Magazine article The Christian Century

Intolerance in India

Magazine article The Christian Century

Intolerance in India

Article excerpt

Over the past 20 years the worldwide persecution of Christians has entered the consciousness of American believers. Religious freedom has become a potent rallying cry. That is an excellent development-provided we avoid turning the issue into a partisan weapon in the confrontation between Christianity and Islam. While those two faiths often do encounter each other violently, most world religions, including those faiths that Westerners view quite favorably, have their own disturbing records of persecution and violence.

India, in particular, has a troubled record on religious freedom, and the offenders are Hindus, not Muslims. And the violence seems bound to increase.

India's importance on the global stage needs no stressing. Within two decades it will be the world's most populous nation. Its surging economy is racing to catch up with China's. It also has a significant Christian population-officially about 25 million, but quite possibly close to 40 million. That large discrepancy in numbers points to a major gap in India's vaunted record of multifaith tolerance.

Although the Christian presence in India is ancient, much of its expansion has occurred over the past century or so. That recent growth points to major internal tensions within

Hinduism, especially in matters of caste. The most pressing issue concerns the so-called untouchables, the Dalits or Oppressed, a vast community that comprises anywhere from 150 to 250 million people. Although legal discrimination against these people has been outlawed since 1950, Dalits still suffer from appalling persecution and violence.

Why don't Dalits simply leave the Hindu fold altogether? Many have, in fact, tried to. Successive movements for Dalit rights have threatened to lead mass conversions to some other religion free of the blight of caste, whether that be Islam, Buddhism or Christianity. Christian evangelists have won their greatest successes among people of low caste or no caste. Yet Indian officials often refuse to recognize such conversions and continue to list those would-be defectors as faithful Hindus.

Christian Dalits face other burdens. Through the years, Indian governments have tried to assist Dalits by a kind of affirmative-action program, setting aside government jobs and contracts for people from disadvantaged castes. But such blessings can be received only if the people in question remain notionally Hindu. Government agencies exercise intrusive surveillance to ensure that Dalits are not drifting away to--for instance--Christian churches. …

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