India’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) seems to have consolidated its political position across India after the party won several state elections. These were held in February and March; after results were counted in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Goa and Manipur, it had secured a comfortable majority in India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, while achieving more dominance in other states, despite fears that the recent ban on currency would affect the ruling party’s fortunes.
In Uttar Pradesh, the BJP won 225 of the 403 seats, while also achieving an overwhelming majority in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand: 56 out of 70 seats. It also made an impressive performance in Goa and Manipur. Athough it did not win either state, it will be likely to form a government there. As a result, sixty-five percent of the Indian population now has come under BJP government, both at union and state level.
This success of BJP enables it to install a President of its own choice, elected in June 2017, after the present President Pranab Mukherjee, completes his term.
For minority groups this is not necessarily good news. In the run up to the elections there were reports of an increase in violence, especially against Christians. According to a report published by the Mumbai-based Catholic Secular Forum, ‘Indian Christian Persecution’, some 12,000 Christians experienced persecution in 2016 including murder, detention, assault, rape and harassment. Uttar Pradesh registered an almost three-fold increase in cases of harassment of and attacks on Christians (less than 1% of India’s most populous and politically crucial state, where some 80 percent are Hindus). The report said similar spikes were witnessed in Uttarakhand, Goa and Manipur.
As for Goa, a former Portuguese colony, the election result turned out a little surprisingly. Despite fear that Catholics here would see their once decisive political edge plummet, the Indian coastal state elected the highest number of Catholic lawmakers since state polls were first held in 1963, UCA News reported. Seven of the 13 BJP members elected are Catholics and, for the first time in the state, they outnumber Hindu legislators in a party. The expectation, however, is little will change in terms of policies as, according to political observer Aureliano Fernandes, “there is hardly any internal democracy in the BJP unlike other parties”.
Perhaps no change within the BJP party; observers, however expect that the results will embolden the party to even more vigorously pursue its Hindu nationalist agenda, increasing the pressure on minority groups. With a stronger representation in the upper house, the BJP-led government could be in position to introduce laws to enact an “anti-conversion law” (already proposed) at the national level. Currently five states already have an anti-conversion law in place: Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh.
In Chhattisgarh state it was reported in February that a village council in Benje village passed a resolution banning the practice of non-Hindu faiths, essentially deeming Christianity illegal. This resolution was passed despite a decision by the High Court of Chhattisgarh overturning similar resolutions.
The Catholic Secular Forum says that the pro-Hindu federal government ignores the problem. Its secretary Joseph Dias explains that since the BJP came to power in 2014, pro-Hindu groups have stepped up their campaign to create a Hindu-only India, which has resulted in increasing incidents of violence against Christians. “The concern is not about the BJP’s political gain but its silence. The BJP government has been silent on various fringe elements and right-wing forces acting against Christians.”
Most attacks on priests and community leaders have occurred due to accusations of attempting to convert Hindus to Christianity. Top Hindu leaders publicly accused Christians, including Mother Teresa of Calcutta, of working to convert Hindus, which they say destroys Hindu culture and destabilizes society. Several Hindu organisations have conducted a “homecoming” of such people.
However, the Forum’s secretary also blamed the Indian Church for not taking a strong stand against atrocities. “The Church has to serve as a catalyst not only to bring all the Christian groups, rites and denominations together but also to promote inter-religious dialogue. It has failed on this front.”