At Large

India: Uncertain Democratic Partner

Our new friend's indifference toward religious liberty is deeply troubling.

By 4.4.06

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India has become everyone's favorite geopolitical card to be played against China. In theory, the strategy makes eminent sense. India's population is likely to eventually surpass that of China, New Delhi's economic reforms have yielded significant positive growth, the country is a nuclear power long at odds with Beijing, and India is a democracy.

But not all democracies are created equal. Certainly India offers political liberties lacking in many states around the world -- and particularly in China. However, it remains far from a liberal society. Nowhere is that more obvious than its indifference towards religious liberty.

In fact, indifference is putting it politely. In India official discrimination against religious minorities is common. Hindu extremists, most notably the radical group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, have long pushed a coercive Hinduization program. But this may be the least serious problem.

Sectarian violence is endemic, particularly among Hindus and Muslims. But Christians, constituting a much smaller minority, and Christian facilities also are frequent targets. The RSS has particularly targeted Christian missionaries. Individual murders are common, such as the Australian missionary burned to death along with his two sons in 1999.

Yet the national authorities often do little, especially with the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party along with Hindu nationalism. At both the state and national level the BJP has actively encouraged the Hinduization of Indian culture. Moreover, government officials often have failed to convincingly condemn, let alone effectively limit, private violence.

In late 2003 Freedom House warned: "while the governing BJP has occasionally persuaded Hindu militants to tone down their rhetoric, it appears unable or unwilling to control or hold accountable Hindu militants and, in some cases, its officials have incited and orchestrated militants, and participated themselves in attacks on religious minorities."

Hundreds of attacks occur annually, and assaults on Christians have been rising recently. For instance, in January a pastor was beaten for distributing Christian literature. The following month several people assaulted a minister accused of engaging in "forcible conversions." In February mobs attacked a new Catholic school and a Pentecostal church.

Moreover, several Indian states enforce anti-conversion laws, which sacrifice individual conscience to ethnic nationalism. Such laws tend to most penalize the most vulnerable. Indeed, they even inhibit Christian social services since aid can be considered a "benefit" offered in exchange for conversion.

Christians who refuse to be intimidated are at serious risk. Hindu nationalists have turned to local mobs and government authorities to break the Hopegivers International charity.

In February rampaging crowds destroyed a church and school run by Hopegivers and attacked a bus carrying young students in the province of Rajasthan. The local government has arrested charitable officials, revoked the charity's licenses, frozen the institution's bank accounts, and threatened to cut off electricity and water at a children's home. The provincial social welfare minister has threatened to seize charity properties. In mid-March Hindu activists capped their campaign by engineering the arrest of the organization's president, Samuel Thomas, in Kota, Rajasthan's capital.

Hopegivers was founded by Thomas's father, Bishop M.A. Thomas, from Kota. The charity, which is based in Georgia, cares for abandoned children around the world. There are 190 children centers in India; in Rajasthan Hopegivers cares for some 2,000 orphans and runs schools as well as orphanages. The human need remains enormous despite India's recent economic strides. Although Hopegivers International is a faith-based organization, it provides aid to all comers. This willingness to accept everyone makes it particularly threatening to Hindu nationalists.

The rise to power of the Congress Party-led United Progressive Alliance coalition in New Delhi has led to some improvement in religious liberty. This government has lifted some restrictions on religious minorities and attempted to prosecute violent criminals. Nevertheless, provincial discrimination, like in Rajasthan, continues apace as communal violence persists.

Obviously, Washington's ability to influence a nation like India would be limited even if U.S. officials did not desire to play New Delhi as a counterweight to China. Nevertheless, they should deploy America's bully pulpit. The Commission on International Religious Freedom advocated that Washington press India to prosecute perpetrators of violence, avoid restrictive religious legislation, and encourage public and private exchanges over religious liberty issues.

In any case, American officials should have no illusions about the geopolitical card they are seeking to play. India is a democracy, but a flawed one. It must do much more to protect the full range of human freedoms before it becomes a worthy global leader.

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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).