India’s Christians hopeful as Hindu nationalists lose elections

by Art Toalston, posted Friday, May 14, 2004 (15 years ago)

NEW DELHI, India (BP)--"Justice has shined over the peoples in India,” a Christian leader said after the stunning electoral defeat of the Hindu nationalist coalition that had held power since 1998.

"Praise God almighty for His mercy shown on us and prayer answered," said the leader, who asked not to be identified in Baptist Press because persecution in the region where he lives has been heavy and could flare up again.

“The parties believing in communal harmony and secularism have attained a majority to form a government,” the leader continued. “[The Indian National Congress], under Sonia Gandhi, has done the magic by getting much more seats [in parliament] than predicted by exit polls,” ousting the coalition led by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The leader reported that the Congress Party and its allies “have decided ... to give Sonia [Gandhi] a chance to lead the government and run the country” of 1 billion people, more than 80 percent of whom are Hindus.

"Christians, Muslims and the poor have suffered” under BJP rule, the leader said, “and we lost lives, property, the right to worship and to proclaim the Gospel. Now is the time to praise our Savior and proclaim the Good News.”

The leader noted that Indian Christians must not become complacent.

"We should not be overwhelmed on this achievement," he said. "Remember God used Cyrus to deliver the [Israelites] into exile. God has used the [BJP] communal forces to remind us that we were running away from Him. [Some church] leaders did not care for biblical truth and tried to be servants in establishing His Kingdom and failed. We have tasted the truth and harsh realities for misleading people from God’s will to human will. It is a time of repentances and remembering God mercy. It is time to give thanks for deliverance.”

India’s 14th general elections -– the world’s largest electoral process -- began on April 20 and ended May 10, with the early returns so strong against the BJP-led coalition that Vajpayee resigned May 13.

More than 40 regional and national parties were vying for 543 parliamentary seats, with two major groups at the forefront: the ruling National Democratic Alliance led by the BJP and a secular alliance led by the opposition Congress Party.

Hindu militants’ persecution of Christians and Muslims in India, however, apparently was a secondary issue in the voting. The New York Times, in a front page analysis May 14, noted, “Though the economy is growing rapidly, for struggling farmers and the legions of unemployed, the [BJP-led] coalition’s message that an ascendant India was banishing poverty was a mockery.”

The paper called the BJP/Hindu nationalist defeat nevertheless “a shocking upset.”

Joseph D’Souza, president of the All India Christian Council, said in a statement carried by ASSIST news service, “In a surprise spontaneous move of public anger, the masses, the downtrodden, the poor, the Dalits [untouchables] and even the urban unemployed all joined together to throw out the BJP-led alliance.”

The Congress Party-led coalition won 212 seats, with observers predicting it will be able to form a parliamentary majority by pulling in various other parties; the BJP-led coalition won 180 seats.

Sonia Gandhi, 57, a native of Italy who became an Indian citizen in 1963, is the widow of Rajiv Gahdhi and daughter-in-law of Indira Gandhi, former prime ministers who were both assassinated. Rajiv Gandhi was killed in 1991; he had been prime minister from 1984-89. Indira Gandhi was killed in 1984 while prime minister, a post she had held for 16 years. The Gandhis are no relation to the legendary Mahatma Gandhi who led India’s struggle for independence. But Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi were the daughter and grandson of Jawaharlal Nehru, who served 17 years after India’s independence as prime minister.

Apart from a heavy turnout of the poor who voted against the BJP coalition, observers noted that the BJP, as The New York Times put it, “seemed to suffer from its association with the Hindu nationalism that had powered its rise,” losing votes among Muslims, Christians and others wanting the Indian government to retain its secular identity.

John DeVries with Mission India in Grand Rapids, Mich., described Sonia Gandhi’s victory as “totally miraculous,” Mission Network News, also based in Grand Rapids, reported.

DeVries noted “the awesome amount of prayer that has been raised for this election. I think Christians throughout India have been pleading with the Lord for the doors to open back up."

The rejection of Hinduism by the Dalits, or India’s poorest, most ostracized class, played a key part in the election results, DeVries observed. The Dalits, who number about 250 million Muslims and Christians, "are waking up,” DeVries said, “to the fact that they are underprivileged, that this is no longer to be covered up with some religious reason, that they are human beings with equal rights like everybody else, and they said enough is enough."

India’s militants remain active and continue to pose a threat, DeVries said. "I would certainly expect that within the next 12 months that human rights would be guaranteed much more strongly than what they've been,” he said, “but I would not expect overnight that suddenly things will be totally different."

The concern over religious liberty in India was noted May 12 in the annual reported released by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom in Washington.

A majority of USCIRF commissioners prevailed in listing India as one of six countries that should be added to the State Department’s list of “countries of particular concern” where persecution of religious adherents remains severe. Currently on the list are China, North Korea, Iran, Burma and Sudan.

The BJP’s rise to power in 1998, according to the USCIRF report, "has helped to foster a climate in which extremists believe that violence against religious minorities will not be systematically punished."

The report stated, for example, that the government has not yet taken adequate action against those responsible for killing an estimated 2,000 Muslims in India’s Gujarat state in 2002.

As recounted by the Indo-Asian News Service, the USCIRF report noted:

“Several BJP ministers have publicly allied themselves with extremist Hindu organizations, whose members regularly employ hate speech against religious minorities, have been implicated in violence against them, and seek legislation to prohibit the religious conversion of Dalits and others from Hinduism....

“Despite its democratic traditions, according to the panel, religious minorities in India continue to be subject to violent attacks, including killings, in what is called ‘communal violence.’ Those behind the violence are rarely held responsible for their actions, the report said.”

D’Souza of the All India Christian Council had described the balloting across India as “a make or break election” that had stirred many Christians to prayer and fasting.

“The BJP had taken control of the education system, rewriting textbooks and history books, getting full control of universities and was far into the process of indoctrinating the children and youth of the nation,” D’Souza said in his statement carried by ASSIST.

The BJP election manifesto declared the intention to enact a national anti-conversion law, D’Souza said, which at least in one region where an anti-conversion law had been introduced left BJP candidates without a single victory in the parliamentary elections.

With Gandhi’s victory, D’Souza said, “A national anti-conversion law is now out of the question.” He predicted that Christian persecution “will continue and perhaps increase at the state level where the BJP is in power, and we will have to work harder to protect and serve the new Christians in the troubled states of Gujarat and Orissa. …

“But at the national level, we expect change. We expect the national government not to condone the harassment of minorities and the Dalits. We also expect the processes of justice to be expedited. We expect religious freedom and the freedom to exercise all our spiritual and social rights.”


Erich Bridges contributed to this article. (BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: DECISION.

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