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Georg Evers {*}

Between Secularism and Fundamentalism

India and its Religious Minorities


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 9/2012, P. 479-484
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    India became recently a talking point - due to severe power failures. They are signs of unresolved problems in a country between the Third World and modernity. The religious landscape of the constitutionally secular India is diverse. The Christian minority, which is especially active in the field of education, comes repeatedly under pressure from radical Hindu organizations.


In the ranking of nations, India is at the tenth place in the world with its gross national product, and at the fourth in terms of domestic purchasing power parity. In 2011, the national gross domestic product (GDP) of India was $ 1.676 billions, while China, the major Asian rival, generated $ 7.298 billions. In 1991 trade barriers and controls were eliminated and the governmentally planned economy transformed into an admittedly not at all costs social market economy. This has promoted and accelerated economic development in the country, as it is proved by the despite fluctuations high annual growth rates. For the year 2011, a growth rate of 8.6 percent is specified. A remarkable achievement in the current precarious state of the world economy. Compared with China, the Indian economy has major deficiencies in the infrastructure. This became not least obvious when on 30 July 2012 a grave breakdown in the power supply happened. Due to it in northeast India more than 600 million people were for several hours without electricity.

The agriculture was severely hit by the great drought of this year, because due to lacking precipitation the hydroelectric power plants could not provide enough energy for the electric water pumps in the country. Due to the deficient improvement of the road network, about one third of the basic food is lost during the transport from the rural areas to the towns. This results in rising food prices and an annual inflation rate of ten percent. As further factors, widespread corruption and cumbersome bureaucracy inhibit the economic and social development. The positive picture of economic recovery is further marred by the fact that child labor is still widespread.

What's more, the average annual income in India is only 25.790 U.S. dollars, and thus India is ranked at the 145 place among 208 countries in the world. 37 percent of India's population still live below the poverty line. The various anti-poverty programs were hardly able to change this. India spends only five percent of its GDP on public social services. The members of the Dalit and the tribal population remain trapped in poverty and dependence. Those who primarily benefit by the gains of economic growth are the already rich people. In India their number is the largest in the world, while the percentage of poor in India is 40 percent of the world population.

In the listing of the degree of corruption in India, which is regularly carried out by the organization "Transparency International", India has the 95th place among 182 surveyed countries. On the one hand, India prides itself on being the largest democracy in the world.



At the same time, corruption is widespread in the political parties, and the governmental counter-measures do little to end this state of affairs. In India, politicians have generally a low reputation. They were and are too often involved in bribery and corruption scandals.

The influence of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, which has for such a long time influenced the Indian political life, has greatly decreased. Especially young voters - in India two-thirds of the population are under 35 - are little enthusiastic for political heritage. Rahul Gandhi, son of Sonia and Rajiv Gandhi, admittedly tries to continue the family tradition, but among the voters he does hardly find favour with his supposedly progressive new political program. In the presidential election of 19 July 2012, the candidate of the ruling coalition, the former Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, was elected with 60 percent of the votes as the new President of the Indian Union. At the age of 76, he is certainly not the youngest but has a wealth of political experience in a variety of offices and functions.

Corruption is affecting all sectors of Indian society. There is virtually no education in the country, no medical treatment in the hospital, no official position in the police and public administration, no driver's license, and many things in everyday life without extra money being required. At least, there have been in the past some spectacular trials against senior politicians because of corruption. And the extent of tax evasion, bribery and granting an undue advantage has grown in parallel with the economic recovery.

Some estimates put the proceeds of the underground economy at up to 50 percent of the gross national product. For many Indians, corruption has become a commonplace and self-evident fact in the social and political life: as a systemic evil, it cannot be changed; one has cleverly to deal with it, and to adapt oneself to it.

A draft bill with the goal to combat effectively the rampant corruption in society and politics, has failed miserably in Parliament. Take for example the protest movement of the Hindu activist Anna Hazare, who in August 2011 went for twelve days through a hunger strike against corruption. He was then put in prison, where he continued his hunger strike until his release. It has admittedly accomplished that the issue of corruption was much discussed in society and in the media. But the protests of the 74-year-old activist from the province in the western Indian state of Maharashtra, who is committed to the ideas of Mahatma Gandhi and Swami Vivekananda, did not result in viable and effective measures.


