Heiner Bielefeldt

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Heiner Bielefeldt

The Diplomat speaks with Prof Heiner Bielefeldt, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, about his understanding of secularism in India after his 10-day unofficial visit to the world’s largest functioning democracy late last month.

Prof Heiner Bielefeldt
Prof Heiner Bielefeldt

U.N. Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief

Is this your first visit to India?

Yes, and it’s an unofficial visit. India has been visited by two of my predecessors, Asma Jahangir and Abdulfattah Amor. No state has been visited [officially] more than twice by a Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief.

You visited eastern Odisha state’s capital Bhubaneswar, western Gujarat’s Ahmedabad city and southern Karnataka’s capital Bengaluru, and of course the national capital of Delhi. You met with several representatives of civil society groups. What’s your impression of secularism in India?

India is a highly diverse country, there’s a heritage of appreciation of difference, and it has a secular constitution.

My understanding of secularism is quite attuned with the Indian understanding, which is not as an ideology of pushing religion back to the private sphere like in some Western countries. I’d call it the principle of respectful non-identification, which is very much linked to the principle of non-discrimination, meaning equality and requiring State not to identify itself with one religion. And this opens up the space for the free unfolding of diversity on the basis of non-discrimination.

However, that space is possibly shrinking. India is undergoing a battle of how to understand secularism and how to keep the space open and overcome the equation of “our territory, our nation, our religion.”

Could you give some examples?

There are some serious issues in India. For instance, Scheduled Caste people [Dalits, or those who are lowest in the rigid caste hierarchy in the Indian society] lose their rights to affirmative action when they turn from Hinduism to Christianity and Islam [as per the Presidential Order of 1950], which means a defect of sanction that violates the absolute guaranteed freedom component of freedom of religion in general.

Communal violence is also a cause for concern. Narratives of survivors from anti-Christian violence in Gujarat’s Dangs district in the late 1990s, anti-Muslim violence in some cities in Gujarat in 2002, the violence in Odisha’s Kandhamal district in 2008, and the attacks on Christians in Karnataka the same year suggest that the term “riots” is not appropriate, and nor is the use of the language such as “riots erupting”… somewhat like a volcano or crazy forces fighting one another.

Many of them [the survivor-victims] broke into tears when they were telling their narratives, telling how husbands have been butchered in front of not only their wives but also their children; how girls have been raped and put on fire.

During the [incidents of violence], police came disturbingly late to people’s rescue… if at all.

Some even call an ongoing incident of violence as “sporadic.” [But] the victims [who narrated their stories] typically came from lower castes, and while many of the perpetrators are not known, the name of the RSS [Hindu nationalist organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh] came up [as instigators] regularly. So the assumption was that this [the various incidents of communal violence] has been planned and it continues to be planned, that it’s a policy of instigating fear, of creating a climate of insecurity with partial complicity also of the state apparatus.

Not that everything is lost. There have been convictions. I’d also praise the National Human Rights Commission’s work after the Gujarat massacre [in 2002].

But the incidents you’re talking about took place some years ago. Are they still relevant?

Obviously, I saw people … and that was not staged … really drawing down; they were searching for words when telling their narratives. It was certainly not the first time they told it. Every telling has an element of re-traumatization.

I also discussed [with civil society groups] truth and reconciliation commissions because merely leaving this to courts on the one hand and to commissions on the other hand might be too short-sighted.

Elsewhere, in Sierra Leone, truth and reconciliation commissions have made tremendous efforts towards healing the wounds.

Besides, the [August 2013 Hindu-Muslim] violence in [northern Uttar Pradesh state’s] Muzaffarnagar district [in which more than 50 people died and 41,000 were displaced] came up again and again in my meetings [with civil society groups].

Why is the focus often on minorities when freedom of religion or brief is discussed?

The work on behalf of minorities is also in service of majorities. The freedom of religion or belief is not just a minority issue. It’s really about how to organize coexistence in the spirit of respect. The treatment of minorities is the test case, but not the only concern. They deserve special attention not because they are special people, but because they are living in situations of increased vulnerability.

It’s also healthy for majority religions to overcome the pernicious equation of “our territory, our nation, our religion.” Because in the long run, if then religion becomes totally entangled with identity politics, sometimes even militarized politics, it will really turn into a tool, a weapon, that not only destroys humans and human freedom but also destroys and undermines the attractiveness and the credibility of religions.

For example, Iran, where I worked as a volunteer with Amnesty International briefly, is a full-fledged theocracy, and the result is a caricature of Islam. A majority of high-ranking Shia clergy apparently have not supported that. They perhaps know or feel that in the long run it undermines their religion.

For policies, minorities also must join hands, come together, overcoming the tendency of compartmentalization, of fragmentation … each little group fighting their own little courses. And they also have to reach out to the majorities.

I trust that there will always be members of the majority community, Hindus, who feel that it’s good for their religion, for the tradition of this great country, to work on behalf of freedom of religion and to defend and to further broaden the space provided by a secular constitution based on freedom of religion or belief.

Sometimes sections of a majority community say they are also being victimized.

It is important to distinguish justified fear from unjustified fear. For example, majorities in many countries feel they might lose out in the long run because of projections such as higher birth rate among minorities. But this is paranoia. It’s a fear that is not based on experience; it’s a fear based on lack of experience. [But] minorities do live in vulnerable situations.

Fears of majorities are often based on rumors or sporadic elements of experiences, prematurely presently as part of a heinous policy. For example, “Love Jihad” [the allegation that young Muslim boys and men are targeting girls and women belonging to non-Muslim communities for conversion to Islam by feigning love] is a strange idea. To believe that Muslim boys are encouraged by their communities to violate all their rules of modesties and code of decency in order to humiliate Hindu families is just a crazy idea.