By Pieter Friedrich for Hindutva Watch
“In our villages, people keep hand-axes,” trumpeted a swami from the stage as over 1,000 people rallied in October 2021 in Chhattisgarh to protest religious conversion. “Why do they keep axes? Behead them — those who come for conversion. Now you’ll say that I am spreading hate although I’m a saint. But it’s important to ignite the fire sometimes.”
Not only should his listeners behead anyone who attempted to convert them, but they should also target those Christians who had already converted. “I want you to talk to them politely first,” he said. After that, the policy should be to “stop, warn, and kill.” As he ranted, he was cheered on by several “bigwigs” from the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) who were sitting on the stage beside him, including a current Member of Parliament.
As dozens of such anti-conversion rallies were reportedly organized throughout Chhattisgarh in 2021, it is no surprise that the state witnessed the second-highest number of attacks on Christians that year. “In some villages, Christian churches have been vandalized, in others pastors have been beaten or abused,” reported The Guardian. “Congregations have been broken up by mobs and believers hospitalized with injuries. The police, too, stand accused — of making threats to Christians, hauling them into police stations, and carrying out raids on Sunday prayer services.”
In one of the most shocking recent incidents, in October 2021, a mob of 500 instigated by a local affiliate of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) descended on a group of about 60 Christians who had gathered for a worship service and dinner. Police arrived but reportedly “only observed the ordeal” as the mob rounded up the Christians, searched them, beat several of them, and began pelting them with stones. When police finally intervened, they herded the victims into a bus, detained them for hours, and arrested the host of the gathering on allegations of engaging in “forcible” conversions.
The following month, a mob of 50 besieged 14 Christian homes in a rural village. Invading the houses, they beat men, women, and children, reportedly leaving nine with severe injuries, including broken bones and head wounds. The attackers reportedly declared their intention to make it a “Christian-free” village. A pastor who survived the attack said, “There has been intense opposition in the village against people practicing Christianity. These Christians have been threatened a number of times in the past. Last year, three families fled the village after they were attacked by the right-wing groups. They have never returned to the village.”
“Religious conversion is the biggest problem in Chhattisgarh and the top of our agenda,” claims the leader of the state’s Bajrang Dal unit. He declares: “Bajrang Dal was established for dealing with things in an aggressive manner. Whoever attempts to convert Hindus should be in fear of Bajrang Dal. Bajrang Dal was created for this very purpose.” A former BJP chief minister of the state calls conversion a “threat to law and order,” claims that those who convert “will also be turned against India,” and warns, “Their patriotism then comes under question.” A top BJP official says that state party workers have been ordered to make lists of Christians they believe are involved in attempting to convert others, surveil them, and work to “fill the jails” with them. “When our party workers are aggressive, then no one can save these pastors,” he threatens.
The party workers have indeed grown so aggressive that in one case, a pastor reports that local BJP leaders showed up outside his church to tell him that, if he didn’t leave, he would suffer the same fate as Graham Staines.
In December 2021, two months after the anti-conversion rally in Chhattisgarh, similar genocidal calls were raised at a conference in Uttar Pradesh (the state with the highest number of attacks on Christians). “Islam should be wiped off this earth,” thundered a Hindu nationalist demagogue to a packed hall. “Christians also should be wiped off this earth.” Arguing that, “if there is any danger” in India then it comes from mosques and churches, he declared, “Islam is a fast poison and Christianity is a slow poison.”
These calls to eradicate India’s religious minorities are not just echoing in the outskirts of the country. That same month, in Delhi itself, a long-time RSS member and owner of a prominent right-wing TV channel led a crowd of hundreds in a pledge. Their arms raised in a Nazi-style salute, they chanted: “We take an oath and make a resolution that, till our last breath, we will fight, die for and, if need be, kill, to make this country a Hindu nation and keep this country a Hindu nation.” Those joining the pledge from the stage included a BJP state minister from the Uttar Pradesh government.
Indian Muslims have long faced the brunt of Hindu nationalist violence, both before and during the Modi era. Tracing all the way back to 1947, they have endured multiple Sangh-led pogroms, including ones which claimed thousands of lives in 1992 and in 2002. Modi himself was implicated in the latter pogrom; an atrocity which led to him being banned from entering the US until his election as prime minister granted him diplomatic immunity. Under his premiership, attacks on Muslims have increasingly escalated. There are countless incidents, many caught on video by the attackers themselves, of Muslims being beaten or even lynched for everything from allegedly possessing beef to keeping company with Hindu girls to praying to simply attempting to engage in commerce. In many cases, Muslims are stopped in the streets by a mob which orders them to chant Hindu slogans — in most cases, even if they comply, they are still beaten.
