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India’s Religious Minorities Are Under Attack

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s silence on a recent spate of hate speech and violence is deafening.

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy.
Nuns walk near the entrance of the head office of the Missionaries of Charity in Kolkata on Dec. 28.
Nuns walk near the entrance of the head office of the Missionaries of Charity in Kolkata on Dec. 28. -/AFP via Getty Images

On Christmas, as revelers thronged Kolkata’s fashionable Park Street and St. Paul’s Cathedral held a midnight mass, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government blocked the Missionaries of Charity, the organization founded by Mother Teresa, from receiving foreign funds. The move follows an ongoing government strategy to use the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act to restrict external funding to nongovernmental organizations it has deemed critical. In this case, India’s Ministry of Home Affairs justified the action by accusing the organization of proselytizing.

The decision to restrict funds to the Missionaries of Charity came as attacks against Christians swept India, part of a sudden spurt of bigotry and violence against religious minorities. In Agra, India, home to the Taj Mahal, members of Bajrang Dal, a group affiliated with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), burned effigies of Santa Claus, claiming missionaries were using the holiday to convert others to Christianity. In the state of Assam, which has a substantial Christian minority, Hindu zealots entered a Presbyterian church and disrupted services. In the state of Haryana, Hindu vigilantes vandalized a statue of Jesus Christ.

There is little to no question that Modi and the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party bear some responsibility for this increasingly hostile atmosphere. On Christmas, BJP lawmaker Tejasvi Surya called for a ghar wapsi (literally, “return home”) movement, pushing for the conversion of Christians and Muslims. Surya later quietly withdrew his statement under intense criticism, but it was not an isolated incident: The idea has long held currency with the BJP’s militant wing, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

On Christmas, as revelers thronged Kolkata’s fashionable Park Street and St. Paul’s Cathedral held a midnight mass, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government blocked the Missionaries of Charity, the organization founded by Mother Teresa, from receiving foreign funds. The move follows an ongoing government strategy to use the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act to restrict external funding to nongovernmental organizations it has deemed critical. In this case, India’s Ministry of Home Affairs justified the action by accusing the organization of proselytizing.

The decision to restrict funds to the Missionaries of Charity came as attacks against Christians swept India, part of a sudden spurt of bigotry and violence against religious minorities. In Agra, India, home to the Taj Mahal, members of Bajrang Dal, a group affiliated with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), burned effigies of Santa Claus, claiming missionaries were using the holiday to convert others to Christianity. In the state of Assam, which has a substantial Christian minority, Hindu zealots entered a Presbyterian church and disrupted services. In the state of Haryana, Hindu vigilantes vandalized a statue of Jesus Christ.

There is little to no question that Modi and the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party bear some responsibility for this increasingly hostile atmosphere. On Christmas, BJP lawmaker Tejasvi Surya called for a ghar wapsi (literally, “return home”) movement, pushing for the conversion of Christians and Muslims. Surya later quietly withdrew his statement under intense criticism, but it was not an isolated incident: The idea has long held currency with the BJP’s militant wing, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

In 2021, both hate speech and physical attacks against minorities and their places of worship rose in India.

Hate speech had reached an apogee even before Surya aired his sentiments. On Dec. 17 and 18, hard-liner Hindu monks and activists gathered in the town of Haridwar, a pilgrimage site, in what they labeled a “hate meet.” One of the featured speakers, firebrand Yati Narsinghanand, explicitly called for attacks against religious minorities and places of worship. “Swords look good on stage only. The battle will be won by those with better weapons,” he said. Worse still, an event organizer called on the Indian Army, politicians, and Hindus to replicate the campaign against the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar—in effect, calling for a genocide.

In 2021, both hate speech and physical attacks against minorities and their places of worship rose in India. In the first nine months of the year, there were at least 300 acts of violence directed against religious minorities across the country. But few of the perpetrators have faced any consequences. Although authorities have lodged a hate speech case against one of the speakers at the Haridwar meeting and unnamed others, they have not yet made any arrests.

Meanwhile, state governments have pursued laws that justify this bigotry. On Dec. 23, the lower house in the state of Karnataka passed the Protection of Right to Freedom of Religion Bill, which is designed to prohibit conversion from Hinduism to another faith. Violating the act could lead to significant fines or even incarceration. Although the law makes no explicit reference to Christianity or Islam, its intent is evident: to make religious conversion as costly as possible. Even if the upper house, where the Hindu nationalist BJP is in the minority, rejects the bill, the lower house can override its decision with a simple majority.

The national government has not condemned the hate speech or attacks against minority groups. Neither Modi nor Indian Minister of Home Affairs Amit Shah, who is responsible for the maintenance of law and order, have commented on the disturbing developments in recent weeks. But on Christmas Eve, Modi tweeted to wish India’s citizens Merry Christmas, adding, “We remember the noble teachings of Lord Christ”—a dark irony. Despite pleas from religious leaders and civil society activists, both Modi and Shah have stood by as the country witnesses a steady uptick in religiously motivated harassment and violence.

Modi’s outreach to the Christian community has been strictly political. For example, on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Rome in October, Modi formally invited Pope Francis to visit India, claiming the pontiff called the invitation the “greatest gift.” At the time, prominent Indian Catholic activist John Dayal suggested the gesture was little more than a cynical ploy by Modi ahead of state elections in Goa and Manipur, which both have significant Catholic populations.

Furthermore, no leader of any national standing has condemned the Haridwar meeting or the recent attacks. The government’s deafening silence on the violence is hardly surprising. The BJP has rarely, if ever, had much use for Indian secularism or ethics of religious pluralism. But the absence of the main opposition party, the Indian National Congress—once the standard-bearer of a secular India—is shocking. Even West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, leader of the All India Trinamool Congress and no friend to the BJP, has not condemned the attacks. (She did express her dismay over freezing funds to the Missionaries of Charity, perhaps because the organization was launched in West Bengal.)

Amid India’s political parties’ abject failure to rally against the plight of minorities, one of a few concerned voices emerged. In the wake of the Haridwar meeting, 76 prominent lawyers wrote to India’s chief justice, N.V. Ramana, urging the Supreme Court to take legal action against the hate speech. Whether the court will act on their petition remains an open question.

As the new year looms, the fate of religious pluralism in India hangs in the balance. In his zealotry, Modi may be well on his way to realizing the prophecy of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, who forcefully argued that Hindus and Muslims constituted two distinct nations, precluding coexistence. His government has certainly derided the vision of an India that accommodates all faiths.

Sumit Ganguly is a columnist at Foreign Policy as well as a distinguished professor of political science and the Rabindranath Tagore chair in Indian cultures and civilizations at Indiana University, Bloomington.

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