On Thursday, Indians will learn the results of their country’s massive national elections. For the past five years, the country has been governed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Despite Modi’s popularity among much of the country’s Hindu population, his tenure in office has proved difficult for India’s religious minorities. The Hindutva movement—which is made up of extremists who believe that all Indians must be Hindu—have gone after Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, and other religious minorities.
“Christians in India are not the only ones facing the brunt of nationalism,” Vijayesh Lal, the general secretary of the Evangelical Fellowship of India, told CT. “We know about Muslims being lynched. … That would also be the Communists, who actually subscribe to no religion at all. That would also be the Dalits,or the untouchables.”
Since 2014, India has risen 11 spots on Open Doors’s World Watch List, and last year the advocacy group said that more than 12,000 Christians were attacked. However, at the same time—as CT found in a 2016 cover story—Indian Christians leaders like Lal remain convinced that church growth is outpacing persecution.
Lal joined CT digital media producer Morgan Lee and theology editor Caleb Lindgren to discuss why he is not optimistic about the election results, regardless of the victor; why the Indian government denies Christians and Muslims affirmative action; and why conversion is complicated.
This episode of Quick to Listen is brought to you in part by Kinship United, a non-profit organization working with every day superheroes like you to rescue orphans and widows from abuse, trafficking, or worse, for the past nineteen years. To learn more about how you can save a life, visit KinshipUnited.org.
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May 22, 2019 Transcript
Morgan Lee: I’m Morgan Lee, digital media producer here at Christianity Today. I’m joined by my co-host Caleb Lindgren.
Caleb Lindgren: Hi, there! Good to be back on.
Morgan Lee: As usual, it is great to have you here Caleb. Alright, so who is our guest to talk about this intense subject today?
Caleb Lindgren: Yeah, so today we have Rev. Vijayesh Lal. He is the General Secretary of the Evangelical Fellowship of India. So we’re super pleased that you are here Rev. Lal.
Rev. Vijayesh Lal: It’s good to be here, thank you.
Morgan Lee: So, in 2014 Narendra Modi was elected prime minister of India. Last month, the country held national elections as well where he was up for re-election, and the results of that election will be released on Thursday, as India is so populous that the entire electoral process takes place over the course of a month. Current exit polls suggest that Modi’s party, the Bharatiya Janata Party—better known as the BJP—is once again headed for victory. Despite Modi’s popularity with many of the country’s Hindu population, his tenure in office has proved challenging for India’s religious minorities.
Muslims make up 14 percent of the country’s 1.3 billion people, while Christians make up less than 3 percent. Since 2014, India has risen 11 spots on Open Doors’ World Watch List, and last year the advocacy group said that more than 12,000 Christians were attacked. Earlier this year it wrote in another report, “looking at the statistics, it’s evident and undeniable that Christians in India are and have been for quite some time the targets of Christian-based torture, persecution, and oppression at the hands of their fellow countrymen.” So this week on Quick To Listen, we’d like to discuss how India’s political situation has endangered Christians, and if the church can expect things to get any better while Modi’s in charge.
All right Caleb, so I don’t know if you have any gut check to any of the things that we just went over but I would love to hear your kind of your initial thoughts before we ask our guest all the questions.
Caleb Lindgren: Yeah, my gut check I guess would be that given the place that India occupies on the world stage, its level of development, the size of the country, and how democratic it is, it’s a surprise that there’s this level of persecution and difficulty based on the reports. I would be really interested to hear from Rev. Lal what that means, what that looks like on the ground. But it just was a surprise to me. I wasn’t expecting that. And in also the sort of that it’s trending downward, in terms of things seem to be becoming more difficult.
I think we tend to think about things in terms of progress and generally think that like, well, you know, we’re probably better off than we were before because we have more resources, and we’re thinking about it more strategically, and there’s all these great NGOs out there that are doing great work, etc., etc. And then, you know, the church is growing all over the world, but then you’ve got Compassion closing all their India offices, and you know the trend is not good. And so there’s a surprise to me.
