India has one of the oldest Christian communities in the world – the Thomas, or Syrian Christians of Kerala in the South. It also has one of the largest underground churches of the world, the faithful from among the Dalits and sections of the Tribal Christians, who disclose their identities at risk of losing a slew of economic and political rights, and sometimes, their life. As the first group revels in its antiquity and its acceptance by the political and cultural "mainstream" of India, the second suffers by being branded "Crypto Christians", and forced to live a unique double life, Hindus in the public domain, and on official records, while privately professing faithfulness to Jesus Christ.
Adding to the baffling variety is yet another group of people, Kristu Bhaktas, who profess faith in Christ but also continue to worship gods of the Hindu pantheon. For the most, Indian Christians are indistinguishable in culture, and often in dress and food habits, from their Hindu neighbours. They share the regional, ethnic, linguistic, and cultural diversity that marks India. And despite conversion and education, many also retain the caste affiliations and structures that beset Hindu society even in the 21st Century.
More Christians in India then officially counted
The official Census is therefore not the best guide to the number of Christians in India. Anyway, the desegregated Census data on the religion-wise composition of the population is not available after 2001 because the Indian government feels the disclosure of such information will ignite and inflame passions in a society deeply divided in faith and belief identities.
Recent years have seen rising fears amongst a section of the majority Hindus that the religious minorities, and in particular the Muslim population with its relatively higher rate of growth because of large families, will either overtake them, or overwhelm them. The decadal growth rate of the Muslims was around 36 percent, which was up from 30 percent between 1981 and 1991 respectively. The Hindu growth rate had fallen to 20 percent from 23 percent in the same corresponding period.
This paranoia, and the continuing rift between religious communities created by the partition of India in 1947, has led to repeated confrontation and violence. Over 30,000 major incidents of religious violence have been recorded in more then 65 years of independence.
According to the 2001 Census, Hindus constitute 80.5 percent of the population which was 1.02 billion at that time (Census 2011: 1,21 billion). The Muslims were 11.4 percent, Christians constituted 2.3 percent, Sikhs 1.9 percent, Buddhists 0.8 percent, Jains 0.4 percent. India also has Jews, Zoroastrians and Baha'is, while many tribal people profess traditional faiths including ancestor worship. However, no one believed the official figures that Christians constituted just 2.3 percent of the population. The Catholic Church, Protestant groups and particularly the Pentecostal churches collectively claim a total figure that may be two or three times the official Census numbers.
Christian centers in the South and Northeast
Social scientists and researchers say there are a number of reasons why this may in fact be true. The enumerators' questions in the Census operations discouraged members of the former untouchable castes, who call themselves Dalits and are called Scheduled Castes by the government, from registering themselves as Christians. These are communities, specially in the states of Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Punjab and Tamil Nadu, who avoid registering themselves officially as such in order to continue taking advantage of government's affirmative action programmes that include reservations in academic institutions, the civil service, and legislatures. Official conversion to Christianity would make them ineligible under Article 341 (iii) of the Constitution, which holds such affirmative action only for Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists. This law has been challenged twice in the Supreme Court, which upheld it the first time, but five years ago reopened hearings on a public interest litigation by Dalit Christians.
Other Christians profess their faith only secretly, in order to avoid the negative ramifications of doing so more openly, specially in their families or villages. Others, such as the Kristu Bhaktas of Varanasi, express a devotion to Christ, but not exclusively. Their Hindu critics call these "hidden faithful" or "silent believers", many of whom regularly come to small village churches, "Crypto Christians" and "quasi Christians".
Statisticians Todd Johnson and Kenneth Ross estimate that India's Christians constitute 4.8 percent of the population at 58 million, a figure accepted by some academicians such as Chad Bauman, Vice President of the Society for Hindu-Christian Studies in the United States. Jason Mandryk puts the figure even higher, at 71 million, or 5.84 percent of the population, and reports that others estimate it as high as 9 percent.
The Indian Christian population is unevenly distributed. In some states and districts the Christian population is negligible, whereas in others Christians predominate. In the South, Christians constitute 35.5 percent of the population of Kerala, and 19 percent of the population of Tamil Nadu. But the biggest concentration is in the culturally and ethnically distinct small Northeastern states of Nagaland, Meghalaya, and Mizoram.
