India’s Christians Brace for 2024 Election Results…… | News & Reporting

As India’s monumental elections finally come to an end this week, all eyes are on the extent of the mandate that will be handed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist party. Especially among the subcontinent’s estimated 28 million Christians, for whom the result will test whether religious freedom and secularism will be preserved in the world’s largest democracy.

Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been in power since 2014. During this time, monitoring groups have documented an alarming increase in incidents of violence, discrimination, and harassment targeting religious minorities–especially Christians and Muslims. Hindu extremist groups, emboldened by the BJP’s ideology of Hindu supremacy or “Hindutva,” have systematically perpetrated abuses ranging from physical assaults to false accusations of forced religious conversions, used as a pretext for persecution.

A massive survey by the Pew Research Center reported that in 2019, about 49 percent of Hindu voters in India backed the BJP, which secured the party a majority in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of India’s parliament, and granted Modi a second term as head of state.

Not who wins, but by how much

The 2024 Indian general election, which started polling votes on April 19, will conclude on June 1 after being conducted in seven staggered phases. The prolonged election process has drawn criticism from opposition parties alleging it favored the BJP’s “money power.” Meanwhile the Election Commission of India has come under criticism for “failing” its constitutional duty and is seen by observers as compromised.

At stake is the composition of the 543-seat Lok Sabha, which will determine whether Modi is handed a clear mandate for a third consecutive term. While most polls have indicated a BJP victory is likely, the extent of its mandate will be crucial to the concerns of religious minorities.

An outright majority in parliament, particularly the three-quarters majority that Modi has stated he is shooting for, could embolden the BJP to pursue sweeping changes, including a nationwide anti-conversion law, a nationwide uniform civil code, and–as the opposition alleges–changing and de-secularizing India’s constitution.

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a paramilitary organization which is the ideological parent of the BJP, had made clear its displeasure with the current constitution, ratified in 1949, and experts believe the RSS has always wanted to change it to Manusmriti, an ancient Hindu text containing laws that champion caste and gender discrimination.

“The BJP will implement M. S. Golwalkar’s statement in spirit and word,” said A. C. Michael, a former member of the Delhi state minority commission, quoting the former RSS leader’s statement:

“The foreign races in Hindus than must either adopt the Hindu culture and language, must learn to respect and hold in reverence Hindu religion, must entertain no idea but those of the glorification of the Hindu race and culture, i.e., of the Hindu nation and must lose their separate existence to merge in the Hindu race, or may stay in the country, wholly subordinated to the Hindu Nation, claiming nothing, deserving no privileges, far less any preferential treatment—not even citizen’s rights.” [Derived from We, or Our Nationhood Defined (Bharat Publications, Nagpur, 1939)]

BJP representatives, such as Anantkumar Hegde from Karnataka state, have previously stated that the party needs to secure 400 seats in the Lok Sabha in order to enable the “rewriting” of the constitution.

Conversely, a relatively poor showing could force a course correction by the BJP toward more inclusive policies, mindful of the potential backlash if it continues down the path of disenfranchising the nation’s more than 200 million Muslims, Christians, and other religious minorities.

“Personally, I do not think that the BJP will win,” said C. B. Samuel, a prominent Bible teacher. “But if it does, the same scenario will largely continue regarding the persecution of Christians in the states where it is going on now, for example Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, etc.”

Invisible Christian voters, concrete concerns

Consequently, many Indian Christians remain deeply apprehensive about the BJP’s agenda, citing the escalating marginalization and invisibilization of their community in recent years under the party’s rule.

“Despite numbering over 22 million, the Christian community in India remains largely invisible and underrepresented in the nation’s political sphere, with their concerns and demands going unaddressed due to a lack of strong parliamentary voice,” said John Dayal, a senior Christian political analyst, to CT. “The ongoing 2024 general elections are poised to once again render their presence inconsequential.”

Samuel disagrees. “We may not matter but we are not invisible. It all depends on the region and the state that you are taking into consideration. In the North East and Kerala, Christians do matter. So the BJP plays it per their convenience so that they can take advantage of the situation.”

A key concern among Christians is the potential for a Modi-led BJP government to pursue policies detrimental to their rights and standing, including implementing nationwide a version of the anti-conversion laws currently active in 12 of India’s 28 states. But Christian leaders have also expressed concerns about the steady erosion of constitutional values and India’s secular ethos during Modi’s premiership.

