2008 was the most violent year for Christians in India. Daily newspaper headlines captured the senseless violence in the form of death, destruction, and displacement that unfolded in the states of Karnataka and Odisha. On the ten-year anniversary of these atrocities, it’s time to explore the forms of violence against Christians in the country today and evaluate their potential effect on the 2019 general election race.
Christians in India
India’s 29 million Christians constitute only 2.3 percent of the country’s population, making them the second largest religious minority in the country after Muslims. The origins and prominence of Christian denominations and groups vary across the country, but Christianity’s earliest tryst with India came in the first century AD when the disciples of St. Thomas arrived in the southern state of Kerala. By conservative estimates, across denominations, nearly 70 percent of Christians are Dalits (formerly the untouchable caste). This intersection of religion and caste is essential to understanding the issue, as Dalit Christians tend to be the victims of a majority of physical violence and, almost exclusively, the victims of structural violence among Christians.
Anti-Christian violence is a relatively recent phenomenon, beginning to proliferate in the late 1990s. Between 1964 and 1996, there were only 38 registered cases of violence. However, in 1997, 27 instances occurred and then 70 cases in 1998. This number has steadily risen. In 2017, the Evangelical Fellowship of India documented 351 instances of violence against Christians, but activists and scholars believe that this is only a fraction of the actual violence as many cases go unreported.
This proliferation coincides with the social and political rise of Hindu nationalist organizations, including the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), from the peripheries to the center of Indian politics. The Hindu nationalist ideology, known as Hindutva, considers Christians as foreigners, intent on destroying the integrity of the nation primarily through conversions. Following the historic political victory for the BJP in 2014, which propelled Narendra Modi to the prime ministership, 600 instances of violence against minorities were recorded in the first 100 days of the administration. This has been accompanied by an intensification of the political discourse of bipolarization, which reinforces the above characterization of Christians. For example, a BJP member of parliament recently referred to Christians as being “angrez” (British) while diminishing their contribution to the freedom movement.
In addition to this physical violence, Christians (especially Dalit Christians) face structural violence in the form of denial of affirmative action and the institution of Freedom of Religion laws. Both violate the spirit of Article 25 of the Indian Constitution, which provides that “all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practice, and propagate religion.” This also has resonance in international law. For example, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) provides for the “right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion,” which includes the freedom “to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom … to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice, and teaching.”
Denial of Affirmative Action Rights to Dalit Christians
The most persistent form of structural violence in independent India is the denial of rights and protections afforded to Dalit Christians, who constitute an estimated 70 percent of India’s Christian population. Dalit Christians (as well as Dalit Muslims) are excluded from receiving the benefits of affirmative action from the government in the form of reserved seats in government education and employment. Further, they do not come under the protection of the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989, which provides greater protection and access to justice for caste-based discrimination and violence.
According to the Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order, 1950, only Hindus would be considered as Scheduled Castes and could avail of these benefits. However, smaller-sized minorities such as Sikhs and Buddhists were included in 1956 and 1990, respectively. The denial of this affirmative action to Dalit Christians is justified on two grounds. The first argument is that on conversion, they do not belong to the caste system because Christianity’s egalitarian nature does not recognize caste. The second suggests that their economic and social situations improve as members of Christianity and therefore, they should not receive added benefits from the government.
The first argument falls through because of the inclusion of Sikhism, and Buddhism, which are both also egalitarian in nature. However, interestingly, Sikhism and Buddhism are both also considered Indic religions and very much under the banner of Hindutva. Therefore, Muslims and Christians are the two major religious minorities who are denied these benefits.
The second claim — regarding a better economic and social situation on conversion — has been consistently proven to be false by several government commissions, such as the Mandal Commission in 1980, the Sachar Commission in 2006, and most recently by the National Commission for Minorities in 2008. The Sachar Commission report stated that “by all available evidence we do find the caste system to be an all-pervading social phenomenon of India shared by almost all Indian communities irrespective of religious persuasions.” Even upon conversion to Christianity, Dalit Christians continue to face discrimination similar to other Dalits, including being prevented from using upper-caste streets, sharing sources of drinking water and other public resources, and being made to walk around with brooms tied to their waists. A recent report by the Institute for Dalit Studies concluded that “discrimination, violence and atrocities being committed on Dalit Christians are mostly on caste lines and its nature and forms are same as that of the offences and atrocities” against other Dalits.
Freedom of Religion Laws
Ironically named freedom of religion laws, which are better described as anti-conversion laws, are now in effect in eight states in India. Jharkhand and Uttarakhand have joined this list during the Modi administration. Asma Jahangir, the UN Special Rapporteur for Religious Freedom, has expressed that she is “deeply concerned” with these laws and their implications for freedom of religion in the country.
Most of the laws share a common template and their anti-Christian nature is evident in their stated intent and design. The words “force,” “fraud,” and “inducement” are present in all the states’ bills as the means used to convert; however, their specific meaning is nebulous. Can access to missionary-run education and healthcare be considered “allurement”? In the Jharkhand legislation, the term “force” also includes the “threat of divine displeasure.” In that case would the Christian belief in going to heaven for living a good Christian life count as force? In extreme cases, some could argue that anything to do with religion could be considered “fraud.”
The penalties of these laws further predict their anti-Christian nature. For example, the ruling Jharkhand Bharatiya Janata Party’s chief whip, Radha Krishna Kishore, spoke of the growing Christian population in the state and the Christian targeting of the poor, Dalits, and tribals. This notion is reaffirmed in other legislation in the form of higher penalties if the person converted is a minor, woman, or a member of Scheduled Castes or Scheduled Tribe.
While activists and lawyers will admit that very few convictions have come off of these laws, they have further created an atmosphere of hostility and intolerance and are used as a tool to incite further violence by Hindu nationalist vigilante groups in states where these laws are in effect. These states also tend to be those were a majority of physical violence is observed.
Road to 2019
Christians in the country are feeling the pressure of this ecosystem of violence. For example, recently, in an open statement, the Bishop Most Revd. Oommen, Moderator of the Church of South India, the second largest church in India, said, “After four years of their [BJP] rule…they have become a danger to the very fabric of the greatest Sovereign, Socialist, Secular, and the Democratic Republic.” Bishop Baselios Cleemis, the president of the Catholic Bishop’s Conference of India, the apex body of the Catholic Church, following a series of violence in Satna, said, “From the point of Christian community, this whole incident… do[es] not help us to keep our confidence in the government intact. We are losing our confidence in the government.”
The latest Lokniti-CSDS-ABP News Mood of the Nation Survey suggests that nearly 61 percent of Christians disapprove of the direction of the country. In the context of the upcoming elections, 61 percent believe that Modi should not get a second term while only 17 percent believe he should. However, while the sentiment is strong among Indian Christians, their small size and dispersed population reduces the potential of making a significant impact in the results of the elections. The only states where they could potentially make a difference are the northeastern states, where Christians are in a majority in four (smaller) states, and the southern states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu.
While the instances of physical violence are relatively small, its rise along with the persistence of structural violence must be seen in the larger context as fault lines within Indian democracy and secularism, and the country’s gradual move toward becoming a Hindu State.
M. Sudhir Selvraj is a Ph.D. Candidate in the King’s India Institute in King’s College London, where his research focus on violence against religious minorities in India.