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ICC Note: Since 2008, the year that saw the most anti-Christian violence in India’s history, the persecution of Christians in India has steadily increased. This increase in persecution coincides with the rise of Hindu nationalism in India’s politics. With the current BJP-led government ruling India, will this trend of rising persecution and rising Hindu nationalism continue?  

08/23/2018 India (The Diplomat) – 2008 was the most violent year for Christians in India. Daily newspaper headlines captured the senseless violence in the form of death, destruction, and displacement that unfolded in the states of Karnataka and Odisha. On the ten-year anniversary of these atrocities, it’s time to explore the forms of violence against Christians in the country today and evaluate their potential effect on the 2019 general election race.

India’s 29 million Christians constitute only 2.3 percent of the country’s population, making them the second largest religious minority in the country after Muslims. The origins and prominence of Christian denominations and groups vary across the country, but Christianity’s earliest tryst with India came in the first century AD when the disciples of St. Thomas arrived in the southern state of Kerala. By conservative estimates, across denominations, nearly 70 percent of Christians are Dalits (formerly the untouchable caste). This intersection of religion and caste is essential to understanding the issue, as Dalit Christians tend to be the victims of a majority of physical violence and, almost exclusively, the victims of structural violence among Christians.

Anti-Christian violence is a relatively recent phenomenon, beginning to proliferate in the late 1990s. Between 1964 and 1996, there were only 38 registered cases of violence. However, in 1997, 27 instances occurred and then 70 cases in 1998. This number has steadily risen. In 2017, the Evangelical Fellowship of India documented 351 instances of violence against Christians, but activists and scholars believe that this is only a fraction of the actual violence as many cases go unreported.

This proliferation coincides with the social and political rise of Hindu nationalist organizations, including the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), from the peripheries to the center of Indian politics. The Hindu nationalist ideology, known as Hindutva, considers Christians as foreigners, intent on destroying the integrity of the nation primarily through conversions. Following the historic political victory for the BJP in 2014, which propelled Narendra Modi to the prime ministership, 600 instances of violence against minorities were recorded in the first 100 days of the administration. This has been accompanied by an intensification of the political discourse of bipolarization, which reinforces the above characterization of Christians. For example, a BJP member of parliament recently referred to Christians as being “angrez” (British) while diminishing their contribution to the freedom movement.

In addition to this physical violence, Christians (especially Dalit Christians) face structural violence in the form of denial of affirmative action and the institution of Freedom of Religion laws. Both violate the spirit of Article 25 of the Indian Constitution, which provides that “all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practice, and propagate religion.” This also has resonance in international law. For example, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) provides for the “right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion,” which includes the freedom “to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom … to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice, and teaching.”

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