EDITORS’ NOTE: “That All Peoples May Know Him” is the theme for this year’s season of prayer for international missions in Southern Baptist churches across the country. This is the fourth in a five-day series of features Baptist Press is carrying underscoring the challenge of reaching the masses in India with the Gospel. The national goal for this year’s Lottie Moon Christmas Offering is $150 million. The International Mission Board relies on the Lottie Moon Offering for 51 percent of its annual income.
DELHI (BP)–Pride goeth before a fall.
India’s ruling Hindu nationalists tasted the bitter truth of Solomon’s warning earlier this year. Popular, confident and riding a wave of economic expansion, then-Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee called early parliamentary elections. He fully expected the nationalist alliance dominated by his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to win.
He was wrong.
The nation’s voters, though overwhelmingly Hindu, soundly defeated the BJP alliance in an upset almost no one expected. The secular-minded Congress Party swept back into power, led by Sonia Gandhi (widow of slain Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, assassinated while campaigning for re-election in 1991).
Why the stunning election result — and why should Christians care?
Political analysts say the main reason for Congress’ victory was the anger millions of rural poor and low-caste members took to the polling stations. They rebelled against the whole idea of “India Shining” — the BJP slogan for the nation’s rapid economic progress –- in the face of ongoing poverty, corruption and inaction at the local level.
Now the pressure is on Congress Party leaders to help deliver prosperity to the villages. If they don’t, they’ll be the ones turned out next time. “It’s a big warning for everybody,” one top official was quoted as saying.
India’s Muslims and Christians, however, hope to be major beneficiaries of the vote.
“Justice has shined over the peoples in India,” an elated Christian leader said after the defeat of the Hindu coalition, which had held power since 1998.
“Praise God Almighty for His mercy shown on us and prayer answered. Christians, Muslims and the poor have suffered [under BJP rule]. 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.”
Both minorities have endured persecution by Hindu militants who believe “India is for Hindus.” Thousands of Muslims have died in anti-Islamic riots. Christians in several states have been vilified, attacked — and in some cases, killed — in dozens of incidents over the last decade.
India’s 130 million-plus Muslims remain by far the biggest and most despised “enemy” for Hindu extremists. But Christians, at less than 3 percent of the population, present an easier target. And their evangelistic success — particularly among responsive low-caste Hindus, Dalits (“untouchables”) and tribal peoples — infuriates the radicals, who contend Christians bribe the poor to convert. Some Hindu groups carry out regular campaigns to “reconvert” new Christians by force.
Christian leaders say the radicals’ real agenda is an old one: to defend the economic status quo of the outlawed (but still widespread) Hindu caste system, which relegates lower castes — the great majority of Indian Hindus — to servant status.
National BJP officials consistently downplayed or denied the involvement of radical Hindus in the persecution of Christians and Muslims. That may well have contributed to their election loss.
‘WE EXPECT CHANGE’
Christian persecution “will continue and perhaps increase” in states where Hindu fundamentalists still rule, cautioned Joseph D’Souza, president of the All India Christian Council. “But at the national level, we expect change. We expect the national government not to condone the harassment of minorities and the Dalits…. We expect religious freedom and the freedom to exercise all our spiritual and social rights.”
A proposed national “anti-conversion” law aimed at stopping Christian evangelism is now “out of the question,” D’Souza added.
More than an economic referendum, the election was “a mandate to renew secular democracy in India,” declared Ipe Joseph, another national Christian leader. By defeating the former ruling coalition, “most of the voters have shown that they reject [Hindu] fundamentalism.”
Congress Party leader Sonia Gandhi declined to fill the prime minister post herself, instead naming Manmohan Singh. It was a smart move in two ways: Singh helped engineer the reforms that opened India’s economy a decade ago. And he is a Sikh, not a Hindu, which sends a clear message calling for religious diversity and reconciliation (Sikh bodyguards murdered Gandhi’s mother-in-law, Indira Gandhi, in 1984). Gandhi also named a Christian to her cabinet.
Indians don’t claim to have a perfect democracy. Their brand is huge (675 million eligible voters this year), unwieldy, dangerous, often corrupt. But it has stood the test of nearly six tumultuous decades.
Since gaining independence from Great Britain in 1947, India’s democracy has survived the bloodbath of partition, multiple wars with Pakistan, disastrous economic policies, the power grabs of the Gandhi family and — at least so far — the extremist Hindu nationalism of recent times.
“Indians are no longer prepared to endure the injustices of the past,” writer Gita Mehta says. “And living in a democracy, they are prepared to do something about it.”
That kind of atmosphere has created a robust marketplace of ideas — and perhaps an irresistible momentum not only for political and economic freedom, but freedom of the spirit.
Erich Bridges is senior writer for the Southern Baptist International Mission Board.