Morgan Lee: So, the first thing that I felt when I was typing up this information was I was like, huh? There’s some interesting parallels to what’s happened in our own country with regards to the Christian population and the Muslim population here in the U.S. The Muslim population of the U.S. is also extremely tiny, just in the same way—at least percentage-wise, it’s tiny in India. I don’t think in like raw numbers it’s tiny. But just thinking about when nationalism starts to surface, what it often means for people who are religious minorities in that particular country.
And the types of violence that I think that you might and I might have read about in the Open Doors report, maybe they have seemed a little bit more brutal, but we have seen different religious minorities being attacked in our own country and their houses of worship the in places where they’re not made to feel safe or are vandalized, and obviously nationalism is something that has been a huge storyline in the past maybe decade, but definitely last five years in India, and just trying to understand what drives people to like behave so violently towards groups that are different when that happens. So I’m really glad that we can kind of get some more context for what’s going on, and Rev. Lal, I’m so glad that you can answer all of our questions that we have.
Rev. Vijayesh Lal: I’ll try to do the best I can.
Morgan Lee: Absolutely. So prior to Modi’s 2014 election, how would you have described the relationship between Christians and Hindus in India?
Rev. Vijayesh Lal: Christians and Hindus in India have always had cordial relationships. I believe the relationships are still very cordial. And it is not Hindus who persecute Christians. Let me be very categorical about that: it’s a particular group of people who subscribe to an ideology called Hindutva. They are the ones, you know, persecuting not just Christians, but basically all minorities that are different from them. So that would be the Muslims. That would be the Christians. That would also be the Sikhs, in sporadic incidents. And that would also be the Communists, who actually subscribe to no religion at all. And that would also be the Dalits, you know, who are the Untouchables. So the Hindutva group, the people subscribing to this particular ideology, are really the ones I would say who are unleashing this wave of violence in India.
Morgan Lee: Where do you kind of trace that movement back to?
Rev. Vijayesh Lal: Hindutva, first of all, is not Hinduism. Hinduism can be termed as a religion, the Supreme Court of India calls it a way of life. You know, if it’s the way of life than how do you convert from a way of life is another question, but that let’s not go over there. The Supreme Court says anybody who is not a Muslim or a Christian or a Jew or a Parsis is a Hindu. So it’s quite open, you know. And Hinduism could be, could mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. So you can worship 33 million gods and goddesses and still be a Hindu, you can be an atheist and still be a Hindu. You know, there are lots of things to pick and choose from, but mainly six philosophical schools [6:26].
However, Hindutva is a political ideology. It’s a fascist ideology. It believes in one nation, one culture, one people. And it borrows directly from Hitler and elevates Hitler as one of their heroes. They believe in the final solution. These were the forces that killed Mahatma Gandhi and they would they don’t hesitate to kill. So this is the ideology that began in, I would say in the 1920s, and Hindutva, what it means is “Hindu Essence.” So they’re just taking the name Hindu and building a political narrative around it. So they’re using religion for political gains. That’s what it is. And it is exemplified by the hatred of the other. Hindutva, the ideology and its adherents, never really fought against the British in our independence struggle. They focused on what they described as the enemies that were Christians, and the Muslims, and the Communists, and so on and so forth.
So this ideology has grown over the years, and they have a vision or an aspiration that they that they want to fulfill and it’s called the Hindu Rashtra or the Hindu Nation. Now what that means is that India will be explicitly a Hindu nation, and there will be no room for any other. So the others like the Muslims and the Christians and others would have a choice to embrace Hinduism. If they don’t do that, they will be disenfranchised and they’ll have to live as second-class citizens facing violence and all sorts of things.
So this is the ideology that has been politically empowered by the ascension of Mr. Modi. Mr. Modi himself being an ardent follower of this ideology. In fact, he was even a pracharak—pracharak means an evangelist of this ideology—for many, many years.
Morgan Lee: Well, and if I recall correctly, back during the 2014 elections there was some criticism of him because, or the criticism that resurfaced of him, because if I’m understanding correctly he was the governor of one of these states where there had been really intense—
Rev. Vijayesh Lal: Chief Minster.
Morgan Lee: —Chief Minister of one of these states where there had been really intense violence against Christians—
Rev. Vijayesh Lal: And Muslims, as well as Christians.
