ISSN 2330-717X

Canonization Of Hindu Convert In Context Of Ban On Conversion In India – OpEd

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On May 15, Devasahayam will be the first Indian lay person and a first generation Hindu convert to be Canonized  

Sunday May 15 will be a historic day for the Catholics of India. On this day, Pope Francis will Canonize Blessed Lazarus Devasahayam, an 18 th. Century South Indian martyr. Devasahayam is unique for three reasons: Firstly, he was a first-generation convert from Hinduism; Secondly, he was from a high caste – a Nair from Kerala; and Thirdly, he had suffered torture at the hands of the Hindu majority including the king and was shot dead when he refused to abandon Christ and return to Hinduism.

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But the celebration of Devasahayam’s Canonization will take place at a time in India when there is a rash of anti-conversion laws in a number of States. According to the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), approximately one-third of India’s 28 states limit or prohibit religious conversion. “Since 2018 (and continuing in 2021), multiple states have introduced and enacted laws or revised existing anti-conversion laws to target and/or criminalize interfaith marriages.”

“Public notice requirements for interfaith marriages have at times facilitated violent reprisals against couples.  National, state, and local governments demonized and attacked the conversion of Hindus to Christianity or Islam. In October 2021, Karnataka’s government ordered a survey of churches and priests in the state and authorized police to conduct a door-to-door inspection to find Hindus who have converted to Christianity,” the USCIRF said.

Going further, the report said: “In June 2021, Yogi Adityanath, chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, warned that he would invoke the National Security Act, which allows for the detention of anyone acting in any manner that threatens the security of state, and that he would also deploy a team of over 500 officials to counter those who were carrying out conversion activities.”

Devasahayam’s Conversion and Martyrdom

Born on April 23, 1712 as Neelakanta Pillai in Nattalam in Kottar, Tamil Nadu, Neelakanta served in the palace of the Travancore King Marthanda Varma. During this time, Neelakanta became a close friend of a Dutch naval commander, Eustachius de Lannoy, who was also in the King’s service. When Neelakanta was depressed due to a fall in the family’s fortunes, de Lannoy, introduced him to the Catholic faith which gave him solace. And when he showed an inclination to convert, De Lennoy introduced him to Fr. R.Bouttari Italus, a Jesuit priest working in Thirunelveli in Tamil Nadu. Neelakanta was baptized in 1745 and named ‘Lazarus’ or ‘Devasahayam’ meaning “God is My Help” in Tamil and Malayalam.

As ‘Devasahayam’, the former Neelakanta Pillai, started spreading the Gospel with rare vigor. The Hindu community, including the king, got alarmed. He was defying Hindu norms and taboos, interacting with people of the lower castes and converting them. In 1749, just four years after his conversion, Devasahayam’s faith was put to the test when he was arrested on a charge of espionage. He was tied up and dragged through the streets, where people spat on him. But de was undeterred. However, on January 14, 1752, just seven years after he became a Catholic, Devasahayam was taken to the Aralvaimozhy forest in what is now Tamil Nadu and shot. Since then, he has been considered a martyr by the Catholics of Tamil Nadu and Kerala and his tomb at Saint Francis Xavier Cathedral in the Diocese of Kottar in Kanyakumari district in Tamil Nadu has attracted devotees. There had been sporadic efforts to get him Sainthood since 1756.

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Assault on Minorities

But the celebration of Devasahayam’s Canonization will be taking place at a particularly difficult time for Christians and other minorities in India. There is a rash of anti-conversion laws in the States. According to the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), approximately a third of India’s 28 states limit or prohibit religious conversion. Since 2018 (and continuing in 2021), multiple States have introduced and enacted laws or revised existing anti-conversion laws to target and/or criminalize interfaith marriages.

“Public notice requirements for interfaith marriages have at times facilitated violent reprisals against couples.  National, state, and local governments demonized and attacked the conversion of Hindus to Christianity or Islam. In October 2021, Karnataka’s government ordered a survey of churches and priests in the state and authorized police to conduct a door-to-door inspection to find Hindus who have converted to Christianity.”

“In June 2021, Yogi Adityanath, chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, warned that he would invoke the National Security Act, which allows for the detention of anyone acting in any manner that threatens the security of state, and that he would also deploy a team of over 500 officials to counter those who were carrying out conversion activities,” the USCIRF said.

The commission noted that the “Bharatiya Janata Party- led government, leaders at the national, state, and local levels, and increasingly emboldened Hindu-nationalist groups, have advocated, instituted, and enforced sectarian policies seeking to establish India as an overtly Hindu state, contrary to India’s secular foundation and at grave danger to India’s religious minorities.”

“The religiously discriminatory Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA)—a fast track to citizenship for non-Muslim migrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan who are residing in India—was passed in December 2019 and came into force in January 2020. In conjunction with a proposed National Register of Citizens (NRC) requiring all residents to provide documentation of citizenship, the CAA could subject Muslims, in particular, to “statelessness, deportation or prolonged detention.”

“In an ongoing state-level NRC effort in Assam, in 2019, approximately 1.9 million persons were omitted from Assam’s NRC list; approximately 700,000 Muslim residents of Assam are at risk of being stripped of citizenship,” the commission said.

Vigilante Attacks

It noted that “violent attacks have been perpetrated across the country under the guise of protecting cows in line with India’s constitution and laws in 20 states (and growing) criminalizing cow slaughter in various forms. Vigilante mobs, often organized over social media, have attacked religious minorities—including Muslims, Christians, and Dalits—under suspicion of eating beef, slaughtering cows, or transporting cattle for slaughter. Most such violent incidents are reported in States where cattle slaughter is banned. For example, in June 2021, three Muslim men were lynched on suspicion of cow smuggling in Tripura, and a vigilante mob beat two men they accused of smuggling cattle, resulting in one man’s death and hospitalization of the other in Madhya Pradesh.”

Country of Particular Concern

The USCIRF  recommended to the State Department the designation of India as a “country of particular concern,” or CPC, for engaging in and tolerating systematic,  ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom , as defined by the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA); It recommended imposition of targeted sanctions on individuals and entities responsible for severe violations of religious freedom by freezing those individuals’ or entities’ assets and/or barring their entry into the United States; Advancing human rights of all religious communities in India and promoting religious freedom, dignity, and interfaith dialogue through bilateral and multilateral forums and agreements, such as the Ministerial of the Quadrilateral (QUAD). The US Congress should raise religious freedom issues in the US-India bilateral relationship and highlight concerns through hearings, briefings, letters, and congressional delegations.

P. K. Balachandran

P. K. Balachandran is a senior Indian journalist working in Sri Lanka for local and international media and has been writing on South Asian issues for the past 21 years.

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