The Majority of the Population Remains Excluded from the Advances

The first census in India was carried out in 1951, shortly after the independence. At that time the population was 238.4 million. In 2001, it had more than quadrupled and was at 1.028 billion. According to the last census in March 2011, India's population has increased up to 1.21 billion.



In 1966, India had a population of 500 million, of which only 160 million were able to read. In 2012, India's population is 1.2 billion, of which after all 780 million are able to read. In 1966 life expectancy was 49 years; now it has risen to 70 years. Despite these impressive achievements in the field of economy, in fighting against the illiteracy of the population, in consolidating the democratic practice and in improving the social legislation, the vast majority of the Indian population remains excluded from the participation in this progress: Even today, 135 million Indians have no access to basic medical services, 226 million have no clean drinking water, and 70 percent of Indians live under poor hygienic conditions.

The neglect of agriculture, in favor of a forced promotion of the industry, and the effects of climate change have the consequence that in India every 30 minutes a farmer commits suicide because of desperate indebtedness. According to the data of a national study on the state of health of the Indian population, 43 percent of children are underweight due to malnutrition, even though India has an annual surplus in food production. There are also difficulties with the storage and distribution of the harvested foodstuffs, and so up to 20 percent of the produced food are caused to rot.

65 percent of the population are Indians under the age of 35. Compared with the demographic composition of the PRC, which faces the future of an aging population due to its one-child policy, India is a very "youthful country" with great potential - provided that appropriate training opportunities are created and maintained. The unequal distribution of male and female births is alarming: there are only 914 female birth for every 1000 male, an evidence of the widespread abortion of female fetuses. In the Christian population, by contrast, you find a different trend: 1009 female births for every 1000 male.

In early June 2012, the Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Mumbai, Angelo Gracias, declared himself against the "right to choose a child's sex," since this mindset ignored the sanctity of human life and denied the right to life. The occasion was the discovery of a series of aborted female fetuses at different stages of pregnancy, which had been discovered by the police in several clinics in the state of Maharashtra. There are attempts to "justify" the practice of prenatal sex determination and abortion of unwanted female fetuses by referring to the existing discrimination of women in the Indian society. It is argued that girls are a "burden" for many families, because on the occasion of their marriage high costs of dowry had to be paid for them.

Another threat to the lives of girls and women are "honor killings". They are still widely practised mainly in the rural states of Punjab, Harayana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. Their victims are girls and young women who have a love affair with partners who are considered to be ignominious for the family. In most cases, the fathers or older brothers feel entitled to eliminate the daughter or sister, in order to "restore" the family's honor. Although the judiciary and the police take action against these perpetrators, their deeds meet still largely with approval within the mostly rural communities. Even the official representative of the law, such as judicial officers and policemen, show often very great sympathy for the perpetrators.


Threat to Secularism by Radical Hindu Groups

The official description of the Indian Union in the Constitution says that the Republic of India is "sovereign", "democratic" and, with the in 1976 added attributes, "socialist" and "secular." The term "secular" has primarily been chosen in order to meet the demands of the radical Hindu groups, because they wanted that Hinduism was recognized as the state religion. "Secularism" in the Indian understanding differs from the in Europe and North America prevalent principle of "separation of church and state". It rather emphasizes the fundamental equality of all religions; they want to be respected in their plurality.

At the same time, this attitude of tolerance and respect prevents that one religion is able to determine the state and politics. It rather insists that all together play their role in a civil society outside of politics. In the filling of high level posts in politics it becomes evident that the principle of secularism is still valid and effective. The current prime minister, for instance, is a member of the Sikh community, the in July 2012 replaced President Pratibha Patil is a Muslim, and the head of the ruling coalition, Sonia Gandhi, a Catholic.

