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John Dayal is a journalist, documentary filmmaker, researcher and social activist. He is a Member of the National Integration Council of the Government of India, the National Monitoring Committee for Minority education, and has chaired major colleges in Delhi. He is a former Treasurer of the Editors Guild of India, National president of the All India Catholic Union, founder general secretary of the All India Christian Council, and is Spokesman of the United Christian Forum. He speaks to Victor Edwin SJ for Jivan]

John, you are being threatened on line. Who are these people and what is the reason?

       John:  I have filed a complaint with the Delhi police on this issue and the matter is under investigation by experts in cyber crime. But by the nature of the threats, it is clear that they come from people who identify themselves with the ideology of the Sangh Parivar. They may, or may not, be formal members of any of the connected organizations, but their thought process is clear.


 Is democratic and secular space shrinking in India?

     John: Democratic space is shrinking, of that there is no doubt. And dissent is being silenced, crowded out, so to say. Of course, this also liquidates any talk or reforms within religions in general, and the majority faith in particular, as we have seen in the murder of rationalists in some states in recent months. Human rights defenders, social activists, rationalists, writers, and many of them are university teachers, and quite few are young, middle aged and senior journalists, get abused, trolled, beaten by the police during protests. Some have been forced into silence. A few have announced their “creative death”. Of late, death, in Maharashtra and Karnataka, has been real, and violent.

      We are not here talking of not for profit groups, whose foreign funding is throttled, or stopped. Or such icons as Teesta Setalvad whose historic work to get justice for the victims and survivors of the 2002 violence against Muslims in Gujarat, has seen her being hounded and persecuted as if for some medieval crime of lese majeste. We are minor mortals, persisting, albeit without pause, seeking that the state not encroach on citizenship rights of anyone, Tribals and Dalits, the poor and, in my case, specially of those of these who also have an additional identity of being Sikhs, Muslims or Christians.

  Tell us something about Religious census. Tell us how danger this is?

       John: Census, or demography, ought to be a subject of development economists, planners, but it has, since perhaps the Emergency of 1975, become a weapon mainly for the politicians. The Bharatiya Janata Party, and its theoreticians and ideologues in the RSS are masters at the art, as a cursory look at the Hindi Panchjanya and English-language Organiser, the official organs will show.

     Muslims are the main targets, but it is all too well known to be discussed here, other than in passing. Their population has increased, but the rate of growth is slowing down. The community needs to introspect, I suppose, on issues of its own development.

      The RSS has made huge political capital, and vast sums of money from devout Hindus among the NRI diaspora, claiming they will be swamped and overwhelmed by “alien Abrahamic religions” Christianity and Islam. Venomous slogans have been coined against both Muslims and Christians. While Muslims are presented as Pro Pakistan and terrorists, Indians are said to be secessionists and devouring Indian cultural values. As part of this, various political and Sangh leaders have been calling for disenfranchisement of Christians, curbs in Muslims and exhorting Hindu women to have anything from four to ten children in this Demographic Great War.

      In fact, the population of Sikhs and Buddhists is proportionately decreasing. Buddhists specially are one of the major religions in India for 2,500 years and their current figures are civilizational concern.

     So where are the "cryptic Christians" of Sangh folklore, who list themselves as Hindus or as people of no religions for various social reasons?  It is possibly true that some Christians may not tell the census enumerator their religion, opting for “no-religion’ or anything else they wish. Including Hinduism. One of the causes is the criminal ban on employment, electoral and education reservations for Christian and Muslims converts from former untouchable castes, which call themselves Dalits, a term not accepted in law and the Election Commission. Dalit Sikhs and Buddhists, also egalitarian religions, face no such ban. This matter is now in the Supreme Court. It is effectively a strong nation-wide anti conversion law operating on the Dalits.  But all this talk of crypto Christians is also political diatribe.  Enumerators also routinely write Hindu for any person who names a tribal religion, or even says he is an atheist.  This explains the small numbers that turn up for “Other” religions despite the very large numbers of Tribal people in Central India who are of pre Aryan and pre Hindu civilization

We read about public institutions like Indian Council for historical Research and many other institutions are now headed by people who are associated with the Hindu Right Wing organization RSS. Tell us the dangers lurking in these moves?

