On January 30, 1948, the Hindu nationalist Nathuram Godse assassinated Mahatma Gandhi in New Delhi with three bullets fired at point-blank range. It was but a few months earlier that the religious massacres tied to the partition of India and Pakistan had occurred. Hate and anger lingered. As many as 500,000 had been slain and millions displaced. Godse and his ilk felt that Gandhi had betrayed India by his inclusivist vision. They advocated, instead, a two-nation and two-religion theory: a staunchly Hindu India as a counterpart to Muslim Pakistan.
These bloody events merit remembering today as India approaches its seventieth anniversary as the world’s most populous democracy. Adopted two years after the assassination, India’s constitution sought to temper religious passions and provide for religious liberty. As article 25 expresses it, “all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practice, and propagate religion.”
But as I’ve learned on a recent study trip to India, these freedoms are threatened by the rising menace of Hindu nationalism and its communalist ideology. In sheer numbers, this movement is among the largest nationalist movements in human history, and the West cannot afford to ignore it. Our study team—ten American scholars and ten Indian scholars, journalists, and activists, supported by the Nagel Institute for the Study of World Christianity at Calvin College—traveled to the cities of Bangalore, Chennai, and New Delhi and witnessed the dangers firsthand. Our remit: Understand issues pertaining to religious freedom and violence in India and take stock of the role of religion in social and economic development.
The communalist ideology of Hindutva (literally, “Hindu-ness”), encouraged and transmitted by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP, Indian People’s Party), cast a shadow over the constitutional secularism of the founding era, promoted by Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru alike despite the well-known differences between the two men. Founded in 1951 as the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS) before merging with other parties in 1977 to defeat Indira Gandhi (and changing its name a few years later), the BJP is now the largest political party in the world. It achieved a landslide victory in 2014. Under BJP rule, persecution of religious minorities, especially Muslims and Christians, has markedly increased, as the party often turns a blind eye to the actions of its more militant supporters. On its webpage, it proclaims that there can be “no doubt about Hindu identity and culture being the mainstay of the Indian nation and Indian society.”
We spoke to many Christian leaders in the country. Almost to a person, they voiced grave anxiety about India’s future. In addition to worrying about their own flocks, they also fear that the West, smitten with the BJP’s growth-oriented economic agenda and preoccupied by the threat of Islamic extremism, ignores the constriction of religious freedom and human rights in India today.
Although the current BJP-led government has held power only since 2014, its ideological roots go back over a century. They found initial expression in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries among Brahmin intellectuals who were disillusioned with British rule and sought a more traditionalist basis for political and cultural identity. But the proposed solution, Hindutva, should not be mistaken for Hinduism. The latter is a complex set of beliefs, practices, and rituals that have existed on the Indian subcontinent from time immemorial. By contrast, Hindutva is a modern phenomenon, a South Asian species of what the political scientist Benedict Anderson described as an “imagined community,” an ideological construct used to project a unifying identity where traditional forms are diverse and insufficiently pliable to political purposes. Its emergence during the late colonial period was a self-consciously homogenizing and quasi-racialist conception of Hinduism, a “blood and soil” sacralizing of the Indian subcontinent.
Hindutva gained a major public voice in Vinayak Damodar Savarkar (1883–1966), who in 1923 published Hindutva: Who Is a Hindu? Ironically, Savarkar, who coined the term Hindutva, was an atheist. Self-schooled in the history of European nationalism—especially as championed by Giuseppe Mazzini in Italy—Savarkar sought to give expression to a broad cultural ideology that could challenge the British Raj, counter Western influence more generally, and provide intellectual defenses against Muslim beliefs and the allegedly culture-destroying work of Christian missionaries. Appealing to “common blood” and “sacred land,” Savarkar wrote that Hindus are “the only people who are blessed with these ideal conditions that are at the same time incentive to national solidarity, cohesion, and greatness.” In his view, Buddhists, Jains, and Sikhs were part of a greater Hindu rashtra (Hindu polity), while those whose holy sites and loyalties lay elsewhere—i.e., the Abrahamic faiths—were foreign elements and therefore could be expunged.