While the BJP has historically provided minimal representation to religious minorities such as Christians and Muslims, those communities now fear that a decisive BJP victory could embolden the party to establish Hindu supremacy at the cost of secular democracy and minority rights.

Perhaps this has led to an outpouring of prayer for the current general elections that has surpassed previous elections that the country has seen. Christian are praying for the 2024 elections like never before.

“The Christian community is fervently praying these days,” A. C. Michael, a former member of the Delhi state minority commission, told CT. “There is an urgent desire for this government to be ousted. Christians are gripped with fear that if this government stays in power, attacks on their community will escalate, leading to even more severe threats to their safety and religious freedom.”

Samuel, a leader in several prayer movements, agrees that Indian Christians are praying but is cautious in assessing why they are doing so. It depends on their level of education on the issues.

“It is true that Christians are quite concerned primarily because they have heard about persecution of their fellow believers in India, and also about the violence in Manipur where many churches have been burnt and Christians have suffered disproportionately,” he said. “It is largely because of these issues that people have committed to pray.”

“It is also because not many churches or Christians in general seem to be well informed about other issues facing the country,” he continued. “Most of their information comes from mainstream media, which does not give much information except to toe the government line, and the other source of information is their own experience. So they may have limited understanding of other crucial national issues impacting democracy, minority rights, and marginalized groups beyond their own communities.”

“What encourages me is that these prayer movements and mobilizations are church-based,” said Samuel, “and many churches throughout the nation have made it a significant part of their Sunday worship services.”

Christian outreach, by Hindu nationalists

Aware of the significance of the Christian vote bank, particularly in states such as Kerala where Christians comprise almost 20 percent of the population, the BJP mounted an extensive outreach effort ahead of the elections. Modi himself made concerted efforts to appeal to the southern state’s Christian community.

According to reports, the prime minister has visited Kerala five times this year in an effort to appeal to the state’s Christian population to expand the BJP’s reach. The BJP has also undertaken outreach initiatives such as the “Sneha Yatra” (Love Journey), aimed at connecting with and appealing directly to Christian leaders and congregations throughout the state.

However, the BJP’s overtures have been met with a divided response from church hierarchies. While some Christian leaders have engaged with the ruling party, giving the BJP clear support, many have remained firmly opposed, citing concerns over the party’s anti-minority rhetoric and policies that could undermine the secular ideals upon which India was founded.

“The BJP has still not realized that they cannot impact the Christian community in Kerala. Earlier attempts where some Christian leaders including Catholic Bishops made some statements that were construed to be favoring the BJP backfired miserably primarily because of happenings in Manipur and the persecution of Christians in the rest of India.” said Jacob Ninan, an evangelical Christian leader from Kerala.

“Some church leaders are ‘gravitating’ towards the BJP due to their ‘vested interests,’” George Gonsalves, a political analyst based in Kerala, told The Tablet. Such interests are believed to include seeking government patronage or resolving longstanding legal disputes involving issues such as misappropriation of property or clergy misconduct cases.

“In Kerala the BJP will not be successful,” said Ninan. “Majority of Christian here have an understanding of what they stand for. They are not going to vote for BJP but will vote instead for a party which upholds constitutional values.”

“I spoke to the Kerala Christians I know, especially after some Christian leaders gave statements favoring the BJP,” said Samuel, “They say that it does not matter what the leader says because we do not vote on the basis of religion.”

Critical Battlegrounds

For India’s Christians, who officially make up 2.3 percent of the population of 1.4 billion, certain state elections coinciding with the general elections have become crucial battlegrounds that will influence their future rights and status in the nation. These elections, which select representatives for the state legislatures, are currently taking place in Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, West Bengal, and Sikkim.

Odisha, in eastern India, remains haunted by the horrific anti-Christian violence in 2008 that claimed over 100 lives and destroyed thousands of homes and churches. The BJP has fielded Sukanta Panigrahi, a veteran member of the RSS, as its candidate in the state’s crucial Kandhamal district, which was the epicenter of the pogrom. His candidacy has raised fears of further marginalization for the local Christian population, who have already faced escalating violence and persecution in recent years.

Panigrahi is a hardcore RSS pracharak (evangelist). He was fielded as the BJP candidate during the last general elections as well but he did not win,” said Fr. Ajay Singh, a national award winner Catholic priest and human rights activist.

