Sabrina Hartono CMC '21 interviewed Ashutosh Varshney on Nov. 20, 2018
The Indian Constitution protects the rights of individuals to practice their faith. Yet in September of this year, 271 Christian Indians were charged with trying to convert Hindus into “worshipping the Devil.” How widespread is violence against this small Christian minority?
As of now, 2% of Indians are Christian. There are some parts of India, particularly the northeastern areas where Christians can make up the majority of the local population and in southern state of Kerala, they are around 20% of the state’s population.
Christians face prejudice, not violence. There needs to be a distinction between the two. Anti-Christian prejudice, in some cases persecution, under the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government is not uncommon, but violence against them is. Between 1990 to 2004, there was an infamous killing of a Christian priest in the state of Odisha. Nothing similar has happened since 2014, when the BJP came to power again.
Muslims, who make up about 14% of country’s population, are the religious minority group in India most heavily targeted by the Hindu nationalists. The Hindu nationalists have argued that, according to their ideological texts, India is a Hindu nation. However, according to the constitution, India belongs to all religious communities equally. To the Hindu nationalists, non-Hindu religions that are born in India are acceptable, but those that are not born in India—like Christianity and Islam—are not. These latter religions are objects of suspicion. In short, Christians are subjected to prejudice and persecution and less so to violence, unlike Muslims who are the primary targets of violence.
Article 25 of the Indian Constitution grants every individual the right to profess, practice and propagate any religion. This article allows the minority communities to follow their beliefs and practices without any hindrance as long as it does not hamper public order, morality and health of any person. But we have seen how religious minorities in India are still subjected to harsh treatments without protection from the law. How are formal guarantees of religious freedom experienced by religious minorities in practice?
There is a stark difference between legal enforcements for the protection of religious minorities under a Hindu nationalist government and when the Congress Party was in power. The Congress Party has been closer to the constitutional values than the Hindu Nationalists. The latter sometimes profess outward faith in the Constitution. However, they do not actually believe in the constitutional idea that India belongs to all religious communities equally. India, for them, is a primarily Hindu nation and all non-Hindu minorities must accept the primacy of Hindus.
Many feared that the election of the BJP in 2014 would lead to increased violence against non-Hindu groups, especially Muslims. How has the political ascent of the BJP affected Christians in India?
There is a difference between these two religious groups because Muslims are not only object of suspicion and persecution but also objects of violence; Christians are objects of suspicion and persecution but not of violence since 2014. Christian Indians have yet to experience the same intensity of violence as the Muslims have.
Muslim Indians have been lynched to death by Hindu nationalist mobs, especially in states where the BJP is the ruling party. Muslims have been criticized for carrying and eating beef, and engaging in cattle trade. The Hindu Nationalists have argued that eating beef is hurtful to the Hindus since the cow is a sacred animal in many varieties of Hinduism. If Muslims eat beef, say the Hindu Nationalists, they should be punished. However, there has not been any large-scale violence against Christians.
Many Christian Indians have criticized Prime Minister Narendra Modi for the growing persecution of religious minorities and church burnings, due to his concept of Hindutva (to convert the country into a Hindu state). Is Premier Modi deserving of this criticism?
Prime Minister Modi has repeatedly said that the Constitution is the only sacred document of India. However, when groups belonging to his party, or groups sympathetic to his party, or other groups that are aligned with the BJP make very prejudiced announcements, openly antagonizing Muslims and Christians, Modi never takes a clear stand against them. Therefore, officially, Prime Minister Modi might have openly professed faith in the Constitution, but his actions do not show a commitment to it. Rather, his silence and his inability to criticize those from his party or his cabinet, who are prone to making anti-minority statements, even when violence against minorities takes place, make him complicit, too.
Persecution Relief, an ecumenical group in India, has organized a prayer campaign last month. Hundreds of thousands took part in the initiative, which included calls for the release of about a hundred clergymen and believers jailed on false accusations of forced conversions. How effective are these social movements in dealing with this issue?
I’m not very familiar about this episode of persecution against minorities, but I would not be surprised if it were true, because it is consistent with the BJP’s attitude towards non-Hindu minorities.
Whenever the BJP comes to power, social movements that believe in religious harmony and ecumenical approaches to social peace become active. Often, the government targets and attempts to disempower these groups by searching for flaws in their organizational or legal structure. Despite such targeting, the government is unable to completely extinguish all wellsprings of protest. Some groups survive the legal onslaught. Depending on the efficacy of the movement, as well as its legal structure and leadership, some are indeed able to launch counter-mobilization and counter-campaigns through the press and through their activities on the ground. The government has not been able to decimate the entire NGO sector and some NGOs have continued working hard to promote religious harmony.
In other words, it is not that NGOs and social movements are entirely ineffective. Some are effective and others are not. On the whole, however, it is an unequal battle because the BJP government has so much more power to harass and target the NGOs and social movements.
Anba Angaelos, the Coptic Orthodox Archbishop of London, said that “The persecution of Christians is generally ignored because, unlike Muslims and Jews, there is no Christian equivalent for words such as “anti-Semitism” and “Islamophobia.” Why is there an unequal attention given to religious persecution in India?
I agree with him; there is no generally accepted term for the religious persecution of Christians. For Christians, there is no equivalent of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. Everyday practices of prejudice and persecution against Christians are harder to keep track of than actual violence. At least since 2014, everyday persecution in some areas might have gone on, but it has not been reported very widely. It could be very hard to prove.
What is happening in India is, in many ways, part of a global phenomenon. A lot of democracies in the world are going through a majoritarian phase and have been quite hostile towards various religious, ethnic or racial minorities. Trump has clearly been hostile towards the Hispanics and Blacks. In Hungary, you have an elected leader who is very hostile towards the Roma community. And, had Le Pen come to power in France instead of Macron, French democracy could have taken on a very anti-North African twist, too.
When right wing groups to come to power, minorities are often targeted. It is happening in India and it is happening in many parts of the world. And this is one reason why foreign governments in general have not criticized Modi too much. It is mainly because a number of democracies have also shown anti-minority tendencies.
While there has been limited coverage of this issue in the West, are there international NGOs or foreign religious organizations trying to shed a light upon increased incidents of violence against Christian minorities in India? Do they have much impact in India?
The Modi government is especially hostile to foreign or international NGOs, or Indian NGOs funded by foreign bodies. The environment in India is not very positive towards international or internationally supported NGOs. The NGOs that are founded in India, or have access to resources within India, are much more effective. But even then, due to the inequality of power between the government and the civil society, their influence is limited. Therefore, the entire NGO sector has concerns and has been considerably weakened, although not wiped out by the BJP. Under BJP rule, liberal democratic practices, civil society and social movements have become extremely weak in India.
However, the BJP cannot change the Constitution easily. There are legal remedies available for groups to go to court and fight against the government. It takes a long time, but the Constitution clearly protects minorities in India. And if such cases are legally fought, support from NGOs would still be able to protect minorities. That said, there is no doubt that under the current government, many minorities live in fear. Their position has become considerably precarious.