Hindu nationalism took institutional form in the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or National Volunteer Society). Founded in 1925 by K. B. Hedgewar and consolidated later by M. S. Golwalkar, the RSS has promoted Hindu interests and sought to forge a “national consciousness” on the basis of Hindutva. The RSS grew rapidly in the 1930s and 1940s. Resembling at once a social-service organization, a paramilitary operation, and a religious order, the RSS survives today as the dominant member in a network of like-minded organizations, collectively known as the Sangh Parivar, a family of Hindu nationalist organizations that includes a worker’s union, a student and youth union, a farmer’s organization, a World Hindu Council (Vishva Hindu Parishad, or VHP), and a militant wing, the Bajrang Dal. The RSS’s main ritual and recruiting mechanism has been the so-called Sangh Shakha, a daily meeting to promote bodily and mental well-being and to inculcate loyalty to all things Hindu. Members wear obligatory khaki shorts and show their devotion to the RSS’s saffron flag. Remote members can participate through various eShakha technologies.
Gandhi’s assassin, Godse, had thick RSS connections and was a disciple of Savarkar. Following this trauma, Hindu nationalism, not surprisingly, fell into public disfavor as India’s constitutional secularism began to take root. For a short period in the late 1940s, the RSS was even outlawed. But its story from then until now has been one of a steady, stealthy comeback, culminating in the landslide election of May 2014, which brought Narendra Modi (a former RSS higher-up) and the BJP party to power with a large majority in India’s powerful Lok Sabha (lower parliament) and in many state assemblies.
Today, the BJP functions as the political arm of the Sangh Parivar. It adopted its current name in 1980, distinguishing itself from its previous identity as the Bharatiya Jana Sangh. Pledging itself to Hindutva as its official ideology, the BJP expanded its electoral footprint in the 1980s and 1990s. In 1998, for the first time, the BJP gained more seats in parliament than Nehru’s venerable India National Congress party. During its recent rise, the BJP has maintained a tight relationship with the RSS, even if it has often had to distance itself publicly from the latter to broaden its acceptance as a mainstream party.
While it sometimes manifests itself chauvinistically, especially in its xenophobic attitude toward others who don’t belong to the “homeland,” Hindutva cannot be dismissed as an unsophisticated ideology. Our study team had the opportunity to meet, at the BJP’s headquarters in New Delhi, with Ram Madhav, the party’s smooth-talking general secretary and a former national spokesperson of the RSS. Over tea and sweets and surrounded by BJP insignia, he made the case to us that Hindutva is a national and cultural movement, not a religious or theocratic one. Hindutva’s defenders insist that, although reflective of Hindu belief and practice, theirs is in fact a broader “cultural” or “civilizational” ideology and should be viewed alongside other ideologies such as socialism and communism. Indeed, it can have a broad appeal. The political use of Hindutva has survived several court cases, most notably a major one in 1995 brought by those who felt that its allure was primarily religious in nature and hence violated India’s constitution, which prohibits candidates from appealing to voters exclusively on religious grounds.
Proponents of Hindutva share a worldview shaped by a bitter sense of grievance directed primarily at India’s 180 million Muslims and at other “foreign” religious minorities as well, not least Christians. In recent years, the Sangh Parivar successfully stoked outrage at certain provisions in India’s constitution that seek to empower lower castes and minorities. One point of contention is the set of special provisions, in article 370, for the Muslim population in the northern state of Jammu and Kashmir. Other provisions, known as “reservations,” ensure places for Dalits (“untouchables”) and Adivasi (“tribal peoples”) in universities and government bureaucracies. These quotas are widely unpopular among upper-caste Hindus, who feel shut out of positions for which they think they are better qualified. Appealing to the need for impartial uniformity in the civil code, RSS/BJP members want to end any differential treatment for Muslims and lower castes. Such positions are popular not only in India but also among the wealthy Indian diaspora in the United States, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere. These diaspora Indians are mostly upper-caste and support powerful lobbying efforts among Western governments, not least, in the United States, under the auspices of the Hindu American Foundation and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America.
