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The violent toll of Hindu nationalism on India’s Christians

In Modi's Hindu nationalist India, anti-Christian violence is on the rise
5 min read
23 July, 2020
The rise of Hindu nationalism has fuelled unprecedented vigilante violence against India's Christians.
India is among the ten most dangerous countries to live in for Christians. [Getty]

Pastor Thomas, 42, sometimes loses the will to persevere. For the last 13 years he has been struggling to seek justice for Christians in India who have been targeted in religiously motivated attacks.

"The incidents don't seem to stop. Vile majoritarianism has consumed this nation," he told The New Arab.

While attacks on minorities and communal violence in India is not a new phenomenon, the pastor says widespread impunity enjoyed by vigilante mobs since the rise of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2014 has exacerbated the deep-rooted issue. "There is no fear since these people have a sense of surety that this government won't touch them."

Incidents of targeted violence against Christians have barely slowed despite the Covid-19 pandemic sweeping the country. Just days ago, Pastor Thomas (not his real name) was called to the Azamgarh district in north India's Uttar Pradesh state after a pre-meditated mob attack on a small village church.

"A local Christian priest was forced by a mob to bow down to an idol in a temple after being dragged from a church - which was also destroyed. The police released the perpetrators immediately after detaining them," the pastor said. "In such a situation, how would you expect justice?"

The United Christian Forum (UCF), an organisation that tracks and documents attacks on Indian Christians, says there were at least 121 incidents of violence in the first six months of 2020. Many simply go unreported. Hundreds of Christians have been injured in these attacks, including 66 women and 16 children, while two have been killed.

The increase in vigilante attacks on Christians has been widely blamed on the political rise of the right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party

Another report by the Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI) puts the number of incidents during the same period at 135, including lynching, social ostracisation and concerted efforts to stop worship at religious sites. 

'Systematic' persecution

The increase in vigilante attacks on minorities, including Christians, in India has been widely blamed on the political rise and 'invincibility' of the right-wing Hindu nationalist BJP, led by Narendra Modi. In 2014, the year the BJP secured a landslide victory in elections, the UCF reported 147 cases of targeted violence against Christians. In 2019, reported attacks had more than doubled.

The majority of attacks occurred in the state of Chhattisgarh, in central India, where Christians constitute less than two percent of the population. The majority of incidents include social ostracism whereby Christian families are threatened into renouncing their faith. "Those who resist are denied basic public facilities including drinking water. Some are even thrown out of their own houses," the UCF report said.

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India is now ranked the 10th most dangerous country in the world for the Christian community, according to Open Doors' 2020 World Watch List, up 18 places over the past six years.

Experts say that discrimination has become more "systematic" and "institutionalised", with perpetrators of violence enjoying immunity from state institutions.

"Often times police accompany the mob and arrest the victims rather than people who indulge in violence against them," AC Michael, a prominent Christian activist for human rights and former member of the Delhi Minorities Commission, told The New Arab.

Michael says police in most cases refuse to help the victims and fail to register a First Information Report (FIR), an official recording that a crime has taken place. Out of the 121 incidents of violence against the Christian community this year, an FIR has been registered in only 20 cases. 

The incidents don't seem to stop. Vile majoritarianism has consumed this nation

"The modus operandi followed in all these incidents are similar... a mob, accompanied by the local police, arrives at a prayer service shouts slogans, beats up the men, women and children. Then the pastors are arrested or detained by the police under the false allegation of conversion," an excerpt from the UCF report reads.

Viewed with suspicion 

Last month, in a horrendous incident in the eastern state of Odisha, a 14-year old Christian boy was crushed to death with a stone by a mob and then his body was chopped into pieces and buried in different places. The boy and his family had adopted Christianity a few years earlier.

India is home to 28 million Christians who constitute 2.3 percent of the total population. The community is largely being seen as 'foreign' with roots in the West. "There is a sense that Christians don't belong to Hindustan (India) - the land for Hindus, as envisaged by many fringe groups in the country. That also proliferates the already prevalent sense of divide," Victor Avinash Sinha, a 23-year-old student from West Bengal state who identifies as a Christian, told TNA.

Read more: India's coronavirus outbreak unmasks the ugly face of Islamophobia

Right-wing Hindutva organisations view the Christian community with suspicion, accusing the minority group of undertaking forced religious conversions of Hindus, a charge vehemently denied by community activists. 

"We have been living here for several centuries, almost since Christianity emerged. If our motive would have been to convert people of other faiths to Christianity, then seeing our numbers, we must say we have badly failed," Michael said.

The prominent activist believes that the poor political representation of Christians in India's electoral politics also adds to the marginalisation of the community in the country.

"The atmosphere of hatred against all minorities created by the current ruling dispensation is unprecedented. And unfortunately, there are barely any elected leaders in the community who could counter the vile narrative of right-wing Hindutva forces."

Hanan Zaffar is a journalist based in New Delhi and has written extensively on South Asian politics and minority issues 

Follow him on Twitter: @HananZaffar