Religious Freedom in India Is Deteriorating. Will Biden Help? | Sojourners

Religious Freedom in India Is Deteriorating. Will Biden Help?

Throughout the past four years, President Donald Trump has found a great ally in India’s Narendra Modi. The right-wing prime minister praised Trump to a crowd of 50,000 Indians in Houston at the “Howdy Modi” event in 2019, the largest-ever gathering headlined by a foreign leader in the U.S., according to the Washington Post. And Trump returned the favor in February 2020 by speaking to a crowd of 125,000 at a Modi-rally branded “ Namaste Trump” in Modi’s home state of Gujarat.

Though religious intolerance in India has continued to intensify under Modi, the Trump administration has largely stayed silent. For example, in December 2019, India passed the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which prioritized citizenship for non-Muslims from the Muslim-majority countries of Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan — a law many critics said targeted Muslims, the largest minority religion in India. In the last six years, the government has also heavily come down on Christian missionary organizations, accusing them of using foreign funds for mass proselytization, which violates Indian laws.

In his February 2020 visit to India, Trump praised Modi’s work on religious freedom and refused to answer questions about CAA, despite deadly protests of the new law that occured during Trump’s visit. At the same time, communal violence broke out targeting Muslim residents in Northeast Delhi, located less than 10 miles away from Rashtrapati Bhawan where Donald and Melania Trump received a ceremonial welcome. When asked to comment on the Delhi violence, Trump said that he had not discussed "individual attacks" with the prime minister, adding that this domestic conflict was “really up to India.”

Some political observers in India, however, hope that the relationship between the U.S. and India changes under the new Biden-Harris administration. The duo have pledged to restore institutions of democracy, and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris has even openly criticized India’s policy on Kashmir, a disputed territory and the only Muslim majority state in the country.

“In Trump’s time, religious intolerance was not seen as a major issue since Modi’s government was also attacking Muslims,” said Dr. Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd, a noted writer who teaches at Osmania University. “But the Biden government will not accept an attack on Muslims either.”

During his last visit to India in 2015, former U.S. President Barack Obama raised the issue of growing religious intolerance in a town hall, albeit with no direct reference to the Modi government.

“But nothing came of it,” said Kanwal Sibal, former foreign secretary to the government of India. Sibal told Sojourners that India could easily push aside any criticism from Americans by “reminding them of their own policy and system,” especially how it treats immigrants and people of color.

Rising religious intolerance

In October 2020, Father Stan Swamy, an 83-year-old Jesuit priest known for his advocacy work with tribal communities in the Indian state of Jharkhand, was arrested along with 16 academics, writers, and activists and accused of terrorism by India’s National Investigative Agency. Swamy, who lives with Parkinson’s disease, has denied the charges; his requests for bail have been refused.

Weeks before Swamy’s arrest, the government passed amendments to the Foreign Contribution Regulations Act (FCRA), which requires nonprofits to obtain a government license to receive funds for development and social welfare work in India. The new amendments limit the ability of domestic groups, including religiously affiliated nonprofits, to receive foreign funds — restrictions civil society groups argue are intended to stifle civil rights and human rights groups critical of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its Hindu nationalist platform. These new restrictions on nonprofits and the high-profile arrest of a priest are both emblematic of India’s deteriorating tolerance for religious minorities.

The Indian government’s crackdown on foreign-funded nonprofits has particularly affected organizations that receive funds from Christian charity and missionary organizations in the U.S. Indian intelligence agencies have reportedly been probing large organizations like the Seventh Day Adventist Church on the source of their funding from U.S. Christian organizations. Critics say that by accusing groups of mass proselytization, the government can legitimately cancel their license to receive foreign funds. This way, they can limit the extent of any social or spiritual influence on the socio-economically marginalized communities the NGOs work with.

But Abraham Mathai, former vice chairman of the State Minority Commission in Maharashtra, said that the allegation of "rampant conversion" to Christianity has no substance to it. “In 1947, our population was 2.5 percent. Today, after 60-70 years, we are still hovering around 2.3 percent. So where is the conversion happening?” he told Sojourners.

Despite their small numbers, Mathai added, many Christian organizations in India are working for the welfare and development of the 28 percent of the population living below the poverty line in India’s rural and remote areas.

Impact of lost licenses

A 2019 report on philanthropic capital by Ashoka University shows how the number of organizations registered under the FCRA has dropped since the BJP took power in 2014. During 2013-2014, 24,254 organizations registered in the FCRA database; by 2018-2019, that number dipped to 21,490.

Nearly 90 percent of the FCRA registered nonprofits do not receive “big grants” — monetary awards between one and five crore rupees ($135,000 - $680,000). The Christian organizations that Sojourners spoke to received less than $135,000 from U.S.-based missionaries in the last financial year.

Sojourners emailed India’s Ministry of Home Affairs inquiring about the data of Christian organizations whose licenses have been suspended or canceled, especially those on account of "religious conversion." We also asked them to share the data that supported the vast demographic change, which would accompany mass conversions. We have not received a response.

Sojourners also spoke to the Evangelical Christian Association in Manipur and the Rajnandgaon Leprosy Hospital and Clinic in Chhattisgarh, who confirmed that their licenses had been suspended in February 2020. Both organizations said that the government suspended their license for allegedly using foreign funds for "religious conversion," a violation of multiple sections of the FCRA law.

“They didn’t have any evidence but said their field agency has reported that we have spent our money for proselytization,” said Rev. Ginkhosiem Singson, executive secretary at the ECA headquarters in Churachandpur. “But when we checked with the Intelligence Bureau agents here, they didn’t have a clue.”

The order listed U.S.-based Compassion International as one of ECA’s main donors. Historically, the charity has been one of the largest foreign donors in the country, formerly bringing in $45 million annually until their FCRA license was suspended for “religious conversion” in 2017.

Praveen Lal, the administrative officer at the Rajnandgaon Leprosy Hospital, said the foreign funds to the hospital were used to run their Hope for Children hostel, which provided boarding and private school education to 60 children of leprosy patients. Their accounts were frozen in February, forcing the children to vacate the hostel after 12 years of residency.

Lal told Sojourners the children are now living with relatives and attend government schools.

John Dayal, a human rights activist and former secretary general of the All India Christian Council, says that India’s recent amendments to FCRA are attempts to cut off dissent and the empowerment of Dalits and Adivasis.

“English education is an instrument of empowerment in India. Empowerment means the ability to start thinking for oneself, not just to do a call center job,” he said.

What impact can Biden-Harris have?

The diplomacy experts Sojourners spoke to said that a direct condemnation of the Modi government from the Biden-Harris administration is unlikely given the economic and geopolitical relations that are at stake. However, experts believe it is likely that the new administration will raise the issue diplomatically.

Rudi Warjri, a career diplomat who has served in the Indian High Commissions to Ecuador, Colombia, and Costa Rica, said that one could expect the Biden administration to be "louder" on religious freedom in India.

“What is already done, like CAA or article 370, I don’t think any change can take place,” he said. “But at least some strong statements from the Americans could discourage more polarizing acts like the new anti-conversion law.”

As Biden moves to restore democratic institutions in the U.S. with a Cabinet that includes many of Obama’s most trusted aides, Dayal said that rather than a Modi-Trump friendship, the U.S. will finally take an institutional look at India.

“I’m not ecstatic, but I am happy that the boat is on even keel,” he said. “Normal laws of decency and international relations will once again apply.”

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