India failing its tolerance test

In January, this newspaper turned its attention to events in India, then eight months into the tenure of Prime Minister Nahendra Modi. At the time, the coverage, coming just days before the visit of the US President Barack Obama, and days after a Christian church in Delhi suffered severe vandalism – allegedly by a Hindu fundamentalist – was a report card of sorts on India’s record in tackling such fundamentalism and its negative effects on religious minorities.

The examination was prompted by fears expressed by Christian spokespersons back in May 2014 with the rise of Mr Modi. As leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Mr Modi was allied to a grouping inextricably linked with the savage pogrom against Christians in the state of Orissa in 2008.

With its roots in an ideological vision of Hinduism as sufficient to run the entire Indian nation (a concept called Hindutva), observers on all sides interpreted the rising dominance of the BJP as a whole new chapter for the country, one summed up as a Hindu nation for Hindus alone.


Fears of an ideological drive appeared to be justified as time went on, with attacks on minorities increasing over the course of the first eight months, and the emergence of a drive known as Ghar Wapsi (homecoming) which saw the forced conversions of Christians and Muslims to Hinduism, justified by supporters as merely a reconverting of former Hindus on the basis that the minority faiths only exist in India as a result of fraudulent conversion in the first place. For the record, the Christian minority in a country as populace as India is believed to be in the region of 25 million.

And throughout, silence from Mr Modi, variously seen astacit support for a ‘Hindu revolution’ or a cynical exercise in not upsetting those whose support he needs to remain in control of the nation. Critics further pointed to his questionable record as state governor for Gujarat in 2002 when he failed to act as religious violence flared out of control to claim some 800 lives.

Then, in February 2015, the prime minister broke his silence at last. After the visiting US president made reference to India’s religious dimension, via a carefully phrased lauding of the strengthening of India’s economy which “will succeed so long as it is not splintered along the lines of religious faith”, Mr Modi attended a Catholic event to honour Indian saints, and used the occasion to make a strong statement against religious intolerance.

“My government will ensure that there is complete freedom of faith and that everyone has the undeniable right to retain or adopt the religion of his or her choice without coercion or undue influence,” he said, speaking in English for the benefit of international observers. “My government will not allow any religious group, belonging to the majority or the minority, to incite hatred against others, overtly or covertly.”

Six months have passed since that bold statement (which garnered much abuse for the prime minister on social media) and, sadly, the latest report card can offer nothing more than to confirm that ‘talk is cheap’.

Even a cursory search of news coverage for India today reveals an ongoing litany of church vandalism, physical attacks – including rape – with Hindu graffiti often the calling card left behind. One online group, Speak Out Against Hate, claims there is currently at least one violent anti-Christian attack each week in the country.

And such attacks are clearly receiving official sanction, both vocally and in the unspoken actions from higher up the religious and political ladders.

In April, following an attack on a Catholic church in Agra, in the state of Uttar Pradesh, The Hindu newspaper quoted a spokesperson for the Hindu Mahasabha (grand council of Hindus) who insisted no laws were broken as “churches are no longer places of worship but factories for conversion of Hindus into Christianity”. The same spokesman called on the government to “award and provide legal and administrative protection to Hindus who attack churches across the country”.

Then, in late July, The Times of India confirmed that the practice of Ghar Wapsi continues unabated despite Prime Minister Modi’s February promises. According to the newspaper, one incident alone saw 39 Christians forced to convert to Hinduism in Kerala.

This occurrence offers an added dimension to the predicament facing Indian Christians. As with the 39 Kerala ‘conversions’, Christians are very often members of the Dalit caste within the country, that is, the bottom strata ‘untouchables’ of Indian society. Any activity negatively affecting them is unlikely to stir hearts in the wider community, while their impoverished existence makes them all the more vulnerable to the tactics of fundamentalists.

It has been reported that one method of coercion in the Ghar Wapsi drive is to simply remind Dalits that certain government benefits are available to those identifying as Hindu. This is no lie.

According to the monitoring group International Christian Concern, “in most cases, people from low caste backgrounds are afforded government stipends and advantages, but these stipends and advantages are denied to low caste people who are registered as Christians or Muslims in India. In many cases the allurement of these government stipends and advantages are enough to convince people to convert to Hinduism.”

This official discrimination goes to the very heart of everyday persecution of Christians.

By way of illustrating this, the veteran religious correspondent John Allen Jr recently re-examined the 2008 pogrom in Orissa (known officially as Odisha since 2011) and found that, in relation to the 120 murders of Christians occurring in 2008, just two people have to date been convicted and sentenced, and one of them for abduction, not murder.

At the time of writing, Mr Allen was attempting to confirm the latest incident, the alleged shooting to death, by police, of two Christians in Odisha. According to the earliest reports, those killed had walked to an isolated hilltop to achieve a clear signal for their mobile phone when they were targeted in what appears to be an opportunist killing.

Once again, Prime Minister Modi is silent, no doubt reassured in his position by the apparent willingness of America to overlook his record on religious intolerance, along with other members of an international community eager to maintain good relations with the Indian economic powerhouse.

The subject of anti-Christian persecution itself has become ‘untouchable’.