At first glance, the time seems ripe for closer bilateral relations between the United States and India. Both countries are interested in combating Islamist terrorism; both are worried about Pakistan’s inability (or even unwillingness) to root out terrorist groups within its borders; and both are concerned about the rise of a bellicose, expansionist China. As Arthur Herman and Husain Haqqani have argued, Prime Minister Narendra Modi recognizes the advantages of a strategic partnership, and “it’s time for the U.S. to step up and assume the role of partner and guide.”
Despite these positive prospects, problems lurk not so far beneath the surface. Most notably, India is experiencing internal religious torment rooted in Hindu nationalist ideology. Even more worrisome is that Prime Minister Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is a bastion of Hindu nationalist sentiments. Elections held earlier this year strengthened the BJP’s already solid control over the country’s political system. Its strong showing in state elections is particularly ominous for religious freedom since states have significant political power in India.
The BJP’s nationalist agenda is rooted in the principles of Hindutva, which the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) describes as an ideology that “seeks to make India a Hindu state based on Hinduism and Hindu values.” Furthermore, some adherents of this ideology “are known to use violence, discriminatory acts, and religiously motivated rhetoric against religious minorities, creating a climate of fear and making non-Hindus feel unwelcome in the country.”
Although India’s constitution supposedly protects freedom of religion and prohibits discrimination based on one’s faith, instances of violence against religious minorities have been increasing in recent years. A report by the USCIRF includes numerous examples of persecution and claims that “members of the ruling party have ties to Hindu nationalist groups implicated in religious freedom violations, used religiously divisive language to inflame tensions, and called for additional laws that would restrict religious freedom.”
Several Indian states enforce anti-conversion laws that mandate investigations into conversions out of Hinduism. These laws are “only concerned about conversions away from Hinduism” and “create a hostile and, on occasion, violent environment for religious minority communities because they do not require any evidence to support accusations of wrongdoing.” In practice, these laws have had violent consequences. In July 2016, for example, a Pentecostal minister was abducted and beaten — and authorities arrested the minister “on the basis of the state’s anti-conversion law.”
Cases of attempted forced conversion to Hinduism have also come to light. In the spring of 2016, “six Gondi tribal Christian families fled the village of Katodi after their Hindu neighbors attacked and threatened them in order to forcibly convert them [to] Hinduism,” according to the USCIRF. A few months prior, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a radical Hindu nationalist group with close ties to the BJP, “reportedly placed signs in train stations throughout India that said Christians had to leave India or convert to Hinduism or they will be killed by 2021.”
Seeking a closer relationship with a country permeated with nationalist-fueled religious persecution would damage the moral force behind America’s campaign to limit China’s expansionism.
The State Department’s most recent International Religious Freedom report for India reveals that Christians have faced “an increase of harassment and violence, including physical violence, arson, desecration of churches and Bibles, and disruption of religious services.” Moreover, “local police seldom provided protection, refused to accept complaints, and rarely investigated incidents” of persecution.
This religion problem should be taken seriously, for it could directly affect the future relationship between the United States and India.
Religious persecution is a clear sign of instability in a nominally pluralistic society. David Curry — no stranger to the consequences of religious persecution, as the president of Open Doors USA, an organization that supports persecuted Christians globally — argues that “the persecution of Christians and the rise of religious intolerance are often lead indicators of regions and countries tipping into chaos — the outcomes of which have been everything from ethnic cleansings and genocides to mass forced migration and sprawling humanitarian crises.” Prime Minister Modi urgently needs to stop paying lip service to religious freedom and transform words into actions.
In addition, a key element of America’s opposition to China’s regional ambitions is a profound distaste for the latter’s tradition of oppression. Seeking a closer strategic relationship with a country permeated with nationalist-fueled religious persecution would damage the moral force behind America’s campaign to limit China’s expansionist impulses.
The U.S. would certainly benefit from a strong strategic ally in Asia, and India seems to be the answer; nevertheless, India will not be a valuable regional — and global — partner if it finds itself sinking into an increasingly severe, long-term sectarian conflict.