India is the world’s seventh-largest country by land area, and it has the second largest population in the world. It is a religiously diverse and democratic society with a national constitution that provides equality for all citizens with different backgrounds and beliefs. However, facts on the ground undermine its reputation for tolerance. Since May 2014, the level of intolerance of other religions apart from Hinduism has increased under the rule of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The BJP rules based on a Hindu nationalist ideology. Hundreds of incidents of discrimination and violence against Christians are recorded every year. Though not all the news is bad, there are significant reasons for concern over religious freedom in India.
Even though India has the world’s third-largest Muslim population and a large Christian community, Islam and Christianity have come under suspicion in India. Hinduism has dominated India since 500-300 BCE. About 72.5% of citizens practise Hinduism in India. 14.5% of the population are Muslims, and 4.9% Christians. Hindu radicals view other religions as “aliens” in the nation. In the 2019 election, Prime Minister Modi and his party gained greater majority power in the government; some of their policies show that they want to cleanse the country of Islam and Christianity. When Modi was the Chief Minister of Gujarat in 2002, hundreds of Muslims were recorded killed in pogroms. Some of the main persecution engines are religious nationalism, ethnoreligious hostility, clan oppression and paranoia. Since May 2014, Hindu nationalists have taken more aggressive action against dissidents and minorities.
The caste system in India is a Hindu social hierarchy. It has existed for more than 3000 years. The caste system divides Hindus into rigid hierarchical groups that are presumed to be rooted in people’s karma and dharma. The four main categories are Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras. Many believe that the groups originated from Brahma, the Hindu god of creation. The caste system is an essential part of daily life in India. Brahmins were traditionally mainly teachers or spiritual leaders, Kshatriyas the warriors and rulers, Vaishyas the traders, and Shudras, who are often the blacksmiths or other menial workers, occupied the bottom of the caste system. Existing outside of the Hindu caste system are the Dalits, historically known as “untouchables.” Upper castes remain influential given their ritual importance. India officially banned discrimination on the basis of caste in 1950, though there remains some stigma surrounding caste in Indian society.
This system has also remained in churches. Many Christians in India come from the lower castes or among the Dalits. They converted from Hinduism hoping to escape societal discrimination. However, many are disappointed since the caste system is often found in the churches as well, and Christians from a Dalit background do not have access to government “reservations” designed to improve their economic status. Campaigns such as Ghar Wapsi (“homecoming”, a ritual for converting non-Hindu Indians to Hinduism) effectively use persistent discrimination to reconvert many Christian citizens back to Hinduism.
On the other hand, Christians have benefited by expanded access to online material. In the past few years, Christian TV channels and other Christian media have expanded enormously. Christians in India have a great degree of freedom to publish anything. Although there has been expanded publishing resources available for Christians in India, other non-Christianity media are generally biased against Christians and are even hostile in rural areas. Another major problem for Christians in India is the presence of Maoist rebels. Communist (or “Naxalite”) militants persist in poorer villages in India, for instance, in the jungles of Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Kerala, Maharashtra, Odisha, and Telangana. Their actions sometimes present a threat to the lives of Christian citizens, both directly and given the association of Christians with the Communist movement in the popular imagination.
Many Christian activities are also hindered, for example, baptisms or adopting children as Christian couples. Eight state administrations have passed anti-conversion laws putatively known as “religious freedom acts” in order to limit efforts at converting Hindus toward Islam or Christianity. State governments monitor churches, including foreign funding, invitations for foreign missionaries or speakers. The churches in India also have experienced difficulties in establishing schools or local charitable organizations. The government is not friendly toward evangelists and Christian workers and often sees them as a threat to Hinduism. Due to the pressure from Hindu radicals, baptisms in India have become a low-key affair. Baptism is very significant in Christianity, and it is seen as the final sign that one has left Hinduism to become a Christian. A simple activity like baptisms could put the pastor or other staff in a risky situation under anti-conversion ordinances. In the past five years, the risks for churches or Christian organizations to speak about their faith has increased. There are increasing numbers of death threats on social media, leaking persona information and attacks on family members. If Christians speak out against Hindu radicals or the biased judiciary, Hindu militants would have more reasons to step up their attacks toward Christians.
Hindu radicals have called Islam and Christianity "alien" religions, which should eventually be removed from the country. The Muslim minority also experiences similar treatment as Christianity does in India. However, Buddhists and Sikhs are found more acceptable to Hindu radicals since the religions originate from India's territory. There have been large-scale pogroms that target many Muslims and Christians. As Prime Minister won the May 2019 elections, it is expecting that many Hindus will feel encouraged to take on more violent actions against the minorities. India is the largest democracy globally, but the current government abuses its power to outmanoeuvre its opponents.
IIRF-V Fellows are currently working on research into religious freedom in India. For more information, see Open Doors' World Watch List entry for India. See also this independent report commissioned by Open Doors.
FEATURED RESEARCH: Paul Rowe
“Liberalization, Development, and Religious Minorities in India: a Capital Idea”, Asia Dialogue, April 2017.
“Whither a Foreign Policy of Hindutva?”, IAPS Dialogue, September 2017.