Persecution of Religious Minorities in India: What do we Know?

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Persecution of Christians and Muslims and social hostilities towards these minority religious groups in India have been well documented since Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in May 2014. According to World Watch Research (WWR) “the level of religious persecution of Christians has gone up dramatically” (1).

Religious Demographics of India

India, with a population of 1.4 billion, is the second-most populous country in the world. Its largest religion is Hinduism, with 72.5% of the population, followed by Islam (14.4%) and then Christianity (4.8%). Although Islam and Christianity are small (commanding less than 20% of the population) their numbers still range into the millions. 14.4% of Muslims in India makes the country home to the second-largest Muslim population on Earth (behind only Indonesia). There are over 60 million Christians in India, which would constitute the total population of some countries such as South Africa or Italy. Ethno-religionism, defined as the traditional tribal religions predating the arrival of Hinduism and Buddhism in the country, makes up 3.8% of the Indian population, and Buddhism, despite emerging in the country around the sixth or fourth centuries BCE, only makes up 0.7% of the population.

Hindu Radicalism and Intolerance

According to WWR over the past few decades, there has been a decrease in the level of religious tolerance (2). Traditionally, Hinduism used to be regarded as peaceful, but since the 1990s has taken on a much more violent character leading to a lack of tolerance for dissent, minorities, and religious and cultural diversity. A substantial part of the Indian population sympathizes with authoritarian leadership which does not shy away from imposing its will on opponents by violent means. Since May 2014 India is governed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a hardline Hindu party under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Modi had a bad reputation of ignoring atrocities committed by Hindu fanatics when he was Chief Minister of the Gujarat State in 2002, in which hundreds (if not thousands) of Muslims died in pogroms. Since May 2014 the level of intolerance in India has increased and hundreds of violent incidents have been recorded per year.

Anti-Conversion Laws and Religious Minorities

Since the 1990s Hindu radicals have gained momentum and made it their goal to change India from a secular country, as it is defined as by its constitution, into a country where Hinduism is the state religion. Over the years, Hindu radicals have engaged in numerous violent attacks against all non-Hindu religious minorities. There has, however, been little protection against such violence under Modi’s administration. WWR reports that,

“Since May 2014 the central government of India is in the hands of the BJP. All over the country the level of impunity for Hindu radicals committing atrocities against religious and ethnic minorities has gone up. Christians are suffering more than ever from daily attacks” (3).

No only are Hindu radicals aiming to undermine India’s constitution by declaring Hinduism the national religion they also want to impose anti-conversion legislation at the national level. These laws, supported by the BJP, regulate religious conversions and criminalize religious conversion without the government’s consent. They are currently in force in eight out of the country’s 29 states. Although the anti-conversion laws have resulted in few arrests, a number of human rights groups claim that they create a hostile and occasionally violent environment for religious minority communities because they do not require any evidence to support accusations of wrongdoing. In the 1980s, the target of anti-conversion legislation was largely Muslims seeking to convert non-Muslims, while Christianity has since received increased attention since the 1990s because of its association with Western-style colonialism and the role active proselytizing (4).

Human rights groups have shown concern with the lack of equitable treatment under these anti-conversion laws with the government, for example, only assessing the legality of conversions out of Hinduism (5). These laws, which seem to favour Hinduism over minority religions, do not comply with the international standards of freedom of religion or belief, such as Article 18 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights and Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. There is also evidence of “reconversion” of non-Hindus to Hinduism conducted by Hindu nationalist groups under the term Ghar Wapsi (returning home). However, this has not been considered worthy of assessment by the government under anti-conversion laws, despite such laws purportedly outlawing conversion through force, fraud, or allurement (6).

Despite few overall arrests, some notable examples have included seizures of Christians for purported evangelical activities. Arrests include members engaged in a prayer meeting within a private home, to that of pastors, preachers, priests, and nuns. A pastor was also murdered in public based on suspicions of trying to convert others to his faith. WWR has noted favouritism for Hinduism despite the official secular stance in politics and the army. Hinduism often functions as the default religion, which means that religious minorities are at a disadvantage.

Authorities Unfair Treatment of Christians

The local police, especially in areas under the BJP control, lack neutrality when dealing with religious minorities. These include taking part in raids on Christian meetings, issuing threats to Christians, and refusing to register cases reported by Christians (FIR registrations) (7). When Christians wish to register a complaint, the local police will refuse to do so in most cases, while the local police also have a reputation for beating and mistreating Christians in their custody. There are further obstacles faced by Christians, which include attempts at renovating or building new churches. Christians will encounter opposition and red-tape, and the only way to bypass these obstacles is through paying bribes. It is also difficult for Christians in the country to receive financial and material support from overseas because all gifts needs to be reported to the tax office, which means that the work of Christian NGOs has suffered.

Discrimination under the Caste System

Perhaps the most characteristic feature of Indian social life is its caste system. This is called the varna, and it is a hierarchical stratification of society into four castes: Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras. There is also a group called Dalits, who were historically excluded from the varna system altogether, and are still perceived as “Untouchables.” These people are victims of discrimination, and only members of the upper castes rule the country. WWR states that the majority of Christians are from the lower caste and many of them are poor (8). Because of this, they face daily discrimination, poverty, illiteracy, inadequate public healthcare and malnutrition, and churches often lack the finances to do anything about these situations. They sorely required assistance from abroad but government restrictions make this an incredible challenge. Many Christians have converted back to Hinduism (under the Ghar Wapsi campaign) to make life more bearable because of these struggles they face on a daily basis.

There are many other pressing social problems in the country. This includes sexual assault, high levels of physical violence, and a lack of respect for human life. Honour killings, acid throwing, mob beatings, executions, and other atrocities occur on a daily basis (9). The rights of women and girls in India are still neglected. They are perceived to be inferior, have lower literacy, and education rates, and because of society’s preference for boys there are selective abortions of girls (female infanticide). India has a growing female population deficit running into the millions (10). Females are unwanted and sometimes having them are a source of embarrassment and even mourning. Police forces often do not show real interest in helping victims or bringing justice to the perpetrators.

References

1. World Watch Research. 2019. India: Country Dossier. p. 8

2. World Watch Research. 2019. Ibid. p. 5

3. World Watch Research. 2019. Ibid. p. 5

4. Library of Congress. State Anti-conversion Laws in India. Available.

5. USCIRF. Annual Report 2016: India 162.

6. Karamat Cheema, Iqtidar. 2017. Constitutional and Legal Challenges Faced by Religious Minorities in India. p. 5.

7. World Watch Research. 2019. Ibid. p. 6

8. World Watch Research. 2019. Ibid. p. 6

9. World Watch Research. 2019. Ibid. p. 8.

10. Pasha-Robinson, Lucy. 2018. More than 63 million women and girls ‘statistically missing’ in India, show shocking figures. Available.

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