The Republic of India, the world’s largest democracy, comprises 29 states and seven Union Territories and is a land of diverse ethnicity, religion, language and geography. Its capital is New Delhi and the most populous city is Mumbai (formerly Bombay). While the vast majority of Indians are Hindu, there are enough Muslims (14% – about 172 million people) to make India the third-largest Muslim country in the world. Over 430 languages are spoken, with Hindi and English the main official languages.
India has the world’s greatest disparity between rich and poor. It has nuclear power, a booming IT sector and sent a spacecraft to the moon in 2008, yet despite the growing economy there are hundreds of millions of rural poor and urban slum-dwellers. Infrastructure is inadequate, and there is widespread corruption.
Christianity is believed to have reached India in the first century, and has an honoured legacy of charity, schools and hospitals. The Indian constitution guarantees religious freedom, and Christians enjoy freedom in much of the country, but in some areas they face persecution.
Religious intolerance has grown with the rise of Hindutva (Hindu nationalism). Using the slogans “One Nation, One Religion, One Culture” and “India is Hindu only“, its followers consider Christians and Muslims to be followers of foreign religions. Extremists use the Hindutva ideology to justify intimidation of and violence against Christians and Muslims.
Hindutva violence against Christians occurs mainly in rural areas and includes burning church buildings, destruction of property and violent attacks that leave Christians seriously injured or dead. Typically, intruders break up church services, beat the worshippers and call the police to arrest the Christians on false charges of “forcible conversion”. The police rarely arrest the attackers. Sometimes, after an attack on a church building, Hindutva militants hoist their saffron flag above it.
In some instances, Christians have been coerced by government agencies into accepting a compromise with their attackers, even submitting to demands such as leaving the locality, agreeing not to conduct worship services in their homes or paying fines for practicing their faith.
The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won a landslide election victory in May 2014. Many attributed its victory to the popularity of the free market economic policies of its leader, Narendra Modi, who became Prime Minister, but many members saw the victory as a step towards making India a more Hindu nation. In 2002, over 1,200 Muslims died in a pogrom in Gujarat state while Narendra Modi was its chief minister, and his inability to control the rioting has been questioned.
Since Narendra Modi’s election victory, there has been an upsurge in persecution of non-Hindus. More than 600 attacks on Christians and Muslims were recorded during the first hundred days of his BJP-led National Democratic Alliance coalition government, which assumed power on 26 May 2014.
“Anti-conversion laws” are often used as an excuse by extremists to raid church services and harass Christians, accusing them of “forcible conversion” of Hindus. Officially called “Freedom of Religion” laws, they are intended to stop Hindus converting to other religions. The laws forbid conversion by “force, fraud or allurement” and state that those who wish to convert must first gain official permission and that religious leaders must report conversions or risk imprisonment. While the existence of the laws is an excuse for extremist attacks and accusations, the Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI) points out that “there are hardly any convictions in courts“.
Those proposing the laws claim that their purpose is to deal with inter-religious tension, but they have been seen as a licence for militants to attack Christians, leading to increased violence in states where they have been implemented. They are not used to stop extremist attempts to coerce Christians to become Hindus.
The laws have been passed in eight states, although in two states they are not active and in a third, Himachal Pradesh, parts were repealed after a court challenge brought by the EFI. Christians fear that, under Hindutva pressure, the laws will be enacted at national level. The nine states where they have been passed are Arunachal Pradesh (although its government has not framed the rules needed to implement the laws), Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Rajasthan (passed but never given assent by the state’s governor) and Tamil Nadu (passed and withdrawn). In addition to these states, Uttarakhand’s state cabinet passed an “anti-conversion bill” in March 2018, which is expected to pass into law when it comes before the state assembly.
Hindus who convert to Christianity, especially those from low castes, face persecution and discrimination. The ancient Hindu caste system is still a major factor in Indian society, especially in rural communities, where there is far less social mobility than in cities. The caste system assigns each person a place in the social hierarchy, from the privileged Brahmins at the top to the downtrodden Dalits (formerly known as “Untouchables”) at the bottom. There has been huge growth in Christianity amongst the Dalits and other low castes – nearly 80% of Indian Christians are from Dalit or tribal backgrounds.
Discrimination based on caste is constitutionally illegal, but it persists throughout much of India. The government has put affirmative action policies in place to help the most disadvantaged groups. This system of benefits was designed to redress the socio-economic exclusion of what are officially known as the “Scheduled Castes”, including Dalits.
