A Matter of Faith

How a Supreme Court judgment is enabling attacks on Christians

A man sets a flag atop a church in Orissa’s Phulbani district after Hindutva mobs attacked Christian churches in August 2008. AP Photo

Amid protests on 23 December 2021, the Karnataka Protection of Right to Freedom of Religion Bill got a nod from the state’s legislative assembly. Months before the bill was debated, the regional media had begun building a narrative of “forced mass conversions” by Christians, without making a distinction between conversion as a matter of choice and conversions that may be coerced. It portrayed Hindus as victims and demonised even the peaceful gathering of Christians.

On 9 March, the Kannada news channel Dighvijay 24X7 aired an episode titled “Conversion is scarier than Terrorism! Do you know how much money is made when a Hindu converts to Christianity?” The programme was geared towards stoking communal animosity. The anchor, Mamatha Hegde, made references to a Supreme Court decision on the right to propagate—also known as the Stanislaus judgment—to encourage aggressive action against Christians. The 1977 judgment had made a distinction between the right to propagate one’s religion and the right to convert to a different faith.

“Many are not aware of what they must do if a Christian priest approaches them,” Hegde said. “Please know that you must all call the police and give a complaint. Tell the police that they are trying to convert. If ten people get punished, then the eleventh person will not come. If we do not show courage, if we do not protect our religion, then none of this will stop. In 1976, even the Supreme Court said that right to propagate does not mean the right to convert.”

The anchor effectively set up the bogeyman of forced conversions—the kind of alarmist rhetoric we are beginning to now see more regularly—to vilify Christians. That month, there were six incidents falsely accusing Christians of conversion. On the day the show was aired, a Hindu mob barged into a private hall in Karnataka, harassed and intimidated people who had peacefully gathered to pray and accused them of carrying out forced mass conversions. Some of these incidents were recorded on mobile phones and telecast on Dighvijay and similar online portals.

J Robin Christopher is an advocate based in Bengaluru. He does research on issues relating to freedom of religion in India.
Manavi Atri is a human-rights lawyer working on media accountability and Hindutva violence in Karnataka. She is a member of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties and the Campaign Against Hate Speech, and has co-authored reports about communal policing, attacks against religious minorities and hate speech.