India, a land of deep religious significance, is the birthplace of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism. This rapidly developing nation of 1.3 billion people – where mobile phones outnumber public restrooms and cattle are found meandering down busy streets – faces the unique challenge of maintaining its history of religious pluralism with growing evidence of increased religious intolerance.
According to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), India is 80 percent Hindu, 14 percent Muslim, two percent Christian, one percent Sikh and less than one percent other religious groups including Buddhists, Jains, Zoroastrians, Jews, and Baha’is. As the world’s largest democracy, the Indian constitution protects freedom of conscience and the ability for individuals to practice their faith freely. The constitution also mandates a secular state, prohibiting the government from religious discrimination or from denying religious groups the right to establish and manage their own businesses.
However, India has seen an uptick in religious tensions and outright violence targeting religious minorities. There is growing concern the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-controlled parliament’s Hindu nationalist platform is flaming social hostilities towards non-Hindu religious communities.
According to an assessment by USCIRF in its Annual Religious Freedom Report 2017:
“Members of the ruling party have ties to Hindu nationalist groups implicated in religious freedom violations, used religiously divisive language to inflame tensions, and called for additional laws that would restrict religious freedom. These issues, combined with longstanding problems of police and judicial bias and inadequacies, have created a pervasive climate of impunity in which religious minorities feel increasingly insecure and have no recourse when religiously motivated crimes occur.”
Combined with this drive towards Hinduism, other factors threatening religious freedom in India include state anti-conversion laws, constitutional and state laws restricting cattle slaughter, and a 2010 Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act.
Currently, there are six states in India that have enacted anti-conversion laws prohibiting forced conversion from one faith to another. While these laws may seem to protect religious minorities, they have actually emboldened social hostility and vigilantism towards non-Hindu faiths. Open Doors, a Christian Human rights organization, notes that communities that have turned to Christianity from Hinduism face increased persecution.
Another issue is restriction or prohibition of cattle slaughter. While the cow is considered sacred in the Hindu faith, many Muslim faith traditions and some of their livelihoods depend upon the beef industry. Individuals transporting cattle to market have been harassed, beaten and some have been killed. On November 6, Reuters reported that Hindu nationalists are not only assaulting Muslim farmers, but also stealing their cattle.
In 2010, the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act set limits on foreign contributions to organizations and the use of these donations if they pose a threat to “national interests.” In 2015, nearly 9,000 charitable organizations had their licenses revoked because of noncompliance issues with this law. Many of these organizations that work on human rights, anti-human trafficking and religious freedom have not been relicensed. Compassion International, which is a Christian humanitarian assistance organization that provides child sponsorships, was forced to close its doors in India after serving the marginalized there for nearly 50 years.
To help address these concerns, the U.S. has announced a grant of nearly $500,000 for a non-governmental organization to submit proposals to develop early warning systems for “reducing religiously-motivated violence and discrimination” in India. Further, the newly confirmed U.S. Ambassador to India, Ken Juster, has stated publicly that religious freedom is one of his priorities.
As Indian religious minorities face uncertain times, it is important that U.S. foreign policy remain strong in advocating for an India that honors its constitutional promises of religious freedom to people of all faiths.
Elisabeth Dohertyr Office Manager
1. Read the USCIRF Annual Report 2017 on India.
2. Pray for due diligence by Indian government officials and police to protect the rights of religious minorities who have been threatened by mob violence.
3. Stand in solidarity with the persecuted in India and around the world by taking part of #RedWednesday by wearing red or lighting a building in red on Wednesday, November 22, 2017. For more information on how you can be involved, please visit: Bit.ly/RedWednesdayUSA
(c) 2017 Wilberforce Initiative