Hindu, Buddhist and Sikh Dalits qualify for this government plan, which makes them eligible for free education and reserves jobs in the government and seats in state legislature, but Christians and Muslims do not qualify. If a Dalit converts to Christianity or Islam he or she is deemed to have left the caste system and is excluded from the affirmative action benefit system. Christian and Muslim Dalits throughout India are campaigning for equal rights for all Dalits.
Attacks on Christians in 2017
In February 2018, Church in Chains published a report titled “OFFICIAL INDIA: ON THE SIDE OF THE MILITANTS” in response to the upsurge in attacks on Christians in India by Hindu militants – attacks that have the tacit approval of local police and government officials. The report documents a representative sample of 57 serious incidents of persecution of Christians during the period July – December 2017, almost certainly a gross understatement of the actual number of incidents during the period.
The organisation Persecution Relief, which supports Christians in India, recorded a total of 736 incidents of attacks against Indian Christians in 2017. The Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI) recorded 351 hate crimes against Christians during 2017, but the authors of its annual report say that figure is not exhaustive, explaining: “Most cases go unreported either because the victim is terrified, or the police, especially in the northern states, just turn a blind eye and refuse to record the mandatory First Information Report.”
Like the Church in Chains report, the EFI report says that non-Hindu communities are being targeted “with impunity”. It lists four murders, 110 incidents of physical violence and arrest, 70 of “threats and harassment”, 64 occasions when worship was forcibly stopped, and 49 cases of Christians being arrested on false charges.
The Kandhamal Massacre
The worst ever anti-Christian violence in India occurred in the Kandhamal district of Orissa state (now Odisha) in 2007 and 2008, when armed Hindu militants killed over 135 Christians, injured more than 18,000, burned hundreds of churches and thousands of homes and left over 55,000 Christians homeless. The attackers were militant members of Hindu nationalist umbrella group Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP – the World Hindu Council).
Many of the Christians were told “convert or die”, sometimes at gunpoint. Even in refugee camps they were not safe, as militants bombed three camps, and anyone trying to return home had to convert to Hinduism first.
Most cases relating to the violence were dismissed or resulted in acquittals, including murder cases. Eventually, in November 2012, twelve people were sentenced to six years’ imprisonment for their involvement in the violence, while ten other accused were acquitted due to lack of evidence. There were many reports of intimidation of Christians called to give evidence in the court cases, and many witnesses were afraid to testify.
Church in Chains in Action
In February 2018, Church in Chains published a report titled “OFFICIAL INDIA: ON THE SIDE OF THE MILITANTS” in response to the upsurge in attacks on Christians in India by Hindu militants. The report, which documents incidents of persecution and contains recommendations for action, was sent to the Indian Ambassador to Ireland, to Simon Coveney (Ireland’s Minister for Foreign Affairs) and to the members of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Defence.
In November 2017, David Turner, Director of Church in Chains, wrote a letter to the Indian Ambassador to Ireland to express deep concern at ongoing violent attacks by Hindu extremists on Indian Christians, and in particular a recent incident in which police detained seven children for a week and two adults for ten days after Hindu extremists attacked them on their way to a Bible conference. He requested a meeting to discuss this incident and other attacks on Christians in India.
Church in Chains supports the campaign of justice for Christian Dalits – the speaker at our 2014 conference, Dr Joseph D’Souza, is a leader of the Dalit Freedom Network as well as being spokesman for the All India Christian Council and international vice-president of Operation Mobilisation.
Church in Chains has sent aid to Christian victims of militant attacks in Orissa and Karnataka and sponsored the operation of a safe-house in Karnataka for pastors and other victims of violent attacks by Hindu militants.
(Sources: All India Christian Council/Barnabas/Compass Direct News/Evangelical Fellowship of India/Library of Congress – State Anti-conversion Laws in India/Morning Star News/Open Doors/Operation World/Persecution Relief/Release, Wikipedia/World Watch List/World Watch Monitor)
In late March, a Church in Chains delegation comprising Director David Turner, Advocacy Officer Pamela Coulter and Baiju George, an Indian pastor, made a presentation about the rise of persecution of Christians in India to TDs and Senators to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs.
Hindu extremists attacked a Pentecostal church in south India, stripping the pastor’s wife and kicking her unconscious before attacking the pastor and burning Bibles.
Church in Chains has published a new report titled “OFFICIAL INDIA: ON THE SIDE OF THE MILITANTS” in response to the dramatic upsurge in attacks on Christians in India by Hindu militants in the past two years.
The body of a pastor was found hanging from the roof of his house in Tamil Nadu, southern India, on 20 January, a week after he complained to police about opposition from Hindu extremists.
Police detained thirty-two carol singers after a Hindu man accused them of trying to convert him to Christianity.