Three world leaders visiting India in recent days have found reason to speak publicly about the importance of diversity and tolerance. First, it was the World Bank president, Jim Yong Kim, then United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. But the most pointed remarks came from President Barack Obama, who was an official guest at India’s Republic Day ceremonies on Jan 26.
The next day, addressing an audience of young people before leaving India, Obama said that “India will succeed so long as it is not splintered along religious lines,” Indian media reported.
“Everyone has the right to practice their faith without fear of persecution, discrimination.”
Since the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power last May — with the help of armies of Hindu nationalist volunteers — Muslims, Christians and other religious minorities in India have come to fear for their safety as they face intense pressure and more frequent physical attacks from the most radical Hindu organizations and politicians, who say openly that India is a Hindu nation with no room for others. Christian churches have been burned and forcible “reconversions” to Hinduism have been carried out by Hindu zealots.
“There have been about 145 cases of violence against Christians in 2014,” said John Dayal, an Indian church activist who is spokesman for the Christian Forum for Human Rights and a former president of the All India Catholic Union. “These are the ones we recorded. The ones we could not document for several reasons, including fear amongst the victims, could be several times more.”
Christianity was not brought to India initially by Western missionaries but by Middle Eastern Christians in the first century, among them the Apostle Thomas, who is said to be buried near the city of Chennai on a site called St. Thomas Mount. It is a national shrine.
Dayal, in an interview by email, acknowledged that Christians have faced violence before; it is not a new phenomenon.
“Violence and hate campaigns against the Christian community in India began towards the mid 1990s, when I first began recording them,” he said. He published the first unofficial report on targeted violence in 1998. “Since then, we have been documenting from 50 to 350 cases that we could independently authenticate, every year. Some of the worst were the burning of 36 village churches in the Dangs district of Gujarat on Christmas eve in 1998, the burning alive of Graham Stuart Staines, the Australian [medical] missionary, and his young sons Timothy and Philip, as they slept in their jeep in January 1999, in Orissa, and the brutal slaying of Catholic priest Father Christu, also in Orissa” [now Odisha state].
“But it was in August 2008 that one of the worst incidents of large scale organized violence targeted Christians in this state,” Dayal said. “When it was over, more than 60,000 persons, most of them tribals [indigenous people] and Dalits [once called untouchables] had been displaced, forced to flee into forests to save their lives. More than 6,000 houses and 300 churches had been destroyed, mostly burnt, and about 120 people killed, hacked to death or burnt after being wounded.”
In every case, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a militant Hindu extremist and ultranationalist organization, and its subsidiaries were implicated, Dayal said.
Hate campaigns have increased and taken on new forms since Modi has been in office, Dayal said. “Muslims and Christians, identified as adherents of alien religions, bear the brunt in a dozen states encompassing much of central and north India.” Hindu nationalists, backed by some politicians in the ruling party, have vowed to make India “free” of Christians and Muslims by 2021, he added.
“It is therefore not surprising that religious minorities, [especially] Christians with their small numbers — a mere 2.3 percent of India’s population of 1.2 billion, of whom 80 per cent are Hindus — feel very threatened,” Dayal said. “Their faith, their liberty, and their lives, are at risk.”
Dayal said that Christians work with major Muslim human-right organizations “and all groups who work for peace, democratic and civil liberties.” But while Muslims are perhaps the major victims of religious profiling, he said, they do not evangelize. “Christians reach out to everyone, both in social action such as in health and education and in preaching the Word of God. That brings them into the open, and makes them targets.”
Since the national election in May that brought Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party to power, Dayal said, there have been instances where Christians, many of them poor converts seeking to escape the crippling Hindu caste system, are denied ration cards for subsidized food if they refuse to contribute large sums of money to Hindu temple festivals. In one district, pastors and other religious leaders are barred from villages if they are not local residents.
In other places, Hindu nationalist gangs threatened Christians that if they did not come back to the Hindu fold, “they would not be allowed to drink water from the communal water sources, they would not be allowed to reap their harvests and would be dispossessed of their lands, and might even lose their lives.”
The campaign goes beyond religion. Textbooks are being rewritten to promote a Hindu view of subjects such as history and science, some of it rooted in Hindu mythology. In Goa, a state noted for its beaches, the government recently announced that it is considering opening “cure” centers for young people who declare themselves gay, lesbian and other sexual orientations, where they will be given physical training or other training and medication. Greenpeace India has been harassed.
Mainstream Indian media have documented many of the attacks on Christians and other religious minorities. (Sikhs and Buddhists are largely spared because Hindus consider them offshoots of Hinduism.) In December, when the government tried to marginalize Christmas by making it a day for children to learn about governance and Hindu leaders of the past, Al Jazeera published a lengthy feature on the fear rising among all religious minorities in India.
In Washington D.C., the organization International Christian Concern published a report about planned conversions of 4,000 Christian and 1,000 Muslim families on Christmas Day in a northern city, an event that was ultimately “postponed” after a public outcry and opposition from secular political parties.
Indians of all religions, including Hinduism, have asked why the government of Prime Minister Modi has remained silent on the threats to not only minorities but also to India’s constitutional guarantees of tolerance in a secular state. They also ask why world leaders are not raising the cause of India’s minority religions publicly in international organizations.
“My main fear is the attempt at disenfranchisement and political marginalization of religious minorities, especially Christians, with the political groups now ruling India trying to amend the national constitution,” Dayal said. “The Hindu Rashtra or Hindu Nation is not likely to become a reality, but there could be strong national laws that could make propagating religion impossible in the future. We have to continue a civil society peaceful struggle against this conspiracy.
“We as religious minority rights groups do what we can, but there are limitations,” he said. “The major one is of resources, both manpower and money. The institutional church, unfortunately, is not in the forefront of this struggle for rights either because of a fear of government or because it can be coerced into silence. The freedom of faith movement and advocacy is being carried on by a very few committed professionals, including lawyers, social activists and intellectuals, with the support of civil society.”
There is personal anguish, too. In its Christmas issue, Jivan, the magazine of the Jesuits in India, published a letter from a Jesuit father in the southern Indian city of Bangalore (now renamed Bengaluru). He had been ruminating on the peril faced by Christians in the Middle East. “What will we do?” he asked.
“The whole world is witnessing the atrocities committed against Christians in Iraq and Syria for quite some time now. We hear of appalling, gruesome massacres — even of innocent children. Women are raped, children’s heads are chopped off and men are crucified — for simply remaining Christians and refusing to convert to Islam. The ISIS militants are said to be killing every Christian they meet if they are not ready to convert. How many of us are pained to see our fellow brothers and sisters being tortured and butchered like animals, just because of their faith?
“Some of us feel indifferent, because they are not our relations and are in far off lands. Will we be able to say yes to Jesus just like these Christians in Iraq and Syria did, even when the sword is on our neck ready to strike? Or will we just give up our faith when this sort of situation comes our way? If that is the case, then our faith has not really taken deep roots in our lives.”
Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.