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Cultural Violence Against Christians in India

Direct violence against Christians began in the late 1990s, according to a wide consensus among scholars and human rights groups.

There is a strong consensus, too, that the rise of Hindu nationalism is the cause of this. But there is no scholarly agreement on what sparked this violence.

Norwegian scholar Johan Galtung, considered to be the father of Peace Studies, wrote that  Cultural Violence was about “those aspects of culture, the symbolic sphere of our existence…that can be used to justify or legitimize direct or structural violence.” The “justifications” employed are similar for Islam and Christianity and relate to the relationship of Christianity with the Hindutva notion of the “nation”. Stemming from this definition, Christians are often characterized as being foreign to the nation and secondly, challenging the integrity of the nation.

The nation in Hindutva thought

V.D. Sarvarkar, an ideologue of the Hindu Nationalist movement, in his 1923 publication, Hindutva: Who is a Hindu? provided his definition of the nation which included geographical unity, common culture, and racial features. Despite Indian Muslim and Christians sharing the same fatherland (pitr-bhoomi) and a common culture, they are considered foreign since their Poonya-Bhoomi or holy lands (Arabia and Palestine respectively, according to Sarvarkar) do not lie within the geographical boundaries between the Indus river and the Indian Ocean.

Sarvarkar says they “possess all essential qualifications of Hindutva but one, and that is that they do not look upon India as their Holy land.” Furthermore, he goes on to explain that as foreign religions, “their love is divided” and “their allegiance is more to their Holy Land than their Fatherland. Thus, they constitute a threat to the unity of the nation.”

M.S. Golwakar, the second and longest-serving Sarsanghchalak (Supreme Leader) of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh went a step further to classify Christians as one of the three “enemies of the nation” along with Muslims and Communists. In his book, A Bunch of Thoughts expanded on Sarvarkar’s definition of the nation to include five unities – geographical, racial, religious, cultural and linguistic. He believes that each of these factors was equally integral to the nation. For him, a “loss or destruction of any of these destroys the nation as a whole.”

In addition to the belief that Christians owe their loyalties to West Asia, he highlighted the connection between Christians and western powers, suggesting that Christians in India were used as agents of foreign powers to break apart the nation. He wrote, “In the name of God, Prophet and Religion, they [Christians] are only trying to further their political ambitions.” Dismissing Christians as “anti-national”, he writes:

“So long as the Christians here indulge in such [missionary] activities and consider themselves as agents of the international movement for the spread of Christianity, and refuse to offer their first loyalty to the land of their birth and behave as true children of the heritage and culture of their ancestors, they will remain here as hostiles and will have to be treated as such.”

This line of thinking continues today among numerous organizations under the banner of the Sangh Parivar. For example, BJP spokesperson and now President of India, Ram Nath Kovind famously suggested that Christians and Muslims are “foreign to the nation” commenting on why Christian and Muslim Dalits should not be eligible to receive government reservations.

The nineties saw a dramatic advancement of Dalit issues including the Mandal Commission Report, the success of caste-based parties in Uttar Pradesh and the acceptance of positive discrimination for Dalit Buddhists in 1990. In contrast, Dalit Christians and Muslims are still not eligible to receive this reservations in government jobs and education. In addition to missionary activities, Christian support for social movements drew much attention to them. Sumit Sarkar points out that with Christians attitudes of social justice, peace and liberation theology, and their increased engagement in the public sphere in support of Dalit Christian rights to positive discrimination and the anti-nuclear and anti-war movements made them a more tangible threat.

These cultural factors, provide a new way of approaching the violence that Christians experience in India. Though physical attacks only began in the late 1990s, the question is whether violence was actually prevalent against Christians much earlier. Are these physical attacks just the more recent manifestation of violence towards Christians?