Morgan Lee: Okay. Was he criticized for not condemning this or not doing more to save the religious minorities there?
Rev. Vijayesh Lal: Well, let’s just say this. More than 2,000 people were killed on his watch. And Mr. Modi basically did nothing, and the Supreme Court of India—no less an authority [9:12-9:14]—but the Supreme Court of India referred to him as being the modern-day Nero who sat while the rest of Rome burned. So, Mr. Modi, it was 2002, and under his watch there were riots and over 2,000 Muslims were killed. You know prior to Mr. Modi, also in Gujarat, in 1998 Christmas Eve, churches were burned in Dangs district. So things were always a little problematic in Gujarat.
But Mr. Modi gained from it, you know? He built his narrative around it as a Hindu strongman and as somebody who has shown the Muslims their place, so to say. And evolve the whole narrative around the pride of that particular state, the state of Gujarat. And you know, countries like your own country, the United States, denied to give him a visa. But then he evolved this narrative so in a manner, that in a few years he was elevated to the position of the prime minister.
Caleb Lindgren: So does Mr. Modi make statements about the religious minority groups, or as he explicit about that sort of agenda?
Rev. Vijayesh Lal: Well he has made a lot of statements about minorities, a lot of statements about Muslims and some statements about Christians. I have heard those statements and they are not nice.
Caleb Lindgren: Hmm. So specifically is he, like what sort of things is he encouraging, or how is he framing it?
Rev. Vijayesh Lal: It is not just him, the entire BJP— the Bharatiya Janata Party—is built on the platform or on the rhetoric of anti-minority bashing. That’s what it is. And they borrow it directly from their mother ideology, that’s the RSS, which is the main proponent of this ideology.
Mr. Modi has said things like Christians are here to convert people, you know, and they are indulging in these things because of the western agenda, or he is implied that Muslims are not faithful to this nation, many times as the chief minister and there is ample evidence of these things available on YouTube even now. But even as the prime minister, during this campaign, his campaign and the level of discourse has been so sharp and so polarizing, it is not worthy of a prime minister of any civilized country.
Morgan Lee: So I want to talk about these conversion accusations, so to speak. From what I understand, I did an interview a couple months ago with an Indian national and we were talking about some of the tensions over conversions, and the fact that in some communities it seems that Christianity has been quite successful in finding root in predominantly Hindu communities, and as that’s happened that has not just been something that’s been contained to someone’s personal piety, but has often kind of shaken up the social status quo as well. One, does that narrative like ring true in your head? And two, what has kind of been the backlash that’s occurred as these conversions have taken place?
Rev. Vijayesh Lal: Number one, first I’ll talk about the backlash and then about the convert. It is wrong for us to say that this is a backlash against conversion. If you look at India, today’s India, Christians and Muslims are being targeted not because of something that they do but because of what they are, of who they are, you know? So essentially saying Muslims have a soft corner for Pakistan, and that’s why they are anti-national. Or Christians convert and that’s why they are anti-national, so let’s beat them up. It’s a narrative that is propaganda material. My question is tomorrow, if we stop preaching the gospel in India, will these attacks stop? Tomorrow, if we stop running education institutions and medical institutions in India, will these attacks stop? The answer is no because we are persecuted not because of what we do but because of who we are. It’s a matter of identity.
Now, we’ll come to the conversion part of it. The constitution of our country gives us the right to preach, practice, and propagate our faith. The word propagate has been included over there, and I believe it has been included keeping the Christian and the Muslim communities in mind. If the Constitution gives us the right to propagate that’s what we do. When we propagate the message of Christ and if people are you know willing to, or if people want to embrace Jesus Christ and his teachings and want to follow him, that’s their fundamental right again given by the Constitution. And I fail to see why would anybody have a problem with it. But yes, the church has worked among the Dalits, the church has worked among the tribals, and the church has empowered these communities, you know? And some of the empowerment has also come in the form of following Christ and leaving Hinduism, so to say.
