India and Religious Freedom

I still vividly recall the image of the hearse traveling through the streets, seen from a camera across a city park, with a smattering of trees in between. It was a somewhat ethereal image. Live television coverage of the procession continued for hours, which I captured on video tape. It traveled past hundreds of mourners, of all castes, of all religions. A great Indian leader had died. But this outpouring of love and anguish was not for a great political leader, as it had been for Mahatma Gandhi, called, universally, “the father of India.” No, this was for a woman whom the television commentators, on secular as well as religious networks, referred to as “the mother of India.” And she was a Catholic nun, Mother Teresa of Calcutta.

I recall these images of inter-religious and inter-ethnic respect, and even harmony, with some sorrow as I see how very different matters are in India today.

In the past few decades, political parties have arisen trumpeting a jingoistic, intolerant Hindu nationalism. Often this nationalistic Hinduism looks on those of other religions, however long they have lived in the country, as not “really” Indian.

Christianity has probably been present in India from the first decades after Christ’s death. Doubtless the disciples spread the faith along the trading routes of the east. Thus, early Christianity in India was concentrated in the southwest, on the sailing routes, and in the northwest, on the land routes. With the coming of the Portuguese, it spread into other parts of the subcontinent. And of course, the British Raj brought Anglicanism. Today, evangelists, Protestants but also Catholics, further spread the faith.

But in recent decades, Christians have been harassed and even killed. They are frequent scapegoats for the nationalist parties. A month ago, four Hindu nationalist leaders were killed…not by Christians, but by Maoist guerillas. The Hindu nationalists blamed the Christians anyway (an old trick worthy of the Emperor Nero), and the massacre was on.

Dozens of Christians were murdered, and thousands lost their homes. Over twenty churches, of all Christian persuasions, were attacked and many were burned down. At least six priests and religious were seriously injured. And four convents were attacked. Many of the displaced villagers are still living in the jungles without shelter because they fear they will be killed if they return to their villages and are on the brink of death by starvation or disease.

It is interesting that this occurred in Orissa, an Indian state with the third largest population of Hindus in India. Christianity is practiced by only 2.4 percent of the population. Not much of a threat, one would have imagined.

Orissa is not the only area with problems: churches were also attacked on the other side of India, in Karnataka state, in September.

It is true that one source of this tension is that many converts to Christianity come from the lowest class, the Dalits, and Christianity empowers them to claim their rights as citizens in democratic India, upsetting the apple cart for the well-off, higher castes. But there is more to it than that. The Hindu extremists often engage in “re-conversion” ceremonies of those who became Christians. It is clear they see Christianity as a threat to Hinduism. And they plan to forge political power from a religious/ethnic identity (Hindu) that they will force on all the people.

It is just such suppression of minority religions and minority cultural groups that international law forbids. I discussed this recently at an event celebrating the tenth anniversary of the International Religious Freedom Act at Georgetown University. A panel debated whether the United States should be involved in the effort to protect minorities in other countries through its foreign policy.

I think it should, first, because pressure works – after a visit to the United States, the Indian prime minister, who was informed about the atrocities in Orissa, returned home embarrassed and determined to quell it. Things have gotten better since.

But second — a more important point: religion is the central motivating force in most people’s lives; America cannot ignore it in its foreign policy and it cannot promote democracy without promoting religious freedom (a state that suppresses religion is not a democracy).

In many ways, the two possible futures for India pose the two choices before the world as a whole – a uniform state (with an imposed state religion, created and maintained by force and coercion) or a pluralistic state (in which religions are free to flourish). Powerful forces, such as Hindu nationalism, push toward the former. However, the United States is, and has been historically, on the side of the latter.

If we want the kind of peaceful, tolerant scene that surrounded Mother Teresa’s funeral, rather than scenes of burning villages, America is going to have to use its influence around the world to support the growth of true religious freedom. It’s not rocket science, it just takes courage – and determination.

William Saunders is Senior Vice President of Legal Affairs at Americans United for Life. A graduate of the Harvard Law School, he writes frequently on a wide variety of legal and policy issues.