By Rupa Subramanya
Is the Christian community in Delhi under threat now that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is in power? Many people would like you to think so.
Since December 2014, six specific incidents, all in Delhi, of alleged attacks on churches and, most recently, on a Christian school have been widely reported and commented upon by the media, both domestic and foreign.
The burden of this spate of reportage and commentary is to suggest that the recent attacks reflect a broader trend of rising intolerance against religious minorities, in this instance Christians in particular. It’s also suggested that this, in turn, is a result, either directly or indirectly, of the rise to power of Narendra Modi and the BJP in May 2014.
Even US President Barack Obama chose to pinpoint the issue of religious intolerance in India in widely publicised speeches, both in India and on his return to the US. While he made no specific mention of the BJP being responsible, his comments were widely read as a veiled critique of the Modi government.
While it’s hard to quantify the impact, the church attacks also figured in the recently concluded Delhi assembly election which swept the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and Arvind Kejriwal to a landslide victory. Minority communities, both Muslim and Christian , appear to have heavily favoured the AAP, and church leaders in the recent past have made no secret of the fact that their preferred party was indeed AAP. In fact, in the aftermath of AAP’s victory in the Delhi elections, the Catholic Archbishop Anil Joseph Thomas Couto celebrated the BJP’s defeat.
It’s routinely assumed that Hindu groups support the BJP, which many do. Yet many in the mainstream establishment refuse to acknowledge the obvious fact that minority religious groups, both Muslim and Christian, themselves play an overtly political role.
It’s no wonder then that church leaders, including the same archbishop, have proclaimed there’s a pattern to these recent alleged attacks.
But do the facts actually bear out the claims being made? In a word: no.
The first of these six alleged attacks, the fire that resulted in the burning of St. Sebastian Church in Dilshad Garden, is currently under investigation by a Special Investigative Team (SIT) set up by the Home Ministry shortly after the incident occurred in December.
In a second incident in Jasola it was alleged that a group of miscreants threw a stone and shattered a window pane. The police commissioner, as reported here by a news editor and here said it was due to a group of kids playing outside, which resulted in a stone landing inside the church. There is no evidence as yet of any communal angle.
The third incident in Rohini, in which the Christmas crib was charred, was determined by the police to be the result of an electrical short circuit.
The fourth incident in Vikaspuri, in which a small group of men allegedly vandalised a church, turned out to be the result of a drunken dare. What’s more, they were caught on CCTV and arrested shortly thereafter by the police and have confessed to the crime. Again, there’s no evidence whatsoever of a communal angle.
The sixth and most recent incident, in Vasant Vihar, of a burglary at a Christian school, has been determined by the police and the school itself to be a case of theft— Rs. 8,000 was reported to have been stolen — again, no communal angle.
And, according to the Delhi Police themselves, there’s no evidence whatever that these six incidents in Dilshad Garden, Jasola, Rohini, Vikaspuri, Vasant Kunj and Vasant Vihar are related or part of a pattern of attacks on minority institutions. Further, again according to the police themselves, and as noted above, there’s no evidence that communal sentiment animated any of these attacks.
It’s also necessary to keep the nature and quantum of these incidents in the proper perspective.
According to the Delhi Police’s own statistics, in 2014 there were 155,654 incidents of crime in the city, of which there were 10,309 burglaries and 42,634 “other” incidents of theft, that is not involving motor vehicles or houses. Total crimes reported almost doubled from 2013 to 2014, reflecting, according to the police themselves, more diligent filing of reports by them rather than a huge jump in the incidence of crime.
Crucially, it’s not just churches that are periodically vandalised and robbed in India. With incidents of theft alone, according to the Delhi Police, 206 temples, 30 gurdwaras and three churches (out of some 200 or more churches in Delhi) and 14 mosques were burgled in 2014. And such crimes didn’t mysteriously start to occur in May 2014 after the BJP’s victory — as with other crimes, they routinely occur every year in Delhi as the data show.
Despite the facts pointing in one direction, church leaders and commentators, both in the domestic and foreign media who parrot their line, continue to insist that there’s a pattern to the incidents, the motivation is communal, and the BJP or affiliated groups are somehow responsible. An entire narrative of a rising tide of religious intolerance in India has been crafted, on the back of unpersuasive evidence, such as these six incidents and misinformation around the conversion and reconversion debate in India.
Even in an open and shut case like the Vikaspuri incident in which the perpetrators were caught and confessed to the drunken dare, Archbishop Cuoto maintains in the face of the evidence that he was dissatisfied with the police explanation, without explaining how the CCTV footage and the perpetrators’ own confession somehow bears a different interpretation.
Of course, the police aren’t infallible, and if church leaders or those who toe their line have any evidence of a communal angle or the involvement of Hindu groups in any of these incidents, they’re surely obliged to come forward with whatever facts they may have to back up their assertions. They haven’t done so, which suggests that their assertions are based on prejudice or a pre-determined agenda, not facts.
Unfortunately, the authorities reinforce the erroneous impression that minorities are under threat when, for example, as reported here they propose to set up special protection for minority religious institutions in Delhi. As we’ve seen, houses of worship of all faiths are subject to burglary and vandalism, so why extend this preferential treatment to only minority institutions? Aren’t temples equally worthy of protection?
This is where the Modi government must step up to the plate and improve the messaging. Reacting passively and with a lag to loud cries that minorities are under attack only reinforces that narrative of persecution. What is needed is a positive counter-narrative which stresses that the problem is not crimes against Christians but the larger problem of law and order, which affects everyone regardless of religious affiliation.
And all of us should be asking why exactly are church leaders and their friends in the media so eager to establish there’s a communal angle to these recent incidents when the facts say the opposite? What are they hoping to gain?
Church leaders and their media acolytes have every right to dislike the BJP or Hindu groups if they so wish. But it’s irresponsible and downright dangerous if they promote their agenda in the face of the facts.
Rupa Subramanya is a Mumbai-based economist and commentator. On Twitter @rupasubramanya