WASHINGTON (ABP) — The future for religious freedom in the world's biggest democracy looks much brighter after Indian voters overwhelmingly defeated a Hindu nationalist party, experts in the subject say.
Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee resigned May 13, after his Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, suffered an unexpectedly lopsided defeat in elections for the national parliament. The BJP lost to the rival Congress Party, which is headed by Sonia Gandhi. Gandhi is a widow, daughter-in-law and granddaughter-in-law of some of the nation's most famous prime ministers. She is expected to be named prime minister when the new government organizes.
The BJP is the leader of a right-wing coalition that has governed India since 1998. Poor and rural Indians voted overwhelmingly for the Congress Party, despite the fact the country's middle and upper classes experienced dramatic economic growth under Vajpayee's leadership.
The election came only a day after the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom issued a report highly critical of India's record on protecting the rights of minorities under BJP leadership.
BJP is the political arm of a collection of Hindu nationalist organizations. According to the commission's report, the nationalist groups “view non-Hindus as foreign to India and aggressively press for national governmental policies to promote the 'Hinduization' of culture.”
Although more than 80 percent of India's 1 billion people are Hindus, 12 percent are Muslims, 2.3 percent Christians and 2 percent Sikhs. The nation has a tradition of secular government and religious freedom dating back to its independence from the United Kingdom.
The U.S. commission, other international religious-freedom watchers and domestic critics within India have criticized BJP officials for responding inadequately to attacks on Christians, Muslims and other religious minorities.
Waves of Hindu-versus-Muslim violence rocked the province of Gujarat in 2002, with thousands of deaths resulting. Additionally, a Hindu mob burned Australian Baptist missionary Graham Staines and his two sons to death in 1999.
Many critics of the BJP government have blamed its leaders at the provincial and national level for being slow to bring Hindu perpetrators of the attacks to justice. On the local level, some BJP officials were implicated directly in the violence itself or in inciting it via anti-minority rhetoric.
In a nod to the criticism of their pro-Hindu rival, many Congress Party candidates ran on the party's secular credentials.
Indian Christians greeted the news as validation of the country's history of secular government. “This is a mandate to renew secular democracy in India,” said Ipe Joseph, general secretary of National Council of Churches in India, according to Ecumenical News International. “By ejecting the NDA government out of power, most of the voters have shown that they reject the [Hindu] fundamentalism.”
Nina Shea, vice chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and director of the Center for Religious Freedom at Freedom House, agreed with that assessment. “There was a younger Indian voter that wanted a more secular direction for the country, that wanted cultural pluralism and that valued the long history of freedom and toleration in India,” she said.
Although Shea's group has recommended to the U.S. State Department that India be designated a “country of particular concern,” or CPC, under the terms of the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act, the developments on the India subcontinent may cause the panel to re-visit its recommendation next year. “We've always revisited every country every year that's on our CPC list … and how the government responds to further acts of violence,” Shea told Associated Baptist Press.