In India, a Battle to Keep Country From Becoming Confessional State

ACN Talks With Jesuit Father Cedric Prakash, Founder of Prashant, Ahmedabad-Based Jesuit Center for Human Rights,

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Millions of demonstrators all over India have been protesting the country’s controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which essentially fast-tracks citizenship for non-Muslim refugees. Critics charge that the CAA sets a dangerous precedent for the country in using religion as a criterion for citizenship.

The Indian government also plans to roll out two other citizenship measures—the National Population Register and the National Register of Citizenship—that could negatively affect India’s Christian community. Because most Indian Christians don’t have the required birth certificate to prove their citizenship, they might feel pressured to identify themselves as Hindus.

Jesuit Father Cedric Prakash is the founder of Prashant, the Ahmedabad-based Jesuit Center for Human Rights, Justice and Peace. He is part of a national campaign of citizens, “We the People of India,” which is demanding that the CAA, the National Register of Citizenship (NRC) and the National Population Register (NPR) be withdrawn immediately and unconditionally. Father Prakash spoke with Aid to the Church in Need:

“The CAA, in assuring citizenship for all undocumented persons, except for Muslims risks tearing the country apart, reopening the wounds of partition (between India and Pakistan), and ultimately destroying the secular and democratic tenets of the Constitution. Furthermore, the Act is blatantly discriminatory, divisive and draconian. It is also clearly unconstitutional and goes against the grain and spirit of India’s secular, democratic framework.

“The cry of the people is for a more just, humane and egalitarian society in which their dignity and rights are respected. As a human being, a Christian and a Jesuit, I have no option but to listen and respond to these cries, above all, by trying to accompany those who suffer in whatever way I can. My driving force is the person and message of Jesus himself.

“The citizenship laws are particularly troublesome for Christians since the majority of Indian citizens do not have a government-issued official birth certificate. Previously, identity documents such as a driving license, passport or certificate from secondary school were accepted as proof of birth.  And for Christians, particularly Catholics, a Baptism certificate sufficed.  This is no longer the case. In order to prove that you are a citizen of India today, you have to produce a birth certificate from an official Government agency.

“A considerable number of India’s Christians are from the lower castes and from indigenous peoples, most of whom had come from remote and backward areas of the country.  For them, obtaining the mandatory birth certificate is impossible.”

“If they say that they are Hindus, [their lack of paperwork] may be overlooked; however, if they insist on saying that they are Christians and are unable to produce the required documentation, they risk being rendered stateless; they could be sent to detention camps and even deported.  But God knows where? There are going to be very serious implications for the future of the Christians.”

“These are extremely bad times for Christians in India. We have had consistent attacks on pastors, priests, and lay Christians.  Church property is targeted. Intimidation, harassment and denigration of Christians by Hindu nationalists which conform to the ‘Hindutva’ ideology continue with frightening regularity.

“Hindutva has nothing to do with mainstream Hinduism, which is by and large rather tolerant. There is a very small percentage of Indians who subscribe to the Hindutva ideology, but today they control the reins of power in the central government and in some states in India. Hindutva adherents believe in the fascist dictum of one nation, one religion, and one language. All the rest are meant to be subservient and minorities—particularly Christians and Muslims—who are treated as second class citizens.”

Christians in India number approx. 30-35 million, some 70 percent of whom are Catholic. Christians comprise an est. 2.3 percent of the Indian population.

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