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09/10/2021 Washington D.C. (International Christian Concern) – Jeff King sits down with Will Stark, ICC’s analyst for India. Since the BJP took control in 2014, the number of persecution incidents against Christians has skyrocketed. Anti-conversion laws are being weaponized by Hindu radicals and using them to justify attacks against minority Christians.

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Unfortunately, we’re seeing surges and persecution across the country.


Jeff King: Okay. Well, today I wanted to get people kind of up to speed on what’s going on in India. India is a long-term persecution story ever since Modi came in years ago. But there’s just this constant escalation. And we just seen a real uptick in persecution in certain areas, and so we’re going to be talking to our regional manager, Will Stark, for the area. And you won’t see his face, and you’re not going to get his name. That’s not his real name. But he needs to stay hidden because he goes in and out of the region. But if there’s anybody who knows what’s going on, it’s him. So let’s talk to him and find out what the heck is going on in India. Will, talk to me, talk to the people actually. There’s a surge in persecution. I know where it is. You know where it is. Let’s explain to people, where is it happening? And let’s just start there.

Will Stark: Yeah, certainly. Thank you, Jeff, for giving us some time to talk about India. It’s something that’s always been super close to my heart. But recently, I think since the end of June, we’ve seen this really significant surge in persecution in India’s Uttar Pradesh state. Uttar Pradesh is the largest, most populous state in the country. And since late June, we’ve documented at least 14 incidences of persecution, and that’s led to the arrest of at least 45 Christians in the country, or in that particular state.

Jeff King: I’m going to stop you right there, by the way. That’s confusing enough. We’re going to get into that. But I could have sworn you said there were this many incidents of attacks on Christians and then this many arrests of them. So we’ll break that down later, but just so people hear that.

Will Stark: Yeah, no, certainly. I mean multiple people are being arrested in these incidents. It’s not like one incident, one arrest. What we’re seeing in some situations is as many as 11 people participating in a prayer meeting, for example, in a home are being accused of forcefully converting someone and are being taken to the police station and held in the police station for multiple days at a time. So that’s the types of situations that we’re seeing right now in Uttar Pradesh.

Jeff King: Okay. And is it just Uttar Pradesh? Is it happening elsewhere?

Will Stark: Unfortunately, we’re seeing surges and persecution across the country. Two other states that, having just come to mind right away, are Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. All of these are in what I would call kind of, excuse me, the tribal belt or more traditional Hindu lands within India. I mean Uttar Pradesh, for example, is an extremely sensitive area because you have the Ganges River flow through it, and the Hindu nationalists that are operating within the country view this area in particular as a place that needs to be protected and minorities like Christians and Muslims need to be pushed out or persecuted.

Jeff King: Yeah, well they are dirty and nasty so that makes sense, right?

Will Stark: Yeah, absolutely.

Jeff King: Is this just our idea? Are we coming up with this? Do we have any data to back this up? I mean, you and I… look, our organization we do this all the time, but other people that don’t would be like, “Really? Hindus they’re peaceful, right?”, and most are, but what data do we have?

Will  Stark: I mean, the data that we have, I can especially point to, as you mentioned, the trend, the long-term trend in persecution in India since 2014, which is when Modi and the BJP came to power. Each year documented incidences… and, now, a documented incident, how many are actually happening versus how many are verified and documented, that could be a different discussion. But documented incidences as of 2014 was 147 incidences in that year. Now, let’s fast forward to 2020, a year that was hampered by the pandemic. There were multiple lockdowns in the country. You had something like 355 incidences, so we’re seeing persecution more than double in the country, across the country, in just the time that the BJP has been in power. And a lot of the reasons for that are one, kind of the Hindu nationalist narrative that is preached by a lot of these Hindutva or Hindu nationalists leaders and the impunity that’s enjoyed by the people actually perpetrating the incidences on the ground.

Jeff King: Yeah. And I know we’ve done large surveys too. I mean we probably need to do a refresher, but it’s pretty clear when we do surveys. What do you see in the surveys?

Will Stark: Yeah. I think one case study that we just did for this year was in Madhya Pradesh. So January 20, 21, Madhya Pradesh enacted an anti-conversion law in the state. Now, what that does is allows the state government to regulate all religious conversions. So in order for you to convert from one religion to another, you actually have to get government permission from the state to make that conversion. You have to actually give 60 days notice to a district administrator and the person who’s facilitating the conversion, so if it’s a pastor in a Christian case they have to give 60 day notice as well so an investigation can take place and the conversion can be deemed as not fraudulent or not forced. And if you violate any part of that particular law, what ends up happening is you could serve three to five years in prison and get a fine of 50,000 rupees, which is about 700 US dollars.

