A demonstrator attends a protest against riots following clashes between people demonstrating for and against a new citizenship law in New Delhi. Reuters/ Adnan Abidi

India…Partly Free

On April 6th nearly 100 million people in India voted to elect 475 assembly seats across four states and one Union territory: Assam, West Bengal, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry. Counting of assembly elections will take place May 2nd. The campaigns leading up to the election have been contentious with a focus on faith and religion issues, along with development and welfare.

There is deep concern that should the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) wins a majority of seats in these elections, it could bode badly for the Muslim and Christians in those states.  Persecution takes place at the state level with nine states having anti-conversion laws in place and other states planning to introduce similar laws. Religiously motivated killings, assaults, and discrimination have increased with little to no government intervention.

Human Rights Watch reports that prejudices embedded in the government of the ruling Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) have infiltrated independent institutions, such as the police and the courts, empowering nationalist groups to threaten, harass, and attack religious minorities with impunity. India’s National Commission for Minorities, which includes representatives from the six designated religious minorities and the National Human Rights Commission, investigates allegations of religious discrimination. The Ministry of Minority Affairs may also conduct investigations. However, these bodies have no enforcement powers.

India is the world’s largest democracy and their constitution provides for freedom of conscience and the right of all individuals to freely profess, practice, and propagate religion; mandates a secular state; requires the state to treat all religions impartially; and prohibits discrimination based on religion. Federal law provides minority community status to six religious groups: Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Parsis, Jains, and Buddhists. Yet under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP administration, state sanctioned persecution and discrimination has sharply escalated for millions of Indian citizens who are Muslim, Christian, and other minority faiths.

India’s penal code also defines offenses relating to religion (blasphemy laws) which criminalize insults (real or perceived) religion or religious beliefs. And the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) provides non-Muslim residents in India a better path to citizenship, yet it excludes Muslims.

In 2013, India ranked 31st (out of 50 countries tracked) on the Open Doors’ World Watch List of countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian. In 2021, India is now ranked 10th. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) placed India on its Tier-2 Watch List in 2009 where it has remained. Deteriorating conditions prompted USCIRF to ask the U.S. Dept. of State to add India to the list of Countries of Particular Concern in 2020. India rejected USCIRF’s observations. It should be noted that India has denied visas to members of USCIRF for more than a decade.

Last week Morning Star News published a news report of rising intolerance of Christians in central India. Growing hostility is attributed to emboldened Hindu extremists lashing out against non-Hindus. In addition to death threats, Christians were stopped from fetching water from the village well, obtaining their free government ration or even working in their own fields.

The increasing hostile environment of India towards human rights and religious freedom is concerning. Freedom House, an independent watchdog organization whose core conviction is that freedom flourishes in democratic nations where governments are accountable to their people, recently downgraded India from Free to Partly Free.