      John: The entire edifice of knowledge which the government controls directly or indirectly has been overhauled in the 15 months the Modi government has been in power. We have seen most apex research organizations now headed by academics and others who are singularly committed to the religious and political ideology of the Sangh Parivar and the ruling party.  How ridiculous this gets is seen in the attempt to foist a poorly rated television and film actor as chair of the prestigious  Film and Television Institute.

     The danger is  the perversion of pedagogy as well as the intellectual content and discourse, with  a deliberate effort to capture the mind of the very young. Once indoctrinated, they become foot soldiers in this aggressive exercise to change the very character of the republic of India and its democratic and cultural plurality. I see parallels with the manner in which the young of Germany were sought to be indoctrinated  in the 1920s.

     This is also seen in the politicization of the civilian police forces controlled by the federal government as well as in the states, specially those controlled by the BJP. Retired chiefs have warned that the armed forces cannot remain untouched by the discourse that targets specially Muslims and Christians, and which tends to overwhelm the tribal and other indigenous groups which have a cultural heritage  uniquely their own.

Is riots are designed to gather electoral gains?

     John : There is all too much evidence of the last thirty years to show that riots targeting Muslims have been engineered to polarize the electorate. It does not always bear fruit for the BJP, but statistically, it would seem that polarization of the electorate eventually helps majoritarian parties which also can mobilize vast  grassroots workers and campaign staff fed on the heady mix of religious nationalism, and dreams of national and international supremacy.

 Muslims, Sikhs and Buddhist too are two minorities in India, how do they observe these moves by the federal government?

    John: Muslims are , in fact, with Christians and communists seen as the three main enemies of the Hindu Rashtra, or Hindu Nation, dream of the RSS and the BJP. Most of the  violence and state impunity targets Muslims. Muslim your outnumber anyone else among those detained on suspicion of crime, and on suspicion of being terrorists.  The RSS is suspect in most of the violence against Muslims over the decades.

 Sikhs had identified themselves with Hindus for a very long time, but the Khalistan agitation of the late 1970s, the  Indira Gandhi government using the army to clear the Golden temple of Sikh militants, the assassination of Mrs. Gandhi in October  1984 by her Sikh bodyguards and the massacre of a possible 5,000 Sikh men and boys  -- 3,500 in the national capital alone –  has forever  created a divide between Hindus and Sikhs.

 Does Catholic Church adequately aware of the problems? What is the Church's response?

     John: The church in general still does not see the danger of religious nationalism, focused as it is either on institutions or on what  it[specially the evangelical and Pentecostal groups] see as the Great commission of evangelizing India. The Christian community also does not make common cause with other minorities who may be targeted from time to time. Denomination differences and distinctions divide the Christian community. The catholic community divides itself on the basis of Rites.

     All these divisions make sure that even when  Christians are attacked or isolated as a community, the response is fragmented, meager, and ineffective. Groups are known to “buy” their peace with the government, or even with the RSS and the BJP  without bothering about the overall cost to the community.

What is the role of interfaith connections in facing the challenges?

     John : Though Christianity has been in India  2000 years, and at least 200 years in most parts of north and east India, there is no concept of formal interfaith dialogue. Part of the blame for this is in the absence of a dialogue on the tradition of India where caste differences make it impossible for groups to mix. It was the promulgation of the Constitution of India that banished  the system of untouchability, but caste has not been abolished.

     There is a general dialogue of life, of co-existence in water right compartments. But hardly any intermingling. And very few cases of inter-marriage, even among the educated in cities, or even living in the west. Formal inter faith dialogue remains mere tokenism.

   There is therefore little presence of church in civil society initiatives, or in processes of peace making. Mine may be a minority opinion, but this is what I have observed over 45 yeas as a journalist and activist.

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