This blog is part of an International Religious Freedom 101 series providing an overview of religious freedom challenges in countries around the world. Read our previous installments on Turkey, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Uzbekistan, and Nigeria.
In May 2021, a mob of radical Hindus attacked Pastor Ramesh Bumbariya’s family after they refused to renounce their Christian faith. One of the armed assailants shot Bhima Bumbariya, the father of Pastor Bumbariya, killing him. Pastor Bumbariya and two other members of his family were hospitalized.
Even in the face of his father’s death, Pastor Bumbariya thanked God for His faithfulness. He was comforted by his conviction that God had a plan for his life to continue ministering to his community.
As Hindu nationalism continues to surge in India, the violence committed against this Christian family is just one example among hundreds. The violence stems from social hostility to religious minorities and state policies that reinforce such sentiments—making it more difficult for religious minorities to thrive in the Hindu-dominated state.
Mob Violence against Christians and Others
Christians in India number in the tens of millions but still only comprise just over two percent of the country’s population. Many Indian Christians come from historically lower castes in society, which can make them even more vulnerable to discrimination or social pressure. As the Evangelical Fellowship of India reported, the first half of 2021 saw at least 145 acts of violence perpetrated against Christians. These included several religiously motivated murders. These acts are all part of a larger effort to “purify” India of non-Hindu influences.
Some members of the Hindu majority feel threatened by the presence of Christians, especially when Hindus convert to Christianity. Some Hindus have led social movements to “reconvert” Indians back to Hinduism, even if the potential reconverts or their families were never adherents to Hinduism in the first place. These ceremonies are oftentimes forced or coerced.
Christians are not the only minority facing discrimination and threats because of their religion. More than 30 Muslims were killed in mob violence in New Delhi in 2020, following the passage of a law that created easier pathways to citizenship for specifically non-Muslim immigrants. The police were later found to be complicit in allowing these acts of violence to take place.
Several states in India have passed the “Freedom of Religion Act,” an ironically titled piece of legislation that makes it difficult or illegal for individuals to convert to their spouse’s faith at the time of marriage. Although proponents of the ban assert that a ban on this form of conversion protects women entering arranged or coerced unions, the result of the ban seems to disproportionately affect religious minorities.
Anti-Conversion Laws Used to Control Faith
As previously documented by FRC, several Indian states have legislation restricting religious conversion. Odisha (formerly Orissa), Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh, and Uttarakhand prohibit religious conversion by use of “force,” “allurement,” or “fraudulent means” and “require district authorities be informed of any intended conversion one month in advance.” Punishment varies by state, but the maximum is imprisonment for a term of three years and/or a fine of 50,000 rupees ($700). Some states require “individuals wishing to convert to another religion and clergy intending to officiate in a conversion ceremony to submit formal notification to the government.”
Such anti-conversion laws prohibit people from converting to another religion, and governments utilize them to maintain a majority of the population within their preferred religion. They are often framed as if they are protecting people from being tricked or “induced” into changing their faith. Yet, they often discourage people from sharing their faith at all.
Activities that seek to convert people in these states must be reported to local authorities weeks in advance. As advocacy organizations like International Christian Concern have reported, the anti-conversion laws in place throughout India are one-sided, targeting religious minorities while leaving members of the Hindu majority unaffected.
Social Hostility and the Dangers of Hindu Nationalism
A growing political agenda pushed by Hindu nationalist political parties, including the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), sometimes inspires violence against Christians and Muslims. For example, this summer, members of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) rallied in Chitrakoot (a town held as a holy site in Hinduism) and developed a new party slogan: “Chadar aur Father Mukt Bharat,” which translates to: “An India Liberated of Muslims and Christians.”
Whether the violence is directed toward Muslims, Christians, or any other religious minority, the outcome is the same: the social position of the targeted group is weakened. Religious minorities feel less comfortable meeting to worship, setting up new social services like schools and clinics, and even walking in the streets of their home cities and villages. An apathetic government allows persecution to continue, especially in far-flung rural areas far from the areas that experience greater influence from Western values of tolerance and religious pluralism.
India’s status as a democracy and a strategic ally of the United States should not prevent us from speaking out in defense of vulnerable Indian believers experiencing persecution. Exposing the truth and praying for the protection of all downtrodden people are the first steps toward fostering a better future for believers in India.