Asia, Religion & Politics, Security

The rise of Hindu-Christian violence in India

Hindu-Muslim violence has been a prominent feature of Independent India but violence against Christians in India is a more recent phenomenon. Historian Vinay Lal noted that between 1964 and 1996, there were only 38 registered cases of violence against Christians in India. However, the following year the United Christian Forum reported 27 cases and 70 in 1998. This number has steadily increased over the years.

In a detailed study encompassing 2007 and 2008, Chad Bauman estimates that these attacks had exceeded 200 per year based on data he collected. This violence involved encompassed beatings, damage to property, and intimidations.

The Christian community has a long history in India. The Syrian Christian community in Kerala can trace their roots to the early part of the first century A.D. For a small community, Christians have continuously punched above their weight having positively impacted generations through educational institutions, hospitals and other service-oriented organizations. Considering their long and relatively peaceful presence in India, and their significant contribution, what explains the turn of violence against them from the late 1990s onwards?

The answer lies in the political-economic context in India at the time. The turbulent 90s brought on numerous pivotal events. The first was the recommendations for reservations by the Mandal Commission. The second is the opening of markets in the early 90s which disrupted the traditional economic hierarchy in Indian society. These two together set the tone of deep resentment which was manipulated to cause the third factor, the demolition of the Babri Masjid. These three events laid the foundation of anti-Christian violence in India.

The Mandal Commission recommendations for reservations angered upper- caste Hindus who would have to cede government jobs to lower-castes and Dalits. Government jobs would now become more competitive and the economic and social position of the lower castes improve thanks to this positive discrimination. Around the same time, the waves of globalization changed the game in India. Increased (and merit-based) employment opportunities disrupted the social and economic fabric of the country which up until now was dominated by upper-caste Hindus.

Psychologist Sudhir Kakar’s suggests that when one’s material existence is threatened, s/he is more susceptible to social cohesion around other core identities such as religion. The Hindu Nationalist forces known as the Sangh Parivar leveraged this disruption to coalesce a Hindu identity against a common enemy – the Muslim.

Anuja Bose notes two factors that aided this was the proliferation of new forms of mass media in the forms of televisions in more households and the mass consumerism which helped commercialize religion. In a time when the state-run Doordarshan Channel dominated television viewership in India, the show Ramayana became hugely popular; drawing in between 80 and 100 million viewers each week. The show about Lord Ram’s life slowly created a common and shared history for all Hindus.

This new identity found expression through mass-produced posters, car ornaments, etc. which became common place around the country. For the first time, a common Hindu identity was being forged amongst a group which encompassed hundreds of millions of people, divided by caste, and sharing no common language, culture, and lifestyle.

Political Scientist Christophe Jaffrelot explains that these events were pivotal to the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the political wing of the Sangh Parivar. The BJP’s political journey moved from winning 2 seats in the 1984 national elections to 86 seats (in 1989) and eventually becoming the majority party in the ruling coalition, the National Democratic Alliance (with 183 seats in 1999).

Following the anti-Muslim violence due to the Babri Masjid demolition and subsequent riots in Bombay in the early 90s, the BJP became apprehensive that sustained anti-Muslim violence could work to their disadvantage. If India’s 14 per cent Muslims (in a dispersed population) voted against them, it could be catastrophic for them.

Still in need of a way to build on this “Hindu” identity, Christians became the new target for the Sangh Parivar. Christians and Muslims are generally lumped together in steering documents of the nationalist movements as “foreign religions” which “threaten the integrity of the nation”.

Political Scientist John Zavos, in his research of propaganda of the Sangh Parivar shows a marked shift in language towards Christians and away from Muslims in mid-nineties following the demolition of the Babri Masjid. Most of this propaganda revolved around missionary activities which was claimed to be threatening to the social fabric and unity of India. It was also accused of being used as a tool of foreign interference into Indian affairs.

Several important events in the late 90s gave fodder for the nationalist movement against Christians. These included the anointment of Sonia Gandhi (an Italian Catholic and widow of slain Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi) as the President of the Congress Party. The fact that she was a “foreign” “Christian” gave easy fodder to nationalist groups who were already weary of increased activities of foreign missionaries such as AD2000. The Christian community which makes up 2.4% of India’s population is scattered around the country. Therefore, their size does not compose an active electoral challenge and therefore does not act as a viable deterrent against violence.

When viewed in this trajectory, it is evident that the violence against Christians in India is less to do with the canons of Christianity but more to do with political opportunism of nefarious nationalist forces. In order words, violence against Christians in India has less to do with religious reasons and more to do with economic and political factors.

Image Credit: CC by Christians in India/Wikimedia Commons