Christian charities supported by foreign donors, including Swiss ones, are finding it increasingly difficult to operate in India due to administrative hurdles. They allege selective implementation of regulations and blame this on the rise of Hindu fundamentalism.
“It is unfortunate, these days fundamentalism is growing in the country with our government itself supporting the ‘Hindutva’ agenda of the communal forces,” said Indian bishop Robert Miranda in his speech(PDF) in the Swiss city of Fribourg in October 2017.
He was invited by Missio Switzerland, the Swiss branch of the Pontifical Mission Societies that are under the jurisdiction of the Pope. Miranda leads a diocese of around 8,000 Catholics in the small town of Gulbarga in the southern Indian state of Karnataka. In 1982, when he was first sent to the region, there were only three Catholics families and a few Methodists. The congregation quickly grew when Dalits, who belong to the lowest caste among Hindus, began showing an interest in Christianity and converted to Catholicism.
While this has not created any problems in Gulbarga, conversions have come under high scrutiny ever since the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), that advocates a soft form of Hindu nationalism, swept to power in 2014. Six Indian states (Arunachal Pradesh, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, and Himachal Pradesh) have recently enacted anti-conversion statutes to regulate the practice. They aim to punish those converting or attempting to convert others through “forcible” or “fraudulent” means, or by “allurement” or “inducement”: terms which are vague and open to interpretation. Penalties are harsher if those involved are from the lowest castes or tribes.
Bishop Miranda did not want to comment on the situation on the ground but offered a recommendation for peaceful coexistence.
“All parties should avoid religion-based politics and uphold the secular nature of the Indian constitution, which is one of the best in the world,” he told swissinfo.ch.
Martin Brunner, director of Missio Switzerland - that supportsexternal link schools for handicapped and low caste children, as well as orphanages in Gulbarga - was more forthcoming. His organisation contributes around CHF100,000 ($102,000) to Indian projects every year.
“There is good cooperation between the state of Karnataka and the church. However, I have heard from the Archbishop of Bangalore that the climate is changing and it is going to get difficult in the future,” he says.
For some, this atmosphere of mistrust surrounding conversions has affected charitable work. Compassion, an international NGO that works with churches to improve the lives of disadvantaged children, decided to withdraw from India after being forced to comply with challenging administrative requirements.
The trouble began in early 2016 when the BJP government introduced new procedures and asked Compassion’s Indian partners to re-register for the right to take care of children. There were some tricky requirements like installing a fireproof door in a building made of wood. These regulations meant that some projects managed registration but others could not.
“If you look at the facts only administrative reasons prevented us from pursuing our work. But why do we have to install a fireproof door for a bamboo or wood building in a tribal area for example?” says Christian Willi, CEO Compassion Switzerland.
Money that was sent from 12 Compassion branches, including Switzerland, was blocked by the authorities. This resulted in a seven-figure dollar amount every month failing to reach Compassion’s 589 church-affiliated projects responsible for around 147,000 Indian children. Compassion Switzerland alone was directly responsible for sponsoring over 300 children in India, which has now stopped.
“The sponsors in Switzerland were upset and sad. Several asked why they couldn't write to their sponsored child anymore after having supported them for 10 years,” says Willi.
The BJP government denies it is targeting Christians with unreasonable administrative requirements.
“India has introduced measures for transparency in charitable work and everyone has to work according to these guidelines. All are treated equally and rules are for everyone and not just for a special group,” Syed Shahnawaz Hussain, national spokesperson for the BJP, told swissinfo.ch.
Did religious conversion have anything to do with how Compassion was treated by the authorities? Willi doesn’t deny that some children participating in Compassion’s centres have adopted Christianity.
“We have seen children become Christians of their own free will but also Hindus and Muslims who received years of support from Compassion but remained with their faith,” he says.
Converting to another faith is not illegal and freedom of religion is a fundamental right recognised by the Indian constitution. However, many believe that converts are enticed to change religion in exchange for money or material benefits.
“If funds come for charitable work it is a good thing but not if it is meant to promote religious conversion. It is not right to attempt to buy the faith of Indians with money,” says Hussain.
According to Willi, it is not just conversions that worry the current government but a question of international influence that could have an impact on the stability of the country. Several international NGOs like Greenpeace have also faced administrative hurdles on account of their campaigns.
However, some feel harassment of Christian organisations and churches is purely down to religious intolerance. According to Open Doors, an organisation that documents persecution of Christians worldwide, India is the 11th most dangerous countryexternal link for Christians. Worryingly, it has entered the “extreme persecution category” for the first time in the 2018 rankings. The trend is not encouraging for the country’s 27.8 million Christians who make up 2.3% of its population.
“To be Indian is to be Hindu. That’s the stance of the BJP. So yes, the BJP and the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh] movement are to blame for this. It would be great if Prime Minister Modi would create a more moderate country that respects and tolerates minorities,” says a spokesperson for Open Doors, who works closely with Indian partners.
The BJP denies that minorities are being treated as second class citizens.
“Our government is following a ‘Collective Efforts, Inclusive Growth’ policy. Minorities have more freedom now than ever before,” says Hussain.
Christian organisations are not optimistic that the Indian prime minister will be able to change track after winning the 2014 national election on a pro-Hindu agenda, despite providing assurances from time to time.
“My government will ensure that there is complete freedom of faith and that everyone has the undeniable right to retain or adopt the religion of his or her choice without coercion or undue influence,” he said in 2015 while attending an event in New Delhi to celebrate the beatification of two Indians by Pope Francis.
However, his appearance and speech came after the BJP was soundly beaten in Delhi local assembly election winning only three of 70 seats. To cynics, the move appeared to be an attempt to prevent further alienation of Christian voters after a series of attacks on churches in Delhi at the time. Can the BJP government ever succeed in winning the confidence of international Christian organisations?
“We have hope but as long as the BJP is in power and they believe that the security and development of the country depends on religious political identity, we don't think the situation radically improve,” says Willi.
swissinfo.ch contacted several Christian organisations based in Switzerland for their views but most declined to comment due to fear of consequences for their Indian projects.