by- Saba Nqvi

President Ram Nath Kovind will not hear carol singers on the eve of Christmas as has been the tradition with former presidents. Choirs and carol singers who had expected to perform for India’s first citizen have not been given time. The spokesperson of Rashtrapati Bhavan says a decision has been taken to have no religious ceremonies inside the building as India is a “secular state”.

One may ask if carols (or even qawwalis) can be boxed under religion or is there not a cultural dimension to them? Apparently, the President did not do anything special for Diwali inside his majestic home either, although ANI reported that Rashtrapati Bhavan was lit up this year with a special multi-coloured light display on the eve of Diwali. US president Donald Trump meanwhile celebrated Diwali inside the White House (although he cancelled the Eid dinner that predecessor Barack Obama would host besides lighting lamps inside the White House on Diwali).

The idea of genuine secularism should not be used as a cover for snubbing minorities, in this case, the tiny Christian community, just 2.3% of India’s population. At a time when a new “Hindu” identity is being forged, both politically and culturally, traditions linked to minorities apparently cannot be accommodated without discomfort and unease. The spectre of the Muslim may be used to create a particular national consciousness, but it is with Christians (who are seen as actively promoting conversions) that the cadre of the RSS and its frontal organisations really have a bone to pick at the ground level.

2017 has been one of the worst years for anti-Christian violence in India and apparently, there is to be no comfort or let-up. An influential global charity that monitors the treatment of Christians worldwide to produce a list of the 50 most difficult countries for them to live in (carried by all western media), writes that in the first six months of 2017 Indian Christians were harassed or attacked in as many incidents as in the whole of 2016.

Forget the year, just look at this December. On December 15, a mob-linked to extremist Hindu groups attacked Catholic carol singers in Madhya Pradesh’s Satna district and set a priest’s car ablaze. Instead of taking action against the attackers, the police detained the singers on suspicion that they were carrying out conversions. On December 17, Christian schools in Aligarh, UP, were issued a warning by right-wing groups not to celebrate Christmas in schools as it would “lure” students into the faith.

On December 19, bail was given to seven people in Mathura district, UP, after they too were picked up for “forced conversion” two weeks ago. In judicial custody, their ordeal was exacerbated as they were threatened by the local bar associations that demanded inquiries into their funding and intent.

Communalised and unruly lawyers’ associations have been characteristic of UP for some time now, pre-dating the ascension of Yogi Adityanath to the chief ministerial chair. But an organisation founded by him, the Hindu Yuva Vahini, has always been at the forefront of viewing Christian activity with suspicion and using tactics of intimidation. Still, it’s not as if the BJP cannot live with Christians. The regime in Goa manages to do so quite successfully and the BJP has been expanding its footprint in the northeastern states with substantial Christian populations, even making concessions to eating beef in such places.

Still, there’s no denying that there is a shift in the larger mindset over the years, culminating in draconian anti-conversion laws in several states that impinge on free choice. In Madhya Pradesh, for instance, I would have to take the state’s permission to convert. If I were a Christian (or a Muslim) seeking to become a Hindu, permission would be given; were it the other way round, the extremist cadre would work on me, socially boycott the family, (maybe burn down my home) and in the end, the permission is unlikely to be given.

In no part of India would state and police become active if any Muslim or Christian were to declare themselves Hindu. But a conversion out of Hinduism is currently viewed as a highly suspicious activity by innocents who were “lured” or “forced”. It cannot be free choice such as that exercised by Dr B R Ambedkar, who wilfully converted to Buddhism in 1956 with lakhs of followers. The founder of the Indian Constitution could be booked for promoting conversion today.

Some of us who have been educated at the many fine Christian institutions across India would know that a church sermon always stresses that the only way to heaven is through accepting Jesus Christ. We used to just say amen and move on. Now even a carol can apparently contaminate us with the desire to convert.