Special Report

India and Religious Persecution

A rising power not yet ready for global leadership.

By 9.11.08

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In Washington India is increasingly looked to as a potential counterweight to China. But the communal violence of the late August, in which thousands of Christians were forced to flee rampaging Hindu mobs, should give even admirers of India pause. It is a country not yet read for global leadership.

India appears to be on the same trail as China. At present growth rates India's population will overtake that of China, India finally is enjoying significant economic growth, New Delhi possesses nuclear weapons and an expanding conventional military, and India's government is pressing for a greater international role. Strained bilateral relations between the U.S. and India have turned into increasingly positive ties. Today Washington is pressing for approval of a compromise agreement to acknowledge and oversee India's nuclear program.

There is much to admire about India. An ancient civilization, it has become a relatively free nation, and has the potential to play an enormously positive international role in the years ahead.

Unfortunately, the latest violence against Christians demonstrates that India is not ready to take its place among the first rank of nations. Attacks on minority faiths are routine in India, and the national government has been unable or unwilling to stem the violence. Worse, local and state authorities often abet if not aid religious attacks.

The latest round of violence occurred in the northeastern coastal state of Orissa. Hindu radicals led several days of rioting, in which at least 18 Christians were killed, thousands of Christians were forced to flee, and 75 churches and thousands of homes of Christians were destroyed. An Indian policeman reported: "Moments after we passed by a Christian village, people set it on fire and everything was over within minutes." Babu Joseph, with the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India, spoke to some of the victims: "They said that it was a horrifying experience. Groups arrived at their villages carrying guns, swords and homemade weapons and even small bombs, which they used to blast the places. The groups targeted every Christian house in their villages. The people had a list of Christian houses and institutions and none were spared." Mobs even torched a Christian orphanage, killing a 21-year-old teacher -- a Hindu. Swarupananda Patra, general secretary of the All Orissa Baptist Churches Federation, said,"All Christian villages [are] empty in Kandhamal as Christians, old and young, sick and pregnant mothers [are] hiding in forests exposed to non-stop monsoon rains without food." Samuel Wallace of International Christian Concern said, "It looks like the only defense these Christians have is God himself, because the Indian government has proved itself unable to stop the violence."

Christians, who only make up 2.3 percent of India's population of 1.1 billion, long have been convenient scapegoats for Hindu militants. In the Kandhamal District of Orissa, a Hindu religious leader, Swami Laxmmananada Saraswati, was killed -- by Maoist guerrillas, say the police. The group apparently even claimed responsibility for the murder. But Subhash Chauhan of the World Hindu Organization blamed Christians, setting off much of the violence. The Orissa government proclaimed that everything was under control, but eventually called for deploying the army. The national government did nothing.

NO ONE, LEAST OF ALL the Indian authorities, should be surprised by the violence in Orissa. Last year Hindu mobs destroyed some 20 churches and four people were killed in the sectarian violence. Around Easter earlier this year Hindu mobs destroyed scores of churches and hundreds of Christian homes. Yet the Orissa government blocked charities and churches from aiding the victims. Human Rights Watch last year reported: "For several years, extremist Hindu groups in Orissa have been conducting an anti-Christian campaign that has grown violent at times, while government officials have looked the other way." In fact, the attacks go back years: In 1999 Hindu radicals burned an Australian missionary, Graham Staines, and his eight- and ten-year-old sons to death in their car after they participated in a Bible study. (Staines ran a hospital and leprosy clinics. His widow, Gladys, forgave the killers and continued to minister in Orissa until 2004.)

Nor is this the only example of recent violence against Christians. In January in the neighboring state of Chhatisgarh, a Hindu mob disrupted a prayer meeting, beating many of the Christian participants. A local leader of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party led a group that attacked three Christian pastors. In 2006 there were several serious legal attacks on Christian organizations in Rajasthan. Indeed, last year the All India Christian Council figured that an anti-Christian attack occurred somewhere in India every three days, with the perpetrators rarely captured or punished. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom points to "a marked increase in violent attacks against members of religious minorities, particularly Muslims and Christians," in the late 1990s, and "hundreds of attacks on Christian leaders, worshippers, and churches throughout India" over the last decade. (Hindu radicals also often target Muslims, who make up about 13.4 percent of the population.)

