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India - Religion

According to the 2011 census, the total population is 1.21 billion. According to the 2001 census, the latest year for which disaggregated figures have been released, Hindus constitute 80.5 percent of the population, Muslims 13.4 percent, Christians 2.3 percent, and Sikhs 1.9 percent. Groups that together constitute less than 1 percent of the population include Buddhists, Jains, Parsis (Zoroastrians), Jews, and Bahais. So-called “tribal” groups, which are indigenous groups historically outside the caste system and generally included among Hindus in government statistics, often practice traditional indigenous religious beliefs (animism).

There are large Muslim populations in the states of Uttar Pradesh (UP), Bihar, Maharashtra, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, and Kerala; Muslims are the majority in Jammu and Kashmir. Although Muslims are a minority, India is the world's third largest Muslim country in terms of population. Christians are concentrated in the northeast, as well as in the southern states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Goa. Three small northeastern states (Nagaland, Mizoram, and Meghalaya) have large Christian majorities. Sikhs are a majority in the state of Punjab.

Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi - an avowed Hindu nationalist - and Modi’s Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, Indian politics are increasingly becoming religiously charged. Amid a rising tide of Hindu nationalism in India under Modi, Hindu hard-line groups have long accused minority Muslims of taking over the country by persuading Hindu women to marry them and convert to Islam. Although India’s constitution is secular and provides protection to all faiths, the issue of “love jihad” has gripped headlines and pitted Modi’s party leaders against secular activists. India’s investigating agencies and courts have, however, rejected the “love jihad” theory, which many see as part of an anti-Muslim agenda by Modi’s party. Hindu hard-line groups also oppose conversions to Christianity and have vowed to continue trying to prevent interfaith relationships. But an apparent mood of fear, anger and disenchantment is growing among ordinary Indian Muslims.

Millions of Indians are in the thrall of smooth-talking "godmen" who have built vast empires preying on their gullibility. It is not uncommon for the sprawling network of godmen, gurus and swamis in the Hindu-majority country of more than a billion people to commit sexual crimes. Starting out as small time preachers from villages and towns in the country's rural hinterland, these holy men cultivate a relationship with poor locals and over time, they acquire cult status commanding a huge following (and sometimes even political connections) to camouflage their nefarious activities.

Prabir Ghosh, general secretary of the Science and Rationalists' Association of India, believes devotees are beholden to these holy men by becoming part of the faithful. "We Indians are great believers in miracles and feel that somebody can get us out of our miseries. This is the prime reason we fall for these godmen". Despite scandals and falls from grace, there is no dearth of godmen operating in the country.

Godmen assume the role of counselor, offering an answer to the dissonance and stresses of modern life, triggered by high-speed socio-economic transformation, dislocation of communities and the atomization of society. Bhavdeep Kang, author of "Gurus: Stories of India's Leading Babas" believes that godmen are rarely held accountable, least of all by their devotees. "The centrality of the godman in the lives of their flock - as spiritual preceptor, family confidante and business advisor - creates a dependency syndrome, making the devotee as invested in the purity of the guru as the guru himself."

Approximately 200 million persons, or 17 percent of the population, belong to the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (SC/ST, formerly called "untouchables" and also known as "Dalits"). Some converted from Hinduism to other religious groups, ostensibly to escape widespread discrimination. Under the National Commission for Minorities Act of 1992, five religious communities -- Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Parsis, and Buddhists -- are considered minority communities. Under Article 25 of the Constitution, Sikhism, Jainism, and Buddhism are considered sects of Hinduism; however, these groups view themselves as unique and sought to introduce their own separate personal laws. Sikhs have sought a separately codified body of law to legally recognize their uniqueness and preclude ambiguity. The 1992 NCM Act identified Buddhism as a separate religion. The Supreme Court rejected the inclusion of Jainism under the Act, stating that the practice of adding new religious groups as minorities should be discouraged.

The country is a secular state with no official religion. The Constitution protects the right of individuals to choose or change their religion as well as to practice the religion of their choice. The country has historically been fertile ground for all religious traditions to flourish. Many NGOs argued that state-level "anticonversion" laws are unconstitutional and may reinforce the dominance of the Hindu majority. Although these laws do not explicitly ban conversions, the NGOs argue that in practice "anticonversion" laws, by design and implementation, infringe upon an individual's right to convert, favor Hinduism over minority religions, and represent a significant challenge to secularism.

The constitution provides that Sikhism, Jainism, and Buddhism are considered subsets of Hinduism; however, these groups view themselves as distinct faiths and have sought legislation to change this provision. Sikhs have sought passage of a law that recognizes their uniqueness and precludes ambiguity. Although the 1992 National Commission for Minorities Act identifies Buddhism as a separate religion, the Supreme Court in 2005 rejected the inclusion of Jainism under the act, stating that the practice of adding new religious groups as minorities should be discouraged. However, in June 2008, the Delhi state government accorded minority status to the Jain community. Jains also have minority status in the states of Maharashtra, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Rajasthan, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Delhi, and West Bengal. According to press reports, state governments have the power to grant minority status to religious groups designated as minorities under the 1992 act, but not all states have officially done so. The states of Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka recognize Sikhs as minorities.

There are active “anti-conversion” laws in five of the 28 states: Gujarat, Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, and Himachal Pradesh. Arunachal Pradesh’s 1978 anti-conversion law remains on the books but unimplemented due to a continuing lack of enabling legislation. Authorities generally explain these laws as protective measures meant to shield vulnerable individuals from being induced to change their faith. For example, the Gujarat law proscribes religious conversions through “allurement, force, or fraud.” In 2009 civil rights groups brought a constitutional challenge to the Gujarat laws.