The basic problem of the Indian state, which regards itself to be 'secular', is that the granting of special rights for disadvantaged groups in society is conditioned on religious affiliation, here on the Hindu community, and not on the actually existing social deprivation and hardship. Threats to the pluralistic secular India come from radical Hindu groups. They are affiliated to Sangh Parivar, and are jointly committed to the idea of a "Hindu Rashtra", i.e. an India where only Hindus can be "real" citizens. The radical Hindus try to justify the violence against the Christians by referring to this so-called "Hindutva ideology".



In the form in which it was developed further by M. S. Gowalkar, this ideology dating back to the twenties of the 20th century (V. D. Sawarkar is considered to be its originator) has much in common with the ideas of Italian Fascism and German National Socialism, because also in the Indian Hindutva ideology the hegemony of a single ethnic group, namely that of the Hindus over all others, plays a central role. According to these ideas, in India only Hinduism should be the determining force, because it alone could ensure the völkisch, cultural and religious unity of the country. The aim is to make out of an Indian Union, which is "purified" from the pluralistic ideas of Nehru and Gandhi and no longer religiously pluralistic and secular, a "land of Hindus" (Hindu Rahstra), where the ideology "one race, one culture, one nation" is absolutely implemented. According to this view, everybody who demands the right of domicile in India must also declare his faith in Hinduism.

Early in 2012, in the Indian theological journal "Vidyajyoti", under the title "Between Secularism and Fundamentalism", Thomas Menamparambil, the Archbishop of Guwahati, has given an analysis of the current social situation in India. In it he characterizes the fundamentalist movements in Hinduism as efforts to bring about initially a "decolonization" of Indian culture. With regard to Christianity, this becomes evident by the fact that the Brahmin scholars on the one hand co-opted Jesus Christ as an outstanding religious, spiritual and moral teacher, and at the same time condemned the activities of foreign Christian missionaries as an attack on the Indian culture. The acts of violence against religious minorities, especially against Christians have increased, due to the increasing propagation of radical Hindu ideas. These are spread by the "Bharatiya Janata Party" (BJP), which is politically dominant within the central government and in several federal states, by militant groups of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) which are allied with BJP, and by the "Vishwa Hindu Parishad" (VHP).

In those Indian states where legal provisions against conversions exist, there are repeatedly acts of violence against Christians. They are accused of trying to convert by dishonest means and material incentives the members of the lower castes and Dalits to Christianity. In several Indian states - in 1978 in Arunachal Pradesh, in 2003 in Gujarat, in 2006 in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, and in 2007 in Himachal Pradesh - laws were passed: they made the conversion by force or by material benefits a punishable offense. So far, however, no cases were brought to court.

After the acts of violence against Christians in Orissa in December 2007 and in August 2008, in which 93 Christians were killed, more than 6.500 houses destroyed and looted, 350 churches and 45 schools destroyed, and more than 50.000 people lost their homes, there has been a period of relative calm in the region. In June 2012, there was again anti-Christian violence, when on 15 June a pastor of the Pentecostal church in Balasore was attacked on the street by a Hindu violent criminal and seriously injured.


The Dilemma of Indian Muslims

With their share of eleven percent in the population of India, the Muslims who after the division of the Indian subcontinent did not emigrate to Pakistan but stayed in the newly formed Indian Union are numerically with 130 million a weighty minority. Just as it applies to Christians: Special rights to which they are virtually entitled by the Constitution (Article 341 and 342) - as e.g. to be taken into account in case of recruitments for government agencies as well as other rights - are still denied to Muslims who belong to the lower castes (Other Backward Classes - OBC) or who as casteless people belong to the 'Scheduled Castes and Tribes'. Apart from the Hindus, these special rights are bestowed only to Sikhs who belong to the Dalits (since 1956) and to the Dalits from the ranks of the New Buddhists (since 1990).

