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. While the vast majority of Indians are Hindu, there are enough Muslims (14% – about 172 million people) to make India the country with the third largest Muslim population in the world. Over 430 languages are spoken, with Hindi and English the main official languages.
India has nuclear power and a booming IT sector and space industry but also has hundreds of millions of rural poor and urban slum-dwellers, with the world’s greatest disparity between rich and poor. 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 rural areas they are facing increasing persecution from Hindu extremists motivated by Hindutva (Hindu nationalist ideology), while the introduction of “anti-conversion laws” in some states has led to increased violence against Christians.
There has been an upsurge in persecution of non-Hindus since the 2014 landslide victory of Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party – the Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI) recorded that the number of attacks on Christians rose from from 141 in 2014 to 351 in 2017.
In 2018, the EFI reported 325 incidents in which Indian Christians were targeted with violence, intimidation or harassment, while Open Doors’ World Watch List 2019 reported that at least 12,500 Indian Christians and one hundred churches were attacked in 2018, with ten Christians killed. The World Watch List figure is much higher because each church attack accounts for multiple individuals.
Prime Minister Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party were returned to office in May 2019, causing concern among members of religious minorities.
Hindus who convert to Christianity face persecution, especially those from low castes. 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. Discrimination based on caste is constitutionally illegal but it persists throughout much of India.
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 and they face discrimination as Christian and Muslim converts are excluded from the government’s affirmative action benefit system.
This system 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, making them eligible for free education and reserves jobs in the government and seats in state legislature, but if a Dalit converts to Christianity or Islam he or she is deemed to have left the caste system and is excluded from the 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. While the Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI) recorded 351 hate crimes against Christians during 2017, 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. Many of the Christians were told “convert or die”, sometimes at gunpoint, and the militants bombed three refugee camps.
Communal violence against Christians in Kandhamal district had begun in December 2007 but it intensified in August 2008, following the assassination of a Hindu priest, local leader of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council) Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati, and four of his followers. They were killed by Maoist insurgents, but Hindu extremists blamed and targeted Christians.
Most cases relating to the violence were dismissed or resulted in acquittals. Eventually, in November 2012, twelve people were sentenced to six years’ imprisonment for their involvement, while ten others were acquitted. Christians called to give evidence in court were intimidated, and many witnesses were afraid to testify.
Seven Christian men were falsely accused of the priest’s murder, and in September 2013 they were convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Two were released on bail in 2019.
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. The report formed the basis of a meeting with the Joint Committee in March 2018.
In January 2019, Church in Chains wrote to the Indian Ambassador to request a meeting to present a petition signed by 17 members of the Oireachtas calling for protection for Indian Christians. In March 2019, a Church in Chains delegation had a meeting at the Indian Embassy to discuss the issue.
In September 2018, Shibu Thomas, founder of Church in Chains partner organisation Persecution Relief visited Ireland to speak at Church in Chains’ annual conference. During his visit, he also met with officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs.
Church in Chains sends aid to Christian victims of militant attacks and has sponsored the operation of a safe-house in Karnataka for pastors and other victims of violent attacks. During the years 2014-2018, over €21,500 of aid was distributed.
Church in Chains also 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.
(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)
Police took no action after Pastor Shelton Viswanathan was beaten by Hindu extremists.
However, he maintained that the minorities had been living in “imaginary fear”.
Mr Sandeep Kumar, the newly-appointed Ambassador of India, has said that the Indian Embassy in Dublin wishes to engage in dialogue with Church in Chains.
Naxalite Maoist guerrillas shot father-of-five Munglu Ram Nureti dead on 12 February, a day after they murdered another convert in neighbouring Odisha state.
Three attackers dragged Anant Ram Gand out of his house, beheaded him and dumped his body on 11 February.