India: Cows, Converts, and Persecution
By Linda Burkle, PhD
Several years ago, I had the privilege of participating in the dedication ceremony of a new building for a Christian Bible college in Hyderabad, a city in India’s Telangana state. The completion of the school building was a testimony to the perseverance of the leadership and graduating students amid an increasingly hostile climate toward Christians. Following the formal ceremony, we listened as the students committed themselves to be faithful to their ministry calling even in the face of growing persecution. In fact, some speculated that they may be martyred for their faith. I will never forget their resolve and often wonder what has become of them.
India is a federal republic constitutionally defined as a secular state comprised of diverse religions, languages, and customs. Currently, Hindus account for almost 80% of the population, followed by Muslims at 14.2% and Christians at 2.3% with several other religions representing 1% or less of the population each. Freedom of religion is a fundamental right guaranteed by Article 25-28 of the Constitution of India, enacted in 1949. As such, all religions are to be respected with government to keep “a principled distance” from each religion. But unlike the western interpretation of “secular,” meaning separation of church and state, the Indian central government can intervene in religion within the parameters set forth in the Constitution. Historically, India has been a nation where religious freedom and tolerance have thrived. Dating back to biblical times, it has been a refuge of those fleeing persecution—including Jews, Christians, Parsi, Tibetan Buddhists, and Baha’i populations.
In recent years, however, religious persecution has increased in India, perpetrated by both private and public actors. In 2014 the Bharartiya Janata Party (BJP) took power on a platform that promoted Hindu nationalism, which views religions other than Hindu as non-Indian. Such exclusionary extremist narratives, and, at times, government complicity, have facilitated an egregious and ongoing multi-faceted campaign of violence, intimidation, and harassment against non-Hindu and lower-caste Hindu minorities. Radical extremist groups such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sang, Sangh Parivar and VIshva Hindu Parishad have dramatically contributed to the rise in religious violence, enjoying impunity for their crimes while victims often do not receive justice. In 2017, 111 people were killed and 2,384 injured in communal clashes incited by these groups, according to the Union Minister of State for Home Affairs, Hansraj Ahir. In addition, religious minorities face loss of political power and discrimination in accessing education, housing and employment. Although there is a constitutionally mandated system of affirmative action, it has been unevenly and ineffectively applied.
The Open Doors World Watch Report ranks India as the 10th worst country for persecution. In addition, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has designated India as a Tier 2 Country of Particular Concern “for engaging in or tolerating religious freedom violations that meet at least one of the elements of the ‘systematic, ongoing, egregious’ standard” under the International Religious Freedom Act.” Both reports attribute the rise in persecution to Hindu nationalism, which has been operationalized through two primary instruments: anti-conversion and anti-cow slaughter laws. Since 2018, these laws have been adopted and enforced by approximately one third of state governments, often through mob violence and complicit or ineffective police intervention. USCIRF observed that religious freedom conditions significantly vary from state to state.
In the 2019 national election, Prime Minister Narendra Modi won a second term, tightening power of the Bharartiya Janata Party at the federal level. Modi intends to impose anti-conversion and anti-cow slaughter laws nationwide, although such laws violate religious freedom rights and the protections guaranteed in Articles 25 and 27 of the Constitution. Both laws are used to target Christians, Muslims, and other religious minorities while disregarding violations by Hindus. Although anti-conversion laws explicitly pertain to forced or coerced conversions, they have been used against Christians and Muslims in cases of proselytization and voluntary conversions. “Such laws are often used as an excuse to disrupt church services and harass Christians and make it incredibly difficult for Christians to share their faith with others. Converts to Christianity from a Hindu background are especially vulnerable to persecution and are constantly under pressure to return to Hinduism, especially through campaigns known as Ghar Wapsi (“home-coming”). They are often physically assaulted and sometimes killed.”
“Cow protection’’ lynch mobs have emerged engaging in violence predominately targeting religious minorities, some of whom have been legally operating dairy, beef, and leather operations for generations. Even though those working in the dairy industry do not slaughter cows, they have been harassed and intimidated. At least 10 people were murdered and many more injured in 2017 alone. The anti-cow slaughter laws are deeply embedded in Indian tradition and Hindu religion, in which cows are considered sacred. Although legally challenged, the laws have been upheld by the Supreme Court of India. “In cases involving mobs killing an individual based on false accusations of cow slaughter or forced conversion, police investigations and prosecutions often were not adequately pursued.”
The USCIRF report on India concludes, “Victims of large scale attacks in recent years have not been granted justice, and reports of new crimes committed against religious minorities were not adequately accounted for or prosecuted. India’s substantial population both complicates and limits the ability of national and state institutions to address these issues.” USCIRF recommends that India strengthen its existing institutions to protect religious freedoms granted in the Constitution through a targeted strategy of training, engagement, capacity building, and increasing the rate of prosecutions for hate crimes.
Dr. Burkle retired from The Salvation Army in early 2019 where she oversaw an array of social services in a multi-state region. Along with the State Attorney General, Burkle Co-Chaired the Nebraska Human Trafficking Task Force. Dr. Burkle holds a doctoral degree in international relations. Her dissertation focused on religious persecution; specifically regarding Iran, Iraq, Sudan, China and Burma (Myanmar). Dr. Burkle resides in Omaha, Nebraska. She has three grown children and eight grandchildren.
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.
 India Constitution, Articles 25-28