When worship itself becomes a crime


Fariba Dalir and Sakin Behjati’ prison sentence has just begun.

It was in the month of April that the Iranian courts finally convicted these two  women – recent converts to Christianity – for their ‘attempts to put national security in danger’. One among them has been sent to a much dreaded jail near Tehran. (https://www.en-hrana.org/tag/fariba-dalir/)

Interestingly neither Fariba nor Sakin were involved in any terrorist act or anything akin to treason, they had just organised a Church service at their home which was joined in by few of their friends / acquaintances.

In a country which calls itself Islamic Republic where Islam – especially its Twelver Shii version – is the official State Religion and where apostasy is punishable by death, their very act of joint prayer to their gods was found to be worth prosecution.

Definitely Iran is no exception today- at least in the mid-eastern world – when it comes to religious rights of minorities.

What is less emphasised is that the phenomenon of stigmatisation or criminalisation of people worshipping ‘other gods’ – which has ancient origins – is not limited to the region.

Today’s world – where there is explosion of religiosity – and a dangerous mix of religion and politics is ruling the roost in many countries, it is also finding takers in officially secular countries.

India which calls itself the ‘biggest democracy’ in the world and sings paeans to its long history of pluralism has discovered this stratagem with a vengeance under a Hindutva Supremacist regime  and recent experience demonstrates that the religious minorities here are biggest losers.

The much reported instance from Shahjahanpur, Uttar Pradesh where pilgrims were made to do sit ups and give an apology for offering roadside Namaz (https://www.telegraphindia.com/india/pilgrims-made-to-do-sit-ups-say-sorry-for-offering-roadside-namaz/cid/1886605) just brings out the situation on the ground.

A brief recap of the incident tells us that these pilgrims were first harassed and allegedly even thrashed up by a local Hindutva leader for this ‘illegal act’ and were marched to the police station where their intimidation and harassment continued unabated. The ordeal ended only after they gave a written apology for their attempt to pray their own god – a right which has been granted to every Indian citizen under article 25 of the Constitution which underlines “freedom of conscience and free profession, practice and propagation of religion” the only caveat is “subject to public order, morality and health and to the other provisions of this Part”.

Definitely the hapless citizens from faraway west Bengal were not in a position to ask the police officials how their act of offering Namaz beside a roadside could endanger ‘public order’, vitiate ‘morality’ or negatively impact ‘health’ of others.

No doubt it would be rather incredulous to even think that police officials questioned the self-proclaimed “protectors of Hinduism” for taking law into their hands, and harassing the pilgrims , who handed over these people to them.

What happened in Shahjahanpur could be seen as just a tip of the iceberg as earlier events very well demonstrate.

Merely few days before this incident, police action in a village named Dulhepur, Muradabad, Uttar Pradesh had reached headlines (https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/bareilly/mass-gathering-for-namaz-at-home-26-booked-in-up/articleshow/93841669.cm) where police personnel had reached a house of a Muslim family where prayers were being held . As there was not a single mosque in the village nor nearby areas, possibly these people  had gathered at that place to offer prayers in communion with each other.

Perhaps this very gathering caused tremendous ‘anxiety’ to their neighbour who even sensed that if no action is taken ( or police does not intervene to disturb the Namaz being offered there ) a question of ‘law and order’ would suddenly erupt. And police which normally takes time to address complaints promptly arrived within no time.

Initial statements by the police even claimed that these people – who were offereing Namaz – had gathered there without any ‘prior intimation and had been warned earlier as well not to do so’. It is a different matter that this whole episode leaked to the media received  so much oprobium at various levels that the police deemed it fit to close the case quickly without offering any satisfactory explanation to save itself from further embarrassment.

The incident at newly inaugurated Lulu Mall in Lucknow which happened earlier was no different.

Here a similar controversy arose and police filed cases against unrecognised people who were found to be  offering namaz inside the Mall itself under Indian Penal Code sections 153-A (promoting enmity between different groups) and 295-A (deliberate act intended to outrage religious feelings).

