Echoes of India’s Violent Sectarian Past

By Jas Singh

Just seven months ago, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its leader, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, were swept into power with the largest mandate in India’s recent history. Since then the Hindu nationalist party has begun to substantially undermine freedom of religion in the world’s largest democracy. Fundamentalist groups closely linked to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS—or the National Volunteer Corps), the ideological mentor of BJP, are attempting to implement their vision of a homogeneously Hindu nation by using a combination of force and fraudulent tactics to convert Christian and Muslims across the country to Hinduism. In response to the uproar evoked by the opposition in the Indian Parliament, the BJP has now proposed carefully crafted anti-conversion laws, which only further the Hindu supremacist agenda. The campaign of forced conversions and crescendo of extremist rhetoric from the BJP and its affiliate groups coupled with Modi’s deafening silence is likely to invoke ghosts of India’s lurid past of state-sanctioned, and even state-sponsored, violence against its religious minorities.

In nearly every corner of the country, Christians and Muslims have complained of a wave of hostility in recent months by fundamentalist groups affiliated with the BJP. Forty-two Christian families in the state of Bihar sought police protection to defend themselves from intimidation, threats of violence, and raids conducted by Bajrang Dal and Vishva Hindu Parishad. The impoverished villagers, who converted to Christianity in 2007, all formerly belonged to the lowest rung of the Hindu caste system and have been warned that they will be deprived of government benefits and driven out of the village if they do not re-convert to Hinduism.

Such threats made by the same groups succeeded in Agra, where 250 Muslims in an Agra slum were duped into conversion. Similarly in Modi’s home state of Gujrat, where 200 Christians threw their crosses in a Hindu holy fire in exchange for promises of ration cards. Similar plans announced by BJP leader, Yogi Adityanath, to convert four thousand Christians to Hinduism in Aligarh, a district of Uttar Pradesh, on Christmas Day were subsequently cancelled amid a public outcry.

The National United Christian Forum, comprising the three largest Christian denominations of India, released a statement expressing alarm at the plight of Christians in the country. Given recent incidents such as the burning of a church in Delhi, demands to install a statue Hindu goddess at a Catholic school, and BJP officials’ attempts  to cancel Christmas as a national holiday for India’s school children, member churches are gravely concerned about the long-term protection of their religious rights.  

RSS and BJP Response

The RSS affiliates responsible for the mass conversions have maintained that they are only re-converting Hindus whose ancestors were converted to Christianity and Islam by force. Therefore, these ceremonies are not framed as conversion events but ghar wapsi, or homecomings. With regard to the controversy, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat has stated, "We will bring back our brothers who have lost their way. They did not go on their own. They were robbed, tempted into leaving.”

To exacerbate matters, Amit Shah, President of BJP, has “dared” the furious secular political opposition in parliament to support national anti-conversion laws such as those already in place in many states led by the BJP. The state laws have been specifically crafted to prevent missionary efforts by Christians and Muslims, and as reported by The Wall Street Journal in an interview with the U.N. special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, are major impediments to religious freedom. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom has described the legislation in its 2014 report as fostering a “hostile atmosphere for religious minorities, particularly Christians.”

Indian Prime Minister Narender Modi and Home Minister Rajnath Singh during the inauguration of BJP President Amit Shah in September.

Extremist Rhetoric and Modi’s Silence

Despite a public outcry, Hindu fundamentalist groups remain undaunted in their goal of cleansing the country of its Christian and Muslim minorities through a combination of forced conversions and violence. According to The Daily Mail, Rajeshwar Singh, a leader of Dharm Jagran Samiti—yet another offshoot of RSS—has stated his intention to make India a Hindu rashtra (nation) and, “will ensure that India is freed of Muslims and Christians by December 31, 2021.” BJP leader Yogi Adityanath, already embroiled in numerous incidents of sectarian violence, similarly declared unabashedly of his followers, “When I ask them to rise and protect our Hindu culture, they obey. If I ask for blood, they will give me blood.”

 Additionally, amid a furor in the Indian Parliament that even stalled his economic growth initiatives, Modi has remained defiantly silent. Given that Modi worked for the RSS for more than a decade prior to entering politics as well as his own role as chief minister in the 2002 Gujrat massacre that left over a thousand dead, the situation is worrying the country’s secular liberal elite.

As political commentator Shekhar Gupta recently noted, “either the prime minister is not strong enough to stop these guys from doing these conversions, or he thinks like them,” Mr. Gupta said. “And I don’t know which one of those options is worse.”

Meanwhile, a BJP leader later said of Modi, “His silence means his approval. It is the right time for us to fulfill our agenda.”

Ethnic Nationalism in a Secular Democracy

Yet to blame Modi alone for the sharp rise in extremist activity in the country would be short-sighted. Although freedom of religion is enshrined in the Indian Constitution, Hindu fundamentalism has festered in the country for more than a century and is a constant looming threat to its religious minorities. According to South Asia expert, Christophe Jaffrelot, this ideology was originally conceived to lend structure and uniformity to a religion that lacked both in order to guard against a perceived Western and Muslim threat to Hinduism on the subcontinent.

It became the concrete ethnic nationalist doctrine of Hindutva in the early 20th century when it formulated a national identity that hinged on the religion, culture, language, and territory of the country’s majority community, coining the motto “Hindu, Hindi, Hindustan.” This ideology puts forth that the Hindu majority represents the nation because it is the largest and oldest community, while religious minorities are deemed outsiders with foreign loyalties. Whatever their private beliefs may be, in the public sphere, more than a hundred million of India’s Christians, Muslims, and Sikhs must pay allegiance to Hindu symbols.

This doctrine holds that while Sikhs can be gradually assimilated into the fold of Hinduism, itself a highly problematic notion, Christians and Muslims should either be converted or expelled to make India a Hindu nation.

The RSS, established in 1925 for this end, successfully propagated this extremist ideology in towns and villages across the country. Over a period of decades, the organization opened local chapters and spawned various subsidiary organizations that mobilized the country’s Hindu religious leaders and its youth. The political wing of the radical organization was born with the establishment of the BJP in 1980, which subsequently exploited the Hindu supremacist ideology in order to spark ethnoreligious animosity in an effort to gain voters across the country. The inevitable result has been Hindu-Muslim “riots,” such as the Ayodhya riots of 1992, the 2002 Gujrat massacre, and the 2008 massacre of Christians in Odisha– all abetted by the hidden hand of the RSS and BJP.

While Western business elites steadfastly supported Modi’s rise to power with the promise of economic liberalization, the international community must, at the very least, admonish the Indian government for its recent assault on religious freedom. Another incident of state-sanctioned violence would not only undermine the country's economic reform agenda but also, if the past is any indication, possibly lead to the deaths of thousands of Indian Christians and Muslims who wish for nothing else but to practice their religion without state intervention.



Jas Singh is an editorial assistant for World Policy Journal.

[Photos courtesy of Narenda Modi and sunhashbaloria]

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