NEW DELHI - In India, an attack on a church in a central Indian state has again turned the spotlight on concerns about religious intolerance under the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government.
The attack comes days after the Indian government denied visas to a U.S. government body which wanted to study religious freedom in India, saying that the group has no standing to judge the situation in a country which guarantees freedom of religion.
Police in Chattisgarh state say they have arrested seven people in connection with the attack on Sunday, in which a mob of men stormed a church near the capital, Raipur, assaulted those in attendance and damaged furniture.
Chattisgarh Chief Minister Raman Singh said “Nobody guilty will be spared, and strict action will be taken.”
Religious attacks on rise?
The attack deepened concerns that religious hardliners have become emboldened since the BJP won a sweeping majority in 2014.
A series of attacks on churches last year had prompted assurances from Prime Minister Narendra Modi that his government would not allow any religious group to incite hatred against others.
But a spokesman of the Delhi Catholic Archdiocese, Father Savari Muthu, said on Monday that there is “ a big difference in the statements made by the Prime Minister and the Home Minister and the ground reality.”
He pointed to what he says is a clear increase in the number of attacks on churches since May 2014. “That is really disturbing, worrisome and the attackers get away easily, they have so much confidence in the present powers,” he said.
Besides Christian groups, Muslim religious leaders have also complained of being targeted by hardline Hindu groups. Last September, a Muslim man living near New Delhi was lynched to death by a Hindu mob which suspected him of eating beef. Hindus, who make up 80 per cent of the population, consider the cow a holy animal.
The government says such incidents are “isolated” and action is taken against those involved in such attacks. Last week the foreign ministry, responding to concerns raised by a group of U.S.Congressmen about threats to religious minorities, said incidents of intolerance are “aberrations.”
No major attacks but still concern
Independent political analyst, Ajoy Bose, said it is true that there has not been any major religious violence since the BJP took power.
But he said “there is a perception which is growing that there is a fair number of very small incidents, but still significant enough, to create a siege mentality among the Muslim and Christian minorities.
Bose adds that in a country with a history of strife between Hindus and Muslims, "there has not been major rioting so we cannot say that this is something which is very dangerous.”
Separately, the government did not grant visas to a panel from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), which had planned a visit to India to study religious freedom. In its 2015 report, the group said that since Modi’s 2014 win, religious minorities had been subject to derogatory comments by politicians linked to the BJP, as well as violent attacks and forced conversions by Hindu nationalist groups.
In a statement explaining why the visas were not given, the Indian Embassy said there is no change in policy with respect to such visits. "We do not see the … standing of a foreign entity like USCIRF to pass its judgment and comment on the state of Indian citizens' constitutionally protected rights."
The statement said the Indian constitution "guarantees fundamental rights to all its citizens including the right to freedom of religion."
It is not just the BJP government which has blocked the USCIRF from coming to India – the previous Congress-led government had also declined permission in 2009.
Political analyst Satish Misra at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi says “They (Indian governments) don’t like any group from abroad or outside commenting on India. That is once again acquiring a nationalist position and arousing nationalist sentiment, that look who are these people to comment on us?”