Can good news for a community be, simultaneously, bad news for that same community? It seems that this is possible if one is living within the Christian population of India.
By way of elucidation we must look back one week, and to news reports of Christian fortunes in the states of Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur, both bordering Myanmar in the country’s north-east. In both of these territories, it transpires that Christian numbers have exploded, with the 2011 census revealing that, since 1971 in Arunachal Pradesh, the faith community has jumped from 1% to over 30% of the state population; in Manipur, and since 1961, the growth has been from 19% to 41%.
What local Church would not want to be able to boast such demographic returns?
The worrying truth is, though, that it was not any local prelate who drew attention to the dramatic figures, but one Kiren Rijiju, a junior minister of Narendra Modi’s Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and one of that party’s most prominent figures in the Indian north-east.
Minister Rijiju offered a far different spin on the census reality, tweeting earlier that the “Hindu population is reducing in India because Hindus never convert people”.
Thus a quick switch to negativity from otherwise positive reportage.
Whether the growth in Christian figures is as a result of conversions, as alleged by Rijiju, or through migration, is a demographic unknown, pointing at once to the agenda lying behind the minister’s words.
Never mind that the entire Christian population in India continues to hover around the 2% mark, Rijiju’s message quickly reached a receptive audience among fundamentalist Hindus.
Reporting on the tweet, The Hindustan Times quoted a figure of the right-wing Hindu grouping Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) as stating: “As the census figures show, there is a huge disparity in the way the Christian population has grown and the Hindu population has shrunk. There is no denying the role of missionaries who convert people in this.”
Long before news of the Christian growth emerged, India was on a path towards countering any threat to the hegemony of Hindus in India, a nation where Hindus, with over 827 million adherents, account for 80% of the population, Muslims, at just over 138 million, 14%, and with far smaller communities of Sikhs and Buddhists, among others.
The rise of the BJP to power in 2014 saw an instant uptick in attacks on Christians and Muslims across the country, with Hindu eyes peeled for signs of reviled conversions from their faith. Readers of The Irish Catholic will recall last week’s coverage of the storming of a mixed marriage in Madhya Pradesh in order to ‘safeguard’ the Hindu groom from forced conversion in marrying a Christian bride.
Such incidents have occurred in parallel with the growing practice of Ghar Wapsi (‘Homecoming’), also previously dealt with in these pages.
Despite Minister Rijiju’s contention that Hindus do not convert others, Ghar Wapsi is a practice which, being aimed at returning to the fold those who had left the faith, is also easily utilised to bring new Hindus in; Indian fundamentalists would rail at this description as many of the more extreme elements contend that all Indians are Hindu, and any other existence is the result of the ‘cursed conversion’ tactics of others.
With a strictly secular constitution, freedom of religion is dealt with under four distinct sections of the founding document: Article 25 - Freedom of conscience and free profession, practice and propagation of religion; Article 26 – Freedom to run religious affairs; Article 27 – No person shall be compelled to pay any tax for the promotion or maintenance of any religion, and Article 28 – Freedom as to attendance at religious instruction or religious worship in certain educational institutions.
Specifically Article 25 (1) states: “Subject to public order, morality and health and to the other provisions of this Part, all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practise and propagate religion.”
Such was the belief in 1949, when the constitution was drawn up for the newly independent nation. Today, it appears, the new sensitivities of hard-pressed Hindus must be catered for.
Take by way of example another story from last week, that of the ousting of the US charity Compassion International from Indian territory.
Present in the country for the past 48 years, during which time it has helped feed and educate countless impoverished children, the charity ended operations after it was accused of funding conversions. The charity has strongly denied this and criticised the Indian authorities for offering no forum or time in which to mount a defence against the charge. Other, religious, charities, are now watching events closely.
The flourishing Christian community might well do the same.