Country Profile: India
Updated June 2014
Population: 1.23 billion
Capital: New Delhi
Government type: Federal republic
Religion: Hindu 74.3%, Muslim 14.2%, Christian 5.8%, Sikh 1.8%, other 3.9%
India, the world’s largest democracy, is a volatile melting pot of communities, cultures, religions and castes.
After India won independence from Britain in 1947, tensions between Muslims and Hindus led to the partition of India and the creation of Pakistan.
Today, India is mainly Hindu. Its constitution, however, makes it a secular nation which, on paper, provides religious freedom of worship and witness for all religions.
In practice, however, this aspect of the constitution is not always upheld.
Communal, regional and religious conflict is further aggravated by India’s ancient caste system which accords everyone a fixed place in the social hierarchy.
Below the four main social strata is a fifth, occupied by a group known traditionally as ‘the untouchables’ but renamed the Dalits in the 1950s.
As the ‘lowest of the low’, these people live with discrimination and, generally, deep poverty.
In 1950, legislation was passed that guaranteed a certain quota of Dalits employment in social institutions. Excluded from this law was any Dalit converting to Islam or Christianity – and many have done just that.
What’s more, Dalits and tribal groups who have embraced Christian teaching that all men are equal in God’s sight have become vocal in demanding justice and equal rights.
This has made them a target of the militant Hindu nationalists who have come to prominence in recent years. Under the slogan ‘one nation, one religion, one culture’, these militants are fiercely opposed to what are seen as ‘foreign religions’ such as Christianity.
Hindu nationalists have been open and violent in opposing the church. Several pastors have been murdered, others beaten. Churches and their congregations have been attacked or threatened.
More recently, persecution of Christians has been particularly intense in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka states in the south. Pastors of independent churches in rural places – a significant area for church growth – have been a particular target.
Groups such as the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have also used political means to try to stem the spread of religions such as Christianity. The BJP’s landslide win in the May 2014 general elections raised concerns among Christians and other minority groups that religious persecution might increase.
Seven Indian states have now passed anti-conversion laws – though they are yet to be implemented in Arunachal Pradesh and Rajasthan. This legislation imposes fines or imprisonment on anyone using force, inducement or ‘any fraudulent means’ to convert another – loosely defined terms wide open to abuse. The state assembly of Madhya Pradesh has approved amendments – now awaiting presidential approval – to strengthen its anti-conversion legislation.
Christians say that such laws are being used to curtail church activities, including social programmes. Church leaders are regularly attacked by Hindu extremists and then accused of ‘forcible conversion’ – even in states where such laws are not in place.
In 2008, Hindu extremists launched a campaign of anti-Christian violence in Odisha (formerly Orissa) state, which left more than 120 Christians dead and more than 50,000 displaced. The attacks were allegedly in revenge for the murder of Hindu leader Swami Lakshmananda Saraswati in Kandhamal district – even though Maoist insurgents made repeated claims of responsibility for his death.
Many extremists suspected of involvement in the Odisha attacks have been acquitted in court, while seven Christians were sentenced to life imprisonment for murdering Saraswati. Their conviction came in 2013, years after their arrest. Such decisions have prompted Christian leaders to accuse the authorities of bias and of failing to protect their communities and uphold religious freedoms. Many Christians displaced by the Odisha riots are reportedly still too afraid to return home.
Current and recent projects include:
- Organising conferences to encourage and support persecuted pastors and church leaders
- Providing Bibles in different Indian languages
- Livelihood projects for persecuted Christians
Sources: BBC; International Christian Concern; Operation World; Morning Star News; Release International and partners; The World Factbook 2014.
Updated June 2014