democracies including Malaysia, Iran, Uzbekistan, Sudan, Senegal and Turkey. Germany has retained such a law.

India-Spend, the authoritative not-for-profit data-based group, pointed out that JNU students' union president Kanhaiya Kumar was booked for sedition under section 124A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), which does not actually use the word "sedition".

Jurists say the term is only found as a marginal note to Section 124A, and is not an operative part of the section but merely provides the name by which the crime defined in the section will be known. But as many as 47 sedition cases were reported in 2014 across nine Indian states, according to this National Crime Records Bureau. As many as 58 people-55 men and three women-were arrested for sedition. Among them were a cartoonist, and Kashmiri students cheering Pakistan in a cricket match, apart from Gujarat Patel caste leaders and a Kerala youth who posted an offensive remark on his FaceBook Wall.

"Sedition in India is not unconstitutional, it remains an offence only if the words, spoken or written, are accompanied by disorder and violence and/ or incitement to disorder and violence," Fali Nariman, constitutional jurist and Supreme Court advocate, wrote in an article The Indian Express. "When a person is dubbed "anti-Indian", it is distasteful to India's citizenry, but then to be "anti-Indian" is not a criminal offence, and it is definitely not "sedition". (It only means that you are a freak, and that it is high time to have your head examined!)," Nariman wrote.

According to an analysis by India-Spend, Jharkhand reported the most cases (18), followed by Bihar (16), Kerala (5), Odisha (2) and West Bengal (2). 'Offences Against the State' have been classified largely under two categories: Offences against state (under sections 121, 121A, 122, 123 & 124A IPC) and offences promoting enmity between different groups (under sections 153A & 153 B IPC). Offences against state are further classified into sedition (section 124A IPC) and others (under section 121, 121A, 122, 123 IPC).

The Madhya Pradesh minister's rhetoric is also seen in the backdrop of the continuous barrage of violence against Christians in various states. The Evangelical Fellowship of India has registered 55 verified incidents of hate crimes targeting Christians India between January 17 and March 22, 2016 in 16 states throughout the country. This list is a partial list for many incidents are not reported and of the incidents that are reported, many are unverifiable due to the sheer size of the country.

Uttar Pradesh tops the list with 10 incidents, followed by Maharashtra with 7 incidents. This is followed by Madhya Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Jharkhand with 5 each, and by Chhattisgarh, Telengana, and Uttarakhand with 4 each. Other states on the tally are Rajasthan (3), Punjab (2), Haryana (1), West Bengal (2), Gujarat (1), Assam (1), Karnataka (1) and Odisha (1). January saw a total of 11 incidents while February and March saw 22 incidents each. The trend has continued through till May 2016.

India's human rights, and specially its religious freedom, record is monitored closely both by civil society groups within the country and by international agencies, including the US Commission for International Religious Freedom, a bug-bear for many countries including China, Pakistan, Iran and India. The USCIRF has placed India on a Tier-2 list of countries of concern.

The Economic Times quoted USCIRF saying religious freedom in India was on a "negative trajectory" in 2015 as religious tolerance "deteriorated" and religious freedom violations "increased. The US agency suggested that the Indian government publicly rebuke officials and religious leaders that make derogatory statements about religious communities. Pointing out that it will continue to monitor the situation closely during 2016 to understand if India should be recommended to the State Department for designation as a "country of particular concern," USCIRF advised the US government to integrate concern for religious freedom into bilateral contacts with India, including the framework of future Strategic Dialogues.

Another expert, European Parliamentarian Peter van Dalen has argued that India's attempts to safeguard country's Hindu majority to blame for dramatic increase in incidence of violent Christian persecution. He said these incidents were not an issue of law and order, as the Indian government made them out to be, but "it is more than that; a deeper force is at work - the Hindu-nationalist leadership of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)."

India's struggle with pluralism is not new. Even before BJP government, a Pew Research Forum report (2013) classed India as the country in which religious minorities face the highest societal hostilities in the world. Nonetheless, numerous sources are claiming that since May 2014 (when the BJP government came into power) India has experienced a further increase. Open Door's World Watch List raised India's Christian persecution score of severity by six points (it is a score out of 100) compared to its 2014 score - one of the largest leaps in the world.

The world, including UN experts, specially look askance at the anti-conversion laws. And BJP stalwarts do not make it easy. In September 2015, BJP MP Tarun Vijay announced that he was leading a private members bill for a nationwide anti-conversion law, saying: "For the first time, the population of Hindus has been reported to be less than 80 per cent. We have to take measures to arrest the decline. It is very important to keep the Hindus in majority in the country and I think a bill of this nature [anti-conversion law] will... allow Hindus to remain a majority in India."

Indian governments not just reject, but resent, international scrutiny. Official spokesmen routinely trashed the USCIRF report, questioning the American government's right to "interfere' in India's internal affairs. India claimed communal tranquillity, and adequate forums to redress the grievances of minority communities.

India will come up for close scrutiny at the 2017 sessions of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva when it will face a select group of nations in its four-yearly Universal Periodic Review. Every country which is member of the UN faces such a review every four years. India's last review was in 2012. Civil society groups in India are currently preparing their own submissions to the UN body.

Published by HT Syndication with permission from Indian Currents.

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Publication:Indian Currents
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:May 9, 2016
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