During what was expected to be a normal worship service on the first Sunday in March, one pastor in India was dragged out of his church mid-service by a mob of Hindu nationalists, tied to a tree, and beaten for hours. The police arrived afterward, only to take Pastor Manju Keralli to the station and charge him with violating India’s blasphemy laws. Pastor Keralli recounted to International Christian Concern, “Even the police threatened me with foul language, saying that I don’t have right to live in this country as I am practicing foreign faith.”
Pastor Keralli, like many other Christians and Muslims in India, is a victim of India’s growing Hindu nationalist movement, which asserts that India is a nation for Hindus only. This ideology inspires mob violence against religious minorities who already occupy a vulnerable place in society.
The coronavirus pandemic further exposes the cultural discrimination Christians and others endure in India. Reports have surfaced that government officials choose to send Christian nurses to tend to the most contagious patients. Reportedly, this selection is due to Christians often being viewed as “expendable.” While many Christians happily serve coronavirus patients, the fact that officials reportedly choose to send Christians to dangerous places before others shows that religious discrimination is alive and well.
India is still a developing country, and its societal problems are complex. However, as India is the second-largest population in the world whose global influence is growing, it is important to understand what is happening there and how it affects the most vulnerable.
Here are three facts you should know about the status of religious freedom in India.
1) Rising Hindu nationalism breeds intolerance against religious minorities.
Hindu nationalism has been on the rise in India. This movement claims that “to be Indian is to be Hindu.” This exclusionary narrative marginalizes religious minorities, including Christians and Muslims.
The concept of “Hindutva,” meaning “Hindu-ness,” has been around for about a century, and it was intended to forge a stronger Indian identity in the face of British colonialism. Yet, this idea lives on in contemporary Hindu nationalism, a movement which the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its leader, the current Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has proven is politically palatable in India today.
Yet, Hindu nationalism is not just an ideological danger; it is a growing physical threat to religious minorities. Violent mobs inspired by these ideas often target Christians, and the attacks include brutal beatings and sexual assault against women. Since Modi and the BJP came to power in 2014, Open Doors reports that “incidents against Christians have increased, and Hindu radicals often attack Christians with little to no consequence.”
Muslims are also at risk of increased mob violence in India. Earlier this year, Muslim protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act widely deemed to be discriminatory against Muslims devolved into violence. U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) Commissioner Anurima Bhargava said, “reports are mounting that the Delhi police have not intervened in violent attacks against Muslims, and the government is failing in its duty to protect its citizens.” The government’s failure to protect Muslims and Christians who are assaulted by Hindu mobs is a serious problem, and one that the government has an obligation to address.
2) The legal system does not always support religious minorities.
Religious minorities who are attacked by their fellow citizens via mob violence often do not find sympathy with authorities or in the court system. After mobs violently attack Christians in India, police or local officials sometimes compound the problem by allowing charges to be placed against the victims of attacks rather than the perpetrators.
On January 19, 2020, a group of Hindu nationalists interrupted the worship service of a small Christian congregation in Karnataka state. The Christians were harassed, threatened, and assaulted, leaving believers in the village afraid to leave their homes. Afterward, the congregants learned that their attackers had filed criminal charges against them. Such stories are all too common.
3) India still has anti-conversion laws.
In the world’s largest democracy, anti-conversion laws are still on the books in several states. These laws prohibit conversion from one religion to another. India’s laws mainly intend to discourage conversions away from the majority faith, Hinduism. Christians are intimidated from sharing their faith out of fear they will be accused of “false conversions.”
Draconian anti-conversion laws should not be on the books in any country that wants to be a global leader in the contemporary world. These laws are an affront to human rights because they restrict a fundamental element of religious freedom—the ability to change one’s faith.
India’s strict coronavirus lockdown has limited the number of physical attacks against Christians as the country follows social distancing measures, International Christian Concern reports. Yet, the overall trend indicates violence against Christians is on the rise in 2020.
As long as religious tensions continue to heighten, persecution is not going away in India. Even as religious freedom is declining, the Indian government is looking to secure a friendship with the United States. This presents U.S. leaders and advocates with an opportunity to encourage India to share one of our core values, religious freedom. For the sake of vulnerable religious minorities in India, let us pray that their government is receptive to that message.