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. His inability to control the rioting has been questioned.
“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.
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 implemented in five states, and Christians fear that, under Hindutva pressure, they will be enacted at national level. The five states are Himachal Pradesh, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Odisha (formerly Orissa).
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
More than 600 attacks on Muslims and Christians were recorded during the first 100 days of Narendra Modi’s BJP government, which assumed power on 26 May 2014. At a meeting in New Delhi on 2 September 2014, attended by over 50 Christian leaders, lawyers and social activists, several committees were set up to draw national attention to the “conspiracy” behind the sporadic violence.
The Evangelical Fellowship of India’s Annual Persecution Report 2015 documented 177 cases of persecution against Christians (an increase on 2014’s figure of 147 and 2013’s figure of 151). The actual number of cases is likely to be higher than this documented figure. The most common form of persecution was physical violence (including assaults by mobs, beatings and torture), followed by stopping services in churches, attacks on churches and arrests of pastors on trumped-up charges. Christian communities in some remote villages and small towns have been terrorised.
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
Church in Chains supports the campaign of justice for Christian Dalits. It channelled aid, via partners, to Christian victims of militant attacks in Orissa and Karnataka, and it has sponsored the operation of a “safe-house” in Karnataka for pastors and others who are victims of violent attacks by Hindu militants.
The speaker at the 2014 Church in Chains conference, Dr Joseph D’Souza, is spokesman for the All India Christian Council, a leader of the Dalit Freedom Network and international vice-president of Operation Mobilisation,
(Sources: All India Christian Council, Barnabas, Compass Direct News, Evangelical Fellowship of India, Morning Star News, Open Doors, Operation World, Release, Wikipedia, World Watch List, World Watch Monitor)
On 15 July, attackers on a motorbike shot Pastor Sultan Masih (50) dead in front of his church premises in Punjab’s Ludhiana city.
Pastor Gandham Padma Rao (49) is in intensive care in hospital in Mancherial, Telangana state after being beaten by a gang of ten Hindu extremists.
Mr K A Swamy (47) suffered a brain haemorrhage after being threatened by Hindu extremists while he was distributing Bibles in the city of Hyderabad. Swamy works as a professor of engineering and also volunteers with the Gideons.
Two separate groups of Christian carol singers have been attacked by suspected Hindu radicals.
The persecution of Christians in India has increased sharply in the first half of 2016, with the violence on track to far exceed cases in 2014 and 2015.