Despite many attempts, petitions and protests - these rights were until now denied to the Dalits in the Christian and Muslim communities. On the part of government and politics, as a reason for rejecting the inclusion of those Christians and Muslims who belong to the lowest strata of Indian society is given that, due to their belonging to the Christian or Muslim community, these people had so much backing, social and financial support, and other benefits - hence state support would be unnecessary. The reality, however, is different. After all, by far the largest number of Indian Christians is recruited from the ranks of the Dalits and the tribal population.

Even though in the Christian churches social commitment to the poor and disadvantaged is very strong and many initiatives to promote socially disadvantaged people exist, they are nevertheless not in a position to relieve or end the plight and deprivation of their members who come from the ranks of the casteless. The government and the parties refuse to take studies into account which reveal: there are doubtlessly Indian Christians who as Dalits are living under the poverty line; they get by no means support or enjoy other benefits because of their belonging to the Christian churches. The Hindus are afraid that, if they concede the special rights and privileges to which the socially deprived groups of Hindus are entitled also to Christian or Muslim converts, the number of conversions from Hinduism to these religions would increase tremendously.



A by the Government of India in 2007 published report on the "social, economic and educational situation of the Muslim community in India", for which the constitutional judge Rajindra Sachar was in charge, notes that the Muslim community in India is carrying a "double burden": on the one hand, it is stigmatized as "anti-national", but at the same time there are efforts to reduce its legitimate demands. Muslims are often faced with a dilemma, because by the radical Hindus they are suspected to support acts of violence against the Indian state by Islamist groups from abroad. Indian Muslims then react defensively against these allegations: they call upon their followers to defend themselves against the violence of the Hindus; and thus Muslims only continue isolating themselves within Indian society.

The Indian Catholic Church is proud of its great achievements in the education sector. On the occasion of the last ad limina visit of Indian bishops in the Vatican in September 2011, Benedict XVI said in his speech, "The Catholic schools in India have long been a 'hallmark' for the Church." In the same speech, the Pope has, however, warned that the Catholic schools ensure that they be genuinely Catholic. The thus indicated doubts as to whether all Catholic schools have really also a Catholic profile were recently taken up by the famous Indian theologian Felix Wilfred when he asked, "How Christian actually are many Christian schools, universities and other educational institutions in India?" (Jeevadhara, no. 247, January 2012, 58-79). In his article, he demands that the Christian institutions in the field of education and science should stand out and distinguish themselves from others through a social, humanistic, inclusive and careful consideration of the needs of the Indian society.

The taking into account of those aspects would at the same time make up their Christian character, since there was a close link or identity between these at first glance secular values and Christianity. Commitment to public welfare must therefore be the decisive mission statement for every Christian institution. If it is taken into account, this would at the same time make up its "Christian" character. At the same time it would be distinguished from the mission statements of other, economically determined institutions: they regard education as a private good and assess the value of education more or less solely according to its economic benefits. This Christian orientation would also require that all strata of the population must have access to educational institutions.

Wilfred deplores that the Christian school facilities had too much adapted to the general trend; they had abandoned their once leading role in the provision of training opportunities for the members of the lower strata of the population and especially of girls / women. They could claim only then rightly their entitlement to call themselves "Christian", if they would swim "against the tide" and the "laws of the market" and take up the training of the lower classes as their primary task, and thus do pioneering work in the field of education.

End of May 2012 the establishment of the Syro-Malabar Diocese of Faridabad was made public. It is on the territory of the Archdiocese of Delhi (Latin rite). There had been decades of negotiations and disputes between the representatives of the participating rites before the foundation of this diocese. With it the pastoral needs of the many Catholics of the Syro-Malabar rite shall be met. Observers spoke of a historical development: it could lead to an improvement in relations between the existing Indian rites within the Catholic Church.

The Syro-Malabar Catholics feel vindicated that their view prevailed: the pastoral care must have priority over the within the Latin Church existing belief that the exercise of the episcopal office is bound to a clearly defined territory. But a not entirely unimportant detail is controversial. Has the new diocese, as the representatives of the Syro-Malabar say, been created by the synod of their church with the consent of Rome, or, as the Latins see it, has Rome erected the diocese? In the latter case, the power to erect dioceses would still be refused the Synod of the Syro-Malabar Church. It had then also in future only the right to ask in Rome for the foundation of the respective dioceses or eparchies.