Ideologically, however, Muslims and Christians are both viewed by the Hindu nationalist movement as “foreign” to India. “The first victims of the Modi era were Muslims,” reported The New York Times. “Then attacks against Christians started ticking up.”
Now, as the Modi regime sits unshakably ensconced in the midst of its second term, it appears that the Sangh feels comfortable enough to expand its focus of hatred to include the Christian community. “After seven years of attacks on Muslims, the RSS has now added a new enemy to the lexicon of grievance: Christians,” writes Indian journalist Swati Chaturvedi. Christians are joining Muslims, she notes, as “the target of the majoritarian mob baying for the creation of a Hindu Rashtra (exclusivist theocratic Hindu nation) dreamt up by the RSS to replace constitutional democracy in India.” As the head of the Chhattisgarh Christian Forum warns: “They want to spread hatred against Christians, as they have done against Muslims.”
The scope of the threat as well as the brazenness of the attackers was perhaps most vividly illustrated in a wave of attacks that occurred throughout multiple states during the 2021 Christmas season.
In mid-December, a group of Christians in Karnataka was going door-to-door, handing out literature, when a gang attacked them, seized the literature, and burned it in the streets. Police refused to take any action, instead responding, “We have warned the Christian community to not create any communal disharmony by going door-to-door and preaching.” Around the same time, elsewhere in the state, a lone attacker armed with a machete entered a Catholic church and chased the priest out into the streets. A few days earlier, in the middle of the day, a mob of 500 invaded a large Catholic school in Madhya Pradesh during classes, shrieking Hindu slogans as they stoned the building’s glass exterior.
In one of the most tragically comical incidents, on Christmas Eve, a group of Sangh activists burned an effigy of Santa Claus in Uttar Pradesh. “Santa does not come bearing any gifts,” explained the activists. “His only goal is to convert the Hindus to Christianity. It’s not going to work anymore. Any attempt at conversion will not be allowed to succeed.” Less amusing was when a large group, also in Uttar Pradesh, protested outside the venue of a Christmas Eve service, chanting, “Death to the church.” Elsewhere, a church in the northern state of Haryana was hosting a Christmas festival when a gang — some masked — rushed the stage, seized the microphone, demanded to know why the congregation was not celebrating Hindu holidays, and forced them to disperse. Similar disruptions occurred at other churches.
One incident that seized particular attention was the smashing, on Christmas night, of a statue of Jesus standing outside a 19th-century church in Haryana. Security camera footage showed two young men, making no attempt to conceal their identity — and, in fact, filming themselves — as they meticulously spent over an hour tearing down Christmas lights and other decorations before destroying the statue. They clearly feared no repercussions.
“In recent years, Christians have increasingly faced harassment around Christmas but this year saw a notable surge in attacks,” reported The Guardian in December 2021. “Christmas this year turned out to be very violent,” said Pastor Akshay Kumar after his own church in Karnataka was invaded during services. Several of his congregants were wounded, and his wife suffered burns and a fractured knee. “I have been serving as a pastor in this place for the past 20 years and have never faced such aggression.” According to Father Anand, a priest at one of the targeted venues, “These people have impunity, and it creates tension. Every Sunday is a day of terror and trauma for Christians, especially those belonging to those small churches.”
Yet it is not only small churches which are under threat nor is it only churches in rural areas.
In November 2021, in a suburb of Delhi, a congregation had gathered for the inaugural service of a warehouse recenty converted into a church. During the service, a mob of over a hundred Bajrang Dal activists assembled outside and began vandalizing the building. “India is ours,” they chanted. “Shoot the traitor bastards.” As one of the attackers filmed the mob, he claimed, speaking to the camera, that it was “an illegally constructed church… where they forcibly converted Hindus.” In the video, police can be seen standing by the door of the church as the congregation exits the building, apparently pressured to disperse. As one congregant walks by, someone from the mob shouts out, “Catch that pastor.”