Babasaheb Ambedkar, who wrote our constitution, you know, he said I was born a Hindu but I will not die a Hindu. He wanted to escape the oppression of the caste system. And so, in the 1960s, he along with a lot of his followers embraced Buddhism in Nagpur, and that was historical. And so a lot of people have escaped from the clutches of the caste system and have embraced Christianity. I remember speaking to a man from Odisha/Orissa [15:53], his name was Manush, and he said, “when I came to know Christ or when I had started to have fellowship with Christian people, that was the first time in my life I was treated as a human being. So that is why I embraced the Christian faith because Christ liberated me and gave me a status, gave me brothers and sisters, and also give me a social status that does not discriminate against me. So why should I not do that?” And I believe Manush is right. He has a choice and he exercised it.
Morgan Lee: So we recently did a podcast on Sri Lanka, and one of the things that they mentioned on that podcast was that for a long time Christianity and colonialism were really linked close together, and that only much more recently had Christianity become seen as a movement that was much more inclusive and for everyone, specifically people on the margins of society. And I’m wondering if to what extent that has also been true in India, where Christianity was associated with colonialism for a long time.
Rev. Vijayesh Lal: Christianity in India is still associated with colonialism, but that’s the propaganda against the church. Because Christianity in India is as old as Christianity itself—AD 52, according to historians the apostle Thomas himself arrived in India, and he was martyred at Mylapore near Chennai. So Christianity in India is very old, you know, 2,000 years now. But the propaganda against the church is it is the religion of the colonial masters and that’s why it must be resisted. It’s one of the propaganda points. The truth of the matter is during the British rule, the British actually discouraged missionaries from being active in India and there is plenty of historical evidence for that. You know, time doesn’t give us the permission over here, but there’s plenty of historical evidence for that.
But, Christianity has done more in India then just preach Christ. Our missionaries have actually been the ones who have preserved languages, even though we are a tiny minuscule—2.3 percent, that’s how much we are. But the ratio of our service to the nation has far outweighed much communities that are much larger than us. In terms of education, in terms of health, in terms of service to the nation even though defense—lots of Christian people in our defense forces—and the Christian involvement in the freedom movement of India. So when you consider all of those things, this propaganda actually falls flat on its face.
Caleb Lindgren: I want to return to the question of status and caste briefly, and here in the West we get a lot of reports about Christianity growing amongst the Dalits caste. I was curious how that affects things, whether that adjusts the way that people view Christianity as a religion, given that it has a certain amount of purchase among the Untouchables and whether that plays into some of these discussions about who are Christians, what are Christians, and whether they’re of value, or?
Rev. Vijayesh Lal: So, let me understand your question. You’re saying Christianity, because it’s growing among the Dalits, is it being undervalued? Is that what you’re saying?
Caleb Lindgren: Yeah, does it get a bad rap because of that?
Rev. Vijayesh Lal: First of all, Dalits is not a caste. Dalits is a self-designation. These are people who are outside the purview of the caste system, so they are known as the outcasts. People would sometimes refer to them as the Untouchables, as well. You know, so if you touch them you’ll—the whole system is based on the principle of purity, pure and impure. So Dalits is a self-designation, it comes from the root word “dal,” which means being crushed. So when a person says he or she is a Dalit, what they are saying is I’ve been crushed for centuries together, you know? And now I am I’m awake to my rights and I’ll have them basically. So he or she is not allowing the other person to define him or her as an Untouchable. They say, “No, you will not define who or what my identity is. My identity is not an Untouchable. My identity is I’m a Dalit who’s been crushed by you that’s been crushed by you.” That’s what a Dalit is.
Now, Christians have engaged in the Dalit community as much as they have engaged in the tribal community, and Dalits have responded because Jesus Christ liberates them. Gives them an identity, which is not an Untouchable like Manush. I just gave the example of Manush, you know. Manush couldn’t even enter temples, and after that he became Christian, he went to Bible College, now he’s a pastor. So a man who could not even enter the temple of God so to say, is now a priest to the Most High. So that’s the kind of transformation.
