In the midst of unrelenting violence against Muslim and Dalit minorities, Christians in India now find themselves in the crosshairs of right-wing Hindu extremists. Religiously motivated attacks against the small Christian minority have surged, especially in states governed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
In the weeks leading up to Christmas, mobs led by radical Hindu vigilante groups targeted Christian congregations, churches and educational institutions in different parts of India. They accused Christian pastors and activists of allegedly converting hundreds of people from Adivasi (indigenous) communities and impoverished, lower-caste Hindu families through coercion and deceit.
Critics say the escalating violence against Christians, who make up only about 2% of India’s more than 1.3 billion people, is part of a larger strategy to make minorities feel insecure. They say this corresponds with the Hindutva project of transforming the country into a Hindu Rashtra or nation, a cause espoused by Modi and his ruling party.
Hindutva extremists attacked Christians going door-to-door as part of a preaching drive and set their religious books on fire, several right-wing groups tried to storm a church and an unidentified man armed with a machete barged into a church and chased the priest in the run-up to Christmas.
Right-wing protesters disrupted the service at a Presbyterian church on Christmas Eve and miscreants damaged a statue of Jesus at a historic church during Christmas Day services. In Delhi, members of far-right Hindu group Bajrang Dal vandalised a church and disrupted the Sunday service, shouting “Shoot the traitors” on video.
Right-wing Hindu groups are also targeting schools. The leader of the Dharam Jagriti Mission group alleged that children are being “brainwashed” about Jesus to convert them to Christianity. A Hindu vigilante group barged into a school on Christmas Eve and Hindutva groups burnt Santa Claus effigies outside missionary-run schools. About 500 Hindu extremists armed with iron rods and stones vandalised a Catholic school in Madhya Pradesh state earlier in December.
Even earlier, on 1 October, far-right Hindu leader Parmatmanand Maharaj urged the attendees of a rally to “arm themselves with axes to teach Christians indulging in conversions a lesson”.
An alarming pattern of violence
There were 486 instances of violence and harassment against Christians in 2021, according to a report by the United Christian Forum (UCF), a rights body that maintains a database of incidents of violence and intimidation in India. This is an increase of 74% from 2020, when 279 such cases were reported on the UFC’s helpline.
The UCF said 2021 was the “most violent year for Christians” in India, with more than 104 violent incidents recorded in the last two months of the year. The report says Uttar Pradesh saw the most hate crimes against the minority group with 102 instances, followed by Chhattisgarh with 90. Four states – these two, plus Jharkhand (44) and Madhya Pradesh (38) – recorded 274 incidents of violence, 56% of the total, against Christians.
The UCF report says that in nearly all the cases, vigilante mobs of religious extremists were observed barging into prayer gatherings or rounding up individuals. “With impunity, such mobs criminally threaten, physically assault people in prayer, before handing them over to the police on allegations of forcible conversions. Often communal sloganeering is witnessed outside police stations, where the police stand as mute spectators.”
Impoverished and marginalised Dalits (previously known as untouchables) have converted to Christianity as well as Islam and Buddhism in the past to escape a rigorous Hindu caste hierarchy. Despite the existence of laws to protect them, they are continuously and frequently subjected to prejudice and violence.
But Hindu nationalist outfits linked to Modi’s BJP have long targeted Christian missionaries and activists for allegedly trying to convert Dalits and impoverished Hindus to Christianity through food parcels, cash handouts, medical assistance and trips abroad that they claim are often funded by foreign donors.
Nine out of 29 Indian states have formulated anti-conversion laws, which critics say are often used to target religious minorities and interfaith couples. Since 2017, five states run by the BJP have approved new anti-conversion laws or modified existing legislation. The updated laws impose harsher penalties and establish additional reasons for banning conversions.
The state assembly in BJP-ruled Karnataka, where Christians make up less than 2% of the population, recently passed the Karnataka Protection of Right to Freedom of Religion Bill, 2021. Also known as the “anti-conversion bill”, it has several stringent provisions, including 10 years’ imprisonment for conversion by “fraud or inducement”. There are specific punishments for converting a minor, woman or member of the lowest Hindu castes, and for instances of mass conversion.
The anti-conversion law has been dubbed draconian, anti-poor and blatantly unconstitutional by opposition parties and critics. “I’ve said from the beginning that this anti-conversion bill is anti-Christian. This does target the Christians specifically. Will you be as strict and stringent if there are Catholics who want to convert to Hinduism?” asked Peter Machado, the archbishop of Karnataka state’s capital city of Bengaluru.
“Freedom of religion” laws are already in force in Odisha (1967), Madhya Pradesh (1968), Arunachal Pradesh (1978), Chhattisgarh (2000 and 2006), Gujarat (2003), Himachal Pradesh (2006 and 2019), Jharkhand (2017) and Uttarakhand (2018). The Uttar Pradesh government approved legislation in November 2019 that prohibits religious conversions and nullifies marriages conducted for the purpose of religious conversion.
Several attempts have been made to create national anti-conversion legislation since India’s independence, but all proposals have failed to pass Parliament. The Indian Conversion (Regulation and Registration) Bill was introduced in 1954 with the goal of enforcing “missionary licensure and conversion registration with government officials”, but it failed to pass. In 1960, the central government introduced the Backward Communities (Religious Protection) Bill “aimed at checking conversion of Hindus to ‘non-Indian religions’ which, as per the definition in the bill, included Islam, Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism”.
The Freedom of Religion Bill was introduced in Parliament in 1979, seeking “official curbs on inter-religious conversion”. And in 2015, the union law ministry said a law against forced and fraudulent conversions could not be created at a national level as law and order is a state subject under the Constitution.
Reports published by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom in 2016 and 2018 said there were few arrests or prosecutions under these laws, but they “create a hostile, and on occasion violent, environment for religious minority communities because they do not require any evidence to support accusations of wrongdoing”.
In December, the Indian government barred Mother Teresa’s organisation, Missionaries of Charity, from receiving funding from overseas. This happened just days after the police investigated the organisation for allegedly luring young girls into Christianity and hurting “Hindu religious sentiments”. Mother Teresa founded Missionaries of Charity in 1950, through which nuns maintain a network of shelters across India. It was refused a licence to continue receiving contributions from outside the country, although funding has since been restored.Right-wing Hindu outfits have often targeted the Christian charity over conversion motives. In 2018, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the ideological parent of the BJP, unsuccessfully upped the pressure to rescind Mother Teresa’s Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian order, after reports claimed that a shelter belonging to the charity was being used to sell babies.