“Nothing serious has taken place,” a top police official told media regarding the attack. “The church people are making a big issue out of the whole situation.” Why, he seemed to be asking, should this group of Christians be concerned about their service being broken up by a violent mob that called them traitors who ought to be shot.
Smaller churches in rural areas, however, also face similar — and sometimes far more invasive — mob assaults. In the northern state of Uttarakhand, in October 2021, a mob of 200, armed with iron rods, barged into a church service where only about a dozen worshippers were present. “The prayer was about to begin. Around ten people were present when the crowd, many of whom we recognized as members of Bajrang Dal and other right-wing groups stormed the church and started beating us and damaging the church property,” reported one of the church leaders. Attackers destroyed everything. Congregants were dragged from the church, several were injured, and one was hospitalized.
The assault, which occurred on 3 October, was especially notable in that it was one of at least 13 separate attacks on Christians in a single day across five states plus Delhi. Most of them were by mobs busting up services, usually beating the congregants and often severely vandalizing the churches. In most cases, police arrested the victims. In Delhi, a gang of a dozen men reportedly invaded a pastor’s home and threatened him to stop preaching.
As repeatedly highlighted, not only are police throughout India generally reluctant to take any real action against attackers but they are often more likely to arrest the victims. Beyond that, however, in some places, the deeper state apparatus is being actively turned against Christians.
In October 2021, Indian media outlet The Quint discovered evidence that the BJP-ruled state government of Karnataka had issued a series of orders to, essentially, spy on churches. The State Intelligence Department, it emerged, had been tasked with “a massive intelligence gathering exercise” focused on identifying the locations of all churches and identities of their leadership. “Viewed in its totality, the intelligence wing has aimed to identify people who practice or preach Christianity in all places of their worship — from established churches that have stood for centuries, to newer churches of younger Christian denominations, and even homes were community prayer gatherings are held,” reported Quint.
Shortly after, the outlet discovered that some in the state were going even a step further, issuing orders for tax officials to conduct door-to-door surveys to identify and document any and all “Hindus who have converted to Christianity.”
Responding to the news, Metropolitan Archbishop of Bengaluru (the capital of Karnataka) Peter Machado stated, “What the government seems to be saying is that you can be a Christian, but be a Christian only in your conscience. They seem to be saying, don’t declare it (Christian faith), wear it or show it. I don’t think this is possible. India is a free country.”
Not only at the state but also at the national level, however, the RSS-BJP combine seem intent on doing whatever they can to ensure that India will no longer be a free country for Christians.
Most notably, the national government has stripped countless religious charities of the right to receive foreign funding, forcing many to shutter their operations within the country. One of the largest groups targeted was Compassion International, a Christian humanitarian aid organization known especially for their child-sponsorship program. The organization, which had operated in India since 1968, was supporting a network of nearly 600 Indian Christian charities and sponsoring almost 150,000 children when its foreign contributions license was revoked in 2017. The explanation? They were engaging in “activities against the national interest.”
“We do believe that Compassion and other Christian charities are being singled out because of our faith, and that the Indian government is trying to limit the expansion of Christianity in India,” said the organization’s spokesperson at the time.
“Adverse inputs” was the reason given on Christmas Day 2021 for the government’s refusal to renew the foreign contributions license of Missionaries of Charity, the organization founded by Mother Teresa in 1950 to, in particular, rescue abandoned street children and provide care homes for terminally-ill people from impoverished backgrounds. “Government agencies have given a cruel Christmas gift to the poorest of the poor,” said Fr. Dominic Gomes, Vicar General of the Archdiocese of Calcutta, the region where Mother Teresa first began her efforts. Denouncing the “timing and lack of empathy,” he declared, “This latest attack on the Christian Community and their social outreach is even more a dastardly attack on the poorest of India’s poor.”
Two weeks later, and only after the news provoked outrage in media around the world, the government relented and renewed the license.
Meanwhile, the specter of a national anti-conversion law continues to haunt the psyches of Indian Christians, especially as such laws are passed with increasing frequency in BJP-ruled state after BJP-ruled state. With the Modi government due to remain in power until 2022, and as it faces no tangible opposition whatsoever, that possibility seems more like a probability. Moreover, many in the cult of Modi would be delighted to see him retain the premiership indefinitely. And — whether via government legislation or mob violence — the drive to “wipe out” Indian Christians appears likely to continue unabated.
