Modi and minorities - an appraisal

April 3, 2015

Next month will mark one year since Narendra Modi became prime minister of India, but what has the Hindu nationalist’s reign meant for the country’s Christians and Muslims?


In February, a report by the New Delhi based Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI) revealed that attacks against Christians have increased by 55 per cent since Modi came to power.


It shows there were 168 incidents against Christians in Modi’s first 300 days in office alone.


Modi swept to power as head of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in a landslide victory in May 2014, demolishing the nominally secular Congress Party, headed by scions of the Nehru/Gandhi family.


As well promising to kick-start India’s flagging economy and ending endemic corruption, Modi’s campaign was overtly religious.


Observers believe this has continued during his tenure and has ‘alienated’ minorities.


Dr Sanjeev Kumar, of the Department of International Relations at South Asia University, says that while violence against minorities is condemnable, it is the polarising nature of discourse under the Modi government which is worse.


‘Most worrying is not the direct action, rather the discourse that seeks to alienate and threaten minorities, it is eating into the secular space of India,’ he said.


Prior to his election as prime minister, Modi served as chief minister of Gujarat and was heavily criticised for his handling of communal violence in the state that left 790 Muslims and 254 Hindus dead in 2002.




Since the election, Hindu hardliners, such as the influential voluntary organisation Rastriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the World Hindu Federation (VHP), have launched a number of campaigns aimed at India’s minorities.


The RSS has launched the anti ‘love Jihad’ and the ghar wapsi campaigns. Ghar wapsi, or ‘home coming’, is an attempt to re-convert Christians and Muslims ‘back’ to Hinduism.


Rajeshwar Singh, former leader of Hindu hardline group the Dharm Jagran Samiti, stoked controversy in December, saying: ‘Our target is to make India a Hindu Rashtra [country] by 2021. The Muslims and Christians don’t have any right to stay here. So they would either be converted to Hinduism or forced to run away from here.’


The re-conversion agenda has sparked outrage among minorities and observers believe that such groups have been emboldened by Modi’s ascent to power.


The BJP, meanwhile, has used this uproar over re-conversion to highlight what it says is ‘pseudo-secularism’.


No such fuss, they argue, is created when Christians convert poor Hindus and tribal communities across India.




Hindus in India and neighbouring Hindu-majority Nepal have repeatedly expressed their concern over the rise of Christianity in the region and the nature of missionary work, but it has taken a more violent and polarising tone since 2014.


In November, a thought paper distributed during the World Hindu Congress in New Delhi listed missionaries as part of the ‘Malicious 5’. They were deemed ‘the biggest enemy of Hindu society’, along with Marxism, Macaulayism, Materialism and Muslim extremism.


The paper criticises missionaries for targeting India, saying that since the West has lost its ‘fascination’ with Christianity, they are seeking a ‘safe haven’ in the East.


The EFI report cites a number of incidences where Christians have been attacked on suspicion of converting people.


Rev Vijayesh Lal, national director of the Religious Liberty Commission of the Evangelical Fellowship of India, points to those at the top of the caste system.


He said: ‘Christianity is perceived a threat not because it is increasing in absolute numbers. The threat is to the caste hierarchy, which is the superstructure, the scaffolding on which the existing social order is built, and under which the poor and the deprived are kept in their place as part of their destiny.’


Most converts to Christianity in India come from the so called 'lower castes'.


Double Speak


Modi has not been personally linked to rising acts of violence against Christians, but his silence has been criticised.


Lal says: ‘Political patronage of non-state actors and the refusal of police and civil administration to act against them has led to the social boycott of Christians, a severe restriction on their freedom of faith, and on the freedom of movement and faith of Christian mission workers.’


However, in February the prime minister reached out to the Christian community and ensured complete freedom of faith.


‘Government will not allow any religious group, belonging to majority or minority, to incite hatred against others overtly or covertly,’ he said.


This statement came days after US President Barack Obama suggested that religious intolerance had grown in India.


Media reports have suggested that Modi, who is a champion of economic growth, has expressed his disappointed over the distraction of religious intolerance perpetuated by Hindu hardliners.


However, Dr Kumar is dismissive: ‘Even as Modi continues to speak of economic development, others aggressively promote the Hindutva agenda.’


He added: ‘Modi has in fact helped the RSS by galvanising the India diaspora, which is a major source of funding and supporter of the RSS. The diaspora is desperate for a sense of identity as well as economic opportunity in India, Modi promises to provide both.’


Sacred cows


In March, the BJP-led government in Maharashtra criminalised the selling and possession of beef. Cows are considered scared by most Hindus. 


Critics say anti-beef laws discriminate against Muslims, Christians and lower-caste Hindus who often rely on the cheap meat for protein.


The state's predominantly Muslim cattle traders and meat retailers are striking in protest at the ban.


India’s Home Minister Rajnath Singh has stated that the Modi administration will use all its might to ban cow slaughter throughout India.


‘How can we accept the fact that cow slaughter is allowed in this country?’ Singh said.


‘We will use all our might to ban it. We will try to build a consensus.’


Minorities will be hoping that the consensus involves them too.


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