On 1 March 2023, a group of about 30 unidentified men entered the World Book Fair at Delhi’s Pragati Maidan and started sloganeering to the sounds of “Jai Shri Ram” and “Bharat Mata Ki Jai” in front of a religious bookstall. They vandalised the stall, allegedly tore down religious texts and shouted “Free Bible band karo (stop giving free Bible),” as bystanders, scared, watched it unfold. Videos of this incident were all over social media.
The stall belonged to Gideon International, a Christian non-profit organisation, that has been setting up stalls at the fair for at least 10 years. The protesting men were objecting to the free distribution of Bible, accusing the stall keepers of attempting to convert people. The security on ground tried to diffuse the tension but protesters did not budge; instead, they sat down and started chanting “Jai Ram, Shri Ram, Jai Jai Ram”, videos showed. The police eventually intervened but denied that any books were destroyed.
Gideon International wasn’t the only book stall selling religious books. They were also not the only ones distributing free religious texts. At the very site of the protest, there were others selling the Gita and Quran, and distributing religious texts free of cost.
“Like any other national and international agencies, the Christian bookstall was put up as per the norms and conditions of the organisers and paying a hefty amount. They have been putting up their stall for the past 10 years. Under the freedom of expression, every person has a right to speak for their religion, but no one has the right to stop others. For instance, I collected a copy from the Gita press and a Quran from the nearby stall, that's my taste to know more about them. Does that mean I have been converted? Unless you read and interact, how will you become knowledgeable and know the truth,” says Manoj Varghese, a communications specialist by profession, who has been vocal about Christians’ rights.
Article 25 of the Constitution of India provides the freedom to freely profess, practice, and propagate any religion. The constitutional right does not allow forced conversions and there are enough laws to punish those propagating such violations through allurement, force or on the pretext of marriage. Yet, in the years since the Narendra Modi government came to power in 2014, there has been an urgency for legislations to be passed in state assemblies under the garb of ‘freedom of religion’ that in reality are directed to deter any effort to convert people to other religion.
On 19 February, thousands of Christians gathered at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar for the first time in nearly two decades to stage a protest against the recent attacks on churches, violence and arrests against Christians. “Our people are being beaten up and arrested. The community members are living in a constant state of panic,” a man called Steven from Uttar Pradesh had said at the protest.
The protesters also submitted a memorandum to President Droupadi Murmu, seeking protection against the rampant killings of and attacks against Christians.
“The intellectuals at the Book Fair had intervened and diffused the aggression. But in the rural areas and interiors [of India], Christians are living in a scary atmosphere,” Varghese says.
The increasing attacks on churches and Christians have led to a new communal flashpoint in India. Especially in the wake of the anti-conversion law (or Freedom of Religion Act as it is known in parts of the country), which states like Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Uttarakhand, Karnataka, Jharkhand and others have already implemented, the minority religions are living in a state of disquietude, a fear of being treated like terrorists.
These states have also reported some of the highest number of atrocities against the Christian community in recent years, with Uttar Pradesh topping the list. According to a report by the United Christian Forum (UCF), an inter-denominational Christian organisation, that keeps a check on the atrocities against Christians, there were 598 reported incidents of violence against Christians across 21 states in India last year. Uttar Pradesh recorded 183 of these incidents.
Another organisation called the Federation of Indian American Christian Organizations of North America (FIACONA) released a report detailing 1,198 cases of “verified violence against Christians” in the country in 2022.
“Data shows that violence against Christians in India is planned and orchestrated by Hindutva nationalist political parties as a part of a larger design to create a Hindus-only state, to the exclusion of the people of Abrahamic faiths,” the report highlights.
The Hindu right-wing, Varghese says, considers Christians to be a “soft corner”. “[They] feel they can be in the limelight with political support.”
The protesters at Delhi Book Fair were not identified by any Hindutva group and are believed to be fringe elements. Hindu right-wing organisation Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) also denied its involvement in the protest while, however, accusing Christian groups and missionaries of "trapping the Hindus".
“Distributing free books or not isn't the matter. It is basically a question of mentality. It is the way they were distributing, pursuing or cheating people, denigrating other religions that's what got the people agitated," VHP spokesperson Vinod Bansal had told the media.
Speaking on the incident, Varghese says, “India is a secular country, and that's the reason why the world is looking upon it and respects its cultural values. Any such communal attacks will dilute the image of our country.”
When India was formulating its constitution, secular nationalism was seen as the only way forward to tackle India's tricky terrain of religious diversity. The idea of a ‘Hindu Rashtra’ was rejected in the very first election. But over the years, religion has been wrested, cynically jockeyed by political parties for electoral gains. With 2024 general elections closing in, communalism is once again at the forefront of national debate. As the Modi government, with its staunch Hindutva backing, strengthens itself to the lengths and breadths of the country and aims for a third-term victory, the question remains, are all religions still safe?
Drawing strength from John 8:32 in the Bible, Varghese says, “We all are in search of truth, and the truth will make us free.”