NEW DELHI — Religious clashes in the troubled northern Indian state of Jamma and Kashmir are nothing new, but the riot that broke in January targeted an unexpected group: Christians.
While most of the state’s problems pit an Islamist separatist movement against India’s Hindu majority, Christianity was at the heart of the violence this time as a mob of thousands interrupted a burial ceremony to seize the body of the deceased for a Hindu cremation.
Local Christians and international religious rights groups say anti-Christian incidents are on the rise, particularly since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party assumed power in 2014. They contend that the government’s failure to censure local leaders for inflammatory rhetoric and sectarian persecution has encouraged a culture of impunity for anti-minority violence — a charge the BJP denies.
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The Evangelical Fellowship of India documented some 350 cases of violence and other forms of persecution against Christians last year. That is more than double the rate compared with the 140 annually before the BJP assumed power and the highest level of violence since an anti-Christian pogrom that resulted in dozens of rapes and killings and the burning of hundreds of churches in the state of Odisha in 2008, said EFI Executive Director Vijayesh Lal.
High points of the Christian liturgical year, such as the coming Easter celebrations, are proving times of particular peril.
“It is distressing to see even private worship being attacked by Hindu right-wing activists violating the privacy and sanctity of an individual or a family and trampling upon their constitutional rights,” Mr. Lal said on releasing the organization’s 2017 survey last month. “The instances of attacks on churches on Sundays and other important days of worship such as Palm Sunday, Good Friday, Easter and Christmas have increased.”
Based on voluntary reporting and investigations by civil society organizations, the EFI report documented attacks on churches, the unlawful detentions of children on their way to Bible camp and homicides.
Even so, police registered complaints in fewer than 50 cases last year.
“There are many reasons,” Mr. Lal said. “Fear is the most common. Victims don’t want to get caught in the whole web of the police and the courts. Refusal to file an [information report] on the part of the police is also very common.”
The Ministry of Home Affairs, which is responsible for law and order, did not respond to questions about the EFI report or associated data by the U.S.-based Save the Persecuted Christians Coalition. Indian authorities do not track such incidents.
More broadly, clashes among various ethnic and religious communities rose 28 percent from 2014 to 2017, according to an analysis of Home Affairs Ministry data by IndiaSpend, a nonprofit journalism initiative. But the BJP Minority Morcha, the party’s wing devoted to courting minority voters, insisted that neither the Modi government nor BJP policy is to blame.
Violence and other forms of persecution may occur, said BJP Minority Morcha head Abdul Rasheed Ansari, “but it is never sponsored by the government or the political party.”
Clashes over conversions
It’s a thorny issue, analysts say.
Almost 80 percent of India’s 1.3 billion people are Hindu. While just 14 percent of the population is Muslim, India boasts the world’s third-largest Muslim population. Christians make up about 2.3 percent of the population — nearly 30 million believers — and there are smaller communities of Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom in its 2017 global survey rated India as one of a dozen Tier-2 countries for religious restrictions, behind countries of top concern such as China, North Korea, Iran and Saudi Arabia but on par with Cuba, Iraq and Turkey.
“While [Mr. Modi] spoke publicly about the importance of communal tolerance and religious freedom, members of the ruling party have ties to Hindu nationalist groups implicated in religious freedom violations, used religiously divisive language to inflame tensions, and called for additional laws that would restrict religious freedom,” the commission’s report noted.
“Christian communities across many denominations reported numerous incidents of harassment and attacks in 2016, which they attribute to Hindu nationalist groups supported by the BJP.”
The January incident in Jammu and Kashmir shined a spotlight on concerns across India about Christian proselytizing and religious conversion. In that case, the mob violence erupted over charges that the deceased, Seema Devi, had been forced to convert to Christianity by her husband and subsequently died from illness after he took her for “spiritual healing,” according to The Indian Express daily newspaper.
Afterward, nearly 45 families from the village of Sehyal and the surrounding areas converted from Christianity to Hinduism as part of a “ghar wapsi” or “homecoming” program promoted by the local BJP member of the state legislative assembly. The few Christian holdouts are living under police protection.
That assemblyman, Ravinder Raina, said Christian missionaries had converted “poor people through force and deceit,” echoing accusations that BJP legislators and others have used to introduce anti-conversion laws in nine of the country’s 29 states.
Lawmakers in a 10th, the northern state of Uttarakhand, introduced a similar bill last week, suggesting a penalty of up to two years in prison for anyone seeking converts through force or “allurement” — which could include money, employment or any material benefit.
Conversion is particularly contentious in India because the patronage-oriented political system courts voters based on their caste and religious identities, much the way American political parties target communities based on their race, income, gender or ethnic backgrounds. Hinduism over the centuries has faced a steady exodus of the erstwhile untouchables — now called Dalits — whom the tenets of the religion declare to be subhuman. The conversion of aboriginal tribes has also eroded Hindu dominance in some areas.
Christian activists insist forcible conversions and allurement are myths invented by the Hindu nationalist right, and the associated push for anti-conversion laws has resulted in the rising climate of persecution.
“When challenged in court, when challenged elsewhere, no government at the state level or the government in New Delhi has ever been able to accuse a single person of forced or induced conversion,” said John Dayal, secretary general of the All India Christian Council. “The most they can say is there has been a conversion. But conversions are not illegal. They are creating paranoia to develop a Hindu vote bank.”
Mr. Ansari objected to that characterization and referred to an oft-repeated slogan of the prime minister, “Sabka saath, sabka vikas,” or “All together, all for development.”
“All means all,” Mr. Ansari said, “including the minorities.”