Faith, justice, and resilience: the struggle for religious freedom in India

(Photo: Pixabay/Eddy Pellegrino)

In the world's largest democracy, a battle for the soul of the nation is unfolding. The story of Dr. Ajai Lall and his brother Rajkamal David Lall serves as a powerful testament to the enduring spirit of faith and the critical role of an impartial judiciary in protecting minority rights in India. Their journey through a labyrinth of legal challenges and social hostility illuminates the broader struggles faced by religious minorities in a country grappling with the tensions between its secular ideals and rising religious nationalism.

The past two years have witnessed an alarming rise in the harassment and scrutiny of religious minorities, particularly Christians, in Madhya Pradesh. Dr. Lall's humanitarian organisation, dedicated to serving the community, found itself under siege. Between 15 August 2022 and 15 August 2023, the institution faced an unprecedented 41 in-person inspections and 24 written inquiries from government agencies. This relentless pressure, fueled by regressive religion-based politics, has created an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty for many religious minority leaders who have dedicated their lives to serving their communities.

The targeting of Dr. Lall's organisation is not an isolated incident but part of a broader pattern of intimidation. Individuals like Deepak Tiwari and Priyank Kanoongo from the Child Welfare Committee have been at the forefront of these efforts, levelling false accusations and vilifying leaders from religious minorities while strangely neglecting the actual welfare of children and people in need. This misuse of authority underscores a dangerous trend where religiosity-based ideologies increasingly influence policies and actions, threatening the secular fabric of the nation.

However, amidst this darkness, there are glimmers of hope. The Indian judiciary has emerged as a crucial safeguard for minority rights, demonstrating that even as the tides of public opinion turn, the pillars of justice stand firm. In a significant move last year, the Chief Justice of India called for "data on attacks against Christians in India," acknowledging that "even if a fraction of the alleged cases were true, it warranted serious attention and action." This recognition at the highest level of the judiciary signals a growing awareness of the challenges faced by religious minorities and a commitment to addressing them.

Furthermore, Justice D.Y. Chandrachud's recent expression of concern regarding the "overwhelming number of bail cases flooding the Supreme Court" highlights the judiciary's commitment to upholding personal liberty and ensuring timely justice. His statement that "these bail petitions involve issues of personal liberty, which should be addressed promptly to uphold justice and reduce unnecessary delays in the judicial process" serves as a reminder that within India's democratic framework, there are still leaders who choose to operate with an ethic of care.

The Lall family's ordeal brings into sharp focus the human cost of religious intolerance. They faced public humiliation with dignity, even as effigies of Dr. Ajai Lall were burned on the streets of Damoh, Madhya Pradesh. Local media used inflammatory language to perpetuate hate, and mobs were hired by petty goons to threaten the family's safety. The ripple effects of this targeting were far-reaching. Friends and relatives hesitated to visit the Lall's residence out of fear, and in some cases were not allowed to do so. Dr. Lall had to seek special permission from the courts to visit his friends and grandchildren in the United States, a process that required escalation to the High Court when district courts refused to grant permission. His brother, Mr. Rajkamal David Lall, was unable to see his three-month-old grandchild due to the ongoing legal battles.

These experiences underscore the profound impact of such targeting on not just individuals, but entire families and communities. The chronic stress and trauma inflicted by perceived "threats from predators and aggressors" can have long-lasting psychological and physiological effects. Yet, through it all, the Lall family's faith in God and in the justice system of their motherland gave them hope to persevere with resilience despite these setbacks.

After two years of waiting for justice, a breakthrough finally came. On May 28th, 2024, in the High Court of Madhya Pradesh at Jabalpur, Justice Gurpal Singh Ahluwalia delivered a ruling that vindicated the Lall brothers. The judge declared that the "FIR in Crime No.88/2022 registered by EOW, Bhopal against the petitioners is hereby quashed." In a harsh indictment of the authorities' actions, Justice Ahluwalia stated that the allegations against Dr. Ajai Lall and Mr. Rajkamal David Lall demonstrated "misuse of authority and uncontroverted allegations (that) do not make out a prima facie case of commission of cognizable offence." He added that "the allegations made in the FIR are so absurd and inherently improbable on the basis of which no prudent person can ever reach just to conclusion that there is a sufficient ground for proceeding against the accused."

This ruling is significant not just for the Lall brothers, but for all religious minorities in India. It sends a clear message that the rule of law still prevails, even in the face of political pressure and bureaucratic overreach. It serves as a reminder that no matter how strong one's faith may be, every individual needs the assurance that justice will prevail for those who stand for the truth.

Yet, this victory is just one battle in an ongoing war. Many religious minorities in India continue to face discrimination, harassment, and violence. The challenges they face are symptomatic of a larger societal issue – the rise of narrow, populist ideologies that seek to divide rather than unite.

As a society, we must reflect on the cost of allowing such intolerance to fester. It's not just about religious freedom; it's about the very fabric of our democracy and our commitment to diversity. The narrative of the Lall brothers is an example of triumph amidst chaos, but many others are still waiting to see a glimmer of hope as they face discrimination, belittling stances, and abuse masked by institutional expectations to conform to the outlooks of the dominant group.

Moving forward, it's crucial that we foster an ethic of care in our communities and institutions. This means challenging the narrow, populist ideologies that seek to divide us and instead embracing diversity and multiculturalism. It means acknowledging the intersecting layers of one's identity and how they affect influence and experience in society.

For religious leaders like Dr. Lall, this challenge is deeply rooted in their faith. Their ability to respond to hatred with dignity and to "overcome evil with good" as commanded in Romans 12:21 is an inspiring example for all of us. It embodies Jesus' teaching to "love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you" (Matthew 5:44). This approach not only demonstrates moral courage but also paves the way for necessary social change.

The fight for religious freedom and minority rights in India is far from over. But with each victory, like that of the Lall brothers, we take a step towards a more just and equitable society. It's a reminder that truth and justice can prevail, even in the face of overwhelming odds.

As people around the world continue to pray for peace, restoration, justice, and perhaps an awakening in India, we must also work actively towards creating a society where every individual, regardless of their faith, can live with dignity and without fear. This involves not only supporting legal battles and advocacy efforts but also fostering interfaith dialogue, promoting education about diverse religious traditions, and challenging hate speech and discrimination wherever we encounter it.

The story of the Lall brothers and countless others like them should serve as a call to action for all who believe in the principles of democracy, secularism, and human rights. It reminds us that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance, and that each of us has a role to play in shaping the future of our societies.

As we move forward, let us hold onto hope, even as we confront the challenges before us. Let our doubts be riddled with faith, and our actions guided by an unwavering commitment to justice and equality. Only then can India truly live up to its promise as the world's largest democracy – a nation where diversity is celebrated, rights are protected, and every citizen can practise their faith without fear.