As the U.S. Secretaries of State and Defense prepare to travel to India next month for high-level talks with their counterparts in that country (the first time such talks have occurred), religious freedom should remain squarely on the agenda.
Pressure will no doubt arise from foreign policy realists to toss religious freedom from the discussion. Desiring to bolster the U.S./India relationship to counter China, they will want to avoid any sticking points—and religious freedom is one of them.
This does not need to be the case. If India could see that advancing religious freedom advances its own national security interests, and economic growth, it might be interested in more seriously addressing the issue. In light of India’s desire to advance economically, it should in particular pay attention to the relationship between increased religious freedom and increased economic growth.
But the issue certainly needs to be addressed. Those urged toward Hindu nationalist sentiment by governing BJP party allies have for years targeted Christians and others. More recently, U.S.-based charities like Compassion International have been restricted, shut down, or forced out of the country. The idea that someone might choose a religion other than Hinduism has these groups in an uproar, and hence their backing of “anti-conversion laws” in several areas of India which do in fact make it illegal to convert to other religions—including Christianity.
While Prime Minister Modi has finally started to acknowledge some of these problems, a verbal acknowledgement alone won’t suffice. If Modi wants to point to this as “progress” if Secretary Pompeo raises the issue, he shouldn’t get a pass. Religious freedom advocates have cause to be skeptical in light of the years of abuse in India.
This very week, events commemorating the 10-year anniversary of the slaughter of Christians by mobs upset about the murder of the Hindu leader Swami Lakshmanananda Saraswati are taking place. What followed this murder on August 23, 2008, constituted India’s worst Christian persecution in 300 years. Despite the fact that Maoists took responsibility for the Swami’s death, over the course of the ensuing months, around 56,000 Christians fled into forests and the homes of friends and relatives. Approximately 5,600 houses and 415 villages were raided and set on fire. The government reported that 38 people were killed and two women raped, though others have reported higher numbers.
In the aftermath, seven Christians (including six who were illiterate) were tried and convicted of the murder in what appears to be as close to a sham trial as one can get. Their case has been stagnating, with an appeals court failing to take it up. One journalist has taken to setting up a petition calling for their release. It currently has almost 70,000 signatures. Those who wish to join with him can sign here.
All of this is additionally lamentable in light of India’s proud history as a Commonwealth country. Formerly part of the British Empire, India and other commonwealth countries pride themselves on matters such as the rule of law. Yet the rule of law has sadly suffered in recent years as it pertains to religious freedom in India. This compounds the negative effect on economic growth, as investors grow skittish of places where the rule of law is threatened.
One way these religious freedom concerns can immediately be addressed is by giving the seven Christians convicted for the Swami’s death a hearing date for their pending appeal, and a fair and speedy trial. Such steps will start the process of remedying the religious freedom and rule of law issues which have developed in recent years, and begin the journey toward remedying the problems for religious freedom in India.