Does India practice religious tolerance?

Our Lady of RansomChurch, Kanyakumari, Tamil Nadu









 A friend in England sent me an email last week asking about an attack on Christians in Tamil Nadu. This makes it sound as though the state is full of religious tension, but that’s not the case. Just as in any other country many ‘religious’ problems can often be about something else.

The caste system is illegal in India yet, particularly in the villages, the prejudices still survive and the dalits (untouchables) are still treated as though they are worthless by some higher caste people. There are often reports of this in the newspapers. For example you will hear of exclusively Hindu villages where the dalits are not allowed into certain temples, and sometimes the other villagers build walls across the road to stop them walking past the temple, even if it means a detour of miles for the dalits to reach their homes. This is, of course, illegal and the rulings usually find in the favour of the dalits and the walls come down. Many dalits are Christians and so tensions between them and other villagers can often be classed as religious problems rather than facing the issues of caste.

As well as caste problems there are often village feuds which have gone on for generations, sometimes the protagonists are of different religions – and so it is reported as a religious problem. Or you may find a young couple choosing to marry rather than have an arranged marriage. This always causes tension in the rural villages, but when the couple are of different religions it can be even worse. There have also been cases where a rich Hindu has converted and given a great deal of wealth to the church, he has then been targeted by ‘anti-Christian’ forces – who often turn out to be disgruntled family members who feel they have lost a part of their inheritance. Having said this, there are small groups of Hindus who target people of other faiths but these are not the norm and are not tolerated by the huge majority of the population.

The south Indians are a rather voluble people and can be physical at times. Arguments and sometimes fights can break out between two people with family members and neighbours joining in, but they usually quickly die down again. There are even problems with the well educated whom you think should know better. Please take a look at these two newspaper articles in the Times of India and the Hindu about lawyers rioting in the High Courts and causing injuries to judges, police and journalists as well as damaging property. If this is how the well educated try to get their way in India then is it surprising that the less educated, sometimes illiterate villagers resort to violence to try to sort out their problems? Please let me say here though that although these things happen I have now lived in India for over three years and have never seem any violence of this sort (neither have any of our guests, and certainly none have ever felt threatened during their travels in south India). Indeed, all I have seen is the odd family squabble as I pass through a village – and I’ve seen much worse than that outside an English pub on a Saturday night!

From what I can find out about the incident my friend mentioned (I think it is the same one), a group of Christians had gone to a Hindu area with a van fitted with a megaphone and were preaching evangelical tracts and trying to convert the local Hindus. (I am unsure whether the Christians were from the local community or elsewhere). When the local Hindus asked them to stop the Christians refused and continued to use the megaphone. The Hindus then stole the keys of the vehicle, smashed the megaphone, tore up religious materials and beat up some of the Christians. Whilst I in no way condone any of those actions I can’t help feeling that the Christians in this particular case were inflammatory in the way they approached their preaching. If people want to evangelise then there are surely better ways to go about it without antagonising the local pop[ulation? (I’m a Christian myself). This particular incident was settled by the police sitting down with both sides and coming to a compromise so that in the end the Christians did not feel the need to file a case against their attackers.

India has laws protecting people’s right to their faith and to be free from persecution or from others making derogatory remarks. These laws are used by Christians as well as people of other faiths for their protection. There was recently an interesting article about ‘India’s god laws’ in the Hindu newspaper  I suppose, in summary, I’m saying (and this is purely my own personal view) that yes there are instances of religious intolerance in India but I don’t think they are as frequent as many would believe and sometimes stem from other problems in the local communities. The issues tend to be localised and the vast majority of people never come into contact with problems. I have certainly never felt threatened because of my faith, but of course I am a foreigner writing from a newcomer’s perspective so I can’t truly know what it is like for some Indians in their small village communities. I just hope that as India emerges more and more into a leading role on the world stage that tolerance and understanding will grow hand in hand with wealth and technology.

(Around 6.1% of Tamils are Christian, and about 5.6% are Muslim; in some area such as the extreme south east Christians make up almost half of the population, about 44%).


One thought on “Does India practice religious tolerance?

  1. Thank you Dorinda for writing this article so brilliantly explaining giving reasons why unrest sometimes flares up. Personally when we were in south india we felt very safe and were treated with great respect even to younger men giving up their seats on a bus for us. I have never had that done for me in England in my own country. No one should have any worries in coming to south India.

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