A Brighter Future for India Must Include Religious Freedom

By Ambassador Callista L. Gingrich

On July 24, Wall Street Journal columnist Walter Russell Mead published an opinion piece titled “The Movement Shaping a Modern India,” in which he described a recent visit to India for a conference attended by supporters of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. 

As Mead wrote, “Americans need to engage more deeply with a movement that is reshaping the politics and culture of one of the most important countries in the world. The RSS, the leading Hindu nationalist organization, is the most important—and most controversial—civil-society movement in modern India.”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a lifelong member of the RSS and a leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party, which began as the political wing of the RSS. (The Hindu nationalist ideology of the BJP is drawn from the RSS movement.)

When the BJP won the national election in 2014, many were concerned about the implications that such a victory would have for religious freedom and for good reason. Consider the following excerpt from the Congressional Research Service

“For political parties such as the BJP and its antecedents, Hinduism as a concept is almost always concurrent with nationalism, the core belief being that India is an inherently Hindu nation, even if the establishment of a strictly Hindu state is not a goal.  In this regard, it is the proselytizing religions—Islam and Christianity in particular—that can be characterized as representing a threat to the Hindu nation.” 

During his 2014 campaign, Modi emphasized the importance of good governance and development. He made only minimal references to Hindutva ideology, which includes the notions that Hindus are the true Indian people. Christians and Muslims are seen as interlopers whose beliefs are not native or loyal to India.

However, as Mead noted, “Concerns about violence are legitimate, but what drives Hindu nationalism is less antagonism against Islam [and other religious minorities] than fear for the future of India.” 

Unfortunately, early concerns about the fate of religious freedom have proved to be warranted. As the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom reported, religious freedom conditions declined in India in 2022. USCIRF recommended that India be classified as a Country of Particular Concern, which is defined as a nation that has “engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom.”

Furthermore, Open Doors’ 2023 World Watch List ranked India number 11 among the worst countries in the world where Christians face extreme persecution.

At various levels of the Indian government, officials continue to promote and enforce policies that further religious discrimination, including anti-conversion laws, as well as laws targeting interfaith relationships. 

Additionally, the government targets those who support religious minorities using surveillance, harassment, demolition of property, detention under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, and by going after nongovernmental organizations using the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act.

As USCIRF reported, “The continued enforcement of discriminatory laws facilitated a culture of impunity for widespread campaigns of threats and violence by mobs and vigilante groups.”

Despite such assaults against religious freedom, Mead observed that some Hindu nationalists are seeking to bridge old and new thinking to modernize the religion and culture of India.

“RSS leaders believe that India can remain united as the shock waves of modernization propagate across the subcontinent only if the changes are seen as grounded in ancient Hindu principles,” Mead wrote.

A modern and prosperous India is an admirable goal that will benefit the Indian people, the region, and the world. However, if India’s politicians are serious, they have their work cut out for them. History has shown that nations that champion religious freedom are safer, more prosperous, and more secure.

If India is to usher in a brighter future for its people, country leaders must change course and advance and defend religious freedom for everyone within its borders.