The incidents of religious persecution have increased in Karnataka ever since the BJP government came to power. All minority communities in the state, irrespective of their social status, have been subjected to subjugation, often mob attacks were the result of not bending their knees before the demands the right-wing groups, allegedly affiliated to the ruling political party, have put forth. The secular fabric of the state is in a state of jeopardy for the very reason of the daunting challenge, posed by the right-wing groups, which is always get loosened without any administrative restrictions. It is obvious that minority communities in the state, particularly the Christian community, are going through a state of fear and apprehension due to deteriorating secular values and in turn, they are being subjected to systematic targeting through a vicious and malicious hate campaign.
In the wake of a proposed Anti-Conversion Bill which is expected to be submitted in the state Assembly in the near future, Archbishop of Bangalore, Peter Machado shares with independent journalist K.P. Sasi the apprehensions of the Church and the adverse impact of the Bill when it becomes the law on the religious minority communities.
Q: Sir, to begin with, I would like to know something about your background, where you were born, where all you have studied? How did you become a priest? What motivated you to become a Priest and how you have become a Bishop? And now you are in Bangalore. Could you please share something about your own background?
Ans: You know, I came from a small town called Honnavar that is in the North Kanara district of Karnataka, a coastal area. And I finished my early studies there and later on I had this urge to become a priest. Perhaps it is an inspiration that comes in so many ways. Especially when you see good work being done by people, I told myself why not volunteer for such good works by being a priest. So, therefore I continued my studies in Belgaum and then I was sent for my seminary studies to Pune. At the age of 24-25, I have ordained a priest. I worked in the Karwar diocese for almost 25 years mostly in rural areas and small towns. I would say it was a long journey for me, for my life in the service of God. Fortunately, things were quite favourable to me, especially to say that the love and affection of people were quite overwhelming. When I was elected as a Bishop it was quite surprising for me that I was little more than the ordinary priest at that time. Now, I still consider it to be a choice of God in order to serve the people better. I was in the Belgaum diocese for 12 years as a Bishop. Then I was promoted here to Bangalore. I won't say that I would have liked to come here willingly. I knew that Bangalore was a little difficult place with a lot of challenges. But once again, with God's grace, I accepted it and I am here now.
Q: You have been at the forefront of the opposition against the Anti- Conversion Law in Karnataka. Could you please explain the basis of the opposition?
Ans: Yes. Basically, I feel that religion is a personal matter and religion is a social and community matter and religion is also a matter of the nation. India has a beautiful Constitution which is a secular constitution with elements of every religion and every ideology. This is one of the most beautiful things. So, therefore, the restriction of one particular group regarding the fundamental rights that are enshrined in the constitution that are assured to them is not good. Therefore, my problem with this new law that is being brought out called the Anti conversion law is that it is not necessary. The Constitution itself has its safeguards and there are almost 15 to 20 legal sections under which you can take action in case the freedom is misused. For example, we speak about force, fear and fraudulent activities and incentivized conversions. But for these, there are enough laws. I also say that this new law would be discriminatory to Christians, which is not a good thing. We are just 2% in the whole country. Please do not consider us as criminals. We have done nothing wrong by practising or even propagating our religion. I repeat once again. If there is force and fear which has been used you can prove it you can that action against them. But that does not need another law. Finally, I as the Christians are being discriminated against in many ways and we are a minority. Of course, more and more regulations to bring down the minority status are taking place and full freedom to certain small groups is being given to do what they want, to find out who is a Christian who is not a Christian and this spoils the harmony and peace of the community. The Christians are peace-loving people. Respect us and surely we will also give our best.
Q: This Anti conversion law was first implemented in 1967 when the bill was passed in Odisha. We find that many cases of persecutions of Christians started from that time. How do you view the persecutions of Christians after the anti-conversion law?
Ans: I would say that the downhill began from there. First, it was in 1967, it was asserted in a very soft way that the Adivasis were being converted and therefore they wanted this law. There was a big lull after that time and during the last 10-15 years, It is just sort of erupting, to say that all Christians are converting everybody. We can make out that it is going from bad to worse. This law that was first enacted in 1967 has been taken up by 7 or 8 other states. Karnataka is the first state in the south to do it and I think someday it might be a national bill also forbidding conversions entirely. I say that this is not a good trend. India is a positive country. India is a land of so many religions and traditions. People from all sorts of cultures from the world are welcome here. Therefore, to send a message to the people to say that we are very much scared of the Christians, we are very much scared of the other religions and the other groups and to say that some religions will have full freedom but the other religions will have limited freedom is not a good message. As you said, the Bill that was passed at that time is becoming very negative and restrictive to the freedom that we are given in our country.
