By Martin Surridge – The Indian subcontinent has a rich and religiously diverse history. In addition to Hinduism, often called the world’s oldest religion, India is also the ancestral home to Buddhism, Sikhism, home to millions of Muslims, and countless indigenous belief systems. With these and other introduced faiths, religious tension has often dominated the news coming out of India during the last half century, the violence in Kashmir in particular. Since the turn of the century however, India seemed to be embracing its new role as a growing Asian power, an emerging market economy concerned more with the technology of the future rather than the conflicts of the past. For some though, it seems that old habits die hard.
This is Article18-RLTV’s weekly blog specifically dedicated to religious liberty issues in other countries around the world. Each week, we focus on a different nation, and the struggles facing one of its religious communities. This week: India, where in the last couple weeks a Christian pastor was brutally beaten in front of his two sons, churches were attacked by extremists on Good Friday, and new legislation places restrictions on blasphemous material online.
India might be one of the four so called rapidly developing, highly sophisticated BRIC economies–those of Brazil, Russia, India, and China whose impressive rise in the global economy threatens the superpower status held by the United States–but it appears that most of that development isn’t taking place in the religious liberty arena. In fact, when it comes to freedom of religion and interfaith harmony, India seems to have much more in common with the autocratic regimes of its BRIC partners, Russia and China, than the United Kingdom and the United States, allies to which aspiring India has often looked for inspiration in governing.
Recently, the United States Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) placed India, along with such other veritable religious utopias as Somalia and Cuba, on a “watch list” of nations “whose violations do not merit a listing as the worst offenders but nevertheless require monitoring” because of the numerous problems in the subcontinent. The decision was met with objection by the Hindu American Foundation, who claimed that the “USCIRF’s decision to club India in with a dozen or so of the worst violators of religious freedom in the world raises questions of bias and flawed methodology. The Commission’s censure of India in 2011, despite that country’s celebrated pluralism and absence of any significant recent religious discord — despite provocative terror attacks — seems based more on a disagreement over some states’ effort to monitor coercive and forced conversions.”
However, the HAF’s statement did not mention what could have been a key factor in the USCIRF’s decision to place India on the list–recent internet regulations designed to prohibit blasphemous or offensive online speech. Internet use has been growing at a tremendous rate in India and according to the New York Times the new law would “allow officials and private citizens to demand that Internet sites and service providers remove content they consider objectionable on the basis of a long list of criteria” from a “list of objectionable content [that] is sweeping” in its scope.
The HAF might not have mentioned the new internet legislation, but they did claim that many of the religious liberty issues in India today are down to the “damaging role [that] predatory proselytization plays in inter-religious relations.” It is hard to see that statement as being directed towards any other group that evangelical Christians who have been in the headlines recently for suffering violent attacks at the hands of Hindu extremists during the Easter weekend. A protestant churches was invaded by 50 “club-wielding Hindu radicals [ordering] the faithful to reconvert to Hinduism.” A reverend was injured and taken to hospital for treatment and the authorities not only stood by doing nothing, but they later later rejected a formal complaint filed by the church.
In addition, Ramesh Devda, a Christian pastor and evangelist from Dhadhniya, Meghnagar district suffered a brutal attack in front of his children. He was on his way to lead out in a prayer meeting and was stopped by men on motorcycles who proceeded to batter him with bamboo sticks causing multiple injuries including a cracked skull. Devda himself, who fortunately survived the encounter after onlookers came to his rescue once he had passed out, describes what happened.
“They were angry at me and were threatening to kill me and were warning me not to come to their area again. My sons were screaming at the top of their voices, and they were afraid. One of the men hit me on my forehead with a big bamboo stick, cracking my skull. The others were also beating me on my body, especially my back. My eyes were darkened, and I fell down, and they proceeded to beat me even more. The men were abusive in the foulest language that I had heard, and they were drunk.”
To blame nationwide religious liberty issues on the “predatory” evangelistic efforts of men like Devda, rather than the neanderthals who nearly kill a defenseless man because his private prayer meeting was considered offensive is not only ridiculous, it’s a cowardly submission to extremists who wish to dominate religious life and public discourse in India. The world is a complex place and I rarely speak in such black and white language, but the HAF are simply wrong in this case. If India really is the pluralistic country they claim it to be, attacks like these cannot be blamed on the victim, no matter what religion they might be or however enthusiastically they wish to share their beliefs with others.
India’s Pentecostal evangelists may be magnetic, dynamic and incredibly successful, perhaps even upsetting to some who prefer their traditional communities to remain the way they are. But with the fastest growing and second largest population on the planet there should be enough room in India for a community of Christians to coexist peacefully with Hindus and Muslims and not be preyed upon by thugs who are threatened by change and scared of belief systems they do not understand.