When Prime Minister Modi and his cabinet recently assembled to take their oath of office, nobody expected a relatively unknown minister sworn in at the end of the ceremony would steal the show.
Applause broke when Pratap Sarangi walked onto the stage. Earlier that day a picture of him leaving the austere hut where he lives went viral, drawing praise for his modest lifestyle.
But Sarangi’s spot in the limelight also resurfaced a controversial issue in India: religious conversions.
Sarangi was the leader of Bajrang Dal, an extremist Hindu militant organization that was accused of the 1999 murders of Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two sons in Odisha. An official investigation proved inconclusive, and though over a dozen people were convicted and given life sentences, all but one were eventually released.
Sarangi has denied involvement in the crime, but he has not shied from accusing Christians of performing false conversions, most recently characterizing it as asking for sex in exchange for a favor.
Since 1999, attacks against Christians in India have sharply increased, particularly in the north. Last year, Open Doors, which ranks global levels of persecution, included India for the first time ever in the top 10 nations where Christians are persecuted.
As was the case with the murder of the Staines, much of the violence is incited by extremists who for decades have spread the propaganda Sarangi preaches, that Christians convert people by offering humanitarian aid or by using threats of physical force. This propaganda is behind anti-conversion laws in several states across India, which are purportedly designed for protecting vulnerable people from false conversions but in reality curtail religious freedom to Christians and other minorities.
Yet lost in this narrative is the reality that those who spread these accusations do not understand how Christian conversions actually work. They also conveniently ignore the stories of eminent Indians who have decided to follow Jesus exclusively and out of personal conviction.
Pandita Ramabai, a highly revered figure in the history of women’s emancipation in India, is one such example. She was the first Hindu woman to be recognized as a scholar of Sanskrit and single-handedly translated the Bible into her mother tongue Marathi, a language spoken by over 80 million people. Her advocacy for women’s right to education was recognized in a commemorative stamp in 1989.
Narayan Vaman Tilak, a gifted Marathi poet, also had a spiritual encounter with Jesus that led him and eventually his wife to believe in Jesus’ gospel. He was a relative of Bal Gangadhar Tilak, one of the fathers of India’s independence.
Scholars believe even Jotiba Phule, pioneer of the movement to abolish untouchability and cofounder with his wife of the first Indian-run school for women, possibly had some faith in Jesus. This is because of his writings on the “Baliraja” — the mythical king who sacrificed himself for the sake of his people. He called Jesus the Baliraja II. It’s also evident Phule was moved by the Bible’s message of liberation for the oppressed. He criticized the British government for removing the study of the Bible in schools.
Phule influenced B.R. Ambedkar, the architect of the Indian Constitution and arch nemesis of untouchability against Dalits. In fact, it’s because of Ambedkar’s constitution that all Indians can enjoy the freedom of speech and religion, including the right to propagate one’s faith.
The legacy of colonialism has understandably left a bad taste in the mouth of many Indians. The British, like other colonizers, at times tried to impose their religious beliefs, though a glance at history clearly shows they were far more interested in exploiting India economically than spreading a religion. But to assume Indian Christians follow a foreign religion would be incorrect and ahistorical.
Christians have lived in India for over 2,000 years, way before the British reached our shores. According to church tradition, the Apostle Thomas carried the gospel to South India around the mid-1st century AD, where it’s believed he was later martyred and buried.
Today’s Indian Christians trace their history back to Thomas and see themselves as native to India as any other religious groups. There is no contradiction between following Jesus and loving one’s country. In fact, the New Testament commands Christians to be good, peaceful and law-abiding citizens, who seek the good of their communities.
But beyond having native ties to India, Christians understand they cannot convert people, even if they tried. The New Testament is clear on this: people follow Jesus by personal choice and often because of profound spiritual encounters. “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit,” Jesus once said, explaining how conversion — or spiritual birth — is the work of God.
As Prime Minister Modi and his cabinet take the reins of a new government, they must prioritize protecting the constitutional rights of all citizens. Local governments, too, must find ways to counter propaganda spread against Christians and hold accountable those who perpetrate hate crimes against religious minorities.
But most important, Indians need to realize there is no reason to fear their countrymen who follow Jesus Christ. Jesus did not call his followers to create a Christian state but to live just and righteous lives in the reality of his resurrection and the hope of his return.
Most Rev. Joseph D’Souza is widely considered one of the most influential voices of global Christianity. He is a justice and peace campaigner, civil rights advocate, interfaith peacemaker and Christian theologian. Rev. D’Souza is the founder and international president of Dignity Freedom Network, a multinational advocacy and humanitarian aid alliance dedicated to restoring human dignity to the poor, marginalized and outcastes of South Asia. Since its founding in 2001, the network has impacted an estimated 14 million people through its educational, anti-human trafficking, health care and economic development initiatives. Rev. D’Souza presides as moderator bishop and primate — or archbishop — over the Good Shepherd Church of India. He is a sought-after international speaker, participating in conferences, peace summits and civil society forums across the world and debriefing governmental bodies on religious freedom and human rights issues. He is a contributor at The Hill and The Washington Times, among others. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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