Obama visits an India with growing religious intolerance

Since PM Narendra Modi was elected, churches attacked, Christians and Muslims paid to convert to Hinduism

Burnt bibles lie on a bench inside St. Sebastian's Church after a fire destroyed the church in New Delhi, Dec. 2, 2014. While the cause of the fire is not known, the Delhi Catholic Archdiocese said Tuesday that "mischief" was suspected.
Tsering Topgyal / AP

In the middle of the night on Jan. 14, a man walked into a church in India’s capital city of New Delhi. He folded his hands together, bowed in respect to a statue of the Virgin Mary and then proceeded to vandalize the church. The Delhi police were quick to point out that he and two other assailants, who were caught on a closed-circuit camera and have since been arrested, seemed to be inebriated and did not act out of religious hatred. But some from India’s Christian community, which makes up roughly 2.3 percent of the country’s 1.2 billion population, are not convinced. In the past six weeks, four churches have been similarly attacked in Delhi. In the southern city of Hyderabad, Christmas carolers were beaten up, reportedly by a right-wing Hindu group. These incidents, India’s National Human Rights Commission noted last week, “may violate the fundamental right to freedom of religion and cause immense harm to the social fabric.” 

Many fear the situation will get worse. For the past few months, Hindu nationalists have been staging elaborate mass-conversion ceremonies called “ghar vapsi,” or “homecoming,” intended to “reconvert” Christians to Hinduism, offering roughly 3,200 rupees (about $52) if they make the switch. (The going rate for a Muslim to convert to Hinduism is about 8,000.)

As a result, India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, who was elected by a landslide last May on a platform of economic reform, is facing increased scrutiny for his refusal to condemn the rising religious intolerance over the past months, something that worries many Christian leaders. A Hindu nationalist and longtime leader of the state of Gujarat, he was accused of looking the other way during the 2002 riots, which left about 1,000 people dead, mostly Muslims. “The attacks and the whole silence of the authorities around it have left the community with a feeling of insecurity,” Dominic Emmanuel, a spokesman for the Delhi archdiocese, told an Indian daily

An Indian kitemaker poses with kites adorned with images of US President Barack Obama (L) and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (R) in Amritsar, India on Jan. 21, 2015.
Narinder Nanu / AFP / Getty Images

Under increased scrutiny, however, Modi may be under pressure to speak up. Today, he welcomes President Barack Obama, who is scheduled to attend India's Republic Day festivities on Jan. 26, which celebrate the date India’s constitution was adopted in 1950. Obama will be the first U.S. president to attend the function. The mass conversions and attacks have not gone unnoticed among government officials in Washington, D.C., and some analysts expect Obama to voice his concern privately to Modi. 

Milan Vaishnav, a South Asia associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in Washington, D.C., says that U.S. officials worry that religious issues will distract from the big-picture goals of Obama’s visit: strengthening economic and defense ties, consummating the civil-nuclear deal and reaching an agreement on climate and energy. But, he says, “This could change if the intensity of such sentiments increase or if Modi, or his inner circle, are perceived to be instigators.”

As the Gujarat chief minister from 2001 to 2014, Modi often delivered inflammatory speeches filled with Hindu-nationalist rhetoric. But as he campaigned for prime minister, he softened his rhetoric, saying that improving India’s economy would be his primary objective. Soon the “achhe din,” or good days, would reach all Indians regardless of caste, Modi promised then. Even some of his opponents in the Indian National Congress Party, which has ruled the country for most of its history, complimented Modi on his emphasis on economic reform. 

In India, if the Hindu society is in danger, then the country is also in danger [since] the country is a Hindu country.