So a lot of Dalits are turned to Christ. Yes, that’s true. But the problem is the double discrimination that Christian Dalits face in India. See Dalits, when we got our independence, were given the advantage of certain affirmative actions by the founders of our constitution mainly Babasaheb Ambedkar, who wanted the Dalits to do better and recognized that they have been persecuted for centuries together. So they gave them reservations in jobs, reservations in political seats, reservations in education. Facilities, you know? Affirmative action.
But the very first presidential order of India in 1950 took away those rights from Christian and Muslim Dalits. It also took it away from Buddhist Dalits and Sikh Dalits, but they fought against it and they won it. But the Muslim Dalits and the Christian Dalits are still fighting for those special privileges. So today if I am a Dalit, and I accept Christ or I start following Christ, but I declare that I am a Christian, my job can be taken away, the education of my children can be taken away. So the Dalits suffered double discrimination.
Today if the Christian Dalits and the Muslim Dalits are given those affirmative rights—there is a whole underground Church of Dalit believers that has not come out as Christians fearing the backlash—if today that were possible, scores of people would declare themselves as Christians in Tamil Nadu, in Andhra Pradesh, in Punjab, in Uttar Pradesh. And I think, in my view, this is a bigger denial of freedom of faith than even in China. We are talking about millions of people.
Caleb Lindgren: Yeah, that was going to be my next question. Is whether that affects evangelism, and that sort of double discrimination like you’re talking about? And it sounds like both yes and no?
Rev. Vijayesh Lal: Well, the discrimination is because you don’t get the affirmative action. You can get your place in society. But the church keeps on growing. So yeah, it’s a yes and a no. But is Christianity undervalued because of its Dalit followers? Yes. There is a social stigma, especially in the northern states. In Punjab, for instance, if you are a Christian you are automatically called a choora or a chamar, which are basically names that were used for Untouchables and their castes. So the social stigma also is part of the propaganda against Christians.
Morgan Lee: So when we talk about these affirmative action programs, you said that some religious minorities were successful in legally appealing them. But not the Christians and Muslims.
Rev. Vijayesh Lal: Yes, and the court case goes on.
Morgan Lee: Wow, still!
Rev. Vijayesh Lal: Yes, it’s been there for the last 14 years. We’ve been fighting it out. It’s still there in the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court has asked the government to give them an answer of what is their position on the entire matter. And neither the previous government nor the government before it has given any indication of what their stand on the matter is.
Morgan Lee: Wow. So that’s a huge—obviously has the effect of just kind of making it impossible for them to get access to this.
Rev. Vijayesh Lal: Yes, so fourteen years.
Morgan Lee: One of the other things I wanted to address with you as far as conversions are. From what I understand, there’s also have been these mass ceremonies where people can re-convert back to Hinduism. When did those start becoming popularized?
Rev. Vijayesh Lal: Okay, they’re called ghar wapsis. Ghar wapsi means basically a homecoming. That’s what they are called, or that’s what they are popularized as. The idea of this homecoming ceremony is as old as the idea of Hindutva itself. And it comes from their founding fathers like Golwalkar, but also temperate leaders as they were considered like Madan Mohan Malviya, who was not part of this movement, but was part of the Indian National Congress. And he also spoke about this so called ghar wapsi. What it means is basically for the founders of Hindutva, It means “the others,” that is who are not Hindus, have to be given a choice: assimilate or face the action. And to define that, to justify that, they have come up with a theory which says everyone who’s a Muslim or a Christian in India essentially was a Hindu before. So they have a little bit of Hinduism still left in their soul. And so they want to engage with them, to make sure that they’re awakened to this reality, and that they would join the Hindu world, so to say.
But of late this has been more of a political ploy. It is been more of a photo op. And, you know, it made headlines about five years ago when in Agra, an organization that went by the name of Dharam Jagran Samiti claimed that they were planning to make thousands of Christians and Muslims into Hindus, and they claim that by the year 2021 they will clean sweep India and there would be no Muslims left, and there would be no Christians left. That’s what they say. In fact the way was even more crude. They said by 2021, we will make India Christian free and Muslim free. That’s that was the whole thing. But when we investigated the whole matter, we found—and when not just we—when secular newspapers, national newspapers, when they investigated the matter, they found it was a sham. Hindus who were already Hindus were made to sit down and pose as Muslims who are converting to Hinduism. Or Muslims were called on another pretext of a social function, and they were made to sit over there. And before they knew what was happening you had these people come wash their feet and bang now you’re a Hindu. So a lot of fraud was going on.
