Apr 29, 2020
Nobel Laureate V. S. Naipaul, referring to how its people resisted top-down rule, famously called India the land of a “million mutinies.” Apparently for many of the 1.3 billion people there, laws were thought of as suggestions, and obedience as negotiable.
The era of COVID-19 seems to be an exception. The New York Times recently reported, that Indians aren’t just “dutifully following” Prime Minister Modi’s lockdown order, but are “going above and beyond it.” The sudden outbreak of rule-following means that for many Christians, there is a break from the persecution that has escalated since Prime Minister Modi took power in 2014.
Religious freedom shouldn’t be as precarious in India as it has proven to be. While the Preamble to their Constitution declares India a “secular state,” this doesn’t imply the elimination of religion from the public square or even the non-involvement of government in religious matters. The “secularism” decreed by India’s law is that no religion can enjoy privileged status over others, which in a country that is 80 percent Hindu, guarantees religious freedom and tolerance.
For the first five decades after independence, it worked for India. Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, and other minorities played major roles in Indian society. Prime Minster Modi’s predecessor, in fact, was a Sikh. Five presidents of India have been Muslims. Indian Christians have been instrumental in creating the country’s space program and have served with distinction in the Armed Forces.
During the late 1980s, however, Hindu nationalism, known as Hindutva, made a comeback. Hindutva rejects religious pluralism, aiming instead for India to become a Hindu state. In the view of Hindutva’s founder, a non-Hindu in India should be considered “at best a guest, and at worst the bastard child of foreign invasion.”
The political manifestation of Hindutva is the BJP, which is the party of Prime Minister Modi. The BJP has shock troops, known as the RSS, a “paramilitary volunteer organization” with an estimated 5 million members. The primary target of Hindu nationalists, so far, have been India’s 200 million Muslims. Thousands have been killed, including dozens that were murdered just a few weeks ago in Delhi by mobs that were egged on by both the BJP and RSS leaders.
Christians are also considered “bastard children of foreign invasions” and targeted by Hindu nationalists. In fact, the single deadliest modern attack on Christians took place, not somewhere in the Middle East, but in the Indian state of Orissa. In 2008, an anti-Christian pogrom there killed more than 500 people and caused another 12,000 to flee their homes. In 2017 and 2018, nearly 900 instances of violence against Christians and churches were reported in India.
At the same time, Christian activities have been targeted and limited. At least six states now have laws making conversion to Christianity (or Islam) from Hinduism either difficult or impossible. Similar laws make it difficult for Christian nonprofits to operate within India. In 2017, Compassion International was forced to close its operations there.
That such laws primarily hurt children, nearly forty percent of whom are malnourished, doesn’t matter to Hindu nationalists. All that matters to them is building India into a Hindu state.
The growth of this ideology in both numbers and power are why, under the BJP, India has skyrocketed into the top ten of Open Door’s World Watch List. In other words, India has now joined religious persecutors such as North Korea and Iran, and even rank ahead of China and Saudi Arabia.
Since people who cannot leave their homes also cannot victimize their Christian neighbors, at least not as easily, Christians are the unlikely beneficiaries of COVID-19 lockdowns. At the same time, as we’ve seen already in China and other nations, governments like Modi’s rarely miss opportunities like this one to advance their agendas. And, of course, the lockdowns across India will eventually lift, and then attacks there will likely resume.
So, let’s keep our brothers and sisters in India, as well as the vulnerable members of other religious minority populations, in our prayers. They need it.
They also need us to pay attention, and then to advocate on their behalf with our leaders. The decline of religious freedom in one of the most populous nations in the world is something we must not ignore.