Mohan Bhagwat

Chief of the RSS

The problem is that some of Modi’s supporters have a different definition of what those good days mean, and his election has emboldened Hindu nationalists in their efforts to turn India — where religious minorities make up roughly 20 percent of the population — into a Hindu nation. Since the election last May, Hindu-Muslim violence has erupted in several states, including a deadly clash earlier this month during the annual kite-flying festival in Gujarat. In the southern state of Kerala, where Hindu nationalists had previously not gained much traction, dozens of Christians were reconverted to Hinduism after they were given financial incentives. (They are called reconversions by the organizers because they allege that all Indians were originally Hindu and were forcefully converted to Islam or Christianity.) Some Hindu nationalist leaders have even suggested that Hindus should have 10 children in order to remain the religious majority. 

Modi, who joined the Hindu nationalist group the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS, as a young man, retains deep ties to the organization. He has not made any public remarks about any specific incidents. But according to reports in the Indian media, he met with the top leadership of several Hindu-nationalist groups in December. During the meeting, he vowed to resign from the prime minister’s post if these groups did not stop making their controversial remarks.

So far this tactic has not worked. Two weeks after that meeting, the RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat said at a rally in Gujarat, “In India, if the Hindu society is in danger, then the country is also in danger [since] the country is a Hindu country.” And in a move that is likely to embarrass Modi, some Hindu nationalists have vowed to create a memorial for Nathuram Godse, the RSS member who assassinated Mahatma Gandhi on Jan. 30, 1948. 

An Indian tribesperson (R, foreground) participates in a conversion ritual of some 200 Christians into Hinduism, at Aranai Village in Valsad district of Gujarat state, some 350 kms from Ahmedabad, on Dec. 20, 2014.
AFP / Getty Images

Ghanshyam Shah, a retired political scientist from Gujarat who has studied Modi’s rise, believes the Indian prime minister has little incentive to curtail the rise of Hindu nationalism. “Modi owes his victory to these groups,” Shah says. “Modi does not want to go against [them], because he still needs them. They like Modi because he has assured them that he has not changed. He is still a Hindu nationalist.” Shah points out that with the Delhi state elections approaching on Feb. 7, it is unlikely the leader will alienate this support base. 

But Modi has given off mixed signals since he assumed office. While he has reached out to religious leaders in India, including Christians, he also led an effort this year to proclaim Dec. 25 a workday celebrating “good governance,” a move that many Christians see as a way to dislodge their sacred holiday

No one in the American government has publicly addressed the attacks on Christians thus far. When the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visited Gujarat earlier this month for an investor summit, there were rumors — and hopes — among Christians that he would visit a church to make a statement. That didn’t materialize; instead, Kerry gushed about Modi’s being “a visionary prime minister.”

It is a remarkable shift in U.S. thinking on the Indian leader, given that Modi was denied a visa to the United States in 2005 because of his failure to stop the anti-Muslim riots in his home state three years prior. India’s courts have since cleared Modi of any wrongdoing — a move that has been criticized by human-rights groups and Muslim leaders. Modi has since successfully marketed himself as a business-friendly leader. In the past few years, American behemoths such as Coca-Cola and Ford have invested in Gujarat, with an additional $415 billion in investments recently pledged across India. 

Hindutva [Hindu nationalism] provides a good cover for the economic shortcomings.

Christophe Jaffrelot

scholar on Hindu nationalism

He also has some new admirers in Washington, D.C., such as the evangelical politicians who once opposed him, including former Congressman Newt Gingrich. It is unclear if these supporters will change their tune if the attacks on Christians continue.

Part of the reason for the silence from foreign governments so far, says Christophe Jaffrelot, an expert on Hindu nationalism, is that people in the West perceive Modi as the man who can uplift India’s economy and open it up to foreign investment. Jaffrelot believes Modi has not distanced himself from Hindu nationalism because Modi has not yet been able to deliver on his development promises. “Hindutva [Hindu nationalism] provides a good cover for the economic shortcomings,” Jaffrelot says.

But others, including Modi’s biographer Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, think that even if the Indian economy starts roaring, Modi will not change, regardless of whether Obama presses him to do so.

“Creating fear of the Other, using Hindu-nationalist undertones — this is Modi’s DNA,” Mukhopadhyay says. 

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