We ourselves have investigated these so-called ghar wapsi ceremonies in the state of Himachal Pradesh and some in the state of Uttar Pradesh and we found them to be false shams basically. But yes, there is a lot of funding that goes into it. So in Dharam Jagran Samiti , I believe at that point of time as national newspapers quoted them had a monthly budget of over 50 lakhs of rupees—and I don’t know how much is that in terms of dollars, but they have huge funding, also from the West, mainly from the diaspora in the U.S., the Hindu diaspora in the in the West that gives extreme amounts of money to these people, to these kind of groups, who then not only engage in what they call ghar wapsi, you know homecoming—to what I have to say which home are they talking about really—and a lot of this funding is also directed towards the persecution of minorities.
Morgan Lee: What are the states in India that you would say are either the most tolerant of Christians or the most outwardly friendly of them?
Rev. Vijayesh Lal: The persecution of Christians in India is not new. The persecution of Christians in India was first noticed around the mid-1990s. That’s when it started to get a little systematic. At that point of time the central belt of India—mainly the states of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Odisha/Orissa—where the hot spots where Christians were most often beaten up. In most often, they would have trouble. But that was almost 20 years ago. And now persecution of Christians has become a pan-India phenomenon. Earlier, it was thought it was not present in the south, because south had a fair amount of Christian presence, but now Tamil Nadu very surprisingly ranks number second in terms of persecution of Christians in India, following Uttar Pradesh. The religious liberty Commission of India, we’ve been documenting these incidents since 1998.
Now a lot of these incidents take place, but because India is so huge and so vast, we don’t come to hear about it. Now, from what we come to hear about we only are able to verify a little. And only what we verify, we put into the report. And that report has been released since 1998. Since 2009, we have done a yearly report. It’s available on the website. You can go and download it. And according to these reports, physical violence, structural violence, they’re basically all a part of it. But persecution has become from the center, they have spread to basically all parts of India. But there are still a few states where Christians don’t get persecuted and they will be the three northeastern states of Nagaland, Meghalaya and Mizoram, because predominantly Christians, you know. All other places Christians are targeted, even in Kerala, which has a sizable Christian presence—even there Christians have been targeted. So it’s a pan-India phenomenon. Some states persecute more, those would be the states of Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand— Bihar, as reported last year, and Odisha/Orissa.
Caleb Lindgren: I wonder if you could describe a bit of what that persecution looks like. Like on the ground, on a day-to-day basis, what does it feel like?
Rev. Vijayesh Lal: Persecution of Christians is primarily physical. See in India, the Pew Forum did a bit of a reporting on persecution in India, and they said that social hostilities was highest in India, or at least the one of the three countries where social hostility to religious freedom or to religions, were very high, were highest. And we found that to be true. So physical persecution is definitely present in India. Not one day goes by when you don’t hear of a pastor being beaten up, or an evangelist being beaten up, or a Christian being beaten up in India.
Along with that, in the recent years, gender-based violence is very high. So rape is being used as a tool of persecution, molestation. Christian women have been targeted, nuns have been raped, 75-year-old Catholic nuns have been gang raped, you know. So rape and gender violence has been used as a tool of persecution.
Stopping of church worships is very, very common. So in the late 1990s, we were told, you know, don’t do any of these evangelistic meetings, stay in your churches and you’d be safe. But now, even churches are no longer safe. So mob’s come to churches as worship services are being organized or they are still going on and they beat up the people present. In fact the best days to persecute Christians are Sundays. That’s where you find them all at one place, so you can bash them up. And Easter day and Good Friday, and especially Christmas. So last year in on Christmas, we experienced, if I’m memory serves me right, more than 60 to 65 attacks just on Christmas Day. From all across India. And so even Church worship services are not safe. We are not safe within the four walls of our church. Forget about that. You’re not safe in your own home.
