Watching some 50,000 of her fellow Indian Americans line up outside a Houston stadium to see Prime Minister Narendra Modi take the stage at last month’s “Howdy Modi” rally, Sarah Philips felt sick.
“As an Indian Christian who grew up in this city … I stand here disgusted that a man who is responsible for persecution against religious minorities, violence against Dalits and so much more evil is standing in that stadium,” Philips, an organizer with Azaad Austin, declared into a megaphone at the South Asian American-led protest she helped coordinate against the rally on Sept. 22. “You are celebrating a man who has a singular view of what India is: a Hindu state. That view is violent, and you aren’t celebrating us.”
The opposition to Modi and his party’s Hindu nationalist agenda has largely been framed as a conflict between Hindus and Muslims — who comprise India’s largest minority as well as majorities in Pakistan and Kashmir.
But Philips’ family, which immigrated to Houston from the Indian state of Kerala in the 1970s, is Catholic.
From mob violence to anti-conversion laws to clampdowns on churches, the effects of rising Hindu nationalism under Modi have left India’s estimated 28 million Christians — who at 2.3% of the population make up the country’ third largest faith group — fearing for their future, too.
The opposition to Modi largely takes issue with the Hindu nationalist ideology of Hindutva espoused by his party, the governing Bharatiya Janata Party. Critics also point to the spike in violence that India’s Muslims have faced, from mob lynchings to attacks in the name of protecting cows; Modi’s recent revocation of the partial autonomy of Kashmir, which is still under an unprecedented communications blackout and lockdown that has lasted over 60 days; as well as his 2002 involvement in the brutal riots that killed an estimated 2,000 people, most of whom were Muslims, in the state of Gujarat.
“Modi’s hands were stained in blood. He committed genocide against Muslims,” said Obed Manwatkar, a Christian missionary from Nagpur, India, who moved to Chicago two years ago. “So when he was elected I said, ‘Oh, the hatemonger is coming for us, too.’ They were taking their revenge on Muslims, and nowadays Christians are the secondary target also.”
Three years ago, a new attack against Christians was reported every 40 hours, according to a report by the All India Christian Council. The situation does not seem to have improved in the years since. A report last month from the Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian advocacy group, documented 218 incidents of anti-Christian violence in India, including more than 150 acts of mass violence, in the first eight months of 2019. And in the last five years, the ADF has documented more than 1,000 acts of violence against Indian Christians.
In January, Open Doors International, an organization that works with persecuted Christians, published its annual World Watch List and ranked India as the 10th most dangerous country for Christians, sandwiched between Iran and Syria. Back in 2013, India ranked 31st. Its position has risen steadily since the BJP regained power in 2014.
Hindutva’s founder defined a Hindu nationalist as someone who equates the “homeland” with “the holy land,” explained the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s Amit Pal, author of a forthcoming book on Hindu nationalism.
“That leaves two major religions out of the equation,” Pal, who described himself as a cultural Hindu, told Religion News Service. “So Muslims and Christians are the No. 1 enemies, as well as secularists, which they see as a Western import.”
Jews, Baha’is and Parsis make up much smaller communities in India. Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists are by no means immune to religious persecution, either, but Pal noted that followers of these Indic religions are inaccurately viewed by Hindu nationalists as “junior Hindus” because of their historic ties to Hinduism.
Muslims and Christians, though, are seen with a special “contempt” as foreign interlopers or as “brainwashed” by colonizing forces, Manwatkar said.
“During Modi’s election there was a notion in the public that ‘Hey, our Hindu heartland is coming to power, so we will teach a lesson to Muslims and Christians,’” he said. “So now they kill Muslims in mob lynchings and they attack the churches in villages where the Christians are living.”
From January 2009 to October 2018, the Hate Crime Watch database documented violence related to religious bias in India and found that 90% of the reported incidents occurred after the BJP rose to power with Modi’s May 2014 election and 66% of the attacks were reported in states governed by the BJP. The incidents, which include violence related to interfaith couples, primarily targeted Muslims, but 14% of the incidents were against Christians.
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Source: Religion News Service