Q: As you said, after Odisha, 8 other states have also passed this bill initially to what was called the Freedom of Religion Bill in Odisha surprisingly and then they called it Anti Conversion law later. After that, there was a kind of change in the persecution of Christians, how do you look at that?
Ans: Yes, there are two types of persecution. The first one is through doubt and suspicion and trying to make it look like we have made a big criminal offence by propagating our religion, perhaps certain conversions also this is the first one. The second one is the open persecution when certain groups take law into their own hands saying that theirs is the only religion that can survive in India and all the other religions are disturbances. They go and raid places, taking surveys, and making the lives of certain sections of people miserable through many ways. The worst of it happened in Kandhamal where the persecutions reached the highest level and people were not allowed to live there; their houses were burnt and so many people died. That was one extreme case and perhaps it has not gone to that extreme in other places. What we are trying to say is that when we give a small finger perhaps someday the hand also will be snatched and little by little there will be persecution also in a gentle sense. Apart from this, the Christians and especially the converted Christians are denied social and economic benefits that are available especially for the lower castes here. The moment you become a Christian, your freedom or perhaps the particular portion of advantage that was given to you is cut. It implies that they are saying that you have done something wrong. It is as good as discouraging you to accept any other religion. But the constitution allows you the freedom of changing your religion. So why punish the people who have changed their religion. They are making so many other rules and regulations like this.
Q: You have mentioned the rights under the Indian Constitution. Actually the Architect of the constitution, Ambedkar also converted by his own choice to Buddhism. He never got permission from any government body or the State. But the violations of the Constitution through the Bills are a serious concern. Could you please tell us your views on how the Anti-Conversion Law violates the Indian Constitution?
Ans: Article 25 clearly says freedom of conscience, freedom of religion and that any person can and have the right to believe any particular religion. He has the right to profess it, he has the right to practice it and he has the right to propagate it. These are the basic fundamental rights that are very clear and there is no need for an explanation for that. And as you have referred also to Mr Ambedkar, a great man who saw the future of the country through this Constitution and he himself converted from the Hindu religion to the Buddhist religion which means Conversion was a basic part of the constitution. The secular fabric of the Constitution means that everybody is equal. Article 14 speaks of equality. There is no distinction between Christians, Muslims and Hindus and all religions are equal and so, in that sense when there is such freedom given by the Constitution itself as articulated by Babasaheb Ambedkar, why are such regulations coming up? It is as good as saying that the Constitution has not explained much and therefore let us make another law to explain it much more to enforce it much more. If there are accidents on the road, it does not mean that you can say that from tomorrow onwards no one would be allowed to drive! And I have said that were every there that if there is an incident of force and fraudulent action, definitely action must be taken. But for that, you cannot pass a new law it will be very restricted and very harmful and disastrous for the Christians.
Q: But the counterargument from the other side is that this law is against forced conversion and they blame the Christians for that since this is also there in the Constitution and as you say, there is no need for new law needed. Then what makes them go ahead?
Ans: I feel it is very funny because you think it is so easy to force people to change their religion. You think it is very easy to convert people by giving certain gifts or incentives. Surely they will enjoy the gifts and come back to their original faith. There is nobody who can force people like that and the accusation made is that we take people from the lowest strata who are very poor, who are illiterate and take advantage of their innocence and then convert them. Do you think it is so easy?
On the other hand, you know that in politics today, the advantage is being taken of the same people who are illiterate are poor. If the same people are given the right to vote and you trust them to vote for a particular person like a politician today, don't you think that they can be trusted to choose a God or religion of their own choice with their full heart and full mind? Where is the force and where is the incentive? But I am open to it and if there are certain instances you have found, definitely action must be taken against them. But for that, you don't need another law which is so restrictive that the Christian tomorrow should go with a badge saying that `I am a Christian, so be careful. Are the Christians terrorists? Do the Christians store guns in their churches or drugs in their houses? As much as possible, we are for the nation, we are for the country and we are patriots. We have people among us who would like to give out their best. Look at our education system. Have we made the distinction between those who are from other communities and Christians? Or in our hospitals, do we segregate the patients on the basis of religion.? Do we say that people to people with diseases that you are from a particular religion, therefore, you would be given second class treatment and only Christians will be given first-class treatment? We never do that. If that is the case, why the society and the government should have suspicion on us that we are going to betray them? Is religion a matter of love or a matter of hatred? It is becoming a matter of hatred on us.