These laws also criminalized forced religious conversions and this is where we’re seeing probably the majority of these extra instances of persecution going on. So just kind of looking at the data of Madhya Pradesh, so they add this anti-conversion law, which in the time that I’ve worked over India you see these as trigger points for surges in persecution. In 2020 the total number of incidences of persecution in Madhya Pradesh alone was 25. That was the total number of incidences in the entire year.

Will Stark: Now, let’s say COVID had some sort of effect on the number of [crosstalk 00:06:09] cases in the state, let’s back up to 2019. 2019 you saw 15 instances of persecution in the entire year. So there’s a bit of an escalation going on. In the six months that we’ve documented instances following the enactment of the anti-conversion law in the state, we documented 48 incidences. So more than two years worth of persecution took place following the enactment of this particular law. And, in fact, that first month, January, when the law was enacted, we documented 25 incidences. So an entire year’s worth of persecution happened immediately on the backend of the enactment of the law. I would say the scariest thing about the number 48 there, even… it’s a big number for the number of cases happening in one state, is that it actually represents a very suppressed number. Madhya Pradesh was under a strict COVID-19 lockdown. You weren’t allowed out of your house from March 25 to [inaudible 00:07:11]. So really we only have three months of data really, so…

But in three months you’ve seen more than two years worth of persecution happening.

Jeff King: Okay, that’s telling. And, on top of that, we’ve done surveys, I think, as high as a thousand Christians. Just give us the… skim that and say what does that tell us? What do they say in these surveys? They’re afraid. They’re worried. Talk about that.

Will Stark: Yeah. In these surveys… So we did survey the Christians following the enactment of the anti-conversion law in Madhya Pradesh. Again, we use this particular state as a case study to show what’s going on there. One of the first questions we asked them was to rate their concern for their personal safety as a Christian in the state. 70.86% of Christians who responded to our survey said they were concerned. Now, we did it on a five-point scale, very concerned to not really concerned at all. The most highly selected response was very concerned at 63.24%. And that number grew when we asked them rate your concern for your personal safety while attending a worship service of any sort, whether that’s you’re going to church or you’re attending a prayer gathering at your house. The number went up to 78% of Christians are concerned for their personal safety if they attend a worship service in the state of Madhya Pradesh following the enactment of this law.

And when you take that response, and we asked a third question I think really is telling here… is we asked them to agree with this following statement, “Since the enactment of the Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, which is the official name of the anti-conversion law, radical Hindu nationalists have become more aggressive against Christians.” 70% of our respondents agreed with that statement. So not only are they more concerned for their physical safety, not only can we demonstrate that more incidences of persecution are happening, the people who are experiencing this persecution, they know exactly where it’s coming from and they know exactly why it’s happening to them. So that’s just some of the quick highlights of the survey work that we did. And just kind of giving an example or a case study for one of these surges in persecution that we’ve documented this year in 2021.

Jeff King: Yeah, and those numbers I would think would be even dramatically higher. Those numbers are telling, but they’d be dramatically higher if we redid these. We probably need to do another one because you’d see post anti-conversion laws there would be a huge jump in anxiety, I’m sure, because of the number of attacks we see and the nature of them where they’re so bold. I mean the radical Hindus go into churches, beat up people, break bones, et cetera. It’s not just intimidation. This is nasty stuff.

Will Stark: Yeah. I would say probably one of the more disturbing factors in all of these incidences that I’m seeing these days, just the boldness of it. I mean, frankly speaking, you’d imagine that these sorts of crimes would be done out of the spotlight or would be done out of the public eye. It’s not what we’re seeing in India. These folks who are doing it are proud of what they’re doing. They film themselves doing it, and they publish what they’ve done to social media. And what this does is two things. Number one, it essentially proves they’re persecution bonafides. Look at how I’m a protector of Hinduism and the Hindutva. Look at me persecute these minorities. But on top of that, it spreads terror and as a Christian existing in that state…. I’m on a lot of WhatsApp groups with Christians in a lot of different states and pastor groups. And these videos on social media are forwarded to everybody saying, “Hey, look, what’s happening. What can we do? How do we help?” And just the fear factor that comes from that. You don’t know, going to church, if you are going to be the next community that has a mob show up at your door, break in, beat the pastor, beat everybody, accuse you falsely of some sort of crime, and then you end up in jail for 10 or 11 days and have to deal with police harassment.

Jeff King: Yeah. Wow. Gosh, it’s just amazing. And there’s the… well, we kind of got into it. Let’s talk about some specific incidents. I mean, let’s get away… We’ve kind of talked broad. Tell me about some specific incidents.

