Origins and Growth
- 1700-1900: In the 1700s, German Lutherans and British Baptists establish Protestant missions in southern and western India (Frykenberg 2003). In 1860, revivals in the U.S. and Europe inspire an Indian Anglican to lead a pentecostal revival in southern India (Burgess 2001: 87-88). In the 1860s and 1870s, Protestant churches in southern India attract many Dalits (or “untouchables,” Indians outside of the caste system). Beginning in the 1880s, Protestantism also grows in Punjab, in northern India. Christian conversions inspire Hindu counter-movements, including the Arya Samaj, founded in 1875 (Forrester 1991: 65-93; Jordens 1991: 215-230).
- 1900-1910: Inspired by revivals in Wales and Australia, a 1905 revival in Welsh Presbyterian missions in present-day Meghalaya helps spark Christian growth among tribal peoples (Bergunder forthcoming; Downs 1994: 170-171). Charismatic manifestations, such as glossolalia, or speaking in tongues, occur in present-day Maharashtra at the Mukti Mission run by Brahmin convert Pandita Ramabai, and soon spread to present-day Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Punjab, Gujarat and Bengal. In 1907, an American missionary couple who had participated in the Azusa Street Revival arrives in present-day Kolkata claiming the gift of speaking in “missionary” tongues, including Bengali. Though their claim is disproved, they propound the “initial evidence” teaching that glossolalia is an essential mark of the Spirit, and many people across India subsequently claim to speak in tongues (Wacker 2001: 49; McGee and Burgess 2003: 119, 120-121).
- 1910-1960: An American woman is the first Assemblies of God (AG) missionary to India, settling in southern India in 1915. In 1918, the Indian AG is formally established, and in 1927, an American missionary establishes the first permanent AG Bible college outside the U.S. in present-day Kerala. Indian pastor K. E. Abraham leaves the AG in 1929 and founds the Indian Pentecostal Church, one of India’s largest pentecostal denominations. The denomination splits in 1953, leading to the creation of the Sharon Fellowship Church (McGee and Burgess 2003: 122-124; Satyavrata 1999: 205; Bergunder forthcoming). Between 1900 and independence in 1947, thousands of Hindus in southern India convert to Anglican and Baptist forms of Protestantism. According to the Indian census, the Christian growth rate between 1881 and 1931 is 338 percent, compared with 27 percent for Hindus (Oddie 1991a; 1991b: 2-3).
- 1960-present: This period sees the rapid growth of neo-pentecostal churches, such as the New Life Fellowship, founded in 1968, which has about 1,500 house churches in Mumbai and 3,000 nationwide by 1996. By the late 1970s, the leadership of the AG and other pentecostal churches becomes indigenous. A 1988 study finds that more than 3,000 indigenous pentecostal and charismatic missionaries work among non-Christians (Satyavrata 1999: 206-207, 218 nn. 16-17; Bergunder forthcoming). By 1995, the Assemblies of God becomes India’s largest pentecostal denomination, claiming 300,000 members. The Indian Pentecostal Church has more than 50,000 members, concentrated in southern India. Pentecostals in southern India are estimated to total about 1 million in 1994. The AG church in Chennai becomes one of India’s largest churches, growing to some 20,000 members by 2002 (McGivering, Dec. 6, 2002).
- Between 1971 and 2001, census figures show a decline in the percentage of the Christian population, from 2.6% to 2.3% (Oddie 1991b: 2-3). However, Christianity continues to grow rapidly in northeast India. Of seven northeast states, Nagaland is majority-Christian by 1961 and two more, Mizoram and Meghalaya, are majority-Christian by 1991 (Fernandes forthcoming).
- The Forum’s 2006 pentecostal survey of localities in three Indian states with relatively high percentages of Christians – Meghalaya, Kerala and Tamil Nadu – found that more than one-in-ten Christians interviewed consider themselves charismatic or pentecostal.
Religion and Politics
Politics under British Rule, to 1947:
- Between 1909 and 1935, British reforms divide the Indian population into a general electorate and separate electorates representing Dalits and minority religions (Christians, Muslims and Sikhs). Dalit Christians are placed in the Christian electorate. Most Protestants, including evangelical leaders such as Bishop V. S. Azariah, criticize the policy of separate electorates for politicizing Christian conversion and alienating Christians from the national mainstream (Webster 1992: 77-85; Mallampalli 2004: 121-156).
- In 1914, Protestants organize the All-India Conference of Indian Christians partly to enhance their influence with provincial governments and British administrators (Webster 1992: 85-86).
- After Dalit leader B. R. Ambedkar declares in 1935 that Dalits should abandon Hinduism for a more egalitarian religion, nationalist leader Mohandas Gandhi strongly condemns Christian efforts to convert Dalits and instead urges the removal of untouchability from Hinduism (Harper 2000: 291-353). In 1936, Christian Dalits are ruled ineligible to receive government benefits otherwise reserved for Dalits, including educational quotas and legislative seats (Webster 1992: 116). Between 1936 and 1946, many independent princely states in northern India institute anti-conversion laws (S. C. H. Kim 2003: 23-39).