Q: The counterargument is also that through their school networks, medical institutions, hospitals and services, the Christians are converting forcefully and by the lure. That's also a counterargument.
Ans: I find it very funny. Last time when a question like this was asked in public, I challenged them and said in Bangalore alone we have about 1000 schools and institutions and among them, even if they're one such Christian conversion is taking place, I will take action, so strong action that I don't mind closing the institution for this aberration. You know, we have passed the corona season and they were so many were put into our hospitals. St. John Medical College at one time had 900 affected patients. Don't you think in those moments, when they were so threatened and we could have surely said that `you become a Christian we will give you better treatment?' It was so easy for us to do that. It is so cheap on the part of our part to do this in our schools, our institutions and our social centres in order to convert the people. And I can assure you that we will never do that. We have not done it.
Q: Many of the BJP leaders at the national level have also studied in Christian schools and they have been using hospitals built by the Christians.
Ans: Even today, during the admission time, y office is flooded with great politicians, great social workers and even those people who are obstructing or those who are against us come and say: `Please get us admission in this school or this college. Why they are coming? Have they no fear that they would be converted through force or lure? I think we have to cross over these limits and come to a little mature and cultured stand to say that Christians are here for the benefit of the country and we will work for the country.
Q: If the Christians are forcefully converting, then what is the change in the population ratio?
Ans: Once again, I was told it was 2.3 per cent and now it has come to 2.1 per cent here. The families are also becoming smaller. Earlier, we used to have bigger families. The Christians are also becoming less. And I would say that the Christians are going to the other religions also.
Q: During the Janata party regime soon after the Emergency, there was a move to introduce the Anti Conversion law. But that was rejected by the parliament at that time. How come today's legislature and parliaments are changing their behaviour patterns on this issue? What is the nature of transformation that is taking place..?
Ans: I would say that there is a certain party in governance now which is gaining importance and they have certain ideologies, which are at the same time leaning towards certain religious tendencies. Therefore, at the centre and at the state level, they are coming down on us in more and more places now. Do according to their ideology. there is no place for any other religion or culture except for that culture that they live in. That is what they profess. And so it is obvious that such laws are increasing. The persecution of other communities and religions is also increasing. There is certain irrational behaviour and it is not just the Government who does it or not just the police who does it. It is that a section of people who are allowed to do so, who take in law into their hands. This is a very sad and bad trend.
Q: Why is the bill coming up now and what is that threatening the Hindutva forces of Christianity and why the Christians are a threat?
A: I would say perhaps you know that as Christians, we are very good in education and we are good in health. Education transforms society. Education gives you recognition and also widens your intelligence and your worldview. Education comes with a lesson of one's own dignity and identity, especially for the poor and the low caste people. And those who did not have access to education are just coming up. And they are becoming conscious of their rights and their fundamental responsibilities. Perhaps, this is causing a little discomfort for others in the upper strata and this perhaps is being resented. And I would say that the Christians are responsible for this elevation of people in a positive way, which is not considered good for others. Perhaps, that may be a challenge to the other communities that the low caste and people from the lower strata are coming up. They are being educated. In many of our institutions, we give them free education. In many of the villages where they were no schools we have brought up the whole village itself and education transforms and this condition. It could be considered a certain negative point for us, which is perhaps going against us.
Q: But Christianity is not a religion of a linear structure since there are a lot of denominations and is this decision to oppose the Bill is from all denominations?
Ans: Yes, I would say that there are certain areas that are common in us. There are certain things that differ also. For example, we have the same Bible, we have the same Jesus that we believe in and we have the same cross of Jesus. There are many things that are so much common to us. But there are minor differences among us in the way we worship. The way we live, the rules and regulations of our community and customs, there may be differences. So, there are things common things that are not common also. But in this issue of what we call the Anti conversion bill, to defend ourselves from the attacks from others, we are all one. We have come together and said, let us not make difference to say that they have attacked only this group and they have not attacked that group. It would be too selfish on our part. We are all together in this challenge towards the Anti-Conversion bill.
