India is the world’s largest secular democracy, but it is also home to tremendous religious diversity, which sometimes plays out in devastating religious conflicts. Christians (the majority of whom are Catholic) make up little more than 2% of the population, and thus religious divisions involving Catholics have not been as prominent as tensions between Hindus and Muslims. Christianity’s long history in India seemed to protect it from some of the imperialist associations it has in other Asian countries, and Catholic institutions such as schools and hospitals enjoy great popularity.
However, a majority of Catholics in India belong to a lower-caste group called Dalits. The lowest-caste status of untouchability has been officially abolished by the government, and the caste system is Hindu in origin, but it remains powerful. Converts to Christianity do not escape its long reach. Many lower-caste people embrace Christianity seeking relief from oppressive social structures, only to find that they are still trapped in the same low status as before. Thus religious divisions may actually be thinly veiled caste divisions.
Additionally, increasingly radical Hindu nationalism paints Christianity as a foreign faith, in spite of India’s long history of Christian presence. Hindu nationalists accuse Christians of proselytizing to lower caste peoples in order to undermine Hindu culture and political power. Significant outbreaks of violence in Orissa state in 2007-2008 demonstrate both caste and political tensions. Similarly, Muslim converts to Christianity sometimes face harassment and attacks by Muslims.