So this is almost from a year and a half ago, in the state of Chhattisgarh, a mother, the wife of a pastor was putting the children to bed at about 10:00 in the night, the pastor was not home, he had gone out somewhere. She was praying with her children in her bedroom. The police comes in, breaks open the door, asks about the pastor where he was, observes what the mother is doing with the children, and tells her what you’re doing is [wrong.]
Or 12 pastors who had gathered in the house of a 13th pastor in Greater Noida Which is less than 50 kilometers away from the national capital of Delhi, and they are joining for prayer and fasting, they are not preaching, they’re not interacting with anybody. They just having a pastor’s meeting together. And people come in and beat them up and they take them to the police station. Two of my Supreme Court lawyer friends go and try to rescue them, only to be told by the police inspector, “Don’t these guys know this is a Hindu nation? You can’t do this thing over here.”
So persecution is physical. Church worship being stopped is a reality. You are not safe in your own home. But that’s just one side of it. That’s the physical side of it. Then there is structural persecution. Structural persecution means you have laws that you put in place and try to choke the life out of the community. So you have these anti-conversion laws, which are not really known as anti-conversion laws, they are known as freedom of religion acts, but actually they stifle the freedom of religion. These laws were historically put into place in states, because law and order is a state subject by the Congress government, which is perceived by many as very secular. So in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, and in Odisha/Orissa, and in Arunachal Pradesh, it was the Congress that brought these laws. After the BJP has found political empowerment through votes, lately it is the BJP that has brought these laws in Gujarat, and in Uttarakhand, and in Jharkhand. Congress also brought this in Himachal Pradesh and we fought against it.
Now these laws are also two types one is from the converter’s point of view, and the other is from the convertee’s point of view. So the old law says, if I have converted anybody, I must inform the district administration within 30 days of that conversion that such and such person has been converted. So I have to give the information of it. That in itself is enough to raise suspicion. Why is the state interested in my religion? But that’s not all. The other extreme is the laws that were instituted in Himachal, in Gujarat, in Jharkhand, and Uttarakhand. And these laws say, if I have to change my religion, I must take permission at least 30 days prior to my conversion from the district administration. Now, how do I know when I’m going to be converted? Cause conversion is a spiritual process, right? So, how do I know when to take permission? And we fought, the Evangelical Fellowship of India, fought against this law in the high court in Himachal Pradesh, and we got the prior permission clause removed. We are also going to contest these laws in other states. So that is structural persecution, one part of it.
You know, then existing laws that use against the church. The FCRA, which is the Foreign Contributions Regulations Act, which is basically a provision for bringing money into India from the west or from outside India, for social and charitable activities, or even spiritual activity. That act has been used against churches in a massive way. The Retreat of Compassion you spoke about happened because some of the provisions of the FCRA act were pointed out, and that was kind of the root of the conspiracy. And then you have existing laws like the Juvenile Justice Act. And provisions in that Juvenile Justice Act have been used against Christian orphanages. And many Christians have been forced to close down their orphanages in India. So use the law to choke the life out of the community.
And the biggest discrimination, I must point out is the denial of affirmative action to Dalit Christians. So the Supreme Court made this observation, and I’m not quoting them, I’m paraphrasing them. What they said—and I think this was in 2015, if I’m not wrong—they said we recognize that the economic and social standing of a person does not change, of a Dalit does not change, even if they embrace Christianity or Islam. So if a Christian Dalit wants reservation privileges, he or she is free to embrace Hinduism. Like I said, this is a bigger denial of freedom of faith than even in China. So physical persecution and the structural persecution go hand-in-hand.
Morgan Lee: So India, one of the things about having this just huge population of 1.3 billion people is that it’s also just home to tons of different ethnic groups and different languages that are spoken, and I’m curious if we can just shift into more of a mission’s conversation. To what extent have many of these groups been exposed to the gospel? And to what extent have many of these groups never even heard of the gospel before?