With 17 million members, Roman Catholicism is the largest denomination in India. The Catholic Church has three Rites in India – the universal Latin Rite which dominates with over 10 million members, the Syro Malabar Rite with a claimed 6 million members, and the Syro Malankara, with a million members. With 2 million members, the Church of South India is the largest protestant church in the country. The Seventh-Day Adventists, Oriental Orthodox Churches, United Evangelical Lutheran Churches and the Believers Church each claim between 1 and 2 million members. The Church of North India claims 1.5 millions. Church scholars suggest as much as half of India's Christians are now associated with Evangelical, Charismatic, Pentecostal and other independent "Renewalist" churches and denominations.
A matter of history – Arrival of Christians dates back centuries
There is some evidence in India and in the Levant and West Asia that speaks of a lively interaction between the peoples long before Jesus Christ. Historians of the microscopic Jewish community in India believe their ancestors came to the western coast between 1,000 BCE (the era before Christ) to about 70 AD. The decrees of Persian emperor Xerxes, called Ahasuerus, speak about Jews dispersed through the length and breadth of his empire which stretched to India. The small Jewish communities lived prospered in several places along the western Malabar coast. Thomas the Apostle would have found himself at home, if indeed he came to India as folklore, if not documented history, would have it.
A school of thought believes that there were several men with the name Thomas, arriving at different times within the first four centuries, culminating finally in the transit of Thomas of Cana in the fourth century with a homesteading boatload of Christians. A patina of strong belief has come to cover the factoid of the Apostle's coming to India. In Mylapore (today part of Chennai) in Tamil Nadu, for instance, there is a rock which is said to bear the footprint of the saint. Local legend has it that Thomas the Apostle had a successful mission in the Chera empire. Many centuries later Italian Jesuit missionary, Roberto de Nobili (1577-1656), was donning the robes of the local savants, the sadhu and the sanyasin, and speaking in local tongue of Jesus Christ.
Franciscan friars were among the first to have had come to India, albeit in rather tentative missions. Franciscan John de Montecorvino came in 1293 AD, and in the next twenty years, there were isolated Franciscan missions along the western Ghats. Tragedy interrupted the Franciscan mission, when four friars were murdered at Thana, near Bombay. Dominican Jordan Catalano of Serverac was appointed the first Latin Bishop of Quilon (today Kollam, Kerala) in 1329 AD, with the Papal envoy, Giovanni de Marignolli coming to Quilon in 1348.
First missionary wave: Portuguese, Spanish, French and Dutch
But much of contemporary Christianity in the subcontinent in its modern form owes its expansion to the two swift political and missionary waves. The first flush was of the Portuguese and Spanish, the French, and the Dutch. The second was of the British, with the East India Company, the Church of England and the British Missionary Society and the many others who followed in their footsteps.
Portuguese sailor Vasco da Gama's fleet of three small ships rounded the Cape of Good Hope in Africa in 1498, picked up an Arab pilot in Zanzibar, and gently glided into the bustling port of Calicut (today Kozhikode, Kerala). The admiral must have been considerably surprised to find a vibrant and prosperous Christian presence in an India which he thought to be a rich but pagan subcontinent, to be civilised and to be exploited for its fine calico and rare spices. The Portuguese presence is perhaps the most well documented chapter in India's political and religious history, and it left an indelible mark on the ancient nation. Their missionary activity was carried out under the Padroado system, the patronage of the colonial power.
The Portuguese colonisation saw the benign as well as the brutal face of a colonial presence. A harsh military regime, an exploitative commercial system, and the dreaded Inquisition, all trod the lush landscape of Goa, and south towards Kerala. Goa remains a cultural island with a startling fusion of its Portuguese past and its Hindu antiquity. And enshrined in Goa remains the mortal body of the greatest man who ever breathed the scents of the frangipani in its monsoon air – Francis Xavier. Francis Xavier founded the College of St Paul in Goa to train Asian missionaries. Moghul emperor Jalalluddin Akbar known as Akbar the Great, who had a Catholic wife, is known to have invited some Jesuits to come to his court.