Gurugram ( earlier Gurgaon) , which is part of National Capital Region of New Delhi, hardly 30 kilometres from the national capital and which is India’s second largest information technology hub and third largest financial and banking hub, represents a classic case where today this denial has reached extreme levels which is witnessed in increased shrinking of Namaz space. There are only six spots left for open namaz, down from 150 in 2018 ( https://www.newslaundry.com/2022/04/18/we-dont-want-conflict-dont-want-to-fight-the-battle-of-shrinking-namaz-space-for-gurugram-muslims)

This shrinking of space has not happened overnight. Thanks to the activists of various Hindutva groups – whose actions had made it increasingly difficult to offer Namaz even at designated places – who felt emboldened with official attitude towards their protests, perhaps the Muslims there have decided to be ‘super low profile..to live a peaceful life’ ( -do-)

One can just go on narrating similar incidents and spots from other parts of the country as well ..

What connects Shahjahanpur to Dulhepur, Muradabad ; Lulu Mall, Lucknow or Gurugram etc ?

One thing is evident that they are signs of arrival of a New India, where majoritarianism is on the upswing and religious minorities, socially marginalised have been put on the defensive.

The ascent of authoritarian / totalitarian forces in country – which would have been impossible without the deep penetration of exclusivist viewpoint focussing itself around particular faith and its larger acceptance by the so called civil society – has been accompanied by a synergy of sorts between Hindutva rigthwing storm troopers and the various organs of the state – a deadly alliance which seem to be playing havoc with the lives of the vulnerable communities.

If the Nazi project of Aryan Supremacy veered around race – where the Jews were considered / peddled as the ‘other’ – majoritarianism here veers around the idea of Hindutva Supremacism, which is impossible without the criminalisation and stigmatisation of the practice of the ‘faith of the other’

The idea may have ancient origins and had even resulted in en masse massacres of the ‘others’ and even the forcible assimilation of the ‘rest’ earlier  has been weaponised in the 21 st millenium as well.

Whether one wants to recognise or not mainstreaming of bigotry is nearly complete.

There is no denying the fact that barring a stream of voices of dissent and difference, either there is a conspiracy of silence by the articulate sections of society about such blatant violation of religious rights of minorities – which are an affront to the constitution – or even its glorification / celebration on occasions.

The duplicitous behaviour of the so called opinion makers is evident to everyone.

Neither they are bothered by the fact that in a multi-religious, multi faith country of ours  while festivals of majority community receive official sanction at every level nor they are concerned how ‘others’ are not even allowed to practice their faith peacefully or worship their own gods in their own private space.

The official support to festivals of the majority could be seen even in the fact seniormost police officials of the state have no qualms in sprinkling flower petals from Helicopter on  Kanwariyas – who have come under scanner of Supreme Courts now and then for their acts of violence (https://scroll.in/article/889863/violence-during-kanwar-yatra-the-police-need-new-ideas-to-tackle-an-old-problem)

It is true that such acts which are an effective denial of freedom of conscience granted to citizens under constitution are not limited to the biggest religious minority – namely Muslims – only, it extends to other minorities as well.

Christians in India, whose number is hardly 2.3 per cent of the population are similarly at the receiving end of this Hindutva Supremacist forces. If Muslims are stigmatised for ‘being terrorist’, the bogey of conversion is used when it comes to intimidating Christians.

Reports appear in section of the press about how police in north Indian states uses Bible and even prayer groups as evidence of illegal conversion by pastors. Article 14 had even published a detailed report about many such incidents (https://article-14.com/post/up-s-growing-attacks-on-christians-police-use-bible-prayer-groups-as-evidence-of-illegal-conversion-by-pastors-628456af30552) and how ‘policemen have aligned themselves with complainants from Hindutva groups.’

Few BJP ruled states have even passed ‘anti conversion laws’ in the name of ‘freedom of religion’ bill  where religious conversion becomes a congnisable and non bailable office and the accused is supposed to prove his innocence in courts. In UP itself many pastors find themselves at the receiving end of this law as the accused has to prove his innocence, and under a law which is very loosely defined, someone convicted under this law can face jail upto 10 years in a prison.

Karnataka, which is ruled by a saffron dispensation, Christians have come under attack  in a similar manner where there are increasing instances where they find it increasingly difficult to practice their faith.A report brought out by PUCL Karnataka (http://puclkarnataka.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/04/Criminalising-the-Practise-of-Faith-Final-date-12-02-22.pdf) narrates thirty nine such incidents from different parts of the state afte talking to victims as well as pastors and ordinary Christians and tells how it has created an atmoshere of fear and terror. These reports reveal the common pattern used by the saffron supremacists to intimidate and terrorise them.

For example, many victims as well as pastors narrated how the rightwing groups attack during their weekly mass all of sudden and the police normally arrives few minutes after the incident and in fact tries to diulte the case by pressurising for  a compromise.