There are different state laws only applicable to certain religious communities (known as “personal laws”) in matters of marriage, divorce, adoption, and inheritance. The government grants a significant amount of autonomy to personal status law boards in crafting these laws. Hindu law, Christian law, Parsi law, and Islamic law are legally recognized and judicially enforceable. None is exempt from national and state level legislative powers or social reform obligations as stated in the constitution.

Despite the National Government's rejection of "Hindutva," the ideology that espouses the inculcation of Hindu religious and cultural norms above other religious norms, "Hindutva" continued to influence the policies of some state and local governments and actions at the state and local levels. The National Government, led by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), continued to implement an inclusive and secular platform that included respect for the right to religious freedom. Where "anticonversion" laws are not in place, local authorities on occasion relied upon certain sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) to arrest persons engaged in religious activities. For example, IPC Section 153A prohibits "promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, etc., and doing acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony." IPC Section 295A prohibits "deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings or any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs."

The law was not always enforced rigorously or effectively in some cases of religious violence, and prosecution continued to be weak. These shortcomings were exacerbated by a low police-to-population ratio, corruption, and an overburdened court system. Despite government efforts to foster communal harmony, ineffective investigation and prosecution of perpetrators led to delayed justice, although numerous cases were being pursued in the courts at the end of the year. There were concerns in civil society that a perceived failure to bring those responsible for communal violence against religious minorities to justice contributed to a climate of impunity.

During several incidents in Karnataka during the year 2012, local authorities either acted in coordination with, or failed to stop, members of a Hindu nationalist organization, Hindu Jagarana Vedike (HJV), from entering private residences to enforce a morality code based on their interpretation of Hindu traditions, including a desire to keep Hindu and Muslim youths from fraternizing.

In 2019, religious freedom conditions in India experienced a drastic turn downward, with religious minorities under increasing assault. Following the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) re-election in May 2019, the national government used its strengthened parliamentary majority to institute national level policies violating religious freedom across India, especially for Muslims. The national government allowed violence against minorities and their houses of worship to continue with impunity, and also engaged in and tolerated hate speech and incitement to violence.

Significantly, the BJP-led government enacted the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) — a fast track to citizenship for non-Muslim migrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan already residing in India — and approved a National Population Register (NPR) as a first step toward a nation-wide National Register of Citizens (NRC). The border state of Assam, under mandate of the Supreme Court, implemented a statewide NRC to identify illegal migrants within Assam. When the statewide NRC was released in August, 1.9 million residents—both Muslims and Hindus—were excluded. Those excluded live in fear of the consequences: three United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteurs warned that exclusion from the NRC could result in “statelessness, deportation, or prolonged detention.” Indeed, Home Minister Amit Shah referred to migrants as “termites” to be eradicated. Troubled that Hindus were excluded from Assam’s NRC, he and other BJP officials advocated for the CAA as a corrective measure to protect Hindus. The CAA provides listed non-Muslim religious communities a path to restore their citizenship and avoid detention or deportation. In its wake, BJP leaders have continued to advocate for a nation-wide NRC; the citizenship of millions would be placed under question, but, with the CAA in place, Muslims alone would bear the indignities and consequences of potential statelessness.

The CAA’s passage in December 2019 sparked nationwide protests that police and government-aligned groups met with violence; in Uttar Pradesh (UP), the BJP chief minister Yogi Adityanath pledged “revenge” against anti-CAA protestors and stated they should be fed “bullets not biryani.” In December, close to 25 people died in attacks against protestors and universities in UP alone. According to reports, police action specifically targeted Muslims.

Throughout 2019, government action—including the CAA, continued enforcement of cow slaughter and anti-conversion laws, and the November Supreme Court ruling on the Babri Masjid site — created a culture of impunity for nationwide campaigns of harassment and violence against religious minorities. In August, the government also revoked the autonomy of Muslim-majority state Jammu and Kashmir and imposed restrictions that negatively impacted religious freedom.

Mob lynchings of persons suspected of cow slaughter or consuming beef continued, with most attacks occurring within BJP-ruled states. Lynch mobs often took on overtly Hindu nationalist tones. In June, in Jharkand, a mob attacked a Muslim, Tabrez Ansari, forcing him to chant “Jai Shri Ram (Hail Lord Ram)” as they beat him to death. Police often arrest those attacked for cow slaughter or conversion activities rather than the perpetrators. Violence against Christians also increased, with at least 328 violent incidents, often under accusations of forced conversions. These attacks frequently targeted prayer services and led to the widespread shuttering or destruction of churches.

In 2018, the Supreme Court urged the central and state governments to combat lynchings with stricter laws. When, by July 2019, the central government and 10 states had failed to take appropriate action, the Supreme Court again directed them to do so. Rather than comply, Home Minister Shah called existing laws sufficient and denied lynchings had increased, while the Home Ministry instructed the National Crime Records Bureau to omit lynchings from the 2019 crime data report.

During 2019, discriminatory policies, inflammatory rhetoric, and tolerance for violence against minorities at the national, state, and local level increased the climate of fear among non-Hindu communities. After the reporting period, India continued on this negative trajectory. In February 2020, three days of violence erupted in Delhi with mobs attacking Muslim neighborhoods. There were reports of Delhi police, operating under the Home Ministry’s authority, failing to halt attacks and even directly participating in the violence. At least 50 people were killed.

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Page last modified: 13-09-2021 14:50:42 ZULU