Second missionary wave: East India Company and Anglican Church
The other naval power of the day, England, had been biding its time. The East India Company received its charter from Queen Elizabeth on the last day of the year 1600. Its ships sailed to Surat in the state of Gujarat with Anglican chaplains. The local ruler issued a royal firman giving the East India Company the right to trade. Surat became the English headquarters, from where pincer movements established bases in Bombay, Madras and Calcutta. The Anglican Church when it came with the British found the foundations to be strong enough to build Christianity in its own image. Surprisingly, the East India Company did not greatly encourage the early missionaries, forcing many of them to initiate their work in the more hospitable nearby colonies of the Dutch or the French.
Probably one reason for the company's reluctance to encourage the missionaries too much was the belief of the directors that the Portuguese had failed to consolidate their position in India because of their involvement with the Church and their proselytizing zeal. The great William Carey, considered one of the fathers of the Indian renaissance, began his missionary work in the Dutch colony of Serampore in 1801, commencing his career as a professor of Bengali which he had by then mastered, and then of Sanskrit, the tongue of the ancient Indian scriptures. Carey has earned his place in the hearts of the Indian Christians for initiating the translation of the Bible into Indian languages.
The consolidation of the India States under British hegemony after the Sepoy Mutiny in 1857, or the First war of Independence as we call it in India, opened up new frontiers. It was during this period that mass conversions took place in the states of Tamil Nadu and Andhra, then called the Madras Presidency, in undivided Punjab, the tribal belts of Chhota Nagpur in central India and the till then almost inaccessible hills of the north-eastern areas bordering Burma and China. This phase of Christianity, with its close links with the foreign colonial power, was to have long lasting and deep social and political effects which precipitated a crisis of identity for the Indian Christian of the pre-Independence era, and since Independence have continued to dog their footsteps in their endeavour to find for themselves roots as Indian Christians.
Latter day historians have found fault with the zealous speed of the mass conversions and the antipathy of some missionaries to the traditions of indigenous religions and customs. Mahatma Gandhi with his usual directness and economy of words, had no patience with the impoverishment of culture which he felt had resulted from the work of the missionaries. The debate continues, now as much within the Church as outside. Eminent diplomat and Congress parliamentarian Mani Shankar Aiyar wrote in defence of the missionaries : "Christian missionary activity in almost all of mainstream India was confined to good works. We need go no further than Mother Teresa to ask ourselves what these good works were. Their major religious successes were in those remote, far flung areas where 5,000 years of Hinduism had failed to penetrate."
Christians believe in the secularism of the Indian state and society
There has been almost no political, civil or military position in the country that Christians have not filled at one time or the other. They have been governors and chief ministers, ministers and judges. They have commanded the armies, air force and the navy of Independent India in war and peace – the only minority community to have headed all three wings of the armed forces in the past decades. They have been popular artistes and writers, not identified by the tag of their religion, but by their commitment to their work. So have Christian institutions continued the intensity of their work. Christian schools and colleges retain the loyalty of all communities.
The Indian Christian is sensitive to any outside effort that seeks to, or even seems to, deprive him of his Indian identity, or to subvert the tolerance of the national ethos that has helped nurture him through close to two thousand years. At its most innocent, external prejudice takes the shape of enforced stereotypes in popular films of Bollywood which show Christians as gangsters or moronic priests, as a community of lax sexual morals.
More sinister is the repeated effort to target majority anger against the missionaries, or to raise bogeys of extra-territorial loyalties for a community, and to shackle the clergy under the guise of preventing forced conversions. The Church, as a policy, has declared that proselytization is not its priority in the 21st century, when the focus is on peace, justice and the family.
But yet there are fringe political groups and individuals who have tried to explore how far they can go in confrontation with the community. The anti-conversion laws passed in several states like Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh or Chhattisgarh, and the large scale violence in the Kandhamal region of Orissa or in Mangalore of Karnataka (both 2008) where many Christians were killed and churches were destroyed, shocked the community. However, it did not make it lose faith in the essential secularism of the Indian state and society. The Indian Christian's detractors have, to their regret, found the nation at large standing in support of the Christians. And the Christians themselves have sunk denominational differences and old gripes on litany and liturgy to challenge these adventurist excursions.