A deep sense of injustice—with particular ire directed against the Muslim Mughal Empire (1526–1857)—pervades Hindutva rhetoric about India’s past. Hindu nationalists see that empire as a cruel foreign yoke that sullied the unique and heroic character of Indian identity and culture. A propaganda pamphlet that I acquired at the bookstore at BJP headquarters in New Delhi declares that “the barbaric methods of destruction of [Hindu] temples and converting Hindus to Islam” are “facts of history. . . . If temples were proved to have been destroyed for construction of the mosques then they would agree that the mosque could be removed and the temple should be re-built to redress the injustice.” The same pamphlet voices a widespread worry of Hindu nationalists that the population of Muslims and Christians is increasing much faster than the Hindu population. Although Hindu nationalists speak of a “positive project” of cultural renewal, writes Sunil Khilnani, director of the Indian Institute of King’s College London, they are in fact “committed to a negative programme, designed to efface all the signs of non-Hinduness that are . . . so integral to India.”
Khilnani is right. “Non-Hinduness” has long been part and parcel of Indian society. Muslims began arriving in India several centuries after the death of Mohammed and constitute 14 percent of the population today. Indian Christians number close to 30 million (around 2 percent), and they trace their roots to Roman times and quite possibly to the missionary work of the apostle Thomas. These two religious minorities, in other words, can hardly be considered newcomers to the subcontinent. They have long been part of India’s pluralist tapestry.
The politics of Hindu nationalism has erupted into social intimidation and violence on numerous occasions, and the Christian communities we visited expect more persecution in coming years. A telltale event occurred in 1992 when Hindu extremists—making party rhetoric reality—destroyed the historic sixteenth-century Babri mosque in Ayodhya in the state of Uttar Pradesh. Built during the Mughal period, the mosque is believed to have been erected on the birthplace of the Hindu god Ram. Not only was the mosque destroyed, but ensuing rioting in the country killed more than two thousand people and poisoned the amicable street-level relations between Muslims and Hindus. Hindu nationalists brazenly defended the episode as a necessary turning point in reclaiming their cultural legacy. As the Hindu activist Sadhvi Rithambara put it, “the Hindu is not fighting for a temple of brick and stone. He is fighting for the preservation of a civilization of his Indianness, for national consciousness, for the recognition of his true nature.”
The reputation of the BJP suffered once more after the horrific 2002 riots in the northwestern state of Gujarat, where Prime Minister Modi served as governor. A railway-car fire in the town of Godhra, which killed a number of Hindu pilgrims, erupted into a weeks-long concerted massacre directed against Muslims throughout the state. For the most part, the police stood idly by as Hindu mobs, goaded by RSS activists and using government printouts to identify minority homes, went door to door, killing, raping, and committing arson. In several documented cases, women were gang-raped and set on fire afterward. At least 1,500 Muslims died and 150,000 took refuge in relief camps. The BJP in Gujarat paid scant price for its complicity in these events, and when the state went to the polls in December 2002, the BJP won reelection by large margins. For his own involvement, Modi was banned from travel to the United States. Awkwardly, the ban was lifted once he became prime minister. Recrimination over the events in Gujarat persists as a regular feature of Indian politics today.
In 2008 in the state of Orissa, a month-long spate of violence broke out against Christians after they were blamed for the death of a ninety-year-old Hindu sage, Swami Lakshmananda, and five of his companions, who in fact were likely slain by regional Maoist insurgents. An estimated 120 Christians were killed and 100,000 rendered homeless. Three hundred churches were burned along with 6,000 Christian homes. Earlier, in 1999, Orissa was the site of the notorious burning of the Australian missionary Graham Stuart Staines and his two sons, ages ten and six, while they were asleep in their car. The violence in Orissa elicited international condemnation, including words of righteous indignation from Pope Benedict XVI. Today, Orissa remains a place of sore tension between Hindus and Christians.