Can we expect any let up in the situation in the coming days.

It would be improper to sustain ourselves on false hopes.

Unless and until the secular, liberal forces, democratic as well as left forces are able to put a sustained resistance one cannot expect a significant  change in the situation and such a resistance cannot be put up without getting ready to break new grounds as far as strategy is concerned.

Of course, in the interim period, one can envisage immediate tasks which could be taken up or contemplate about new ideas which can be pushed further.

Perhaps an important recommendations by the PUCL report (-do-) to stop such attacks or deter undue interference in private lives of people or to ensure religious rights of people can be seriously brooded over.  It talks of implementing the directions of the Supreme Court in Tahseen S Poonawalla v Union of India ( AIR 2018 SC 3354) regarding cases of mob violence and lynching strictly.

The recommendations include registration of an FIR without delay, preventing harassment of family members of victims, ensuring cases of mob violence are tried by Fast Track Courts on a day to day basis, and holding police officials who fail their duties in preventing the violence accountable. The highest courts have even emphasised formulation of the victim compensation scheme under Section  357A  of  the  CrPC  for  the  victims  of  hate  crimes.

There could be many such interim steps and they should be taken up with utmost urgency.

What is also needed is to comprehend this criminalisation of the practice of faith of the others in a wider context of overwhelming dominance of Hindutva Supremacism and its unholy alliance with Crony Capitalism. It is not just a slogan that the ruling dispensation at the centre has shown much ‘benevolence’ towards two big business houses, which is often targetted by the opposition as a government of ‘Hum DO, Hamare Do’

One, this needs to be seen as an integral part of the growing socio-economic marginalisation of religious minorities, which has been preceded by their growing political marginalisation.

It is an old story but the percentage of representatives belonging to religious minorities in the parliament today is at the lowest since independence. It was widely reported how in the elections to the Parliament in 2019, the ruling dispensation at the centre did not deem it necessary to distribute ticket to a single Muslim candidate. The same understanding was reflected when elections to the Upper House ( Rajya Sabha) were held few months before. Despite the fact that Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi was the only Muslim member left from BJP who was on the Rajya Sabha, his term was allowed to lapse.

Call for the ‘economic boycott’ of Muslims from time to time, the bogey of ‘Love Jihad’ which effectively criminalises any relation between a Hindu and Muslim belonging to different sexes, the bogey of Corona Jihad which was raked up more than two years back basically to further marginalise them or the very idea of ban on Hijab wearing girls / women from educational institutions – which was raised in Karnataka – and which led to the violation of right to education without discrimination indiscrimnately, all these attempts put together, definitely cobbles up a scary scenario and similar other measures / slogans have been found to be effective measures to restrict the religious minorities – especially the Muslims – to their ghettos.

As we look at this increasing normalisation of bigotry and hate and the increasing difficulty faced by the religious / social minorities to live life as an equal citizen in the 75 th Year of India’s independence, it would be inhaling fresh air if we look back at the debates in the Constituent Assembly in the wee hours of independence when our founders were laying down rules for us so that we live a peaceful, inclusive, equitable life without facing discrimination of any sorts.

One can recall the discussions taking place on the issue of freedom of expression in the Constituent assembly and how they slowly broadened to include the issue of freedom of conscience and how it resolved to ensure the said right to every citizen of the newly independent nation and even ensure her right to its practice and propagation.

Definitely none of them would have imagined in their wildest dreams that in the 75th Year of India’s independence, days would arise where people in power – who had taken oath of the constitution itself – would put roadblocks that a section of people praying a different god would feel further diminished.

It is a different matter that for followers of the world view of Hindutva Supremacism, the unfolding situation is a dream come true.

For them the idea to turn an independent, secular, democratic, liberal India into a Hindu Rashtra is coming to fruition of a long winding struggle, launched by the likes of Savarkar, Hedgewar etc and effectively pushed ahead by the likes of Golwalkar, Deoras.

Was not it Golwalkar who in his famous monograph ‘Bunch of Thoughts’ categorised Muslims, Christians and Communists as Internal Enemies ? Or how he in his earlier monograph ‘We and Our Nationhood Defined’ considered that the minorities would have to live at the benevolence of Hindus, the same controversial book which glorifies ‘ethnic cleansing of Jews’ in Hitler’s Germany

Subhash Gatade is a left  activist associated with New Socialist Initiative

Courtesy: https://countercurrents.org



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