What really galls Hindu extremists is that many lower-caste Hindus convert to Christianity to escape the humiliating discrimination embodied by Hinduism's rigid caste system. When Christians minister to the needs of social outcasts, radical Hindus contend that the assistance -- which upper-caste Hindus do not deign to provide -- is a bribe for conversion. Rather than address the horrid treatment of lower-caste Indians, Hindu militants prefer to attack Christians.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called the violence in Orissa a "national shame," but his government has done little to stop the current attacks or to prevent similar outbreaks in the future. India is a parliamentary democracy, but rather less than a fully free society. The human rights group Freedom House ranks India as a 2 (on a scale of 1 to 7, with 1 the highest) for political rights and 3 for civil liberties. Elections are generally free but, notes Freedom House, "Government effectiveness and accountability are also undermined by pervasive criminality in politics, decrepit state institutions, and widespread corruption." The State Department observes: "There were numerous reports that the government and its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings, including extrajudicial killings of suspected criminals and insurgents, or staged encounter deaths."

Religious liberty is another problem area. The Commission has labeled India as a Country of Particular Concern since "religious minorities in India continue to be subject to violent attacks, including killings," while "Those responsible for the violence are rarely held responsible for their actions."

ALTHOUGH THE NATIONAL GOVERNMENT has been reliably secular and the constitution guarantees religious freedom, several states refuse to protect that same freedom. The Institute on Religion and Public Policy points to Orissa as one of four states -- along with Chhatisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, and Himachal Pradesh -- that formally restrict evangelism activities and conversions.

Moreover, notes the Institute, "The Indian judicial system also hinders the ability of prosecutors to investigate and pursue criminal cases against individuals that violate human rights. The courts are notoriously slow, primarily due to the lack of a sufficient number of lawyers and judges prosecute these cases in a timely and effective manner."

The State Department makes a similar observation: "Some state governments enacted and amended 'anti-conversion' laws and police and enforcement agencies often did not act swiftly enough to effectively counter societal attacks, including attacks against religious minorities. Despite government efforts to foster communal harmony, some extremists continued to view ineffective investigation and prosecution of attacks on religious minorities, particularly at the state and local level, as a signal that they could commit such violence with impunity."

Although reform is most needed at the state level, only the national government may be able to give the push necessary to improve respect for religious liberty in the most abusive states. For this reason, the Institute recommends that New Delhi push for abolition of the so-called anti-conversion laws, as well as training for police at both the local and state levels to enable officers "to remain unbiased during their investigations and the manners in which they handle interreligious violence and tension." Local governments, in particular, "also must put greater emphasis on the prevention, investigation, and prosecution of violators of religious freedom in order to encourage an environment that promotes religious diversity and expression for all faith communities."

The Italian government urged New Delhi to halt the violence as attacks in Orissa mounted. The U.S. should encourage action as well. Washington has established a good relationship with India's government and should put its diplomatic capital to good use. Moreover, the Congress Party-led coalition government is more likely to expand religious liberty than the opposition BJP, which includes more radical Hindu nationalists.

ALTHOUGH THE U.S. GOVERNMENT is in no position to enforce religious freedom abroad, it should highlight the importance of guaranteeing protection of this most basic human right if India wishes to play an increasingly important international role. New Delhi will be in a better position to claim the moral mantle of the world's largest democracy if its society also offers a free and safe home for religious minorities. In contrast, a country in which mobs periodically rule the streets, killing and destroying as they see fit, will have a harder time convincing other nations that it is fit to lead.

The latest outbreak of violence demonstrates the limits of Indian democracy, but India remains a far more hopeful place than the usual authoritarian regimes that restrict religious liberty. Observes the Institute on Religion and Public Policy: "The Indian constitution provides a strong protection for religious freedom, despite the problems that one encounters in numerous state 'anti-conversion' laws. The country is massive with a population in excess of 1 billion people. These people come from a wide variety of backgrounds, Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, and Jains, all live peacefully within the same neighborhoods. This is a promising indication India can develop a religiously tolerant society." The rest of us now must encourage India to build a freer and more tolerant society upon this promising foundation.

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About the Author
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author and editor of several books, including The Politics of Plunder: Misgovernment in Washington (Transaction).