Rev. Vijayesh Lal: Now, there are mission trips right now who claim that there are no unreached and unengaged people groups in the world, and that we have come down to essentially zero about them. But I have a slightly different view. I believe there are many ethnic groups in India who have yet to hear about the Lord Jesus Christ. We have 6,500 something languages. Every 25 kilometers, the language changes. So there is a huge need of Bibles. Bible translation still have to be completed. You know, I don’t think really we are there as far as the missions are concerned. There is still a huge effort that needs to be put in.
Morgan Lee: One of the biggest stories last year for us was the story of John Allen Chau, who was the young American man who tried to reach out to the native people on North Sentinel Island and was killed by one of them, or several of them. And I’m wondering if you would be able to give us your understanding of that story from your perspective. How that played out and what you thought of that.
Rev. Vijayesh Lal: I appreciate his zeal, but he perhaps did not give much thought to it. That’s my whole perspective on the whole thing. You know, I appreciate his heart. He wanted to reach the North Sentinelese people, but these people are protected people.
Morgan Lee: What does that mean?
Rev. Vijayesh Lal: That means even Indians can’t go in there.
Morgan Lee: Okay.
Rev. Vijayesh Lal: No outsiders are allowed in there. These have lived in their habitat, undisturbed forever. And they don’t have the immunity that we have to a lot of diseases that we carry in our bodies. And so, you know, Chau might have also endangered them in that and expose them to viruses and microbes that they have no resistance for. And they are already so few. You know, they might be wiped out. But we never know, we never know. This is completely between God and Chau, you know. I have no reasons to doubt his zeal and his passion for God. But he could have perhaps been a little wiser, you know. And the story was used to abuse the Christians in social media, you know, as is always the case. You know, point out that we are fanatical converters and so on and so forth. And because Chau was an American. Yeah, you guys are American agents, basically.
Morgan Lee: Ah, yes always. That is actually what many persecuted Christians hear around the world, right?
Rev. Vijayesh Lal: Yes. So yeah, I don’t know which mission organization Chau belonged to. I don’t have the details of it. But when I listened to his story, I obviously prayed for him. He’s a brother in Christ. And I appreciated his zeal, but I wished he could have been a little more wiser.
Morgan Lee: Right now, I’m wondering if you can just kind of tell our audience how they can pray for Indian Christians, especially as we’re kind of awaiting the results of these elections that are coming up, and maybe likely entering another Modi term.
Rev. Vijayesh Lal: Yeah, well no matter who comes, if Mr. Modi is coming, God has ordained it and so we will accept it. If Mr. Modi is not coming, you know, even then the situation of minorities in India will not improve. Yeah, the situation of Christians in India will not improve. And let me give you an example why. Christians in India have not been the only one facing the brunt of nationalism. You know about Muslims being lynched. You know, you can eat beef in your country over here. In India, even if you found carrying beef, you can be killed. People have been lynched on suspicion of having beef in their refrigerators.
One such man who was killed was a man called Muhammad Akhlaq and Akhlaq lived not very far from my own home. So I went there to his village to see how things were and it was a very disturbed atmosphere over there. And what pained me even more is that union minister, central ministers, actually went into his village and honored the ones who killed him. BJP people actually did that. But what broke my heart even more was, during that time I did a social experiment. I used Uber, and we have a homegrown like you have Lyft, we have something called Ola, and so I use them quite often to travel around Delhi because riding around Delhi is a nightmare.
And when Akhlaq was killed, I used to ask this question to really all of my taxi drivers who came from the Noida area, where Akhlaq was, near the area, you know. And if you ask them, “You about the man who was just lynched because people suspected he had beef it is refrigerator?” And they would say “yeah, yeah, yeah, we know about the guy, we heard the story.” And then I would ask them, “do you think what happened to him was good or bad? Do you think what happened, what took place was good or bad?” Ninety percent of them said it was good that he was killed. These are not fanatics, these are these are normal hard-working people earning a decent wage for their family, to feed their family, and that shows you how deep the poison has gone in. How deeply this dispensation under Mr. Modi has polarized the minds of Indians. We were never so divided as a nation as we are now.
So when you pray for us pray that this polarization would end, pray that love will prevail, pray that peace would return, and pray that children will not be brainwashed, people will not be brainwashed, and that hatred would be defeated.