A father and son, P Jayaraj, 58, and Emmanuel Benicks, 31, committed two offences in the eyes of the officers who arrested them. They were late closing their shop during the coronavirus curfew, and they were Christians. These crimes led to their horrific death in custody and what some are calling India’s George Floyd moment.
Protesters took to the streets to demand justice after both men died in the same government hospital a day apart following their arrests on June 19. Harrowing reports claim they died from appalling internal injuries sustained through sexual assaults committed by police officers using batons.
Emmanuel died on June 22 and his father died the next day. They belonged to the Protestant Church of South India. Ten police officers have been arrested and the case is being investigated by India’s Central Bureau of Investigation.
The men were from the Nadar Christian community in Sathankulam, Tamil Nadu. According to church groups, officers within the town have been implicated in other persecution crimes. In February, the same police station arrested a Christian pastor and eight others following a complaint from a Hindu-nationalist group that they disturbed social peace with Christian worship and preaching. They were beaten and the pastor and two other Christians were hospitalised for serious injuries.
Human rights groups say that anti-Christian sentiment in India is stoked by a Hindu nationalist, paramilitary volunteer group called Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The BJP, the ruling party led by prime minister Narendra Modi, is its political wing. Founded nearly 100 years ago, RSS has profoundly shaped Indian society and politics – and Modi himself.
The Rev Vijayesh Lal, General Secretary of the Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI) which monitors anti-Christian hate crimes, says that since Modi came to power in 2014, Christian persecution has rocketed. Even in lockdown EFI has received regular reports, which include murder, rape and beatings. Before 2014 between 80 and 100 events were registered each year. In 2018 there were over 350 reports and last year there were over 360.
“This year we have already had over 140 undocumented cases. If the lockdown had not happened there would be even more. India is boiling right now as far as minorities are concerned,” said Lal.
Just last month the EFI received reports that a woman had been murdered in a remote village. “Off the record people close to her say she was killed because she was Christian, but they would never admit it on the record for fear of reprisals,” says Lal.
EFI receives regular reports of church services being disrupted and priests and pastors being beaten. Nine Indian states have passed anti-conversion laws forbidding baptism without government permission or conversion to Christianity without written permission given 30 days in advance. Some states enforce these laws with sentences stricter than those for rape.
“These are used as a convenient excuse to target Christians,” explained Lal.
The latest state set to implement anti-conversion laws is the country’s most populous, Uttar Pradesh, led by Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, notorious for his inflammatory rhetoric against Muslims and Christians especially.
For Christians throughout India, life has become increasingly difficult, particularly for those with names that denote their religious heritage. Many change their names and hide their beliefs in public. “People are worried,” said Lal. “You have to be subdued in public. Many people I know take care not to reveal they are Christian.”
He is calling for the international community to put more pressure on the Indian Government.
“The Indian constitution provides for religious freedoms. The problem is they are rarely ever implemented, and the spirit of the constitution is rarely ever present in the people. Over the years there have been voices internationally who have tried to raise the issue. They seem to be missing now because business interests with India are valued more than the right of religious freedom.”