“The BJP is trying very hard to defeat the Biju Janata Dal, which has been in power in the state for the longest time and there is a 50 – 50 chance on many seats. It would be a tough fight and the general perception is that this could be anybody’s game.” Singh added.

When questioned as to what a probable win by the BJP would mean for the Christians in the state, he did not mince his words. “It would be trouble for Christians and other religious minorities if the BJP wins Odisha state elections. Definitely Odisha would be further polarized on religious lines. They are fully capable of creating another Kandhamal.” he warns.

In Andhra Pradesh, the BJP has accused the present government of “minority appeasement” for financially supporting Christian pilgrimages – a move that has drawn backlash from hardline Hindu groups aligned with the party’s ideological base. The present leader of the state is a Christian and is seeking re-election, but has been targeted by the BJP and opposition parties for allegedly encouraging Christian conversions and not paying enough attention to the issues of the local Hindu community.

The Andhra Pradesh Council of Churches has allegedly urged Christian support for the incumbent chief ministerial candidate, calling him a “devout Christian”–a move that could prove crucial in a closely contested election. The RSS’s Organizer magazine reported and criticized the same.

Other states like West Bengal, Arunachal Pradesh, and Sikkim are also having their state elections, and in West Bengal the BJP hopes to give a tough fight to the incumbent state leader, Mamata Banerji, who is seen as a defender of constitutional values and secularism.

The Arunachal Pradesh state elections have become a battleground after the Arunachal Christian Forum’s endorsement of Congress candidates drew accusations of religious manipulation from BJP leaders. This has brought to the fore broader apprehensions within the Christian community regarding the ruling party’s stance on their rights and religious freedoms. Key issues for Christians in Arunachal Pradesh include the abolishment of the present anti-conversion law, demands for recognition and support for Christian institutions, and calls for exemption from proposed national policies like the Uniform Civil Code (UCC).

“The present Chief Minister had made a statement about repealing the anti-conversion law in Arunachal but some local groups opposed this and so the proposal did not go ahead. We have given a note to the government for repealing the law as well as opposing any possible implementation of the UCC,” said Tagang Gelo, the General Secretary of the Nyishi Baptist Church Council, the largest Christian body in Arunachal Pradesh.

Gelo informed that it looks likely that the BJP will form the state government in Arunachal again but cautioned that any changes in the federal government will have a major effect on the survival of the government in the state as Arunachal is largely dependent on the central government.

Although Uttar Pradesh (UP), India’s most populous state and a stronghold for the BJP, is not holding state elections at present, it sends the highest number of representatives to the Lok Sabha. How UP residents vote in the general election is likely to influence its upcoming state election in 2027 and shape the state’s politics overall.

Pew’s research indicates that among Hindu voters, the BJP received its highest vote shares in the North (68%) and Central (65%) regions of India, which include the capital, Delhi, and Uttar Pradesh. In contrast, 46 percent of Hindu voters in India’s East and only 19 percent in its South reported voting for the BJP.

The Christian minority in Uttar Pradesh has witnessed widespread repression under the state’s stringent anti-conversion laws. These laws have been routinely weaponized by Hindu nationalist groups to disrupt prayer gatherings and level false charges of forced conversions against innocent congregants.

The modus operandi, according to reports, involves Hindu vigilante groups disrupting Christian prayer gatherings and services, colluding with compliant police forces to arrest worshippers on trumped-up charges of attempting to forcibly convert individuals to Christianity.

For now the Indian Christian community continues to pray and trust God for the peace and prosperity of their nation. But mobilizing prayer was not easy, says Samuel.

“One of the challenges that we faced in mobilizing people to pray for these elections was overcoming the theological notion that God’s will would prevail regardless of our prayers,” he said. “Many were taught in churches that whether we prayed or not, God would establish the leadership He desired. This teaching made it difficult to convince people of the importance of praying fervently for righteous governance.”

“We had to emphasize that while God indeed places leaders in authority, He also calls us to pray for those in power and does not necessarily approve of every individual holding office,” said Samuel. “The position itself may be sanctioned, but God can and does speak against those who abuse their authority or act wickedly. Overcoming this theological hurdle was crucial in rallying people to pray purposefully for elections that would yield godly leaders.”

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