New book documents anti-Christian violence in India

Professor Chad Bauman of Indiana’s Butler University is an expert in Hindu-Christian relations. His book, Anti-Christian Violence in India, was published in September 2020. In it, Bauman describes the different theoretical approaches regarding anti-Christian violence in India, while laying out the history of Hindu-Christian relations and looking at the increasing persecution which has been afflicting Indian Christians.

Surprisingly, anti-Christian violence was rare in India until recently. Christianity is far from new in the overwhelmingly Hindu country, having first been introduced to India by Thomas the Apostle.

In recent years though, anti-Christian sentiments have grown more common, which is increasingly resulting in violence at a time when Hindu nationalism is experiencing a resurgence.

Obviously, this is part of the growing problem of anti-Christian violence around the world today, and this global context is part of what inspired this work.

“[W]hile the intent of this book is to explain, analyse and theorise anti-Christian discrimination and violence in India, one larger question is whether and to what extent the explanations, analyses and theories I provide for the Indian context may be useful to help explain this more global rise in anti-Christian hostility or the more general increase in anti-religious hostility and inter-religious violence over the last decades,” Bauman writes.

This violence comes in different types. Chapter Three - which is titled “’Everyday’ Anti-Christian Violence” - looks at the sort of low-intensity persecution (theft, physical violence, vandalism and the destruction of property) which is directed against the Christians and Christian institutions.

Bauman’s research suggests that such incidents take place in India around 350 times each year. As such persecution takes place “every day,” it does not generate media coverage at home or abroad.

Slightly more attention has been focused on India’s religious minorities since the election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2014, but the upsurge in attacks on Christians goes back much further, and some of the ugliest incidents such as the Kandhamal violence in 2008 took place when the secularist Congress Party still governed the country.

Throughout the 320-page book, Bauman explores India’s past and present to look for possible causes of this increased aggression.

As occurs in other countries, Christians are sometimes looked upon as being a foreign influence, one with roots - and financial and political connections - in the West.

With its recent history of colonisation, and given the threat posed by Islamic extremism (backed up by a hostile neighbour in Pakistan) this is a particularly sensitive area.

Hindu antipathy towards conversion - what is referred to frequently as “proselytism” - is a recurring topic, and not just among extreme nationalists.

Although the work of Christians in providing education, healthcare and charitable assistance attracts admirers (with a population share of between 2.5-5%, Christians are responsible for 25% of India’s voluntary sector), many Hindus fear that the motivations here include the conversion of Hindus, particularly from among the ranks of the untouchables, who occupy the lowest rung in India’s caste system. 

Unlike other religious disputes around the world, the issues at play here are more social and cultural than theological.

As Bauman explains, the word “dharma,” which is translated as “religion,” is viewed differently in India, where the Western church/state distinction is not widely adhered to.

Instead of representing a religious belief system which can be accepted or rejected, their “dharma” represents a view of life in its totality, the life of a good and patriotic Indian.

To reject Hinduism, therefore, is to reject the nation and its people.

As Bauman explains the ”Hindu-Christian conflict is religious but not in the particulars of Hindu versus Christian belief and practice so much as in disparate understandings of what religion is and should be (e.g., universal versus ethnic, proselytising versus non-proselytising, portable versus space based, privatised versus part and parcel of a total public way of life...)”

Of greater interest given the broader international problem of anti-Christian persecution is how some Hindus view Christianity as being associated with globalisation and Western values: a particularly unfortunate notion given the extent to which the suffering of persecuted Christians is ignored in the West.

Within this environment of animosity, one spark at a local level can quickly turn everyday persecution into the sort of conflagration which erupted in the district of Kandhamal in August 2008.

There, the assassination of a well-known Hindu nationalist by Maoist guerrillas was wrongly blamed on local Christians, and an onslaught ensued which resulted in the destruction of 6,000 houses and 300 churches, as well as the killing of at least 50 people and the displacement of 50,000 others.

The stories from Kandhamal are harrowing: the paralysed Christian man who was burned alive in his house as the killers taunted his family; the nun stripped and beaten while police officers chatted with her attackers; and the Christian father whose six-year-old daughter pleaded for his life before he was dismembered in front of her. Elaborate re-conversion ceremonies were also organised by the Hindu attackers throughout, in which many Christians renounced their religion in exchange for being spared.

Kandhamal was worthy of attention for many reasons. The fact that there had been more minor anti-Christian rioting the previous Christmas showed how quickly violence could escalate when hatred had already set in.

The origins of that anti-Christian hatred are also noteworthy. The Christian population had grown by 56% between 1991 and 2001 and was continuing to grow quickly before the pogrom, particularly among the low-caste Pana community, whose social and economic advances since converting to Christianity were resented by the majority Kandha tribe.

Part of the aim of anti-Christian violence in India, it appears, is to deter groups such as the Pana from making progress, and to maintain the overwhelming Hindu dominance by discouraging further conversion, as well as by encouraging emigration.

Unsurprisingly, these tactics appear to be having some success when one considers the disproportionate number of Christians among India’s diaspora.  To take one example, of the 17,000 Indians who lived in Ireland in 2011, around 10,000 were Christian, with Catholics making up the largest single group.

Overall, Bauman’s book offers a very good introduction to the situation facing India’s Christians, although it would have been better had the author reduced his focus on the social theories around inter-religious violence (instrumentalism, essentialism, constructivism and so forth).

For a Christian outside of India, the book is crucial given the context of growing global persecution against Christians.

Religious and political leaders need to become more aware of this, and it should not require large-scale violence like that which occurred in Kandhamal in 2008 to make the subject topical.

To this end, more attention needs to be given to the invaluable work which charities such as Aid to the Church in Need do in highlighting the plight of oppressed Christians and providing them with practical support. Governments which allow anti-Christian persecution to occur - or which are actively involved in it - need to pay a reputational price.

Indeed, India and its 30 million+ Christians should be a priority in all our minds for a multitude of other reasons. With a current population of 1.3 billion, India is likely to overtake China and become the world’s most populous country within a decade.

As the free world wakes up the brutal nature of China’s totalitarian government, and as India gradually moves away from its traditional reflexive anti-Americanism, it is likely that India and the Western powers will grow closer in the coming years.

With its freer economic and social system than China, India likely has a more prosperous future to look forward to, one in which they could develop into a true superpower, and one where Christians play an important part within the society.

For anyone looking to learn more about the challenges which these Christians face each day, “Anti-Christian Violence in India” would be a good place to start.


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