That drive was advanced, in January 2022, with one of the most explicit echoes of the old-guard RSS leadership’s description of Indian Christians — and Muslims — as “traitors” when a conclave of Hindu nationalists gathered in Uttarakhand to, among other things, demand that religious conversion be placed in the category of “treason” and punished by the death penatly.
Conclusion: Desperate Plight of Indian Christians is a Cause for Global Concern
Whatever Modi’s political future, the RSS-BJP combine has held such an iron-clad grip on national (and much state) power for so long, and with so little resistance (internally or internationally), that it and its affiliated cadres have managed to sow the seeds of hate so far, so wide, and so deep that India will, inevitably, be reaping a harvest of hate for generations to come. Masses of the population, ranging from the ancient to the new-born, have been and will continue to be — barring some miracle — propagandized, brainwashed, and radicalized to think about and act towards their fellow citizens with the most venomous hatred imaginable.
Whenever the Modi era comes to an end, it seems likely that whoever replaces him may well be someone even more overtly radical and supportive of the extremist forces that are now dominating the streets of India. That’s a cause for global concern.
India currently contains the second-largest population in the world — nearly one in five people on the planet. Its Christian and Muslim populations combined constitute approximately 300 million people, a population size ranking in the top five most-populated countries in the world. India is not only the world’s largest democracy but also the only historically stable and secular democracy in South Asia. Until 2014, in many ways, the Republic of India had great potential to be the regional bastion of freedom, thoroughly pluralist society, welcome ally of all other truly democratic nations, and economic power-house that could have secured it a well-deserved place of global leadership. Now, however, as the RSS-BJP regime oversees the country’s transition into a breeding ground for religious extremists hell-bent on eradicating minorities, India is swiftly becoming a threat not only to regional but also global stability.
Indian Muslims, in the Modi era, have already suffered to such a great degree that international experts are warning they are at risk of genocide. In January 2022, for instance, Dr. Gregory Stanton of Genocide Watch explained, “Genocide is not an event. It is a process. It develops.” Thus, noting that many of the various “stages of genocide” — “which are not linear; they occur simultaneously” — are currently present in modern India, he warned:
“We believe there is a real risk of massacres. What is, of course, extremely troubling here is that the Modi government has stood back, said nothing, and will be very happy to just watch it happen. That is exactly what Modi did in Gujarat in 2002. It is what he will do again. So, this massacre — this genocide — will likely not be even carried out by the Indian State. It will likely be carried out by mobs…. We believe that India is at the Persecution Stage right now. That’s the stage right before genocide.”
If that’s the potential situation facing Indian Muslims, who make up approximately 14 percent of the population, then what fate may await Indian Christians, who constitute barely three percent?
As Indian Christians are, more and more often, falling within the crosshairs of hate, there are already some indications that the Church, in various areas of India, is being driven underground. “Pastors hold clandestine ceremonies at night,” reported The New York Times in December 2021. “They conduct secret baptisms. They pass out audio Bibles that look like little transistor radios so that illiterate farmers can surreptitiously listen to the scripture as they plow their fields.” The paper profiled one such pastor who has gone covert:
“Vinod Patil, a Pentecostal preacher in Madhya Pradesh, is not giving up. Just as Hindu extremists believe it is their duty to stop conversions out of Hinduism, Pastor Patil believes his religious duty is to spread Christianity. These days, he operates like a secret agent.
“He leaves his house quietly and never in a group. He jumps on a small Honda motorbike and putters past little towns and scratchy wheat fields, Bible tucked inside his jacket. He constantly checks his mirrors to make sure he is not tailed.
“Hindu extremists have warned Pastor Patil that they will kill him if they catch him preaching. So last year he shut down his Living Hope Pentecostal Church, which he said used to have 400 members, and shifted to small clandestine services, usually at night.
“He knows the vigilantes are looking for him. But he insists that he is following the law and that everyone who comes to his meetings does so voluntarily.
“‘Before, when we had a problem, we’d go to the police,’ he said. ‘Now, the anti-Christians have the government with them. The anti-Christians are everywhere.’”
The trend of persecution held steady as a new year dawned upon India. “The attacks on [the] Christian community continue in the year 2022 as nothing is being done by the people in power to control it,” reported AC Michael of the United Christian Forum on 26 January 2022. “In just 25 days of this year, 31 incidents of violence against Christians [have occurred] in nine states of India with Chhattisgarh leading the chart with eight incidents.”
