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By Jay Church

02/29/2024 India (International Christian Concern) – Authorities in the far eastern Indian state of Tripura fired a high-ranking forestry official this last week after his choice of names for a pair of lions sparked a firestorm of anger from Hindu nationalists, according to a report by the New York Times. Separately, California-based tech giant Google was reprimanded by Indian officials after Gemini, its AI chatbot assistant formerly known as Bard, entertained in a chat with a journalist the possibility that Prime Minister Narendra Modi might promote fascist policies against religious minorities. 

Religious tensions are high in India leading up to national elections to be held in April and May of this year. Many experts have accused Modi of appealing to nationalist sentiment in his reelection campaign, whipping up anti-minority sentiment and staging elaborate ceremonies emphasizing Hindu superiority over other religious claims. 

In January, Modi consecrated a new Hindu temple in Uttar Pradesh at a site where, in 1992, a mob of Hindu radicals tore down a Babri mosque built in the 1500s. The site has since become an increasing flashpoint for inter-religious tension, with prominent Hindu leaders including Modi claiming that the mosque had been built over the birthplace of the Hindu deity Ram. 

Asiatic Lions Controversy 

Tripura is one of the Seven Sister states in India, making up the country’s far-flung eastern salient, or panhandle region. Bordered to the north, west, and south by Bangladesh, its prominence in the news this week stretches back some time to when a forestry official named a mating pair of lions, Sita and Akbar, after a Hindu goddess and a prominent medieval Muslim emperor, respectively. 

Naming great cats is a common practice in Indian zoos, but this instance attracted the attention of Hindu nationalist leaders because of its interreligious undertones. The VHP—a far-right, militaristic organization in India that is associated with Modi’s BJP political party—quickly seized on the name, taking it as an affront to Hindu purity and calling it “blasphemy” against the country’s majority religion. 

After suing to rename the lions, the VHP was handed a double victory this month when the court asked state officials to rename the lions, and the Tripura forestry official accused of naming the lions in the first place was fired. 

For Hindu nationalists, the interreligious names raised the bugbear of so-called “love jihad,” or Indian Muslim men marrying Hindu women to convert them to Islam. This specter, greatly exaggerated by nationalists with little or no evidence of the phenomenon, causes great alarm in certain circles and is used to justify brutal attacks on the country’s small Muslim minority. 

In 2020, Uttar Pradesh passed a law criminalizing conversion in the context of an interfaith marriage and imposed a penalty of up to ten years in prison for violating the decree. Under the law, interfaith couples must apply for approval from a magistrate two months in advance of their marriage and may only proceed after official authorization. 

Uttar Pradesh is the country’s largest state, with a population of about 200 million. It is one of several states with legal restrictions on interfaith marriage and is led by a fiery Hindu priest, Yogi Adityanath, who has publicly urged the death penalty for religious minorities who convert their spouse from Hinduism. 

Across the country, religious minorities face severe social and legal pressure. Buoyed by de facto legal impunity for their actions, violent mobs frequently attack Christian communities, even livestreaming their attacks on social media to the delight of their followers. 

Though there are no recorded incidents of a Christian forcibly converting Hindus to Christianity, laws in Uttar Pradesh and elsewhere criminalize the act, encouraging mobs to exact vigilante justice on Christians and others simply exercising the basic tenets of their faith. 

Gemini Controversy 

Last week, Indian journalist Arnab Ray asked Google chatbot Gemini about the fascist leanings of several world leaders, including Donald Trump, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and Narendra Modi. The artificial intelligence tool’s response, interpreted as leaning toward a denunciation of Modi’s anti-minority policies, raised the ire of Indian netizens and Rajeev Chandrasekhar, Minister of State for Electronics and Information Technology, who claimed the response was a violation of India’s criminal code. 

After demurring on the question of whether Trump and Zelensky are fascist leaders, the chatbot conceded that Modi has been “accused of implementing policies some experts have characterized as fascist,” according to news reports of the incident, and cited the BJP party’s “Hindu nationalist ideology, its crackdown on dissent and its use of violence against religious minorities.” 

Each of the claims cited is factually accurate, with Modi’s tenure as Prime Minister marked by a significant increase in violent nationalism across the country, impacting religious minorities and political dissenters. 

In response to the uproar, Google stated that it had addressed the issue and was working to prevent similar issues in the future. 

Modi’s government is known for its heavy-handed internet censorship and aggressive stance against material critical of its policies, particularly relating to its repression of religious minorities. It has led to several clashes with U.S.-based social media companies Meta and X, formerly known as Twitter, in recent years over material posted to those platforms, even raiding Twitter’s headquarters in New Delhi over a dispute. 

Though the question of whether Modi is a fascist leader may be beyond the scope of AI chatbots, his nationalistic suppression of religion, free press, and the political rights of opponents do raise concern about his commitment to democratic norms. 

Increasing Tensions Leading Up to Elections 

Last year, Modi’s government made headlines when it referred to itself as “Bharat” rather than “India” in official correspondence with G20 leaders. Though both words are valid ways of referring to the country, the BJP and its nationalist allies have attempted to create tension between the names in recent years, claiming that “India” was a name given to the country by its British colonizers and should be abandoned in favor of “Bharat,” a name found in the Hindu scriptures. 

By loading the names with ideological significance, the BJP has created a wedge where experts say there does not need to be one. The name “India,” in fact, predates the 1850s British colonizers by 2,000 years, stretching back to before the third century BC, according to historians who say that the name is a reference to the area’s Indus River. 

Seen in historical context, then, the name India is a geographic designation while the name Bharat is a religious one. 

As outlined in a recent ICC report, India’s Christian population faces significant hurdles, including legal structures that limit them economically and a judicial system that grants impunity to attacking Hindu radicals. 

Under Modi’s leadership, India has steadily declined in democratic and religious freedom. A 2023 U.S. Department of State report on India found that “attacks on members of religious minority communities, including killings, assaults, and intimidation, occurred in various states [across India] throughout the year.” Further, the report discussed the issue of state-level laws that criminalize minority religious activity and highlighted “numerous reports during the year of violence by law enforcement authorities against members of religious minorities in multiple states.” 

Modi was previously banned from entering the U.S. for his role in the 2002 Gujarat riots, which left over 2,000 Muslims dead. The Chief Minister of Gujarat at the time Modi’s public comments and failure to stop the riots led to massive religious violence against Gujarati Muslims. In 2005, the U.S. Department of State determined that his actions amounted to a severe violation of religious freedom, triggering the only known use of the International Religious Freedom Act to sanction a foreign official. 

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