As recently as 2021, the southern India state of Karnataka recorded more than 30 cases of violence against Christians and their property. As recently as 2022, its government used a legislative loophole to pass an anticonversion law.
But this month, Christians are rejoicing after a newly elected state government has announced a significant financial investment in the community and promised to repeal the anticonversion law.
“There is evident change in the approach of the government,” said Atul Aghamkar, the national director of the Evangelical Fellowship of India’s National Center for Urban Transformation, based out of Bengaluru, the capital of Karnataka. “That will make a big difference.”
The election, which saw the highest voter turnout the state has ever recorded, saw the India National Congress (INC) party win 135 seats, well over the 113-threshold needed to win a majority and form a government. Within weeks of the election, it had allocated ₹100 crores (approximately $12 million USD) to establish the Karnataka State Christian Development Corporation (KSCDC) last week.
The KSCDC will be composed of members from the Christian community who will decide what projects to fund, which can range from church maintenance to community education to social work to old-age homes or orphanages, said Archbishop Peter Machado from the Archdiocese of Bangalore.
“We are looking forward to improvements in education opportunities, health care, employment, and overall advancement,” said T. Thomas, the leader of the Belgaum Pastors and Christian Leaders Association.
Along with making this provision for Christians, the Karnataka chief minister also announced a slew of measures for other religious minorities. The budget allocates ₹25 crore ($3 million USD) for Jain pilgrimage centers, ₹25 crore ($3 million USD) for the redevelopment of the largest Sikh shrine in Bengaluru, and ₹50 crore ($6 million USD) for Muslims.
In addition, the government has allocated ₹360 crore (nearly $44 million USD) to develop minority communities.
The government is setting aside additional funds to subsidize religious minority students’ education, provide interest-free loans for them to pursue graduate and post-graduate degrees in foreign schools, and develop a coaching program to help them prepare for entrance exams.
Machado applauded the government for granting measures to each community not only to advance religious purposes but also to socially empower the community.
“These efforts to improve the state of minorities reflects the government’s commitment to inclusivity and well-being for all communities in the state,” said Machado.
Recent years have been harsh for many Christians in Karnataka. Under the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government, which won the highest number of seats in the 2018 election, the situation became so adverse that a report from the United Christian Forum, Association for Protection of Civil Rights, and United Against Hate, ranked the state third in the country in terms of highest attacks on the Christian community.
“It is clear and obvious that an atmosphere of fear and apprehension prevails in the Christian community and its grassroots religious clergy because of a systematic targeting through a vicious and malicious hate campaign,” stated a December 2021 report from the Evangelical Fellowship of India. “It is equally obvious that those involved in carrying out this hate campaign and fear mongering enjoy protection and possibly support of elements in the political and law and order apparatus on the state.”
Though the previous administration had proposed the creation of a Christian development corporation (that they later abandoned), they had told Christian leaders that they could forget about a withdrawal of the anticonversion legislation.
“The delegation [of Christian leaders] was told instead that the government is going to make the anticonversion law stricter and in line with the toughest anticonversion law in Uttar Pradesh,” said Aghamkar. “That was a very strong signal that there was a clear opposition.”
In anticipation of this year’s elections, Christians organized a large rally against the anticonversion legislation, one of the largest protests by the faith group that the state has ever seen. Christian leaders say they shared with the community their concerns about the BJP government’s treatment of religious minorities and organized a significant prayer movement.
“Christian bodies wholeheartedly stood behind the Congress party, which in its manifesto had promised the repeal of several controversial laws, including the anticonversion law, and the result was that the Congress got an overwhelming majority in the assembly,” said Thomas. “This new posture of the government could be a way of expressing gratitude for the support, feel some Christian leaders.”
One early piece of evidence of this gratitude is that Siddaramaiah, the chief minister, traveled to meet the archbishop and other Christian leaders and thank them for the Christian support, instead of summoning them to his office.
“There is evident change in the approach of the government. That will make a big difference,” said Aghamkar.
Christian leaders also believe that the government’s friendliness toward the church will quiet the presence of right-wing mobs. For years, groups have harassed churches and believers by entering the church premises and disrupting church services, said Thomas. Meanwhile, authorities have overlooked attacks on church properties and house churches while detaining Christians and at times arresting them on false allegations of forceful or fraudulent conversions.
“These mobs hunted Christians and booked them under the anticonversion law with false and baseless cases and just to throw them in prison and harass them,” he said.
On the other hand, the current government, Thomas says, has warned the police against promoting a Hindu nationalist agenda.
“These elements are now scared because the state is under Congress government. It has been heard that the government has ordered the police that if these fringe elements are found causing trouble, they must be arrested immediately,” he said.
A. C. Michael, the national coordinator of United Christian Forum, India, applauded the new government’s initiatives but warned the Christian community to remain watchful.
“There are visible efforts taken by the new Karnataka government which may help maintain peace in the state,” he said. “But the opposition is capable of doing its bit to create an unwanted atmosphere of hatred among communities.”