Narendra Modi utters the evidently Christian name – James Michael Lyngdoh – with great relish. Rolling his eyes and puffing his cheeks for effect Modi announces James Michael Lyngdoh and Sonia Maino Gandhi meet in church every Sunday and conspire against Hindus.
The anti-Muslim pogrom of 2002 in Gujarat – the western state of India that Modi has ruled for the last 14 years – is an albatross around Modi’s neck as he makes his bid for prime ministership. However, what is overlooked is his intolerance of Christianity and its practitioners, as well as his antipathy towards Sikhs, another religious minority in officially secular, but predominantly Hindu India.
Modi is currently trying to sell the dream of development hoping that it will hook the floating voter in the national election, but it is cutting no ice with any of India’s religious minorities.
Indian Christians, who account for 2.4 per cent of the population, making them the country’s second largest religious minority, are mortally scared that if Modi comes to power then attacks on churches and missionaries, burning of bibles and raping of nuns will again intensify and this time with the connivance of the highest office in the land. The fear is palpable.
His constantly alluding to Congress Party president Sonia Gandhi’s Italian roots and Roman Catholic background or ridiculing the former chief election commissioner because of his Christian name (even after Lyngdoh had clarified that he was an atheist) are the most benign of his actions. Modi has time and again incited Hindu extremist groups like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council), Hindu Jagran Manch (Hindu Reawakening Platform) and Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram (Home for welfare of forest dwellers) which are all offshoots of the Hindutva fountainhead, Rashtriya Swayam Sangh (RSS) of which Modi is a product, to attack Christians accusing them of converting Hindus.
Foreign Christian missionaries have been working for more than two centuries among the poorest of the poor in the tribal belts of India inhabited by indigenous people called Adivasis, imparting education and life skills. Modi and his ilk have accused them of forcible proselytization and during the last Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance federal government (1999-2004), RSS constituents launched violent attacks against missionaries across the country. Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two young sons were burned alive as they lay sleeping in their jeep in the eastern state of Odisha. The horrific incident frightened many foreign missionaries into leaving India.
The majority of Christian Adivasis in Gujarat live in the southern districts of Dangs and Panchmaha. In 1998, when the BJP was in power in Gujarat and also ran the federal government, 38 cases of violent attacks against Christians were reported in Dangs. Matters got worse when RSS affiliates began their ‘reconversion programmes’ in the tribal areas forcing Adivasi Christians to convert to Hinduism – a religion they did not adhere to in the first instance as they were Animists.
In April 2003 Modi’s state government passed a law that virtually made conversion to any religion besides Hinduism illegal. Ironically called the Gujarat Freedom of Religion Bill, the law made it imperative that all conversions had to be approved by the district magistrate [the highest government official in a district], snatching away the democratic freedom to choose one’s religious faith. Modi even chided the United States for not giving him a visa in 2005 because he claimed they were unhappy that he had stopped Hindus from converting to Christianity!
A few days ago the fear that is in every Christians’ heart at the prospect of another BJP government was voiced by Father Frazer Mascarenhas, a priest and principal of St Xavier’s College, Mumbai, one of the leading educational institutions in the country. In a letter to the students of his college he urged them to make an informed choice and pointed out some of the lies in the Gujarat ‘development’ model that Modi is using to show what he can do for the rest of country if made prime minister. Father Mascarenhas showed that when it comes to human development indicators like infant mortality and labour laws, Gujarat’s record in the Modi years have been far worse than other states. Earlier, in February, Cardinal Gracias, president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, sent a letter to the Catholic community urging the flock to vote for a leader who would “uphold the secular character of our nation and promote communal harmony”.
Similarly Sikhs, who are the third largest religious minority at 1.9 per cent of the population are worried at the prospect of Modi becoming prime minister. In the northern state of Punjab a Sikh majority state, the VHP has used force to prevent Sikhs from converting to Christianity even if they do it of their own free will.
Significantly, Modi is trying to evict 5,000 Sikh families living in the border district of Kutch in Gujarat from their land and send them back to Punjab. These families had migrated to Kutch in 1965 at the best of the then prime minister Lal Bhadur Shastri who urged Sikhs farmers to inhabit the barren land along the border with Pakistan. Known for their hard work and farming skills, Sikh farmers in the last 40 years have tilled the land and made it into an agricultural paradise. Now the large tracts of land are being eyed by industrial houses who are hoping to get it from the Modi government at throwaway prices. In order to oblige them, Modi in 2010 used an archaic law which barred non-Gujaratis from buying land in Gujarat to snatch the land from the Sikhs.
Modi’s government froze the bank accounts of the Sikh farmers and when the Gujarat High Court ruled in favour of the Sikhs, his government moved the Supreme Court challenging the order. The apex court is yet to hear the matter.
Sikhs say that their representatives called on Modi who said that the law will take its course. But when the delegation stepped out of Modi’s chamber, an aide warned that if they didn’t stop protesting, they would be administered the same medicine which was given to Muslims in 2002.
Sajeda Momin has a M.Sc in International Relations from University of Southampton. A journalist by profession, she divides her time between UK and India where she has held senior positions in The Telegraph, The Statesman, The Asian Age, DNA and The Bengal Post.