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Carte blanche for vigilante excesses on rural Christians? Karnataka anti-conversion bill

By Rajiv Shah 

A People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), Karnataka, report “Criminalizing the Practice of Faith”, seeking to trace “hate crimes” on Christians in Karnataka between January and November this year, allegedly by Hindutva groups, has said that the “bogey” of conversion is being used by the current BJP rulers in the State in order to “target the Constitutional right to practice, profess and propagate religion, as recognized under Article 25.”
Released against the backdrop of the statements by the Karnataka Chief Minister and the Home Minister expressing their keenness to introduce an anti-conversion Bill in Karnataka on lines of the ones that exist in exist nine other States, including Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, the report documents 39 major incidents of "hate crimes" against State Christian.
Demanding that members of the Karnataka legislature and civil society groups must oppose such a Bill as and when it is placed in the State Assembly, it says that the proposed Bill is likely to make things worse for members of the Christian community, especially in rural Karnataka, as it would give "carte blanche for excesses by vigilantes.”
It notes, “In most cases, Christians have been forced to shut down their places of worship and stop assembling for their Sunday prayers. Effectively, these attacks on praying in a gathering, that is enforced by Hindutva groups with the complicity of the State functions as a bar on the freedom to practice religion itself.”
According to the report, “Far from the right to propagate religion, today the attacks in Karnataka are actually on the right to freely profess and practice religion. When pastors are threatened by the Hindutva groups to shut down these prayer meetings, it is not only a gross violation of their right to religious freedom, but it also robs an entire community of their right to dignity and the right to life defined as psychological well-being.”
Blaming the “communal hate crimes in all the 39 instances” on Hindutva organisations -- Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Bajrang Dal and Hindu Jagrana Vedike, the report particularly cites two instances of hate crimes in Karwar (October 4) and Mandya (January 25), in which BJP MLA Sunil Hegde and three-time BJP MLA Narayana Gowda, currently Minister of State for Youth Empowerment and Sports, Planning, Programme Monitoring and Statistics, are named “as people who supported the police in targeting Christians.”
According to the report, a new organisation has emerged, Banjara Nigama, which “appears to be small” but is “rather violent”, stating, it particularly it uses such tactics like social boycott against the Christians, seeking to deprive them of any relations with “neighbours, landowners, employers, small businesses like grocery stores, even schools, in their localities.”
Members of this organization, in almost all instances, disrupt prayer meetings or violently attack them – a common pattern being "the language used in the verbal abuse primarily consisted of casteist slurs”, the report says, adding, “These casteist slurs must be seen in the context that Christians in rural India largely comprise of daily wage agricultural labourers and people from Dalit communities.”
Tactics used including social boycott, depriving Christians of any relations with neighbours, landowners, employers, small businesses, even schools
The report asserts, “Almost in every instance of mob violence studied in this report, it can be observed in the chain of events that the police have colluded with Hindutva groups. With the overt guidance of the local leaders of BJP, RSS, Bajrang Dal, Hindu Jagrana Vedike and Banjara Nigama, the police actively work to criminalise the lives of Christians and stop them from organising prayer meetings.” It adds, “This complicit role of the police emboldens a culture of intolerance and bigotry.”
Asking the Karnataka government to implement the directions issued by the Supreme Court in Tahseen S (Poonawalla v Union of India [AIR 2018 SC 3354]) regarding cases of mob violence and lynching strictly including registration of an FIR without delay, preventing harassment of family members of victims, the report seeks cases of mob violence to be tried by fast track courts on a day-to-day basis, and holding police officials who fail their duties in preventing the violence accountable.
Seeking victims of hate crimes compensation, the report says, for every instance of vandalism of properties, especially of prayer halls, claims commissioner should be appointed to assess the damage to public/private property, injury to persons, and award compensation by affixing liability on the perpetrators of the crimes and the organizers of the riots, as per the directions of the Supreme Court (Destruction of Public & Private Properties v State of AP and Ors [AIR 2009 SC 2266]).
At the same time, it wants a senior police officer, not below the rank of superintendent of police, as nodal officer in each district, assisted by a DSP rank officer, to take measures to prevent incidents of mob violence and lynching, constitute a special task force so as to procure intelligence reports about the people who are likely to commit such crimes, and hold regular meetings with the local intelligence units to identify the existence of the tendencies of vigilantism, mob violence or lynching.
“Wherever it is found that a police officer or an officer of the district administration has failed to comply with the aforesaid directions in order to prevent and/or investigate and/or facilitate expeditious trial of any crime of mob violence and lynching”, the report states, this should be “considered as an act of deliberate negligence and/or misconduct for which appropriate action must be taken.”

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