On May 23, 2019—just over a month ago—Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was reelected for his second term, in what The Independent’s headline declared an “absolutely stunning landslide victory.”
Modi’s hugely successful reelection granted the populist leader another five years in office, which was met with ecstatic joy by his political following, and particularly his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Modi’s devotees poured into the streets in celebration.
Before long, calls from world leaders were ringing off the hook, with congratulatory messages from the likes of Chinese President Xi Jinping, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena.
President Donald Trump tweeted, “Congratulations to Prime Minister @NarendraModi and his BJP party on their BIG election victory! Great things are in store for the US-India partnership with the return of PM Modi at the helm. I look forward to continuing our important work together!”
That night, countless Modi devotees thronged BJP election headquarters in Delhi. Many were garbed in saffron attire, the color representative of the nationalist Hindu movement known as Hinduvta, of which Prime Minister Modi has long been an active participant.
At the same time, and thanks to that same Hinduvta, election night rejoicing was notably absent in many far-flung communities across India’s vast geographic sprawl. The mood was certainly more subdued among Christians, whose religious freedom has been dramatically curtailed in recent years. In fact, persecution, marginalization, and physical danger afflicting Christians have increased exponentially since 2014, when Modi was first elected.
In an interview with Christianity Today, Rev. Vijayesh Lal, general secretary of the Evangelical Fellowship of India, explained, “Christians and Hindus in India have always had cordial relationships. I believe the relationships are still very cordial. And it is not Hindus who persecute Christians… Let me be very categorical about that: it’s a particular group of people who subscribe to an ideology called Hindutva… what it means is “Hindu Essence.” However, Hindutva is a political ideology. It’s a fascist ideology. It believes in one nation, one culture, one people.”
Rev. Lal went on to say that Hindutva has been politically empowered by the ascension of Modi, who is an ardent follower of this ideology. “In fact,” Lal pointed out, “he was even a pracharak—pracharak means an evangelist of this ideology—for many, many years.”
Taking that gloomy analysis into consideration, it should come as no surprise that India’s record for religious freedom has plummeted into the danger zone since Modi’s first election. In Open Doors’ 2019 World Watch List, India was designated as the world’s #10 worst persecutor of Christians. In a shocking downhill spiral, the World Watch List listed India at #11 in 2018, #15 in 2017, and #25 in 2015. In recent months, India’s plunge into religiously motivated abuse is evident in numerous and significant religious freedom accounts.
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) took note of this decline in its most recent published report:
Over the last decade, conditions for religious minorities in India have deteriorated. A multifaceted campaign by Hindu nationalist groups like Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sang (RSS), Sangh Parivar, and Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) to alienate non-Hindus or lower-caste Hindus is a significant contributor to the rise of religious violence and persecution. Those targeted by this campaign—including Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, and lower-caste Hindus—face challenges ranging from acts of violence or intimidation, to the loss of political power, increasing feelings of disenfranchisement, and limits on access to education, housing, and employment.
Meanwhile, the US State Department’s newly unveiled 2019 Report on International Religious Freedom, confirms USCIRF’s report and reports specific cases. For example:
- “On January 20, a Christian pastor was found dead at his residence in Tamil Nadu.Members of his congregation alleged he had been murdered, and that he had been a victim of frequent past harassment by Hindu fundamentalist organizations.”
- A month later, a group of Hindus violently assaulted a Pentecostal Christian pastor for conducting allegedly “forced conversions”—a common and dishonest accusation that is widely used against Christians. “The missionary was on a bus with 13 other Pentecostals when a Hindu on the bus, reportedly upset with discussion of Christian beliefs that he overheard, alerted fellow Hindus at the next bus station. When the bus arrived, the Hindus reportedly beat the pastor and another member of the group, both of whom were transported to the hospital.”
- Later that year, police in Hyderabad arrested four Christians for “hurting religious sentiments” by distributing Christian tracts during Easter celebrations. World Watch Monitor said “charges against Rayapuri Jyothi, Meena Kumari, Mahima Kumari, and Bagadam Sudhakar were spurious, and came following a complaint from activists of the Hindu nationalist organization Hindu Jana Shakti.”
As the State Department summed up its findings, it pointed out that one reporting organization, Persecution Relief, had recorded 477 incidents of violence against Christians in 2018, compared with 440 in in 2017. “They confirmed that the state of religious affairs was worsening in the country, and that those who impose religious violence on innocent victims are often not prosecuted.”
It should not be overlooked that India’s Muslims are experiencing even greater abuse than its Christians. This is likely due to a history of deadly violence between Hindus and Muslims that has escalated steadily since the Hindus’1992 destruction of the sixteenth-century Babri Masjid—a beloved and historic mosque—and subsequent cycles of mob violence.
The reality is that Prime Minister Modi may be accomplishing great things in fueling India’s economy, elevating its global profile, and promoting its competitive edge. He is a gifted politician. But he also appears to be acting primarily on behalf of a harsh and unbridled form of Hindu nationalism. If that’s the case, India’s wealth may well increase, but so will its poverty of spirit.
Along with his Hindutva cohorts, Prime Minister Modi’s apparent disdain for human rights and religious freedom is casting dark and ominous shadows across India’s otherwise promising future.
Lela Gilbert is author of Saturday People, Sunday People: Israel through the Eyes of a Christian Sojourner.
Photo Credit: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi arriving at the Sandton Convention Center ahead of the second day of the Tenth BRICS Summit under the theme “BRICS in Africa: Collaboration for Inclusive growth and shared prosperity in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.” Photo by the South African government, via Flickr.