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By Benjamin Harbaugh

“A man is but the product of his thoughts; what he thinks, he becomes.” Mahatma Gandhi spoke these words over seventy years ago. Gandhi was a principal figure in the establishment of India as a nation, acting as a moral guide in the midst of political and social turmoil. Even though he was deeply religious, Gandhi believed that a secular and pluralistic India was the only way forward for the nascent nation. In contrast to Gandhi’s early vision of India, the Indian parliament passed legislation this month that will deny any Muslim that has “illegally” entered the country before 2014 a path to citizenship.[1] The passage of this radical legislation highlights one of the two particularly concerning trends in India today: local violence against religious minorities and targeted governmental restrictions.

This stunning ruling is seen by many as a harbinger of continued religious and racial discrimination. While the spotlight has rightfully been on India’s Muslim population as of late, all religious minorities have experienced higher levels of persecution since 2014.[2] The rise in religious persecution against Christians is succinctly summed up in the executive summary of the State Department’s 2018 International Religious Freedom Report (IRFR) on India, which reads, “…there were 736 incidents of persecution against Christians in 2017 compared to 348 in 2016.”[3] According to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), religious freedom in India has continued to trend negatively, meriting their ignominious distinction as a tier two offender.[4]

The increase in local violence against religious minorities in India has not occurred in a vacuum. The 2014 election of the nationalist BJP party, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is seen by many as a catalyst for the recent uptick of persecution in India.[5] The BJP’s most recent electoral victory in 2019 has strengthened Modi’s mandate to build a Hindu-centric state and has led to bolder moves against religious minorities; this trend has been made evident in the recent passage of the citizenship bill.

According to Open Doors USA, an NGO focused on combating persecution of Christians, “The view of the nationalists is that to be Indian is to be Hindu, so any other faith—including Christianity—is viewed as non-Indian.”[6] As Christians are seen increasingly as “non-Indian,” local villages will often take action into their own hands. For instance, a pastor in the southeastern state of Tamil Nadu converted to Christianity 25 years ago. While his two and a half decades as a Christian were hardly peaceful, he faced only harassment and embarrassment for his faith. In 2018, the pastor lodged a complaint against a nationalist group that had been intimidating him and was found one week later hung in his own house with his neck cut behind the rope, an attempt to disguise his murder as a suicide.[7]

Sometimes the perpetrators of heinous crimes are more obvious. In Mumbai, a man was accused of selling beef, a practice condemned in Hinduism, and the word quickly spread through social media. Locals gathered in response to the messages and lynched the Christian man without trial or conviction. [8] These gruesome stories are indicative of the environment that Christians and other minority groups live in simply for practicing their faith.

As mentioned above, governmental practices are increasingly targeting religious minorities as well. Anti-conversion laws are being used to target Christians in at least nine of India’s twenty-nine states.[9]  The laws have been used to justify persecution of Christians in a variety of situations. In 2017, a group of Christmas carolers were detained by police after a radical Hindu claimed they were involved in religious conversion activities.[10]

The punishment of alleged forced conversion is taken seriously in contrast to many mob-lynching cases. An NGO, Alliance Defending Freedom India, claims that authorities pursued charges against members of the minority Christian community in several states under religious conversion laws, with one Indian state increasing maximum sentencing for the practice this year.[11]

While Christians have not yet been affected by the recent citizenship law, it appears as though things will continue to get worse before they get better. As the space for religious dialogue shrinks in the shadow of ascendant nationalism, much of India’s pluralistic society will suffer. As Gandhi suggested, India is becoming the product of its increasingly nationalistic thoughts.


Benjamin Harbaugh is an intern in the Office of International Religious Freedom at the Department of State and a graduate student at The American University in Washington D.C. where he currently studies U.S. foreign policy and security. He is passionate about supporting vulnerable communities around the globe and has worked alongside the persecuted Church in countries such as Cuba, Russia, Vietnam, and more. Engaged in the relationship between government action and religious freedom, Ben believes in the importance of U.S. involvement for Christians around the world. When he isn’t studying, Ben enjoys long-distance running and traveling with his wife.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of International Christian Concern or any of its affiliates

[1] The Washington Post. “India passes controversial citizenship law excluding Muslim migrants” December 11, 2019.

[2] National Catholic Reporter. “India’s Christians, Muslims face higher persecution since Modi government” October 9, 2019.

[3] U.S. Department of State Office of International Religious Freedom. Annual Report, India, page 2 (2018).

[4] United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. Annual Report, page 174 (2019).

[5] Open Doors USA. “World Watch List, India” (2019).

[6] Ibid.

[7] Asia News. “Tamil Nadu, Pentecostal pastor found hanged. He had received threats” (2018).

[8] Crux. “Christian accused of selling beef lynched in India” (2019).

[9] U.S. Department of State Office of International Religious Freedom. Annual Report, India, page 1 (2018).

[10] Open Doors USA. “World Watch List, India” (2019).

[11] The Christian Post. “India: Christians warn against law raising punishments for ‘forced’ religious conversions” (2019).