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Indian Christians and the Hindu Majoritarian election victory

Indian Christians and the Hindu Majoritarian election victory

CEN Newspaper
June 12, 2019

The overwhelming victory of Narendra Modi and his Hindu Nationalist party in the Indian elections has come while the Truro Commission on the Persecution of Christians is completing its report.

The fear of increased persecution of Christians in India will become the occasion for making the case for political and financial support from western Christians. Such a strategy plays into the hands of the those who suggest that Indian Christians are western implants who use their links to sustain their alien presence in India.

We need to explore why Prime Minister Modi's Hindutva party, the BJP, projects a negative view of Christians. First, after the colonial period ended in 1947, some Indian academics created the myth that before the British came to India, the country was marked by religious harmony but that the British carried out a divide and rule policy to sow division between Hindus and Moslems. However, the 1000- year Muslim rule of India before British rule was not known for religious harmony. It was marked by religious violence, forced conversions of Hindus to Islam and an intimidated Hindu majority.

The BJP have effectively used the myth of a tolerant India to suggest that external forces brought division to an essentially tolerant race. This was never true. India did not exhibit religious inclusion. It tolerated different expressions of Hinduism and allowed them to co-exist. There was no ethic of toleration, much less an ethic of inclusion based on an understanding of common humanity.

Christians have been in India since the first century. The Church grew and spread since the arrival of western Christian missions. Christians and the Church are recognized as a force for peace: they care for the poor and excluded, and by including all people became bridges between communities. The lack of Christian presence in the north of India has meant that the north has had far more communal riots than the south of India where Christians are in significant numbers.

Secondly, a more pernicious influence from the West has been the ethnic and religious nationalism that found expression in Fascism and Nazism where people were defined by their religion and ethnicity, as the Jews experienced to their great cost. Such a view has always been attractive to a section of Hindu nationalists since the beginning of the 20th Century and exercises a significant influence on current ruling elites.

A third influence has been 'exceptionalism' where a nation or people try to suggest they are exceptional, different, unique and set apart from the rest. Religious Exceptionalism came with Islam to India and was reinforced by Christian mission. In reaction to Islamic and Christian exceptionalisms the Hindu right is developing its own brand of exceptionalism. This has in recent years borrowed from American exceptionalism which takes the view that unless you think America is great in every area, you are anti-American. Swami Vivekananda while drawing on the Bengal Renaissance introduced the elements of Hindu exceptionalism but in a benign form asserting that Hindus are an exceptionally "spiritual" people. The RSS has built on it to assert a muscular exceptionalism mimicking Islam. So, India is also trying to be a nation like no other.

What happened in the election? Suzanna Arundhati Roy, the winner of the Man Booker Prize for Fiction in 1997 with The God of Small Things, has written in the New Republic website that the election in India is a mockery of what democracy is supposed to be. Modi's party, the BJP, had 20 times more money than all of the other parties put together. "Every institution in this country was bent to their will, including the Election Commission... That money bought them tens of thousands of IT experts, data analysts, social media activists who ran thousands of Whatsapp groups with carefully directed propaganda--tailored and tweaked for every section, region, caste, and class, every voting booth in every constituency...How can we treat this as a fair election? It was a race between a Ferrari and a few bicycles--and the media cheered the Ferrari as though they hadn't noticed anything unusual."

The sweeping victory of BJP shows that much of the country has opted for a Hindu Majoritarian identity as its public stance. This changes the space in which non-Hindu religions can operate. What is the space for Christians in this changing India? Comparing space for religious minorities in Pakistan with India, soon after independence Pakistan moved away from the united India ethos of democratic inclusion and became in practice an Islamic state. Religious minorities had at best a "dhimmi" defined space. India remained secular in spite of the overwhelming numbers of Hindus.

While Indian Christians are a religious minority, at two per cent of the population, they are not a part of any cultural minority. Culturally most Indian Christians are Indian and have always been so. That Indian identity draws on the identity that has developed since the 18th century when Indians had to contend with the arrival of western modernity. Many Indian Christians maintained their Indian and caste cultural identities when they became Christians. A particular example are the Nadar Christians of Tamil Nadu South India who retained their caste customs and were accepted by the higher castes. They became modern but not western.

Christians ought to assert that while they may be part of a religious minority, they are not minorities as far as "Indian Culture" is concerned.

The Bengal Renaissance of the 19th century contributed significantly to the development of this identity of the modern Indian who is capable of drawing on the best of the west while maintaining his "Indian" identity. His practice of Hinduism was private and was primarily for cultural identity purposes. It had little theological content in it.

That identity is under threat with the rise of Swamis, Gurus, Sadhus and Sadhvis where the identity of a Hindu is being asserted against other religions, particularly Islam. Their perception is that to become a Christian Indian people have to deny their Indian identity and loyalty, rather than find their identity transformed and fulfilled in Christ. Such transformation is particularly important for those who are poor and excluded. The model for this perception is the Islamic notion that the brotherhood of Islam trumps other identities and loyalties. This would be like suggesting to British people that to become Christian you need to become a generalized European.

For the future, Indian Christians need to recover their passion to address the social needs of India in proclaiming the gospel and contributing the essential components of people building in India by affirming the common humanity of all people and the reconciliation brought by Christ. They must also continue to stand for Religious Freedom even if it brings hostility and persecution.

The challenge to churches in the West is to be friends and cousins to their Indian colleagues rather than patrons and paymasters.


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