Renaissance of Buddhism in India?

In Indian society, the terms "mission" and "conversion" have a bad aftertaste. The campaigns of Hindu circles, which condemn all forms of converting members of one religion to another one and demand that conversions are juridically punished, have over the years made an impact: On the one hand, they brought about that in various states in India laws against conversions have been passed. They are often formulated so far-reaching that they virtually repeal the in the Indian Constitution granted right of freedom of religion. The latter leaves in principle the change of religious affiliation to the free decision of individuals.

Officially, these statutory regulations are directed against all activities aimed at alienating somebody away from his former religion and converting him to another one by providing him with financial or other advantages.



In essence, all of these statutory provisions are primarily directed against the Christians, here, above all against the conversions of members from the ranks of the tribal population and the Dalits. They are, on the one hand, discriminated within the Hindu community: the access to temples and places of worship is denied them, because they are considered to be unclean. On the other hand, when they feel no longer affiliated to the Hindu community, the conversion to Christianity is by all sorts of legal regulations obstructed or at least made very difficult for them.

The Christian churches are repeatedly accused of wanting to entice these people by material incentives to be affiliated to Christianity. In her missionary activity, the Catholic Church has responded to this negative view of missionary work. She avoids all forms of aggressive missionary activity which once may have been used. But at the same time, she insists that she has the right and duty to a missionary preaching, and that this was certainly in conformity with the Indian Constitution.

At a national mission conference in Bangalore in October 2009 under the theme "Let your Light Shine: Become the Message and the Messenger," the duty and the right of Christians to proclaim the Good News has been impressively confirmed. The commitment to missionary work has again been declared at an international mission conference. It took place in May 2012 in Palai, and was attended by about 6.000 priests, missionaries and religious from 100 countries. India is no longer a church that takes in foreign missionaries but has meanwhile become a church that sends them out and is currently present in 166 countries with its own missionary personnel.

The number of Indian priests and female and male religious from 214 religious communities and religious orders who work as missionaries, amounts to about 15.000. The largest number of these Indian missionaries is working in Africa, Latin America and in countries of the Pacific. The Indian Church is going to create a national training and preparation program for missionaries who are going abroad.

Immediately after the founding of the state, there was in Gujarat State a mass conversion of thousands of Dalits from the Mahar caste to Buddhism. It was caused by D. S. Ambedkar's protest against the caste system. He was at that time Minister of Justice and "father" of the Constitution of India. This movement of Neo-Buddhism has become stronger over the years and is in contact with international Buddhist organizations. In their publications, they combat the persistence of caste discrimination in India. The increase in followers of Buddhism in many cities in India, which can be observed in recent times, has a very different background. In search of guidance in the era of globalization and the decline of ethical values and standards associated with the economic upswing, for many Indians Buddhism appears to be as a "religion without God" the more convincing doctrine - compared with the Hindu pantheon of gods and rituals.

It is surprising that the Japanese Soka Gakkai is well received by many Indians. This 'New Religion' emerged in the fifties and has developed a new doctrinal system and way of life - in the tradition of Nichiren Buddhism and with the help of a Western philosophy of values. The structure of the Soka Gakkai is a network of small groups of ten people who maintain regular contact with each other. It obviously helps many Indians who are isolated and lonely in the cities to find orientation and support. With its meditation and concentration exercises, another form of Buddhism, the Vipassana meditation, provides a different clientele with a new spiritual home. The presence of the Tibetan community around the charismatic Dalai Lama in Dharamsala helps also to disseminate Buddhist ideas.


    {*} Georg Evers (born in 1936), attained a doctorate on theology of religions under Karl Rahner. From 1979-2001 he was an Asia assistant in the Institute of Missiology Missio (Aachen). In that capacity he made numerous journeys to Asian countries and took part in important theological conferences in the framework of the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences (FABC). Numerous publications on interreligious dialogue and mission theology.


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