Washington DC, USA., Dec. 9 - Freedom House's Center for Religious Freedom has released a major, new 148-page report on India: The Rise of Hindu Extremism and the Repression of Christian and Muslim Minorities in India.
The Center's report identifies a worrisome new trend in the world's largest democracy - the rise in India of a Hindu nationalist movement known as the Sangh Parivar ("family of organizations"). Its ideology of Hindutva is directed at ensuring the predominance of Hinduism in Indian society, politics, and culture and is promoted through tactics that include violence and terror, the Center finds. Part of this extremist Hindu agenda is to subjugate or drive out the 14 per cent of the population who are Christian and Muslim.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which assumed power in 1998 at the head of a coalition of centrist parties, functions as the political wing of the Hindu nationalist Sangh Parivar. Within the Sangh Parivar, it is allied with extremist groups that engage in a virulent hate campaign and sometimes acts of violence against religious minorities. The RSS, one such group, was founded by admirers of fascism and Naziism, produced the radicals who killed Gandhi, and is now a major paramilitary organization with millions of members.
Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee publicly praises the RSS, and attends their functions.
The new report shows that, while the governing BJP has occasionally persuaded Hindu militants to tone down their rhetoric, it appears unable or unwilling to control or hold accountable Hindu militants and, in some cases, its officials have incited and orchestrated militants, and participated themselves in attacks on religious minorities.
As the report details, this is combined with its use of political power to Hinduize the school curriculum, declaration of intent to change the constitution in order to undercut the rights and status of minorities, and support for laws that restrict conversions to non-Hindu religions among lower castes and tribal people.
Recently, with BJP support, laws have been adopted that restrict the ability of a Hindu to change his religion in Tamil Nadu and Gujarat states, and proposals are underway for national restrictions on religious conversions. Pope John Paul II spoke out against these developments in June 2003 as "unjust" and "prohibiting free exercise of the national right to religious freedom." Such BJP policies coincide with increasingly violent attacks by Hindu militants on religious minorities.
One target of extreme Hindu nationalist groups is the Muslim community, which is haunted by the fear of communal riots that have taken the lives of thousands of Muslims and Hindus since Indian independence.
Between one and two thousand Muslims were killed in massacres in the state of Gujarat in February and March 2002, which began when Muslim mobs reportedly set fire to a train carrying Hindu nationalists, killing at least 58 people. No one has been punished to date for the thousands of Muslim deaths in Gujarat. [On November 24, 2003, 15 Hindus were convicted of 14 Muslim murders in Gujarat and the case is headed for appeal.]
Christian persecution in India gained international attention in 1999 after Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two sons were burned alive by a Hindu extremist mob.
India's Home Ministry (internal security) and National Commission for Minorities list over a 100 annual attacks against Christians in recent years. The attacks include the murder of missionaries and priests, the sexual assault of nuns, the ransacking of churches, convents and other Christian institutions, the desecration of cemeteries and Bible burnings. A list of such attacks is recorded in the appendices to the new report. Though the perpetrators of the Staines' murders have been sentenced, the vast majority of the anti-Christian crimes go unpunished.
This mounting violence has taken place against the background of provocative statements by BJP members and their allies. After the massacres in Gujarat, the state's Chief Minister, Narendra Modi, a BJP member, called upon his supporters to "teach a lesson" to those who "believe in multiplying the population," referring to the Muslim community. Ashok Singhal, the President of the VHP International, one of the components of the Sangh Parivar, described the Gujarat carnage as a "successful experiment" and warned that it would be repeated all over India.
Violence against the Christian and Muslim minorities is more common in election periods as Hindu radicals resort to hate rhetoric and violence in calculated political moves to solidify their support, according to the report. Sangh Parivar threats and violence aimed at stopping lower caste members from converting from Hinduism has also helped garner Hindu votes.
While Islamist terror is a real problem, in Kashmir in particular, the practice of some Indian authorities to retaliate indiscriminately against and demonize the entire Indian Muslim and Christian communities violates basic human rights, the report finds.
"Despite the continued integrity of some of India's proud democratic institutions, the hate-filled, often violent, Hindu nationalist trend, with key BJP support, is threatening India's tradition of tolerance and its reputation as a liberal, pluralistic democracy," said Center director Nina Shea.
"A country once personified by Mahatma Gandhi is becoming known for religious hatred and violence," she noted.