Last year, while the Narendra Modi-led government declared December 25 as Good Governance Day, churches in New Delhi were allegedly attacked in separate incidents of communal violence. The fire at St Sebastian’s Church in Delhi’s Dilshad Garden led to widespread protests, with a resultant special investigation team now probing allegations of arson and targeted violence. This attack took place in the larger context of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s ghar wapsi, a campaign to re-convert members of the Muslim and Christian communities “back” to Hinduism.
To address complaints of violence and religious persecution, well-known members of the Christian community launched a toll-free helpline number less than a week ago. “This helpline number has been launched after much deliberation over what would be an appropriate response to such violent incidents in the country, especially in states like Odisha, Jharkhand, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka,” says John Dayal, spokesperson for the United Christian Forum for Human Rights (UCF), the organisation running the helpline. Dayal explains that the purpose of such a helpline is for aggrieved Christians to share their problems and seek solutions through a proper, legal mechanism.
The calls made to this automatic helpline are transferred to one of the three “agents” currently enrolled in this programme. Depending on the nature of the issue, the caller is advised to go to the police. “We then work with local networks and follow up with local authorities,” explains Dayal. A press statement sets the goal for this national helpline number – “Lawyers and experts can assist victims of violence, intimidation, coercion and illegal confinement by any criminal or political group.” All calls made to the helpline are recorded, and if a pattern is established – either geographically or demographically – it will be taken up with the state administration for action, according to him. “The helpline seeks support from local Christian networks because it is practically impossible to reach the remotest corners of the country without their help,” Dayal adds.
In the first two days, after it was launched, the helpline received 3,448 calls, of which 2,351 were missed calls. “Callers in the first couple of days were mostly curious about whether and how the helpline functioned,” says Dayal. Two calls were those that needed attention. One of the callers was an advocate from Navapur in Maharashtra who needed help with arguing a case in the Aurangabad High Court after villagers opposed the construction of a Christian school in the area. Another caller reported an incident where 10 Christian families in Kanyakumari were being ostracised from the community. As of now, both these incidents are being verified by UCF. As for the number of violent incidents against Christians in India, Dayal says that there were 148 verified incidents in 2014, excluding incident of individual harassment and persecution. “But there could be many more such incidents of targeted violence that were not reported by the media and we are not aware of,” he adds.
In an earlier interview to Business Standard, Praveen Davar, a member of the National Commission for Minorities, had said, “Cases happening in remote areas of the country often go unreported.”
UCF claims that this centralised, automatic helpline is the first of its kind. Vishva Hindu Parishad’s (VHP) Pravin Togadia launched a “Hindu Helpline” in 2011 for “sudden natural calamity, personal health problem or an accident”. The VHP website notes, “In such emergencies, Hindu Helpline will play the role of a reliable friend of Hindus.” Dayal says that the Christian helpline number is nothing like the one that Togadia helped launch. Neither is it a response to such endeavours by Hindu outfits. “We are not trying to either duplicate police helpline numbers or respond to other helplines. Ours is purely to combat religious persecution and protect our community against violence,” he says.
For now, though, the helpline number seems unreachable. Efforts to reach the number bore no fruit. Whether farmers from Maharashtra and villagers from Odhisha will be able to access it is yet to be seen.
The Christian helpline can be reached at 1800-208-4545