More often than not, when news is reported covering the persecution of Christians in South Asia, first thoughts often turn towards Pakistan. With good reason, the plight of Christians like Asia Bibi and others is a serious international religious freedom concern.
The plight of Christians in India should not be forgotten, though. The country which first received the Gospel from Thomas, the disciple of Jesus, is not kind to its Christians. Over the last two years under the leadership of the BJP (Bharatiya Janata or Indian People’s Party) there has been an increase in activity by Hindu Nationalist groups to “saffronize” the country. This is the process of giving preeminence to and to glorify ancient Hindu cultural history, including by targeting non-Hindus and Hindu Dalits through a program of violence, intimidation and harassment. One key group targeted is the small Christian community in the country.
The 2011 national census, which provides the most reliable up-to-date figures, states that Christians make up 2.3% of the national population. An estimate by the U.S. Government in 2017 placed the overall population at 1.28 billion people. This gives India the second largest population on the planet, trailing only China.
Although the Christians can be found spread throughout the country, the greatest concentrations are found in the northeast, in the three small states of Nagaland, Mizoram and Meghalaya. All three of these states have substantial Christian majorities. Large concentrations of Christians are also found in the southern states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Goa.
The statistics for 2017 are not a pleasant read. In Christian News, the Religious Liberty Commission of the Evangelical Fellowship of India documented at least 351 cases of either violence against Christians or attacks against churches. This was an increase from the 300 incidents reported in 2016 and almost doubles the number reported for 2015 which was 177.
An analysis of the data showed that in 2017 the state where the most acts targeting Christians took place was Tamil Nadu with 52 cases. This was followed by Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, and Maharashtra. Six cases were also reported in the national capital of Delhi.
The Union of Catholic Asian News reported that Persecution Relief an interdenominational Christian NGO recorded 736 attacks on Christians during 2017 compared to 348 that were recorded in 2016. This report documented a trend by Hindus portraying Christians as actors working against the state and filing formal complaints with the police forces. Most complaints that were filed accused the Christians of committing sedition, working against religious tolerance, acting against integration, defiling places of worship, and insulting other religions. To demonstrate how serious the threats against Christians are at the current time, a conviction for sedition carries a life sentence in prison.
These numbers just highlight the concerns that lie below the surface in the country. While the national government speaks out against acts of violence, local leaders rarely do. More often than not, their comments could be interpreted as actually condoning these actions. This causes great unease not only among the Christian community but also among civil society as well.
Civil society groups that are faith-based must receive a certificate from the federal government in order to receive funds from overseas. If the government finds that a group is prejudicially affecting “harmony between religious, racial, social, linguistic, or regional groups, castes or communities” then the certificate can be rejected.
The appearance of government indifference or outright tacit approval of harassment, persecution, and the form of ethnic cleansing known as saffronization is disheartening in a country that claims to promote democratic ideals. If the Indian government truly believes in democracy, it should promote religious freedom for all. It must see Indians of all religions and castes as equal citizens under democracy. And it must not enable the Hindutvas, the radical Hindus working for the saffronization of India, or allow them to commit acts of violence and terrorism with impunity.