Post-Independence Debates on Religious Conversion, 1947-1996:
- During debates between 1947 and 1949 in the post-independence Constituent Assembly, Christians strongly support a draft article that protects the right to profess, practice and “propagate” religion. Key Congress Party leaders support the Christian position, and in 1950 the Assembly ratifies the Constitution with protection for the right of religious propagation. Jawaharlal Nehru helps to defeat subsequent attempts, in 1955 and 1960, to limit this right by restricting conversion (Webster 1992: 133).
- A 1950 presidential order excludes non-Hindus from legislative, educational and professional positions reserved for Dalits. Amendments in 1956 and 1990 allow Sikhs and Buddhists to be eligible for such positions, but not Christians (Freston 2001: 86).
- While many mainline Protestants are actively involved in Indian politics before and after independence, many pentecostals conform to strict “holiness” teachings that condemn secular pursuits like politics. Interviews with southern Indian pentecostal leaders in the 1990s suggest that most believe that active political involvement is incompatible with holy living, though many pentecostals vote in elections (Bergunder forthcoming).
- In the 1960s, Christian growth in northeastern and central India generates unease among some Hindus. The National Volunteer Corps, India’s main Hindu nationalist organization, established in 1925, founds a revivalist organization, the World Hindu Council, in 1964. One of its main purposes is to counter Christian conversions among tribal groups (Katju 2003: 11).
- In 1967 and 1968, two tribal-belt states, Orissa and Madhya Pradesh, seek to discourage Christian conversion by passing “freedom of religion” acts that criminalize coerced or fraudulent religious conversion. The Supreme Court upholds these laws in 1977, and Arunachal Pradesh passes a similar law in 1978. Later in 1978, a national anti-conversion bill is introduced in the Indian Parliament but it fails when the government in power collapses in 1979 (S. C. H. Kim 2003: 76-84). Some pentecostals in Bangalore decline to join open protests against the legislation and instead organize special prayer sessions, later claiming that the bill failed because of divine intervention (Bergunder forthcoming).
The Rise of Hindu Nationalist Politics and Violence against Christians, 1996-present:
- In the 1996 elections, the Congress Party suffers a defeat at the hands of the Hindu nationalist Indian People’s Party (Bharatiya Janata Party, BJP), which wins the most seats in parliament. The BJP fails to consolidate a majority coalition and loses control of the parliament, but in the 1998 elections, it wins the most seats and successfully assembles a coalition government under Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee.
- In 1998, the New Delhi-based United Christian Forum for Human Rights records more than 120 attacks against Christians in India, including the torching of 30 churches in Gujarat (The Christian Century, Feb. 24, 1999). In Gujarat, Hindu militants storm a pentecostal school, injuring one student and seizing 300 Bibles, and a mob burns a pentecostal prayer hall (The Christian Century, Jan. 6, 1999). The head of the World Hindu Council advocates that all Christian missionaries be removed from the country (Marquand, Oct. 5, 1998).
- In early 1999, three parties threaten to leave the coalition government if the BJP does not help curb violence against Christians (The Christian Century, Feb. 24, 1999). In the fall 1999 elections, the BJP coalition retains its control of parliament.
- In 2000, the Indian Supreme Court rules that a pentecostal church may not use loudspeakers or instruments that violate noise pollution rules, stating that the right to free religious practice must be balanced with other civic rights (Supreme Court of India, Aug. 30, 2000).
- In 2001, pentecostals and other Christians found the Punjab Christian Peoples Party, headed by a Catholic priest. The party joins an opposition coalition for the 2002 Punjab state elections but it fails to win seats in the state’s legislative assembly (Freston 2004b: 72-73).
- Anti-conversion laws pass in the state assemblies of Tamil Nadu in 2002 and Gujarat in 2003 (Overdorf, Sept. 18, 2003). A January 2003 poll finds that 54% of eligible Indian voters believe that the government should ban religious conversions (Dasgupta, Feb. 10, 2003). During the 2004 elections, Congress Party chief Sonia Gandhi, a Catholic by background, campaigns against the maltreatment of Christians and Muslims under the BJP (Keys, June 13, 2004). The Congress-led coalition forms a majority in parliament, and Manmohan Singh becomes the country’s first Sikh prime minister, promising that violence against Christians will cease (AsiaNews, July 1, 2004). Tamil Nadu’s chief minister, Jayaram Jayalalithaa, repeals the state’s anti-conversion law after her party, which is allied with the BJP, loses all of its seats in the national parliamentary elections (Arun, May 18, 2004).
- In 2005, Pentecostal Council of India Vice President N. M. Raju urges more pentecostals to run for political office (Hindustan Times, July 17, 2005).
- In September 2006, the Gujarat legislature amends the state’s anti-conversion law to define conversion as making someone give up their religion for another but not changing denominations within the same religion. The law groups Jains, Hindus and Buddhists under one religion, Protestants and Catholics under another, and Shiites and Sunnis another, with no mention of Sikhs (Hindustan Times, Sept. 21, 2006). The state of Rajasthan also passes an anti-conversion law in 2006, but the law remains inactive, pending approval by the governor (U.S. Department of State 2006a).
- In October 2006, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of a mass conversion to Buddhism led by B. R. Ambedkar, hundreds of Dalits convert to Buddhism and Christianity (The Australian, Oct. 16, 2006).