Will Stark: So in Uttar Pradesh, kind of going back to the beginning of our discussion here, we’ve seen at least 14 incidences in the last month and 45 people get arrested. So I’ll just kind of dive into one of those incidents. So on July 18 a group of Christians were gathered together having a worship service in their home. It was being led by a man named [inaudible 00:12:04]. Twenty-five Hindu radicals show up at his home, stormed the prayer meeting, beat them, and accused the Christians of quote, “illegally luring Hindus to converting to Christianity.” This is something that is a false narrative that’s used to justify these incidences of violence. So here’s some quotes from [inaudible 00:12:24] himself when we interviewed him after the incident took place, quote, “They raged against me. It was as if they wanted to kill me on the spot.” I mean, that’s pretty significant they wanted to kill him right there. So this isn’t just like, “Hey, you jerk. Hey, this, this, this”…

Jeff King: These guys are rabid, yeah.

Will Stark: I want to kill you. “However, the police arrived and escorted us to the police station.”

Jeff King: This sounds like a thank goodness moment to me.

Will Stark: Right? You know, you’re like, “Oh, the cavalry’s here. Thank God. Now we can go to the police station. We’re safe now.” Unfortunately, in these types of incidences, the police are on the side of the radicals, and I think the next quotes really point to that specifically. So [inaudible 00:13:06] continues, “The police officer and officials from the district administration…”, so this isn’t just the officers, it’s the government officials, “…demonized us, saying that we’ve deserted India’s traditional religion of Hinduism and have accepted a foreign religion. They told us that we should deny our Christian faith and go back to Hinduism.” So even within the political structures and the government structures, which in theory, in India, are meant to protect your fundamental religious freedom right, which India’s constitution does guarantee to its citizens, that’s not happening there either. So one, you’re beat, you’re attacked, your church is vandalized. Police show up. You’re accused falsely of a crime, taken to the police station, and essentially held in jail and held for a crime that you didn’t even commit.

I think another interesting incident that we can talk about is a man named [inaudible 00:14:02]. And this is even a smaller incident in a way, but really cuts to what I would say is the fundamental religious freedom right, you being able to be within your own home and practice the faith of your choice. I think most people across the world can agree that is the basic fundamental freedom right. He is in his own home. He has three other Christians with him and they get arrested by police. Police show up. Someone falsely accused them of committing false conversions at this particular prayer gathering. They’re arrested by the police. They’re sent to jail and they spent 11 days in jail. And based on our interview with him after he was released from prison, he had no idea why he was [inaudible 00:14:48]. Police show up. They say, “You’re accused of a crime.” They arrest them. They bring them to jail. They hold them. And he’s like, “What’s going on here?”

So across India, whether it be Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, or even other states like Chhattisgarh, you see these incidences of persecution rising or surging, and a lot of it is for the same reason. Now, it doesn’t necessarily take the same vehicle. In Madhya Pradesh’s case, it’s the enactment of an anti-conversion law. That’s what triggered the events. In Uttar Pradesh’s case it was the arrest of two Muslim men under the state’s anti-conversion law and a lot of the propaganda that happened around that arrest that triggered the persecution. But in Chhattisgarh, what likely is going to trigger a new surge of persecution there is simply a police action that, like these other two incidences in MP and UP, casts suspicion of the Christian community, basically the official government signaling to local Hindu radicals that now is the time to go and persecute these individuals.

Jeff King: Yeah. We talk about this a lot. You think about where they are so bold where they’re filming and distributing that film. So there’s a lot behind that. There’s a lot that… groundwork that has been laid would be one way to say it. It points to one word that we throw around in human rights’ circles, and that is… I may be too vague for you. The impunity word, sorry.

Explain that. Talk about that.

Will Stark: So the way that I like to describe the persecution situation in India, impunity is at the center point of all of this. And it’s not only impunity for hate statements and the false narratives being spread or the disinformation being spread against Christians and other minorities, it’s also the impunity for the attackers themselves. So let’s just kind of dive in again to the anatomy of one of these instances. These things don’t happen in a vacuum. You have the Hindu nationalist leaders or the politicians signaling saying, “Hey, we’ve passed this anti-conversion law.” And in order to pass that anti-conversion law it has to justify, “Well, why do we need this?” Oh, well there’s all of these anti… there’s all of these forced conversions happening in the state. We have to stop it from happening. These Christians, these Muslims that are doing this behavior, we have to stop them. That insights and signals to the local Hindu radical, “Hey, we have to be on the lookout for these people.”