Q: Anti Conversion law is not just affecting the Christians. It is also affecting the Muslims and it is affecting the other minorities also. For example in UP after the Anti-Conversion Law, there were not just the attacks on Christians have increased but also on Muslims. The big blame that the Muslims are converting is also there. So, they are also getting attacked and persecuted. And coming to Christianity, the majority of Christians are Dalits and Adivasis in India. The Dalits and Adivasis are also affected and they have said very clearly in this law that Dalits and Adivasis converted to Christianity will not get reservations. This is one way of luring Dalits from Christianity to Hinduism. But the point is that Christians react alone. Shouldn't it be a resistance of a much wider manner? The Christians, Muslims, Dalits, Adivasis and even women are affected. So what is your perception of that?
Ans: As you said, the Government itself says that this Anti Conversion Bill or Freedom of religion Bill is for all religions. But this rule pointed sort of poking the Christians more. And as you said, to deny the benefits of those belonging to SC/ST sections who convert, this looks like a carrot and a stick that the government is using. If you become a Christian we will drop you. So, therefore, even if he or she believes in Christianity, or even if it gives more dignity, there are these official subsidies or perhaps incentives to discourage one from changing religion. I think this is a bad way of conducting, what we say the conduct to punish them by denying their rights. I would say, we are fighting it and perhaps the next stage would be to say that the Christians who are converted should not be denied the rights and the government should be gracious enough to extend to all the benefits that they received before conversion.
Q: Along with the resistance against Anti-Conversion Bill, Karnataka Bishops Council also joined you and took a stand very clear and you have met the chief minister also. So what was the response of the chief minister when you met him?
Ans: To tell you honestly, we did not have much time to speak to him about the Anti Conversion Law. We had only just 10 to 15 minutes. Most of the time went in courtesies. But in the memorandum we gave to him we mentioned this. We appealed not to go for the Anti conversion law and also the destruction of our churches and places of worship. I referred to his recent government stand that allowed the temples that were built on the government land are not to be demolished. He has passed an order. I said, let it be extended to all the religions. We have not built on the government places but in private places and in our own places. In Bangalore for example, in 3 or 4 places some of the crosses that were there in some places of the Hillocks were demolished.
Q: So what is your final message to the citizens on this law which is going to come up.
Ans: I would say the citizens of this country are a very good lot. I have known that the majority of the Hindus the Muslims are very noble people. It is not that they have any intention to condemn us. They have seen our benefits. They have seen the sacrifices that our community has extended. Education, hospitals and clinics that give clear service. We may not have multi special hospitals. But we are doing our best. So, the majority of people are with us. I know that. But these are silent majority. However, there is a small segment of the population what we call fringe elements or the fundamentalists, who are doing these things and I do not want to compare this group with the rest of the country. I am very happy the country is beautiful and we have a beautiful Constitution and the Constitution has to retain the secular fabric. That is to be done. My advice to the general public is to be with us and trust us. You know that faith is important for us. Because of my faith, I am able to do good works. But if you restrict my faith, my good works may also be affected. Therefore, allow us to practice our faith and allow us to practice our religion. We did not ask you to be converted out of force. If you are not convinced surely you need not come to our religion and if the later time you feel you have done wrong choice you are free to go back. We see that you are reasonably reinstated in your own communities and with that kind of trust, we will also be encouraged to do more things. I have told the government, if there is anything in mind, if you have anything to do with the poor, to take care of the lepers, to take care of the HIV people when no one perhaps takes care, we will take care of them provided you help us and support us in this and for the general public we wish to assure you that we will continue providing more education to your children provided the government also gives us freedom and trusts sufficiently.
Q: Thank you very much, Bishop Rev., Peter Machado for the time you have spent. I hope your efforts will proceed in a good direction. I hope the country as well as the civil society also supports you.
Ans: Thank you also Mr Sasi to give us this opportunity through the media to send a message to others also. Surely we need your support we need your help and we need encouragement from the public also for us to do good things. And we pray for the government and people of Karnataka in a very special way. God bless you. Thank you.