Hindu Nationalism, Indian Christian persecution and the global rise in right-wing populism

Right-wing populism is the global political backlash du jour. Cultural, religious and ethnic competition are the prime causes. They, in turn, are directly traceable to the swift and societal-altering changes flowing from economic and demographic globalization.

India -- home to the world's second-largest population, more than 1.25 billion people, just short of 80 percent of them Hindu -- certainly has not escaped this trend.

At play in India is a slow decline in the Hindu population growth at a time when the Muslim population of about 14 percent is growing. That's a scary proposition for Indian Hindus, who have been in conflict with their Pakistani Muslim neighbors since the 1947 partition.

That, plus a Hindu nationalist backlash against India's increasing secularization and an overall Western cultural tilt, also thanks to globalization, have produced the right-wing backlash that's comparable to what we are also seeing in a host of nations -- from the Philippines, across Europe, to our own United States.

Read this Times of India analysis that explains the connection between Indian right-wing populism and what's happening elsewhere.

Indian Christians -- who for Hindu nationalists become conflated with Western inroads into traditional Indian Hindu culture -- are caught up in the larger Indian Hindu-Muslim competition, even though they account for only about 2.3 percent of the population.

I've written about all this before, including one of my earliest GetReligion posts that focused on Hindu criticism of Saint Teresa of Calcutta, perhaps still better-known as Mother Teresa.

So why rehash the above info? Or, to put it journalistically, what's the new, news peg?

Well, it turns out that it happens to be The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (Jan. 18-25) celebrated by various European Catholic and Protestant leaders. India came in for special mention because of the discrimination, and worse, that Christians there face. Here's a chunk from a Crux piece on it.

Europe and the west are not alone in their trepidation about what lies ahead. In India too, they’re celebrating this week of Christian unity. As a small minority population amid an overwhelming Hindu majority, Christians in India often are more prone to appreciate the immediate importance of Christian unity.
For us, said Archbishop John Barwa of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar in eastern India, “ecumenism is a living reality.”
Barwa is a “Tribal,” meaning a member of India’s long-marginalized indigenous peoples, and it was in his archdiocese in 2008 that the worst anti-Christian pogrom of the early 21st century broke out, leaving more than 100 people dead and tens of thousands taking refuge in a nearby forest.
Barwa’s own niece, a Catholic nun, was brutally gang-raped during those attacks.
“The horrific anti-Christian violence served to unite us all as Christians, as followers ofJesus Christ,” Barwa said. “Our persecutors did not distinguish between denominations, they only knew the Cross, which signifies that we belong to Jesus.”
“Now, a land for burial has been allotted in Bhuhabeswar for all Christians,” Barwa said. “All our educational institutions and health and welfare apostolates do not discriminate either between denominations, or even towards those who have persecuted us.”

Barwa's quotes reveal his pastoral side. His quoted comments focused on a positive; the advances in on-the-ground ecumenism. Better to provide hope to his persecuted people.

But ever the realist journalist that I like to believe I am, it behooves me to point out some less than positive developments impacting Indian Christians.

Exhibit A is this piece from The Los Angeles Times on how the Indian government has gone after an NGO that long served the nation's lowest social strata under Hinduism's ancient caste system.

It's no secret that India's converts to Christianity (and also Buddhism, of late) have come largely from its lowest caste, the so-called untouchables, also known in more polite company as Dalit.

Exhibit B is this piece from Christianity Today on the Indian-government shutting down another NGO, Compassion International, that supported impoverished Indian children -- but also happens to be Christian and might influence some Hindus to convert.

Exhibit C is this piece from The Washington Post on how patriarchal and socially conservative Indian Hindu culture heaps scorn on women who are raped while protecting the male rapists.

Finally, here's an analysis by John L. Allen Jr. of Crux that also offers some hope for India's Christians. It ran under this hede: "Will India get away with its anti-Christian crackdown?"

The good news is that in India, the prospects of doing something about it seem more plausible.
For one thing, India is a vibrant democracy with strong currents of resistance to what’s known as “saffronisation,” meaning using the power of the state to impose Hindu values, beliefs and practices. Americans and others concerned with religious liberty would do well to encourage those forces.
For another, India is also a rising global power that wants to be vitally engaged in economic and political life. Attaching real consequences, such as economic sanctions, to the government’s apparent refusal to defend its religious minorities could move the needle.
The fact that Modi’s government has invited Pope Francis to visit in 2017 is one sign of its desire to be seen as a responsible global player, and the trip also affords the pontiff to engage in some quiet behind-the-scenes diplomacy to defend the rights of the country’s estimated 30 million Christians, of whom roughly half are Catholic.
In the end, what the Compassion International case comes down to is this: Is it acceptable for a state to effectively eradicate any charitable group from serving within its borders, no matter how much good it does, simply because its faith affiliation is out of favor?
One would hope, especially if rhetoric about a “culture of human rights” is to mean anything, that the answer is no.

We'll see about that. There's just no telling at this point how far the burgeoning right-wing populist backlash will go. So stay tuned, and stay on the story.

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