I think tolerance, unfortunately, in India has gotten to such a point with conversion that most people view any conversion from a Hindu faith to a non-Hindu faith as a fraudulent conversion and they view most Christian worship services as a conversion ceremony. So you have the local radical, he’s now incited to go out and do something. He sees a local worship service, or even a prayer gathering at his neighbor’s house, and he’s like, “I’ve got to put a stop to this.” They go. They attack the people. Now the impunity starts… The impunity issue starts happening. The police come in, whether they’re passive observers, which I’ve seen quite often. They’ll actually, the Hindu radicals and the police, will show up together. The Hindu radicals will be allowed to go in, beat up the Christians, vandalize [inaudible 00:18:19], drag the pastor out. And then [crosstalk 00:18:21] the police will take him to the police station after the accusation, of course, [inaudible 00:18:24] happens. Sometimes they’re active participants in the attacks themselves, where they actually beat the pastors or attack the Christians. And sometimes they’re called to it afterwards. But in all of these cases, you’re just your an eye witness. You watch physical assault happen, the vandalization of a church happen. With their eyes, these police officers can see the victims of this case are the people who are beaten, but instead of arresting the assaulters, you arrested assaultees because they’d been accused of the forced conversion crime.

Now, then the impunity part coming in here, these people who do the assault, they never get held to account. So they think they have… and the word or the phrase that gets kind of thrown around in India circles is they have the tacit approval of the state to go do this thing. And what happens on the backend of that is now they’re emboldened. Oh, wow. Look what we did. Let’s do it more. So we see the number of cases go up and the severity of the cases also increase.

Jeff King: Yeah. And you just think about, I mean… the crazy thing is I could have sworn India was a democracy and had religious freedom written into the constitution, but oh well. So this is confusing. I mean, you’ve just got to put this into context. You think in our country, what could you get away with in terms of hatred and persecution, where you can film yourself, you and many, many others go around beating people up, attacking them, going to their worship services attacking… It’s like, “What?” It makes no sense. But that word in impunity says it all. And in a minute I want to talk about who is behind it, as we’ve kind of already mentioned we’re going to dig deeper into that, but I just want to wrap up this other part where we’re talking about the victims. So with the victims, they… there’s common tactics. There are new tactics that are starting to be used after victims are attacked. So very typical. You’ve already seen this. You’ve already seen this where the Christian gets arrested. They’re the one beaten up. They get arrested. They don’t even know why, but it just is. So there’s a new level that’s really taken from countries that have been a lot more effective maybe in persecution. India, Vietnam, or… Vietnam, China, et cetera. What’s going on now after the arrest? What kind of tricks are the police doing?

Will Stark: Yeah, one of the, I guess, ongoing harassments, is kind of what I call it, is where you are actually held in prison and then, if you’re able to get bail, what sort of requirements you’re meant to meet as a part of your bail. So what I’ve seen in a lot of cases, a pastor will be arrested on one of these false forced conversion charges. They won’t actually be taken to the police station within their own district. They’ll be taken to the next district over or sometimes even further, and that’s where they’re held. Now, that’s important because when they actually get bail, or they are able to be released on bail, as a part of their agreement, they have to check in with the police to say, “Oh, we haven’t skipped bail. We haven’t left the area.” And usually what these requirements will do is require this particular pastor to travel those two districts over to the police station where they were held under arrest and check in with this particular police station.

Now, that doesn’t necessarily sound like a huge deal, but you’ve got to remember who these victims are. Often the victims of persecution in India are the rural poor, where the pastors are pushing the gospel into new areas of the country. So these are rural poor individuals who are already kind of living on the cutting edge of their financial life. For them to actually have to take on this financial burden of hiring an attorney, traveling to and from a district, that can be something that’s extremely devastating for them. Sometimes one of the more dastardly, I guess, things that I’ve seen happen…

Jeff King: Love that word.

Will Stark: Dastardly? Yeah, it makes me think of some bad guy, the train tracks, having someone [inaudible] down to it.

Jeff King: It’s a good one.

Will Stark: But they scheduled the pastor’s check-in for Sunday morning.

Jeff King: Clever.

Will Stark: Yeah. The reason for it is they’re like, “Oh, we’re going to stop this guy from holding any worship service because the only time Christians hold a worship service is on Sunday morning.” But again, you can see the tactics here reveal the intent. The intent here is to not make sure this guy isn’t skipping bail. The intent is to make sure you are continuing to oppress this individual through any means necessary, whether it’s bail, the structure of the bail agreement, whether it’s the types of laws they’re being accused of, or it’s allowing the radicals themselves to beat them before they actually show up to the prison and not allow them to have medical access.