For the Christian minority in Karnataka, this election is going to be one of the most decisive in the history of the state. "Dividing people on the basis of caste and religion and spreading of hate has reached to the worst level- a scenario that the State has never witnessed in the past," John Richard Lobo, the former Congress MLA of Mangalore South, said to Outlook. He claims that Congress will come back to power as there is a strong anti-incumbency wave in the State.
In a recent press statement, Dr Peter Machado, the Arch Bishop of Bangalore, said, "We call upon the voters of our State to elect only such candidates, who uphold and abide by Constitutional values, promote communal harmony, and treat everyone equally irrespective of caste, creed and religion. Let us send a strong message through these elections that the people of the State will not accept communal agendas like Hijab, Halal, Azaan, Anti-Conversion etc."
Machado believes that this election is going to be very crucial, not only for the people of Karnataka but for the entire country. He categorically stated that the Christian community is making all efforts to ensure that each and every vote would be polled. "There is an organised and collective attempt to ensure that every vote is polled. We have found that 9000 voters were dropped off the list in the Shivaji Nagar constituency in Bangalore. We raised this issue with the election officer and steps were taken to correct it. We don’t know how many voters have been dropped off in other constituencies. Removing people from the list does not look nice," he told Outlook.
He further added, “Often, people talk big, but when it comes to voting, there was a trend that many people would not turn up. This time, we have been making deliberate efforts to bring a change to this practice and to ensure as many votes as possible be polled in favour of secular parties,”
However, he is not very confident whether this would change the scenario.
“We vote for parties or candidates who have secular credentials, but soon after the election we see that people changing sides, so we don’t know what would happen this time," he remarked.
Hate speech has become the new normal in the State according to the leaders of the community. The latest is the one allegedly made by Munirathna, the Horti Culture Minister of the State. According to a complaint lodged at RR Nagar Police in Bangalore, in an interview given to a Kannada Television Channel, the minister made derogatory statements against the Christian community. In the interview, he allegedly said that Christians continue to convert people. He urged people to kick out those who come for conversion. The MLA was booked under the People’s Representation Act and under the relevant sections of the Indian Penal Code for promoting enmity between communities.
A week ago, a group of Christian priests filed a complaint to the Superintendent of Police of Dakshina Kannada District against Prasad Bhandary- the leader of Virat Hindu Samiti, a fringe group based in coastal Karnataka, for allegedly conducting hate speech at Puttur in Mangalore in a public programme. According to the complainants, Bhandary said that the land on which the Christians run their institutions was provided by the British and the Hindus ended up with no land. In a public programme run by Hindu Jagaran Vedike, he allegedly asked where the Hindus would go if the Christians would run them out of the country.
According to the United Christian Forum, violence against Christians is on the rise in the State. As per the data collected by the Forum, 16 incidents of violence were reported against the members of the Christian community and their places of worship in 2020. This number was shot up to 62 in 2021. According to United Christian Forum, Karnataka ranks third in the country among the states having the highest number of crimes committed against the members of the Christian community. The violence includes disrupting prayers, attacking pastors and their families as well as vandalising churches, according to the Forum. Targeting community members during Christmas celebrations has also been reported in recent years. However, there was a decline in the number of incidents of violence against the Christian minority in 2022. UCF recorded 39 incidents of violence in the previous year.
"For the first time in my knowledge, the Christian community has come out in a big way to participate in the election. The Arch Bishop of Bangalore has taken a special interest in ensuring that all Christians belonging to all denominations would come to the polling booth. This would be reflected in the results,” said Cynthia Stephen, a social activist and writer. According to Stephen, the community is disappointed by the very low number of Christian candidates.
"I think the community would stand together irrespective of such factors because the single point agenda is to push the BJP out of power," she said.
The Christian leaders believe that the anti-conversion law (Karnataka Protection of Right to Freedom of Religion Act) passed in 2022 has only added fuel to the fire and the community was deeply hurt by this enactment. “Forced conversion is only a myth. In the disguise for preventing forced conversion, this law is actually infringing the fundamental rights of the people. It violates the right to privacy and the right to personal liberty. A person who wants to convert has to submit a lot of personal details to the Government which is a violation of his privacy. It also curtails the freedom of a woman to marry a person of their choice irrespective of religion,” Machado told Outlook. Machado is one of the people who filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court challenging the anti-conversion law of Karnataka.
The Christian community constitutes only less than two per cent of the total population of the State. Though the number is small, the community has the strength to create a swing in a few constituencies, according to political analysts. The community leaders hope that the organised effort to bring every Christian voter into the booth would apparently create a tangible result.