By Vishal Arora
New Delhi : The recent publicized attacks on Christian priests in Rajasthan and Maharashtra indicate a breakdown of the rule of law which should worry all the people of India, says Michael P. Pinto, vice chairman of the National Commission for Minorities (NCM).
Referring to the assaults on Pastor Walter Masih in Rajasthan's capital Jaipur on April 19 and later on two other priests, Ramesh Gopargode and Ajit Belavi, on May 7 in Maharashtra's Kolhapur district – that were shown on private TV channels – Pinto said there seems to be no fear of law in the perpetrators.
"This should worry all the citizens of India, not just Christians, because it is the breakdown of the rule of law. It means if you have sufficient clout, you can do anything, and no one can stop you," Pinto told IANS in an interview.
He blamed "fringe groups" for trying to gain political mileage by inciting communal passions, and said the people of India have always wanted to live in peace with each other.
The Rajasthan and Maharashtra attacks were allegedly led by members of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad.
Pinto also came down on the anti-conversion laws. "If they have been in existence for so long and still not even a single conviction has come up, then it indicates that you don't really need them," he said.
Excerpts from the interview:
Q. Christian groups claim that violence on the Christian minority community has escalated in the recent past. Do you agree?
A. Communal violence is certainly gaining a greater amount of strength. What worries me much more is that there have been more widespread publicized incidents. If somebody is gong to attack someone and calls a TV channel to cover it, I think that person has no fear of law. This should worry all the citizens of India, not just Christians, because it is the breakdown of the rule of law. It means that if you have sufficient clout, you can do anything, and no one can stop you. It seems the perpetrators are trying to tell that these are the things we can do to you, be careful.
I recently met the deputy chief minister and the home minister of Maharashtra and discussed the matter with them. They assured me that all those responsible had been arrested, investigation was on and a chargesheet would be framed as soon as possible.
People should be told, in no uncertain terms, that they cannot take the law into their own hands. This is very important not only from the minority point of view, but also from the broader point of view of society.
Q. Is it a clash between the Christian and Hindu communities?
A. I don't think there is any animosity between religious communities in India. It has been proved time and again that by and large the people of India want to live in peace with each other. Most Indians are extremely proud of the fact that theirs is a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, pluralistic society.
Q. Then, why are the religious minorities, mainly Muslims and Christians, attacked?
A. It is fairly clear that perpetrators are from fringe groups that are trying to gain political mileage by inciting communal passions. It is always necessary to stir the communal cauldron to keep the fire burning. There is also a cynical attitude at times that causes some people to want these things to carry on. This is something all the people should fight against.
Q. What is your view on the anti-conversion laws, which have been in force for close to 40 years without a single conviction?
A. If they have been in existence for so long and still not even a single conviction has come up, it indicates that you don't really need them.
The law says you should not have conversions by fraud, force or allurement. I don't think anyone can object to that, but the Indian Penal Code has provisions to punish anyone who is guilty of force or fraud. So, why do you need another Act?
As regards allurement, I find it very difficult to understand what it is. If a pretty girl advertises a brand of soap and tells me to buy it, that's allurement. So, should advertisements by young women be banned because that's allurement? Or should we ban schemes like buy-one-get-one-free, because that's allurement too?
True conversion is a change of mind, a change of heart and a change of belief. It's not a numbers question.
Q. In your opinion, what is the real intent behind these laws?
A. I think it possibly helps some parties to send the message that they have this agenda before them and they do not want conversions to happen.
Q. The union cabinet has decided to give more powers to the NCM to probe complaints. How do you think this will help the Commission to fulfill its mandate?
A. It's a very important step forward. As of now, the NCM has no powers to take action. At the most, they can look into something and make recommendations which we have done on several occasions. Without the powers to investigate it becomes more or less a sterile action; if people are good they will take action, but if they don't, we have no any sanction against them.
(Vishal Arora can be contacted at [email protected])