Sixty years after the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi at the hands of Hindu extremists, the nation that celebrates him as its founding father is faced with a dire threat to one of Gandhi’s most treasured dreams: religious amity among all of India’s many faith traditions. During several days of horrifying violence in the states of Orissa  and Madhya Pradesh, sparked by the unsolved murder of a Hindu nationalist leader, angry mobs have murdered dozens of Christians and burned thousands more out of their homes.
The national political conventions and natural disasters in the United States have dominated the news cycle in recent weeks and unfortunately have obscured India’s troubles from American eyes. Neither the scope nor the ferocity of the violence seems to come across in American newspapers and broadcast reports.
Over 80 churches have been destroyed, as have orphanages, convents and prayer houses throughout the region. Christians have been accused of “forced conversions” and “paid conversions.” The violence has unmasked a troubling phenomenon in India: a virulent growth of religious intolerance toward non-Hindus.
While India has been thus far spared the fundamentalist nightmare that has bedeviled some of its neighbors, this crisis presents the world’s largest democracy with a great test: can India find a via media between the rigid secularism of Western Europe and the religious nationalism that has taken root elsewhere in recent decades?
The threat is not just to India’s rural Christians now living in terror, but to India’s entire self-identity as a multireligious, multiethnic nation living in harmony. Ever since the agonies of religious and ethnic strife that followed Partition in 1947, India has stubbornly refused to be identified as a Hindu state, or indeed even a religious one, instead holding fast to the notion that Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Muslims and others can coexist under a single rule of law. Recent events are suddenly calling the durability of that notion into question.
What can be done to help the beleaguered Christians of Orissa and other regions in rural India? Judging by the lassitude of the police in a number of well-documented incidents in Orissa, it is clear that on a basic level Indian authorities are failing to live up to their duty to protect their citizens. If local authorities are unable or unwilling to quell mob violence and deter further attacks, the national government should recognize its obligation to send in large numbers of troops to protect minorities and restore trust among victims. Were this violence taking place in Mumbai or New Delhi rather than in marginalized and poverty-stricken Orissa, such drastic steps would likely have long since been ordered.
Second, there must be recognition that while the issue appears on the surface to be a religious dispute, there are also complex economic and social forces driving the mob violence. Orissa has long been a neglected backwater in terms of government investment and interest, with the result that the growing disparity between the economic haves and the have-nots is even more painfully obvious there than in India’s other regions. Because Christian missionaries often run schools in which even those at the bottom levels of India’s caste system can learn English and acquire marketable skills, resentment against Christians is also a sign of the open frustration of many of Orissa’s people that they are falling further behind while other groups in Indian society find prosperity. New attention must be paid by the Indian government to neglected states like Orissa. Otherwise any insistence on religious tolerance that is not accompanied by economic reforms will be pointless.
The two most insidious dangers that face any democracy are unbridled nationalism and widespread economic inequality, both of which are present for all to see in those regions of India that have not participated in India’s continuing economic growth. Sincere attempts to address those economic inequalities will surely help check the growth of nationalism, which is more often fueled by economic frustration than by the narcissism of religious or ethnic differences.
Pope Benedict XVI, in an appeal for peace that also condemned the attacks, made reference to India’s long and proud tradition of religious tolerance: “I ask religious leaders and civil authorities to work together to reestablish among the members of the various communities the peaceful coexistence and harmony that have always been a hallmark of Indian society.” If they do not, it will not be just the Christians of Orissa who suffer, but indeed all Indians, because they will witness the death of Mahatma Gandhi’s great dream of Mother India embracing all her children.