Date:  February 17, 2024


India (International Christian Concern) – Presiding over an elaborate ceremony complete with flower-spreading military helicopters and flanked by a star-studded cast of Indian elites, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi consecrated a new Hindu temple in the small town of Ayodhya last month as he campaigns for a third term in office.

Helicopters aside, though, the ceremony was something out of the ordinary—even for Modi, an adept politician riding an overwhelming wave of nationalistic support ahead of the upcoming national elections. The ceremony marked the culmination of decades of effort by Hindu nationalists and a serious defeat for the country’s religious minority communities.

Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh is a small town in India’s north with a long history of religious, and inter-religious, significance. There, in 1992, a mob of Hindu radicals tore down a Babri mosque built in the 1500s, sparking widespread violence that killed thousands.

The site has since become an increasing flashpoint for inter-religious tension, with prominent Hindu leaders including Prime Minister Narendra Modi claiming that the mosque had been built over the birthplace of the Hindu deity Ram. Largely because of the conflict, Ram—among the most popular Hindu deities—has become a potent symbol of Hindu nationalism.

After years of legal battles, the Indian Supreme Court ruled in 2019 that the temple could be built on the site of the razed mosque. Though the temple is still under construction, enough has already been completed to make it a popular pilgrimage site attracting thousands.

Though a prominent example of the trend, this is not the only time that Modi and his followers have worked to rewrite history in favor of the Hindu nationalist cause. In 2018, the government renamed the city of Allahabad, one hundred miles south of Ayodhya, Prayagraj. Allahabad was a name given the city by Muslim rulers in the 1500s, while the Prayagraj is a Hindu name that BJP officials said was designed to promote Hindu tourism to the area.

In September 2023, Modi’s government again made headlines when it referred to itself as “Bharat” rather than “India” in official correspondence to G20 leaders. Though both words are valid ways of referring to the country, the BJP and its nationalist allies have attempted to create tension between the names in recent years, claiming that “India” was a name given the country by its British colonizers and should be abandoned in favor of “Bharat,” a name found in the Hindu scriptures.

By loading the names with ideological significance, the BJP has created a wedge where experts say there does not need to be one. The name “India” in fact predates the 1850s’ British colonizers by 2,000 years, stretching back to before the third century BC, according to historians who say that the name is a reference to the area’s Indus River.

Seen in historical context, then, the name India is a geographic designation while the name Bharat is a religious one.

As outlined in a recent ICC report, India’s Christian population faces significant hurdles, including legal structures that limit them economically and a judicial system that grants impunity to attacking Hindu radicals.

Under Modi’s leadership, India has steadily declined in democratic and religious freedom. A 2023 U.S. Department of State report on India found that “attacks on members of religious minority communities, including killings, assaults, and intimidation, occurred in various states [across India] throughout the year.” Further, the report discussed the issue of state-level laws which criminalize minority religious activity and highlighted “numerous reports during the year of violence by law enforcement authorities against members of religious minorities in multiple states.”

Modi was previously banned from entering the U.S. for his role in the 2002 Gujarat riots which left over 2,000 Muslims dead. The Chief Minister of Gujarat at the time, Modi’s public comments and failure to stop the riots led to massive religious violence against Gujarati Muslims. In 2005, the U.S. Department of State determined that his actions amounted to a severe violation of religious freedom, triggering the only known use of the International Religious Freedom Act to sanction a foreign official.

HOW TO PRAY: Pray for Hindu nationalists across India to come to know the love of Christ. Pray for protection for the nation’s Christians. Pray for godly leaders to come to power in India.