The “normalizing of hatred,” “out of control” hate speech, and government inaction in the face of mob violence have created tremendous risks for Indian Christians in the last decade, Indian Evangelical leader Rev. Vijayesh Lal told Breitbart News in an interview last week.
Lal, who serves as the general secretary of the Evangelical Fellowship of India, lamented that Christians become “target practice” when public comments, often from minister-level government officials, provoke mobs to attack communities of differing religions, particularly in events where Hindu nationalist mobs, who believe Indian identity and Hindu religion are inseparable, riot.
The faith leader listed “the normalizing of hatred … the immense religious polarizing in the country, hate speech that has gone basically out of control and the level of impunity so the government notices it but doesn’t do anything” as the major factors contributing to a dramatically worsening security situation in the country regarding religious minorities.
Lal was in Washington, DC, last week for this year’s International Religious Freedom Summit, an event that brings together religious freedom advocates, representatives of persecuted faiths, and international human rights experts to seek to bring awareness to the repression of religious groups, including atheists, around the world. The Evangelical Fellowship of India identifies itself as the “central network of evangelicals in the country,” serving as a hub to advocate for Christians in the country.
Citing statistics from India’s National Crime Records Bureau, Lal told Breitbart News that the number of mob attacks, riots, and other violent attacks on religious minorities had increased dramatically since 2014, when Narendra Modi became president and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) assumed the leadership of the country. He cited the rise of what he described as “right-wing groups and mobs who feel that they will be able to get away with anything” as largely responsible for the violence.
In India, “right-wing” sentiment is typically associated with Hindu nationalism – the idea that Hinduism is a core trait of Indian identity, and thus Indians who are not Hindu are unpatriotic or antagonistic to the progress of the nation.
In reality, India is about 80 percent Hindu, meaning about 276 million people in the country subscribe to other religions. Muslims constitute the largest minority group at 14.2 percent. Estimates suggest that only about two percent of Indians identify as Christian.
“If Muslims are labeled anti-national, we are also labeled anti-national because we convert according to the propaganda,” Lal explained. “So hate speech remains a big big problem that needs to be checked.”
“The persecution of Christians has been increasing steadily since the 90s and if you talk about from 2014 onwards, it has basically reached limits that we did not know were there,” Lal said. “Last year, we had 505 documented incidents that we’ve been able to trace – and this is only what we’ve been able to trace.”
“Overall, there were 276,000 cases of rioting registered just between 2016 and 2020 in our country, and this is government data. The National Crime Records Bureau, it shows some 5,500 sectarian incidents reported between 2014 and 2020,” he explained, “So the fact is that these things are rising in India and it should worry the world.”
Even incidents that do not appear to involve Christians on the surface often result in mob violence against Christians in addition to other religious minorities. India has experienced a particularly severe wave of rioting and mob violence after a now-former BJP spokeswoman, Nupur Sharma, appeared on an Indian cable news program and referenced an Islamic hadith that claims Muhammad married a six-year-old child, Aisha, and consummated the marriage when she was nine. The BJP suspended Sharma after Muslims began rioting – and Hindu groups began attacking Muslim communities in retaliation – accusing Sharma of blasphemy. The context of Sharma’s context was an already heated dispute about the alleged discovery of a Hindu artifact at a mosque, elevating fears that Hindus would demand to seize the mosque and convert it into a Hindu holy site.
The violence has continued for over a month. This week, a new wave of riots erupted in the state of Rajasthan after police arrested two Muslim men on charges of beheading a Hindu tailor who had published a social media post supporting Sharma.
“Christians are not caught in the middle of Muslims and Hindus. We are collateral damage. We are target practice so to say,” Lal told Breitbart News. “Hate speech, inciting violence by members of the central council of ministers and by members of Parliament has increased multifold since 2014, especially the kind of hate speech that provokes the throngs of Hindutva [Hindu nationalist] supporters to commit acts of violence against religious minorities, particularly against Muslims and Christians.”
Lal observed that, as much of the incitement to violence comes from government officials, the government acts only minimal in response to mobs.
“When the ministers are themselves making hate speeches, what more can you do? Nupur Sharma who made the comment was a spokesperson of the BJP,” Lal said. “Earlier on, chief ministers of various states of India have dabbled in hate speech so it emboldens the mobs who basically do violence, take up arms and do violence.”
The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) condemned the Indian government in the aftermath of Sharma’s comment, a united front almost unheard of in the Christian-majority world, as Christian-majority countries are much less likely to be run under explicitly Christian political systems, the way many Islamic countries also implement Islamist constitutions.
“America has not spoken, the Scandinavian countries used to speak but now they don’t speak, so I guess the economic interest takes precedent over religious freedom and human rights,” Lal said. “The U.S. needs India as an ally against China, so there has not been much talk about it and that’s a little bit disappointing.”
State Department spokesman Ned Price condemned Sharma’s comments in mid-June, adding “we were glad to see that party publicly condemned those comments,” referring to the BJP.
Lal urged the international community to pressure the BJP government to act to protect minorities and make religious freedom a priority in political and economic discussions.
“When a church or a temple or a gurdwara gets desecrated in any part of the world it’s deplorable,” Lal said, “and if that is happening in India it is equally deplorable and the international community must make it feel that they are noticing it and they are taking note of it. And that would be a big enough action already.”