Attacks on Christian groups expose fault lines in Karnataka

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Bengaluru: Karnataka has witnessed at least 39 incidents of attacks on Christian community members this year till November, according to data compiled by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), a human rights body. While official figures on attacks of Christians last year are not available, several activists have claimed the cases have increased this year.

Activists have also drawn a parallel between the rise in attacks on the Christian community and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) push for an “anti-conversion” bill in the state. The chief minister Basavaraj Bommai-led Karnataka government has created a draft “anti-conversion” bill to check “forced religious conversions” in the state, activists argued.

“Compared to now, there were fewer attacks. The increase in these attacks has happened especially after the new chief minister (Basavaraj Bommai) took over. The CM giving assurance to pass the anti-conversion bill has made it seem like Christians are a threat to the Hindu community,” said B Rajasekhar, president of the Christian Forum for Human Rights.

Rajasekhar had filed multiple cases against the state government led by former chief minister BS Yediyurappa, for not taking action against multiple cases of attack on Christians between 2003 and 2018.

The Archbishop of Bengaluru, Peter Machado, also claimed the attitude of the government was a reason for the “increase in attacks” on the Christian community. “Certain behaviour or certain utterances from the government, certain attitude from the government is the reason that this (attacks) is allowed and tolerated. This can go on and is sad for us,” said the Archbishop.

He added that earlier such incidents were reported from interior places where there were fewer members of the community and small churches. “But to happen in Hubballi, Dharwad, Bengaluru means people are taking the law into their hands,” Machado said.

The issue of forcible conversions gained momentum after BJP legislator Goolihatti Shekar recently made an appeal against the practice, claiming his mother was also a “victim” of it. In September, Shekar had said his mother was among those in Chitradurga district who was “brainwashed” by the “missionaries”. He had claimed that people from “marginalised communities and even Muslims were being converted”, or they were slapped with false charges, and around 15,000-20,000 people in his constituency were possibly converted. Shekar had presided over an event in which at least five families “were brought back” into the Hindu fold, including his mother, on September 11.

However, an investigation done by a tehsildar in Hosadurga debunked this claim. In his report, the tehsildar said all the “believers who attend prayers in the five churches in the Hosadurga taluk do so voluntarily and nobody has been coerced”. In addition, the tehsildar also visited two areas where social media reports alleged forced conversions were being conducted. His report stated that while eight people who had converted to Christianity reconverted to their original religion, nobody complained of having been forced to convert.

The tehsildar was transferred without posting on December 16.

A report by the PUCL, titled ‘Criminalizing the Practice of Faith’, listed out the 39 incidents of hate crime against the Christian community stating that in some cases the “police department and some politicians colluded with right-wing organisations in carrying out these attacks”.

Karnataka Director General of Police Praveen Sood, however, rejected the allegations. “We have been impartial in taking action against anyone who is indulged in such activities, irrespective of religion and caste. As reported by the media itself, there has been a considerable number of FIRs (first information reports) registered and people have been arrested. We have taken action,” Sood said.

The PUCL report also highlighted the change in Christian population in India to deflate the claim of forced mass conversion. It said that according to the 1971 Census, Christians comprised 2.60% of the population of India. “In 1981, they [Christians] were 2.44%; in 1991, 2.33%; in 2001, 2.18% and at present, they are 2.30%,” the report said. The document added that as per the 2011 Census, Christians accounted for 1.87% of the population in Karnataka. “Thus, the statistics do nothing to suggest that the Christian population is increasing,” the report said.

Aakar Patel, author and former executive director of Amnesty International India, said “anti-conversion” laws being introduced in BJP-ruled states across the country was “part of a deliberate plan”.

“Post 2018, five BJP governments have passed these (anti-conversion) laws. The freedom of religion, particularly the fundamental right to propagate religion, has been taken away from the Christians over the years. Now Karnataka has become the first southern state to draft a bill for such a law. Since hate crime is not a category in the official records, we don’t have the exact numbers, but anecdotal evidence suggests that these attacks are on the rise. We can also assume that these (attacks) in concert with the passing of the laws are deliberate,” said Patel.

Similarly, Karnataka has also reported a rise in cases of vigilantism by Hindu groups, especially in coastal parts of the state. According to PUCL data, Karnataka witnessed at least 22 instances of moral policing by Hindu vigilantes in the 11 months this year till November, a 175% jump from eight cases reported in 2020.

Activists claimed an increase in such cases after Bommai took over as the chief minister in July. In October, Bommai stoked a controversy with his statements that appeared to justify incidents of moral policing and communal disharmony in the state.

However, the Karnataka BJP has rejected all allegations as baseless and a “fear-mongering” attempt by some “sections of a community”.

Former MLC Ganesh Karnik, who is the chief spokesperson for the BJP in Karnataka, said, “This is a propaganda by select sections of this (Christian) community, who wants to spread some fear-mongering within the minorities. There are issues within the community. In Mangaluru, a few years ago the Roman Catholic community had claimed that some Christian fringe elements were trying to convert within the Christian community. In the name of the prayer meetings, they are involved in the religious conversion. The organisation releasing studies should study this as well.”

He added, “Regarding allegations made against the senior leaders in the government and party, it is just an attempt to tarnish their image and divert attention from the work they are doing.”

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