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The Complexity of Anti-Christian Violence in India

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In its 2020 report, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) controversially placed India, for the first time, on its list of “Countries of Particular Concern.” With this designation, USCIRF located India among countries—like North Korea, China, and Saudi Arabia—with governments that more systematically and thoroughly impinge upon the religious liberties of their citizens. Similarly, the PEW Research Center’s most recent report named India, Egypt, Russia, Pakistan, and Indonesia as the 5 worst countries (in terms of religion-related government restrictions and social hostilities) among the 25 most populous countries in the world.

While rankings such as these focus in particular on India’s treatment of Muslims, they are also informed by the existence of laws restricting religious conversion and incidents of anti-Christian violence. Global Christian advocacy groups often add to the chorus of condemnation. Open Doors, for example, lists India behind only 9 other countries on its 2020 World Watch List (ahead of China, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Myanmar), and CBN News recently spoke of India’s Christians facing “horrific levels of violence.”

The Indian government and many of its citizens are justifiably dismayed by such characterizations. External Affairs Ministry Spokesperson Anurag Srivastava labeled the USCIRF report “biased and tendentious,” and even USCIRF Commissioner Gary Bauer dissented from the Commission’s decision. While acknowledging troubling developments in India, Bauer insisted that “India is not the equivalent of communist China, which wages war on all faiths; nor of North Korea, a prison masquerading as a country; nor of Iran, whose Islamic extremist leaders regularly threaten to unleash a second Holocaust.”

Why, then, does India end up in such company? One reason has to do with its size. Take anti-Christian violence, for example. By my estimate, over the last decade, there have been roughly 200-300 incidents of anti-Christian violence in India annually. The sheer number of incidents is therefore certainly troubling. But India is home to 1.2 billion people. Relative to the size of their respective populations, the number of incidents of anti-Christian violence in India is lower than the number of hate crimes perpetrated against Muslims in the United States (according to FBI data), and would be well below the number of anti-Jewish hate crimes in the US even if I were severely undercounting Indian incidents of anti-Christian violence.

By my estimate, over the last decade, there have been roughly 200-300 incidents of anti-Christian violence in India annually.

The point is not to downplay the severity of anti-Christian violence in India, and of course, the 2007 and 2008 riots in the Indian state of Odisha, in which around fifty people were killed and tens of thousands displaced (mostly but not exclusively Christian), were unlike anything seen recently in the United States. The point, rather, is to note a discrepancy in how western organizations and governments often evaluate their own versus others’ records with regard to religious freedom.

This discrepancy itself contributes to the marginalization and harassment of Christians around the world, including in India, because an important and often overlooked factor in the growth of Hindu-Christian tension is the perception among many Indians that western “Christian” nations and governments are intent on foisting upon Indians their western forms of secular modernity, forms that travel along with putatively universally valid conceptions of “secularism,” “religion,” and “religious freedom,” and that implicitly construct as superior in all contexts typically western arrangements of secular governance.

However, because many Indians consider these conceptions to be parochially Christian in origin, rather than universally valid, they perceive the global power and growth of Christianity (particularly the growth of Christianity in India) as a potential threat to the possibility of constructing an indigenously appropriate form of secular and tolerant governance, that is, as a threat to their own sovereignty and right of self-determination.

While there are many factors that contribute to the targeting and marginalization of Christians in India, then, including both the ascendancy of politicians willing to stoke interreligious strife for political gain and widespread exasperation with aggressive Christian projects of proselytization, it is important that we also understand it as a manifestation, in part, of an indirect form of resistance to the potential imposition of western models of secular modernity in which Christianity is both historically and currently implicated.

Under-nuanced and clumsily hypercritical reports like those described at the beginning of this post (along with massive western funding of Christian proselytization efforts) therefore play into and exacerbate concerns about western hegemony and intrusions in Indian affairs, concerns that in turn likely contribute to an increase in the targeted harassment of Christians. Analyses of Hindu-Christian conflict and anti-Christian violence in India that fixate on local Indian religious and ideological matters alone, while ignoring the wider global and historical context in which they exist, are therefore by definition incomplete.

*Featured photo by Tofin Creations.


Chad M. Bauman is Professor of Religion at Butler University. He is the author of Christian Identity and Dalit Religion in Hindu India and the co-editor of Constructing Indian Christianities. Follow him on Twitter @dharmabaum.

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