He looked out over the small garden in front of his church, somewhere in the sprawling city of New Delhi. One could hear the noise of the bustling streets outside the walls of the church’s premises. He stared long at one of the flowers in front of him. “India is a beautiful country,” he said. “It is like a garden with many different flowers in it. We need to tend this garden and be careful that we don’t let it be destroyed by those who only favour one flower and disregard the others.”
Those were the words of a Catholic bishop in India a year ago, when asked about the religious tensions in his country. The flowers, which to him represent the different religious communities, have not withered and died since then. But the smaller ones have come under immense pressure. This is also true of Christianity in India. Especially since the results of the national elections were announced.
Narendra Modi won again. Many Christians had hoped that voters would not grant him a second term as Prime Minister of the world’s largest democracy. But with 65 per cent of 900 million voters participating, Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have shown that they enjoy strong support. While Modi won his first elections primarily on economic and reform-oriented ideas, this time his party focused on Indian identity and the Hindu nation. The party symbol is an orange lotus, India’s national flower.
The outcome of the elections is not good news for the country’s Christians. Although Christians comprise only 2.3 per cent of India’s population, they are known for running excellent schools and well-maintained hospitals. Anti-Christian sentiment is not a new phenomenon. Nevertheless, the situation has grown worse since the current ruling party’s rise to power in 2014.
In general, there are three primary means of exclusion under which religious minorities suffer in India today: social hostility, laws curbing religious freedom, and caste discrimination.
In a report published in 2018, the US based Pew research centre gave India the highest score for “social hostility” towards religious minorities, including Christians. This intolerance appears to be growing. In the first quarter of 2019, there were more than 80 reported cases of mob violence against Christians. This means one violent attack almost every day, targeting priests, pastors, families, and whole church communities.
The aggression against minorities has been fuelled by the propaganda of the so-called Hindutva movement in the run-up to the elections. This movement seeks to purge India of everything non-Hindu and ultimately to build a Hindu nation with the BJP as its political arm. Needless to say, Christianity fits poorly into this nationalist concept.
Meanwhile, the Indian state of Uttarakhand introduced a new law last year ironically called the “Religious Freedom Act”. The BJP-led state is the 10th in India to introduce a so-called anti-conversion law. It is designed to prevent people from converting to religions other than Hinduism. One has to register with the authorities long in advance before being granted permission to accept another faith.
In the more radical versions of such laws, priests who want to baptise an adult and accept him into the Catholic Church also need to register.
Finally, while the caste system is officially abolished, it still plays a decisive role in everyday life. Many Dalits (“untouchables”), who along with the tribals make up the lowest level in the caste system, find Christianity appealing. They refrain from converting, however, because they would lose all benefits they now receive as a form of reparation for the many injustices they had to suffer in the past. This is yet another form of discrimination on the basis of religion.
How will the situation of the Church in India develop? And what can be done? Money is always a powerful argument. Strong trading partners of India, such as Britain, should not stop mentioning the situation of Christians and make true religious freedom a condition for every trade deal.
Litigation on behalf of Christians also proves fruitful. Hundreds of cases have been won at the local, regional and Supreme Court levels thanks to the stability the Indian constitution provides.
Ultimately, public awareness is key. In one of his first addresses after winning the elections, Modi said that minorities should overcome their “imaginary fears”. “There should be no discrimination over caste or religion,” he said. India is a long way away from that.
But at least this is something to which this government can be held accountable. Let’s hope that, in decades to come, India’s garden will consist of more varieties of flower than just the orange lotus.
Andreas Thonhauser is director of external relations at ADF International