Modi's Christian outreach: Wooing a marginalised community for electoral gains?

The anti-Christian violence is a low-radar activity where the priests working in remote areas are apprehended when they are conducting prayer meetings in particular.

Dr Ram Puniyani Jan 05, 2024
Indian Christians (Photo: Twitter)

On Christmas Day, Prime Minister Narendra Modi invited many Christian community leaders and stalwarts for an interaction over tea at his official residence. He lauded the community for their social work and hailed the inclusive teachings of Jesus Christ. He also recalled his long association with the community leaders.  

A couple of days later in Kerala, nearly two hundred Christians joined the BJP. The Hindu reports, “A meeting of the BJP State leadership in Kottayam here on Monday decided to launch a 10-day-long Sneha Yathra, which seeks to win over the community by explaining its position on various issues, including the Manipur violence.” At the same time, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan was on the dot when he stated, “ Things have reached such a pass in Manipur that a section of people…Christian community cannot live…We have seen the state Government and Central Government maintaining silence.” (I E Jan 2nd 2024, Mumbai)

As the next general elections are fast approaching the RSS-BJP have activated their attempts to woo the Christian community. However, the present plight of the Christian community is reflected in various international reports and indices of religious freedom. Two incidents of persecution take place every day as per Vada Na Todo Abhiyan (Don’t Break Your Promise campaign). In UP "…100 pastors and even ordinary men and women, are in jail under charges of illegal conversions when all they were doing was celebrating birthdays or conducting Sunday prayers."

The government is also investigating agencies against cardinals and pastors as per the memorandum cited above. As per the United Christian Forum, 302 attacks took place against Christians in the first seven months of 2022. A petition filed by Archbishop Peter Machado, National Solidarity Forum and Evangelical Fellowship of India states that the “state has failed to take immediate and necessary action against groups that have caused widespread violence and used hate speech against the Christian community, including attacks at their places of worship and disruption of prayer meetings.

Hindu nationalist discourse

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has for the fourth consecutive year declared India as a country of "particular concern" and asked the US administration to tailor their policies accordingly.

As per Open Doors, “Since the current government came to power in May 2014 pressure on Christians has risen dramatically… Hindu extremists attack others with impunity, using extreme violence in some areas…Increasing numbers of states are also implementing anti-conversion laws, supposedly to stop Hindus from being forcibly converted to other religions, but in reality, they are often used as an excuse to harass and intimidate Christians…Being a pastor is one of the riskiest vocations in the country today. Hindu extremists target them with violent attacks to sow fear in the wider Christian community.”

The present plight of the Christian community is rooted in the Hindu nationalist discourse where Islam and Christianity are regarded as foreign religions. RSS’s second Sarsanghchalak, M.S. Golwalkar in his book Bunch of Thoughts, states that Muslims, Christians and Communists are an internal threat to the Hindu nation.

The RSS propaganda in shakhas (ideological clubs) is conducted on these lines. With the increase in intensity of Hindu nationalist activities, the anti-Christian violence began in the Adivasi areas to begin with. The propaganda was that Christian missionaries were doing conversion through force fraud and allurement. As such Christianity is one of the oldest religions of India. One account says that it began with St Thomas arriving on the Malabar Coast of Kerala and setting up a church in AD 52. Other accounts date it to somewhere in the 4th Century AD. Today the percentage of Christians in India, as per the population census is 2.3% (2011). Interestingly there is a constant drop in this from 1971 data, 1971- 2.60%, 1981-2.44%. 1991-2.34%, 2001- 2.30%, 1911-2.30% (Population census figures.)

Anti-Christian violence

The constant propaganda on these lines led to a rise in anti-Christian violence manifesting in Dangs (Gujarat, December 25 1998 to January 3, 1999). This was followed by the most ghastly burning alive of Pastor Graham Staines on the night of 22nd January 1999 by RSS affiliate Bajrang Dal’s activist Rajendra Pal aka Dara Singh, who is currently undergoing life term. This act was described by the then President of India, Dr. K.R. Narayanan as the one belonging to the “World’s inventory of black deeds”. Staines was an Australian missionary working in Keonjhar, Manoharpur, Odisha. When he was sleeping in the open jeep with his two sons Timothy and Philip, Dara Singh mobilized people to burn him, the charge was that in the garb of work for leprosy patients, he was doing the conversion work.

The Wadhwa Commission formed in the aftermath concluded that Pastor Staines was not involved in the work of conversions and that there was no increase in the population of Christians in the area where he was working. The incidents of anti-Christian violence continued in remote areas mostly around Christmas time. The violence which flared up in Kandhamal on August 25, 2008, was the most horrific and led to the killings of over 100 Christians, many acts of heinous rape, and many churches being burnt.

The anti-Christian violence is a low-radar activity where the priests working in remote areas are apprehended when they are conducting prayer meetings in particular. The Bajrang Dal and its clones obstruct these meetings and many of the priests are arrested and harassed.

One such act of prolonged violence is currently going on in Manipur for the last seven months. The Kukis, who are predominantly Christians, are under the hammer with the so-called 'double engine Sarkar', the same party government in the centre and the state. Prime Minister Modi had indicated that controlling this ongoing anti-Christian violence in Manipur is not among his priorities. He has been travelling all over but no time for Manipur. Social activists and brave journalists have made some efforts to visit the area and douse the fire, but with an apathetic government such deep cleavages cannot be repaired.

Image-creation optics

The present effort of Prime Minister Modi is primarily aimed at image-creation optics for electoral gains. In Kerala, many affluent Christians are being lured by this Hindu majoritarian politics. Some of the top religious leadership may be also tempted to associate with the ruling regime to insulate them from tax and other punitive raids by government agencies. 

One needs to realize the strategy being employed by Modi and the BJP - to on one hand marginalize the Christian community and on the other woo them for electoral benefits.

(The writer, a former IIT Bombay professor, is Chairman, Centre for Study of Society and Secularism, Mumbai. Views are personal.) 

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