Adopted in 1950 Indian Constitution Article 15 sounds like this: “The State shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them”.
The Indian National Congress (INC) and India’s argument against the creation of Pakistan was that there is no such thing as a Muslim nation among Indians and that all Indians are one united nation and the belonging of a caste, gender or religious did not make any difference as to the inclusion of all Indians into secular state. That was why there was no need and even no right to break up India and form a separate state by the name of Pakistan or any other name for that matter. Almost half of the Indian Muslims believed this promise of the Congress and its Muslim leader Abul Kalam Azad, a good friend of Jawaharlal Nehru led by Sheikh Abdullah. Even the Kashmiri Muslims, also a good friend of Nehru, believed in the possibility of the inclusion of Muslims into an Indian nation. Both Muslim leaders Azad and Sheikh Abdullah soon learnt that they had been wrong. Both Muslim leaders realised as early as the 1950s that independent India was not what they had expected and that Congress had led them down. Azad died in 1958 frustrated but never directly voiced his disillusionment with Indian reality; all we have is the memory of his friend Ansar Havani who said with hindsight in 1992 that ‘Azad died a broken man’. Sheikh Abdullah was put in prison by his friend Nehru for ten years because he did not like the way Kashmiri autonomy was undermined by Delhi.
The largest democracy in the world has been proclaiming to the world the freedom and rights its Constitution is providing to Indian citizens. While the situation of lower castes may have somewhat improved over the years the situation of religious minorities has not. That has remained so during the years of Congress rule starting from the 1950s. The sense of marginalization had been steadily increasing especially since the rise to prominence of Hindu right-wing ideologies and organizations during the 1980s, when the Babri Masjid/Ram Janmabhoomi issue was used to sharpen religious divides across India. Over the years the socio-economic marginalization of Muslims in India has grown – a fact that is well documented in the Sachar Committee Report of 2006 and the Misra Commission Report of 2007. These highlighted a higher prevalence of discrimination towards Muslims and socio-economic deprivation among them as compared to other religious groups. Little concrete action, however, has been taken to address these issues at the policy level. If anything, the situation has only worsened.
The alienation felt by religious minorities – including Muslims and Christians – though has continued to increase especially after the take-over of power of the BJP and Maryam’s Uncle Modi’s premiership in 2014. The ruling BJP and its partner organizations of the ‘Sangh Parivar’ have started a concerted campaign against all religious minorities, mainly against Muslims. International organizations like the ‘Open Doors’ have reported dramatic increase in the number of attacks on Christians and Muslims in India in the last four years, they have stated that the situation was at a tipping point. The Open Door report’s incident analysis shows that since Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in 2014, the number of violent acts against Christians, Muslims and tribal Dalits (members of the India’s lowest caste) have increased. Features of this campaign include protests against the so-called ‘love jihad’ – Muslim men allegedly converting Hindu women to Islam by trapping them in love affairs – and ‘ghar wapsi’ (homecoming) initiatives which convert Muslims and Christians ‘back’ to Hinduism which shows that the laws prohibiting conversion work in one direction only.
The situation is not better for Christians in India. Horrific attacks at Christians all over the largest democracy in the world give us a glimpse into what the 65 million Christians in India are facing in this land of 1.3 billion people. The country now ranks as the 10th most dangerous country for Christians on the 2019 World Watch List–up from No. 11 in 2018 and No. 15 in 2017. Research of ‘Open Doors’ World Watch List shows that in 2018, more than 12,000 Christians were attacked. But this number is only the tip of the iceberg, researchers say, as increasing numbers of persecution acts go unreported. The persecution of Indian Christians as well as that of Muslims has largely remained at the fringe of Indian media reporting. Most incidents were reported in the Indian states of Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra, followed by Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, and Jharkhand.
The “drivers” of persecution that the Report names are viz (1) number one Hindutva ideology and secondly, the anti-conversion laws of India. Several Indian states passed so-called ‘Freedom of Religion’ Bills primarily to prevent people from converting to Christianity. Orissa was the first state to bring such law named as ‘Orissa Freedom of Religion Act, 1967′. It was followed by Madhya Pradesh in 1968 and Arunachal Pradesh in 1978. Catholics protested against this saying that propagation of their faith was an important part of Christianity. Both laws enacted by the Orissa and Madhya Pradesh high courts were challenged stating Article 25 of the Constitution. Article 25 mandates that subject to public order, morality and health, all persons enjoy the freedom of conscience and have the right to entertain any religious belief and propagate it. The Supreme Court of India in its ruling supported the anti-conversion laws saying, “What is freedom for one is freedom for the other in equal measure and there can, therefore, be no such thing as a fundamental right to convert any person to one’s own religion”. This ruling seems to defy the very text and spirit of Article 25 that explicitly allows the propagation of religion! After such a verdict more Indian Union states have passed such laws. In August 2006 for instance, the Chhattisgarh State Assembly passed similar legislation requiring anyone who desires to convert to another religion to give 30 days’ notice to, and seek permission from, the district magistrate.
Since then the situation of minorities has worsened multiple times especially after election victory of BJP and the re-election of PM Modi. In June this year ‘Deutsche Welle’, Germany’s public international broadcaster, published an article that Indian religious minorities face increased violence under Modi. They referred to a video of a brutal lynching that had emerged recently on Indian social media which has shocked Indian Muslims. The footage shows a group of men beating a 22-year-old Muslim man, Tabrez Ansari, in the eastern state of Jharkhand. The crowd forced him to shout “Jai Shri Ram” (Hail Lord Ram) — a slogan widely used by Hindu hard-liners — as he was tied to a pole and then severely beaten for an alleged burglary. Ansari died at the hospital on the same day. The US State Department international religious freedom report paints a dark picture of the situation for religious minorities in India. Confronted with this report the Indian Ministry of External Affairs rejected the US report, saying a foreign government had no right to comment on the state of Indian citizens’ constitutionally protected rights which are an internal affair of India.
There is no doubt that the proclaimed secularism of India and the rights of minorities there are a sham. The Constitution that enshrines the rights of the Indian people has been violated from day one multiple times, the scrapping of Article 370 is only the latest step in a long row of violations.
Ikram Sehgal is a defense and security analyst and Dr Bettina Robotka is formerly of head Department of South Asian Studies at Humboldt University, Berlin