When it was established in 1947, the modern state of India offered the secular alternative to decidedly Islamic Pakistan. Yes, India was the Hindu-majority carve-out from the British Raj, while Pakistan (which comprised what is now Bangladesh and modern-day Pakistan under 1971) was to be the homeland of the Subcontinent’s Muslims, but for years India took pride in its definite split between Temple and State, against the blurrier situation in Pakistan.
Seventy years on and things look decidedly different. The political landscape has been ceded by the once-dominant Indian National Congress (INC) to the nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) with its links to the paramilitary Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) whose Hindutva or “Hinduness” ideology it has gradually come to adopt. Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, BJP-led India is witnessing a decided break from its more secular past.
This is especially evident in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh – the most populous in the country – under the leadership of Hindu monk, Yogi Adityanath (born Ajay Singh Bisht), who has come to symbolise BJP dominance and the drive towards Hindutva. In this climate it is the country’s largest minority of Muslims (just over 14 per cent of the population in 2011, although this could be an undercount) who have come under greatest scrutiny.
Nationwide, this has manifested partly in ‘cow vigilantism’ which has seen attacks against Muslims suspected of trading in cattle (considered sacred by the majority Hindus, officially just under 80 per cent of the population) Several dozen people have been killed and scores injured in attacks on suspected traders since the BJP came to party, with only a handful of convictions. There have also been attacks against examples of so-called ‘love jihad’, the purported wooing of Hindu women by Muslim men in order to convert them to Islam.
While the climate has been particularly hostile to Muslims – manifested in a recent controversy surrounding former BJP spokeswoman Nupur Sharma, over comments she made about the Prophet Muhammad – Christians (who make up just over 2 per cent of all Indians) have also come under scrutiny and sometimes, outright attack. Christmas and Easter have been particularly dangerous times for Indian Christians, including Catholics, who make up 70 per cent of all Christians in the country.
Christmas last year was especially bad, with icons smashed, amid Hindutva activists claiming that Christians were using festivities to forcibly convert Hindus. In Uttar Pradesh, Hindu nationalists burned effigies of Santa Claus outside missionary schools and accused missionaries of using Christmas to lure people inside. In Assam state, protesters entered a Presbyterian Church and demanded all Hindus leave.
To be fair, authorities have attempted to clamp down on such attacks but the climate of fear is seemingly going nowhere. One Catholic school in Madhya Pradesh state was also recently vandalised by a mob of 500. According to a report by the United Christians Forum, Association for Protection of Civil Rights and United Against Hate at least 305 incidents of violence against Christians took place within the first nine months of 2021.
According to another report by Persecution Relief, crimes against Christians increased by 60 per cent from 2016 to 2019. At least nine Indian states have also planned anti-conversion laws, with the state of Karnataka having passed the Protection of Right to Freedom of Religion Bill with provisions including ten-year imprisonment for conversion by ‘fraud or inducement.’
For many Hindu nationalists, Christianity and Islam are also perceived as foreign imports unlike Hinduism, and other ‘indigenous’ faiths such as Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. For many Hindutva activists, Christianity and Islam – despite over a thousand years in South Asia – have their origins in the Middle East, and therefore adherents to these faiths are perceived to have split loyalties. In addition, the two religions have come to be associated with colonialism (the British Empire with Christianity, and the Mughal Empire and various sultanates with Islam), further cementing hostility.
Despite widespread popularity, support for the BJP falls significantly in southern India (where India’s 245-million-strong Dravidian population is concentrated, as well as the country’s Christians). According to Pew Research, while in northern India the BJP picked up between 65 and 73 per cent of the Hindu vote in 2019, this fell to just over half of the Hindu vote in the west, just under half in the east, and under one-fifth in the south. While overall, 64 per cent of Hindus say that being Hindu is important to being truly Indian, this falls to 42 per cent in the south. Notably, just 29 per cent of Buddhists, 19 per cent of Muslims, 19 per cent of Sikhs and a mere 10 per cent of Christians voted for the BJP in the last election.
When Pope Francis met Narendra Modi last October there seemed to be little mention of the plight of India’s Christians or Muslims. At the Rome meeting, poverty and climate change were discussed but seemingly not religious persecution. The Holy Father was invited to visit India by the Indian leader although questions over the Pontiff’s health cast doubt on whether the visit will go ahead either this year or next. As with the persecution of Christians (and Muslims) in neighbouring China, one would hope the Church would speak up repeatedly on the issue. The situation in India is clearly one to watch for the country’s Christians, as well as its Muslims, as well as the wider world.
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