Cardinal Baselios Cleemis, President of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, in an October 2017 photo (World Watch Monitor)

The President of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI), Cardinal Baselios Cleemis, has expressed a lack of trust in the government headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, as the leader of the ruling BJP – known for pursuing a Hindu nationalistic agenda.

“The country is being divided on the basis of religious belief. It is bad in a democratic country. I want my country to be united in a secular fabric. But now, this country is being polarised due to religious affiliations. We should fight against it,” Cardinal Cleemis was quoted as saying by the Indian Express.

Cardinal Cleemis shared with media in New Delhi on 21 December his concern over a sudden spurt in anti-Christian violence after his visit to Satna in central Madhya Pradesh state, which made headlines when a team of carol singers were assaulted and then detained by police.

The 30-member Catholic carol team, of seminarians and two priests, was accused of attempting to forcibly convert Hindus in remote Bhoomkhar village, about 15km from Satna, on the night of 14 December. Following an allegation by a Hindu fundamentalist outfit called Bajrang Dal, the police detained the entire team, while the car of eight priests who came to help was torched outside the police station.

“I agree such incidents can happen in a big country… But how do you evaluate the strength and stand of the government? It is the subsequent action and the legal protection that matter,” the report quoted Cardinal Cleemis as saying.

Though India’s interior minister Rajnath Singh had assured the head of the Catholic Church of the “safety” of Christians when the Cardinal called on him after his Satna visit, Cleemis said the incident threatens the “credentials of our democratic system”. The police remained silent spectators when the Christians were manhandled inside the police station, he added.

A.C. Michael, co-ordinator of the United Christian Forum (that documents incidents of anti-Christian violence), visited another state, Uttar Pradesh, at the weekend, over the arrest of seven, including two pastors, two weeks ago on an anti-conversion charge. He told World Watch Monitor: “We are worried about the role of the police and the failure of the judicial system.”

When the bail application of the seven came up for hearing on 17 December before the court in Mathura, 160km south of New Delhi, the judge dismissed it, saying “lawyers were not present”.

“In fact the lawyers were standing in front of the judge,” said Michael, a former member of the Minorities Commission of Delhi state. “We are relieved that finally they were released on bail on 21 December.”

Meanwhile, hardly a day passes without incidents in the media of Christians being threatened not to celebrate during the festive season, and of Christmas celebrations being disrupted.

One such threat was also from Uttar Pradesh (UP), ruled by the BJP, in Aligarh – where the Hindu Jagran Manch (Hindu Vigilance Council) told Christian schools not to celebrate Christmas.

However with global media promptly highlighting that threat, following the attack on the carol singers, the BJP state government said it has asked the HJM to deposit one million rupees as a guarantee that it will not indulge in such acts.

While the Aligarh area has not yet reported any attacks on Christian institutions, despite this threat, another BJP-ruled state, Rajasthan (bordering Pakistan on its west), saw an annual Christmas fair disrupted by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council) at Pratapgarh town on 21 December., a leading news portal, reported that the incident took place at night. The perpetrators tore down decorations, snatched the microphones of the gathering, threw away their Christmas calendars and Christian literature, and accused them of carrying out conversions under the pretext of Christmas celebrations.

That happened days after Mohan Bhagwat, chief of the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh – a national volunteer corps known as the fountain-head of aggressive Hindu nationalism), said “anybody living in India is a Hindu”.

Bhagwat made this statement while addressing an RSS meeting at Agarthala, capital of the north-eastern state of Tripura. In a reference to Christians and other minorities, he added: “The Muslims in India are also Hindus.”

Meanwhile, the Times of India, the largest circulated English daily in the country, in an editorial on 22 December told the government that “right-wing groups must be prevented from disrupting Christmas celebrations”. It continued:

“There is no denying that Christmas has become a secular celebration in India with people from all walks of life and belonging to different faiths taking part. In that sense, such inclusive celebrations highlight the essence of India’s unity in diversity… If Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) groups are allowed to raise the bogey of religious conversion for every non-Hindu festival, then the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of religion, as well as the true spirit of Hinduism, will stand desecrated.”