The Babri-mosque affair, the Gujarat riots, and the murders in Orissa are but three well-documented cases of Hindu-nationalist violence directed against Muslims and Christians. Violence against Christians has spiked with the political ascendancy of the BJP in recent years. Although precise figures are elusive and probably higher than reports indicate, organizations—for example, Open Doors, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, the All India Catholic Union, the Evangelical Fellowship of India, and the recently founded United Christian Forum for Human Rights—that monitor persecution in India testify to the general trend. In a 2010 communiqué, Open Doors reported that “Christians in India faced a spike of attacks in the past decade, suffering more than 130 assaults a year since 2001, with figures far surpassing that in 2007 and 2008.” In April 2014, John Dayal, a leading human-rights activist in India and one of our travel companions, testified before the U.S. Congress that 153 cases of violence against Christians took place in the twelve months before the BJP swept parliament. In a report on the first three hundred days of Modi’s rule, 43 deaths were documented and, overall, 600 cases of persecution, 149 against Christians, most of the rest against Muslims, and some against Jews and Parsis. Specifically Christian persecution has included the burning of churches, forced “reconversions” to Hinduism, bomb threats, distribution of threatening literature, the burning of Bibles, several high-profile rapes of nuns, the murder of priests and other Christian workers, desecration of the Cross and statues of the Virgin Mary, and destruction of properties at Christian schools, colleges, and cemeteries. Another travel companion, Vijayesh Lal, the gregarious new director of the Evangelical Fellowship of India, wrote to me in a recent email that increasingly “Christians are treated as outsiders and targeted because they are perceived to be outsiders, i.e., people not proclaiming India as punyabhumi [holy land], although many consider India their pitribhumi [fatherland].”
During our time in India, we visited the site of one burned church, St. Sebastian’s in the Dilshad Garden district in northeast New Delhi. Although the arson occurred in early December 2014, the priest, Fr. Anthony Francis, is still waiting for an official police report. Talking to us near the charred apse, where an altar now reduced to ashes once stood, the mild-mannered priest explained how the fire had destroyed the entire interior of the Church, with the exception of a single statue of St. Jude the Apostle—the patron saint of hopeless causes. Several eyewitnesses have testified to the smell of kerosene at the time of the incident and to its presence in puddles of the water that eventually put out the fire. The event elicited a letter from Delhi’s Archbishop Anil Couto to Prime Minister Modi, calling for a special judicial inquiry and announcing a protest to complain about police inaction. To date, however, little has been done.
Persecution of Christians does not always manifest itself in outright violence; it comes in subtler ways. Five Hindutva-friendly state legislatures have passed “anti-conversion laws,” which penalize people for converting from one faith to another or require that such decisions be registered with local authorities. While “homecomings” (ghar wapsi) to Hinduism are rarely scrutinized, Hindus who convert to Islam or Christianity can be quickly vilified and ostracized. Accordingly, the number of “secret Christians” in the country, we were repeatedly told, is hard to tell. Recently, high-ranking members of the ruling BJP party, including Rajnath Singh, the party’s past president and current home minister, called for a nationwide anti-conversion law. Hindu nationalists also talk of a nationwide ban on beef—a sacred cause to them and one intended to affect the jobs and diets of Muslims and Christians. These proposals are feverishly discussed in Hindutva circles, but so far no concrete action has been taken.
Yet another restriction of religious freedom comes in the form of monitoring of or outright bans on foreign sources of funding—the lifeblood of many church organizations and other NGOs in India. These restrictions are justified by the Foreign Contributions Regulation Act (2010), which seeks to root out funding deemed “detrimental to the national interest.” Although the BJP, not without good reason, contends that these restrictions are aimed at Muslim extremists, many Christian organizations have also been targeted, including the Vatican charity Caritas, Mother Teresa’s Sisters of Charity, and a number of Evangelical organizations. Although the Indian constitution guarantees that religious groups may propagate their faith, Hindu nationalists claim that many Christian organizations engage in coercive proselytism, especially among the Dalit classes, in a calculated “anti-India” effort to pollute national identity. Keeping Dalits in a state of subordination and upholding the caste system (technically illegal after independence but still widely recognized) is a persistent ambition of the Hindutva’s more extreme voices.