Without action by the people in power, the year 2022 will likely follow the exact same pattern as the previous seven years of the Modi era: an uptick in anti-Christian attacks. If there were 505 documented attacks in 2021, how many will occur in 2022? There is no logical reason to expect anything else except more — and more vicious — attacks this year than there were last year.
Despite such a high number of incidents, the figures must be properly contextualized to avoid underestimating the true impact on the Indian Christian community. For one thing, 505 attacks in 2021 represents only documented incidents; a great many more may have gone unreported. For another thing, it’s crucial to remember that the majority of documented attacks were mob attacks by, at times, hundreds of people. Most attacks were not against individuals, but rather against entire congregations of dozens, scores, or more, meaning that thousands of people may have been directly victimized. Moreover, such attacks — especially considering how they usually involve impunity for the attackers and arrests of the victims — spread psychological terror which almost certainly impacts tens and tens of thousands, if not millions, of Indian Christians.
Solutions to the current scenario are not easily found. It is difficult to believe, according to a realistic evaluation of the facts at hand, that the situation will get better before it gets far worse. The gravity of the plight of Indian Christians — and Muslims — is that many may well end up being sent to their graves before they begin to see the rising tide of oppression recede. In some ways, however, the apparent hopelessness of the situation may, in and of itself, offer a glimmer of hope if it can capture the attention of the international community.
India’s religious minorities, whether Christian or Muslim, are in no position whatsoever to resist the oppression they face. Doing so, even peacefully, does little but place them at greater risk. The mere fact of their existence, after all, poses an “internal threat” to the nation by those viewed as “traitors” in the eyes of the RSS-BJP. Meanwhile, the political opposition to the BJP is in total disarray. Not only is it virtually non-existent, but the Modi regime has increasingy targeted its critics from the opposition (in political, social, and journalistic circles), in some cases even jailing many of them on framed conspiracy charges.
True, effective, and lasting change in India can only come from within the country, but how and when it will come is beyond the imagination. Until that time, however, a modicum of reprieve for the persecuted religious minorities of India may come via international pressure. Such pressure might, additionally, influence even a BJP-ruled India to at least attempt to rein in the ruthless forces that have been unleashed on the streets.
For the past several years, there has been a growing but still scattered collection of voices, rising from within the free democracies of the world, which recognize and denounce the expanding atrocities of the Modi regime. These include a large number of human rights organizations and, less commonly, national-level politicians. In the case of persecution of Indian Muslims, many Islamic groups around the world are also, finally, starting to perk up and speak out.
Yet practically no one is standing up for the persecuted Christians of India — least of all the international Church. In fact, especially in the West, the Church is not only largely, if not completely, silent about the oppression of her brothers and sisters in India but actually appears to be totally ignorant that there is even any issue at all.
One of the few American Christian clergy who is aware of — and talking about — the issue is Father Joshua Lickter, an Anglican priest in California who agrees about the general ignorance of the international Church regarding Indian Christian persecution. “They don’t know what’s happening,” says Fr. Lickter about Christians outside India. He believes it’s imperative, however, that they must know, stating: “We have a duty as Christians to speak out against this rising persecution. We need to play our part to help set the oppressed free. If we don’t raise our voices, persecution will only continue to increase. The Christians in India need us to speak out.”
What can be done to alleviate the suffering of Christians in India today? At the very least, their fellow Christians around the globe can, considering it their moral obligation, learn of the sad plight of their brothers and sisters in India. They can educate themselves first, and then — their minds fully informed — they can follow the lead of their consciences which will, undoubtedly, compel them to begin speaking out.
India today is at a crossroads. Will it pass over into totalitarian rule, completely subjected to the fascistic forces of a genocidal Hindu nationalist movement? Or will it reverse course and not only return to, but expand upon, its original dedication to being a free democracy committed to upholding, preserving, and celebrating the equal rights of all?
The outcome of the Hindu nationalist efforts to eradicate Christianity in the country will certainly play a central role in determining India’s future course.
(Pieter Friedrich is a freelance journalist specializing in the analysis of South Asian affairs. He is the author of “Saffron Fascists: India’s Hindu Nationalist Rulers” and co-author of “Captivating the Simple-Hearted: A Struggle for Human Dignity)