Religious Violence Could Threaten India's Rise

Since August of this year, a spate of violence has swept across significant portions of the eastern Indian state of Orissa. More than 30 people have been killed, thousands of homes torched and hundreds displaced. The principal victims have been the small, beleaguered Christian communities. Sadly, they are no strangers to such tragedies. In 1999, Hindu zealots murdered an Australian missionary, Graham Staines, and his two sons.

The ostensible trigger for the renewed attacks on the Christian communities appears to be the unresolved murder of a local Hindu preacher, Swami Laksshmanananda Saraawati, in August. The local police have blamed a neophyte Maoist terrorist organization, the Naxalites, for his murder. But the Bajrang Dal, a radical Hindu organization, with ties to the hypernationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), assert that the preacher was killed because of his staunch opposition to evangelical Christian missionary activity in the state. The BJP has sought to pin blame on the Christian community.

Despite expressions of outrage in India's vigilant national press and statements of concern on the part of the country's vibrant civil society about the plight of the Christians, the state government has proven to be appallingly complacent—it has failed to act quickly to stem the violence. The Christians in Orissa—predominantly converts from either lower castes or from the tribal populations of the state—constitute a tiny minority with little or no electoral clout.

The tragedy that has now befallen the hapless Orissa Christians is emblematic of a growing tide of intolerance and violence that is sweeping across much of India. The nation's disregard for the plight of the Christian minority, which constitutes barely 2 percent of India's population, constitutes a failure to guarantee religious and cultural freedoms under India's Constitution. If attacks on helpless minority populations continue with impunity, India's much-vaunted economic growth may soon be at risk. Violent social unrest is bound to have an adverse impact on foreign investors, raise justifiable concerns about the rule of law and bring on the opprobrium of the international community.

The sources of such religious hatred are complex. In large part they stem from the failure of the once-dominant political party, the Indian National Congress, to uphold the country's professed commitment to secularism. Instead of adhering to their own political convictions, the Congress party pandered to the Hindu majority, failed to address legitimate Muslim concerns about discrimination in public life while caving in to the demands of Muslim zealots. This clumsy political strategy benefited the BJP, marginalized secular Muslims and contributed to the growth of Muslim radicalism.

One of the principal manifestations of the surge in Muslim radicalism is the recent wave of bombings in major urban centers such as Jaipur, Hyderabad, Bangalore and, in September in the nation's capital, New Delhi. A shadowy, little-known group, the Indian Mujahideen, have claimed responsibility for the bulk of these attacks and have taunted India's police and intelligence agencies for their inability to stop these bombings. With elections coming next year, the BJP has not made significant efforts to exploit these tragic incidents. Given that its other policy preferences are not vastly different from those of Congress, it can ill-afford to alienate India's 100-million-strong Muslim minority. Instead it has been content to allow its acolytes in the Bajrang Dal to wreak havoc in Orissa in an attempt to solidify its Hindu nationalist base.

Since a regional party controls the state of Orissa, the Congress-dominated national coalition government has been reduced to making ineffectual appeals for calm. However, in the absence of concerted pressure on the state government, it is most unlikely that these pleas will be heeded. The small, vulnerable Christian community simply does not count as a viable political bloc. Consequently despite their dire circumstances they can expect little protection from the state.

Fortunately, all is not lost. Public denunciations of this form of violent religious intolerance can remind the national and state governments that the world is not oblivious to the plight of the Christian minority. Such public shaming, though lost on the rulers of authoritarian states, still has considerable resonance in a democratic state like India, warts and all.

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