The police and media in Karnataka colluded with Hindutva groups involved in a series of attacks on Christian prayer meetings in the state this year, a report released by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties on Tuesday, December 14 said. The report chronicles 39 incidents of violence against Christians in Karnataka from January to November 2021. The report showed that these cases were taking place in churches and prayer halls across the state, with the highest number of cases recorded in Belagavi in northern Karnataka.
The PUCL report highlighted the testimonies of pastors whose prayer meetings were disrupted, usually by mobs of Hindutva supporters, accusing them of converting people to Christianity. The report concluded that police, and sometimes even the media, worked with mobs in these cases. This is despite the fact that Article 25 of the Indian Constitution guarantees the freedom of conscience and free profession, practice and propagation of religion.
The report noted that in almost every instance of mob violence, police actively worked to criminalise the lives of Christians and stop them from organising prayer meetings. It stated, “By subverting their role as law enforcement agencies and absolving themselves of the responsibility to maintain law and order, they have become an arm of social segregators and complicit in the strengthening of such Hindutva forces. During the narration of some cases, a few victims also pitied the police officers for being fewer in number than the Hindutva mobs,” read the report.
It also analysed the programmes on conversions to Christianity by major Kannada TV news channels including Asianet Suvarna News, Public TV, TV 5 and found that the channels were sending reporters under the guise of investigative journalism to Christian prayer meetings. “Under the garb of investigative journalism, the media has been breaking into prayer meetings, houses of individuals with their cameras to portray those of the Christian faith as criminals,” read the report.
Three distinct visuals in these programmes showed people walking around in the street with no connection to Christianity, people in a socially distanced gathering apparently in a prayer meeting, visuals of a small prayer meeting without any audio to show what was being said, wherein the priest is seen giving a small packet, possibly the prasada.
The report outlines that the media coverage presumes guilt by Christian pastors, blurs the lines between legal and illegal conversions, and normalises communal hate-speech. Phrases such as ‘Mantantara Mafia’ (conversion mafia) and ‘Aamisha’ (bribes) are offered as truths without evidence presented.
Speaking during the release of the report, writer and columnist Aaakar Patel said that the coverage of attacks on Christian prayer meetings were focused on the victims of the attack. “The coverage is aimed at the victims with the presumption of guilt. There is little reference made of the people whose rights are violated...There is hate speech and sensationalism which brings shame to the victims of these attacks,” he said.
The report by PUCL also stated that many half-truths were being propagated without evidence to back it up. In particular, allegations of foreign funding for these prayer meetings were repeatedly mentioned in the news segments without evidence. “The language is prosecutorial and assumes that the activity of Christians is suspect. The notion that ‘mass forced conversion’ is currently underway and indeed it is ‘rampant’ is communicated to the audience constantly. Anchors and reporters speak of foreign money being used in propagation without evidence,” the report said.
“With these sting operations at Christian prayer meetings, the viewpoint of Hindutva forces are amplified. It builds public opinion against the rights of the people who have converted to Christianity and views them as criminals,” Ram Bhat, co-founder of the media and arts collective Maraa said. In fact, in at least two of the cases, reported in Chikkamagaluru and Kodagu district, the people who were in the prayer hall told media persons that there is no conversion happening.
The report also discussed how mainstream media coverage worked in sync with social media activity by Hindutva groups through videos of the attacks circulated on WhatsApp and posted on Facebook. “This is often with organised manipulation of ‘trending’ so as to give social media users the impression that hundreds and thousands of people are discussing the topic and it is of great concern,” read the report.