Many organizations and activists within India have called attention to these developments and others. Our travel companion Dayal, who serves as the founding secretary general of the All India Christian Council, summarized the sentiment of many when he noted: “In recent years, human rights and freedom of faith activists within the Christian community, and in civil society, have felt that the fundamental Constitutional right of freedom to profess, practice and propagate religion, [is] circumscribed. . . . [This] has to be defended to prevent a further erosion of civil liberties which could alter the basic character of Indian democracy.”
Groups and individuals outside India have expressed similar assessments. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, for example, noted in its 2015 annual report the increase in reports of violence in India in recent years and observed that a “climate of impunity” against wrongdoers appeared to exist in a number of Indian states, “exacerbating the social and religious tensions among communities.” The commission recommended that the United States “integrate concern for religious freedom into bilateral contacts with India . . . and encourage the strengthening of the capacity of state and central police to implement effective measures to prohibit and punish cases of religious violence.” More recently, John L. Allen Jr.—the associate editor the Boston Globe’s Catholic-news website Crux, who has traveled extensively in the country—has run several articles on the rise of anti-Christian feeling and violence in India, focusing especially on the plight of Dalit and tribal Christians.
President Obama on a state visit to India in January 2015 spoke candidly about the plight of religious minorities. Expressing concern that India was “splinter[ing] along the lines of religious faith,” he observed that “religious faiths of all types have, on occasion, been targeted by other people of faith, simply due to their heritage and their beliefs—acts of intolerance that would have shocked Gandhi, the person who helped to liberate the nation.” The Indian colleagues with whom we traveled stressed how grateful they were for these words, even if their effectiveness remains to be seen.
It is hard to discern the near- and long-term prospects for religious freedom and the rights of religious minorities in India. Christians and all people of faith should be concerned. But even the hardened realist ought to take notice, for India remains Asia’s leading democracy, however fragile, and a rising economic power with which the United States will frequently have to deal.
Much depends on the direction of the BJP. Although the 2014 elections that put the party in office witnessed much divisive rhetoric, the maintenance of power in a pluralistic setting often requires moderation. India’s southern states have exhibited considerable resistance to Hindutva rhetoric. What is more, the BJP recently suffered a setback in elections in the state of Bihar. Analysts observed that the party’s fear-mongering failed to take the spotlight off more-dire needs such as sanitation, drinking water, and basic health care. If this occurs in other state elections, mainstream BJP politicians might be motivated to rein in the militant among their rank and file, emphasize economic over cultural policies, and do more to curb police inaction at the state and city level. An intimation of better times appeared in February 2015 when, shortly after Obama’s visit, Modi broke a long silence and, to the dismay of hardliners, proclaimed, “My government will ensure that there is complete freedom of faith and that everyone has the undeniable right to retain or adopt the religion of his or her choice without coercion or undue influence.”
Although the combination of political power and India’s religious demographics—the country is approaching a census of one billion Hindus, compared with around 200 million members of religious minorities—might only embolden extremist voices in the long run and arrest a “climate of impunity” for the foreseeable future, Indian Christians and their supporters abroad need not view their situation as a hopeless cause. Unlike many East Asian countries, India still enjoys many democratic freedoms, including freedom of the press and freedom of assembly. The religious freedom codified in its constitution shines brightly in the broader Asian political landscape. India also has a rich tradition of public debate and respect for pluralism. The recent words of Obama and Modi, furthermore, should instill a measure of gladness. Nonetheless, cause for genuine concern exists, and the novena prayer to St. Jude is pertinent for Indian Christians today: “Make use, I implore thee, of that particular privilege accorded to thee, to bring visible and speedy help where help was almost despaired of. Come to mine assistance in this great need, that I may receive the consolation and succor of Heaven in all my necessities, tribulations, and sufferings.”
Thomas Albert Howard is professor of the humanities at Valparaiso University, where he holds the Phyllis and Richard Duesenberg Chair in Christian Ethics.