PULSES RACED as 12th-graders answered maths problems at St Joseph’s School in Ganj Basoda, a provincial town in the state of Madhya Pradesh, on December 6th. They faced a tough trial: national board exams that decide who gets into India’s best universities. But it was not the scratching of nibs or rustling of answer-sheets that heightened the tension. Midway through the test a crowd could be heard gathering outside, clanging at the gates with wooden clubs. “Who will protect the faith?” they chanted. “We will! We will!” Rocks crashed into the glass-fronted school building, spraying jagged shards across classrooms. Then the mob surged in.
Opened in 2009 and charging its 1,500 students around $30 a month, St Joseph’s is like thousands of other private schools across India. Many carry Christian names merely as a brand, signifying instruction in English, though St Joseph’s is indeed run by a branch of the Catholic church. Christians are less than 1% of the population in Madhya Pradesh, and a similar proportion of the school’s students. But as Hindu-nationalist extremists warn their co-religionists of trickster Christian missionaries preying on the poor, of handsome Muslims luring unwary women into unsuitable marriages via “love jihad” and of other threats to the faith of four-fifths of Indians, fired-up mobs are seizing their chance to put minorities in their place. In this case the prompt seems to have been rumours that a first communion service for eight Christian children held at a nearby church in late October had in fact been a secret conversion ceremony.
No one was badly hurt at St Joseph’s school, which put the property damage at $26,000. Some might argue, too, that there is nothing new about such incidents. Indeed, whereas in past decades sectarian violence sometimes left hundreds or even thousands of Indians dead, its victims now rarely number more than a few dozen a year. Yet what such nastiness has lost in numbers it is gaining in scope and frequency. More disturbing still, given the secular constitution that underpins the world’s largest democracy, India’s government is increasingly turning a blind eye towards and even actively encouraging majoritarian chauvinism.
Consider some of the events of the past few months. The attack on St Joseph’s was not the first, but the third on a Christian-affiliated school in Madhya Pradesh since October. According to United Christian Forum (UCF), an advocacy group that runs a hotline for Christians targeted for their faith, last year saw a 75% surge in complaints from across India. With 486 reported incidents, 2021 was by far the most violent year since records began in 2014, when the count was 127. On Christmas Day alone Indian media reported seven anti-Christian incidents across the country.
In many instances police appear to have ignored warnings of trouble, to have intervened late (as at St Joseph’s), or to have blamed and even arrested those being attacked. UCF notes that although victims filed charges in some 34 cases in 2021, police accepted more than twice as many complaints from aggressors, typically accusing Christians of having broken the laws against religious conversion that a third of India’s states have enacted.
India’s roughly 200m Muslims provide a far bigger target, and have been subject to a more concerted and wide-ranging offensive. Aside from the headline-capturing lynchings of suspected cow-butchers by vigilante mobs that occur with dismal regularity across the north Indian “Hindi Belt”, local extremists have more quietly singled out Muslim-owned businesses, from street hawkers to large corporations, for boycott and harassment. Internet trolls regularly barrage prominent Muslims, particularly women and journalists, with vicious insults. Twice in the past year they have created spurious online “auctions” for the sexual favours of Muslim women who criticise the government, using stolen photos and other web content.
Reporters recently exposed a network of “trads”, believers so ultra-traditional that they dismiss Narendra Modi, India’s Hindu-nationalist prime minister, as a maulana (Muslim holy man). Their chat sites feature images of Hindus urinating on Muslim corpses, and of altered Nazi propaganda posters that exhort Hindu mothers to produce more “Aryan” children.
In December alone, saffron-robed speakers at religious colloquiums in two Indian cities publicly called on Hindus to take up arms. Ram Balak Das, a monk from the rural state of Chhattisgarh who claims he has killed people to protect cows, roused his audience at one event to join him in cries of “Shoot them, shoot them!” At the other meeting Prabodhanand Giri, leader of the self-styled Hindu Raksha Sena or Hindu Defence Army, called on Hindus to “cleanse” their country just as Myanmar did—a reference to the latter’s recent genocide of Muslim Rohingyas.
In response to all this Mr Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have maintained a telling silence. Under Mr Modi the BJP has increasingly resorted to Muslim-baiting to consolidate Hindu votes that tended previously to divide along lines of caste or ideology. According to an informal count by NDTV, a news channel reputed for sobriety amid a media cacophony of parrots and propagandists, the BJP has been responsible for 297 out of 348 incidents of hate speech by senior politicians since 2014. In the past four months the frequency of such outbursts has jumped 140%.
The approach of elections in five states next month may be one reason why the party is turning up the heat. The BJP is anxious to retain its hold on Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, in advance of the next general election in 2024. The party’s saturation advertising has included blunt sectarian content, such as images of Muslims as terrorists, or of opposition politicians dressed in “Muslim” garb. In one speech Yogi Adityanath, the state’s chief minister (pictured, left, on previous page), described the vote as being “between the 80% and the 20%”, a scarcely veiled reference to Uttar Pradesh’s actual religious mix. Amit Shah, India’s home minister and Mr Modi’s right-hand man, has repeatedly used slurs and insinuations to characterise his party’s opponents as Muslims or panderers to Muslims.
But the Modi government’s support for sectarian urges goes beyond speech. Minorities of all kinds are woefully rare in central ministries, in security agencies and in BJP-led local governments. Under Mr Modi the government has ceased reporting such statistics as the religious composition of police, or the number of hate crimes. At both the centre and in states it rules, the BJP has pushed government prosecutors to pursue cases against Muslims accused of sectarian troublemaking, but has rarely shown any zeal with Hindus. Speakers who incite violence openly boast that politicians and police will not touch them. The leading group that sponsors thousands of local vigilante squads which frequently target minorities, the Vishva Hindu Parishad is, like the BJP itself, a creation of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS, the “mother ship” of the broader Hindu-nationalist movement.
In the short term, perhaps, this latest lurch towards majoritarian chauvinism may boost the RSS and win a few more votes for the BJP. But the loser from this equation is not just the increasingly fretful fifth of Indians who happen to profess other faiths. It is India itself. ■
This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the headline “Playing with fire”