A few days ago, I called up a Jesuit priest in Bihar (an eastern state of India) to know his thoughts on the conditions of Christians during the ongoing pandemic. He was bemused by the question and emphatically stated—the rich survive and the poor die, that’s the story of the pandemic. Christians, like all others in India, are privy to this rule. According to him, there isn’t a “Christian angle” to the pandemic. His answer was understandable. Having worked in one of the poorest, ill-resourced states of India—all his life—the faultiness of class and caste are too apparent to him. Thus, talking exclusively about Christians or Christianity, especially during a pandemic, isn’t a priority.
Less than three percent of Indians are Christians. Yet, their absolute numbers are comparable to the Christian populations in Spain, Kenya, Poland and Ukraine. In fact, there are more Christians in India than Venezuela. Christians are not uniformly spread across the country. Half of them are concentrated in the southern peninsular states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Telangana, and Andhra Pradesh (Kerala alone makes up 22% of the total Christian population). Out of the remaining half, nearly eighty percent are spread in eastern and north-eastern states and the rest in the western, northern and central states of India. The population is further divided along confessional and caste/ethnic, linguistic lines, with varying class interests and political affiliations. All these factors make religion-based generalization on a national scale a problematic terrain. Owing to the confessional variety, Christian populations are linked to different civil society groups and global circuits.
Irrespective of these ethical and methodological limitations, I can think of three issues worthy of mention. One, like the rest of the globe, the pandemic has changed everyday Christian observances, outreach, and pastoral care in India. Dominant denominations have carefully avoided communal prayers and celebrations. They have opted for technological solutions wherever possible. Going online has an underside, though: it has reduced the revenue of various denominations which depend on individual contributions for salaries and other expenses. Marriages have been indefinitely postponed. Standard protocols such as social distancing, use of hand sanitizers, regular sanitization of Church premises, and using non-contact thermometers to examine visitors have been put in place. Burials and allied rituals were modified in accordance to state guidelines and orders—often more than once based on the needs of the respective confessions and dioceses. The crushing death burden of the second wave forced several Christian families to opt for cremation to save graveyards from overcrowding. Among affluent Christians, with a strong diaspora, online funeral services and house-warmings were in vogue even before the pandemic. The mediation of digital technology in everyday rituals may (perhaps) continue and thrive in the future. It was proven that few rituals were “indispensable” in the face of a pandemic. The churches had to ultimately follow the rules laid down by the state, with little or no resistance.
The callousness of the central government meant that few preparations were underway to face the second wave. Indian stories of oxygen shortage, mass unmarked graves, floating bodies, and a crumbling public health care system are now well-known across the globe. Churches that control a significant number of private hospitals tried to ensure that pandemic patients are not overcharged, at least in letter. They started tele-consultation services for the needy. Church halls were converted into Covid care centers. Catholic Health Association of India and Christian Coalition for Health in India opened up their wide network of hospitals and allied facilities for Covid relief work. They are actively partnering with respective state governments. The Churches in India also played their part in providing aid to the inter-state migrants who lost jobs during the pandemic. Owing to the demands of their vocation, a high number of priests died during the second wave, most of them in their forties. While, on one hand, we find Christian institutions, especially hospitals and outreach programs, stepping up their services to save lives, on the other, we also come across super spreader events such as mass-retreats, sometimes even against the guidelines of superior episcopal bodies—forcing the state government to file cases against priests and laity.
Two, we find sections of right-wing Indian media zealously manufactured anti-Christian (and anti-minority) stories this pandemic season. There is a sinister pattern to their productions. They prop up an ideal Christian adversary (over and above the diversity among empirical Christians) who threatens the Hindu population with stealthy conversions. Consider this story from one such website—a young doctor from Madhya Pradesh was “caught” with a single pamphlet with information on Christian websites and prayers. She was immediately interrogated by local functionaries of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the police. In no time, the tehsildar or the sub-divisional magistrate reached the scene and took over the investigation. The young woman is a state employee and was apparently part of a “door-to door” public health communication programmer. She may face imminent charges under the ambiguous sections of the anti-conversion law of Madhya Pradesh. It is noteworthy that during the pandemic several BJP-ruled states in India tightened such laws to make conversion for the sake of marriage illegal. They are famously known as Love Jihad Laws. Several websites have claimed that the churches in India have used their pandemic relief work for conversion and “church planting work.” Such claims are malicious and stand on unverified claims. Nevertheless, they spread like wildfire in the digital eco-system. The propaganda machine is quite unchanging in India. Christians are always held as potential subjects of suspicion in India’s emerging national culture. Thus, any response or participation by Christians during a crisis or in normal times holds the potential of misinterpretation. The legacy of this suspicion goes back to the nationalist movement of India.
Three, while Hindu propagandists play their role in keeping the “Christian adversary” alive, we also find new and old Christian ministries spewing their own version of disinformation on the virus, its causes and consequences. A prominent example is the Jesus Calls ministry run by the Dhinakaran family. This controversial multi-national organization claims that its chief preacher, Paul Dhinakaran (son of the famous televangelist DGS Dhinakaran) had predicted in 2016 that China would face an “attack by pestilence” as they don’t care for the word of God. The YouTube channel of this faith enterprise runs several misleading videos on this prediction. Biblical literalism has many takers in India. With the help of select biblical verses, Paul—a PhD in marketing from Madras University, according to his official page—markets easy answers to complex questions surrounding the pandemic. Biblical literalism also makes him an ardent supporter of Zionist propaganda (well, that’s a story for another time). Clearly, Paul is not alone in such popular obscurantism. With the coming of the pandemic, digital evangelists seem to have expanded and diversified their revenue models. With Facebook pages, YouTube channels, digital prayer lines, and telephonic prayer towers, these ministries have reinvented their scope. Interestingly, the online ecosystem of the Hindu fundamentalists feed on the claims made by Christian fundamentalists in their own spaces. They read each other and together pose a challenge to public health in an attention-driven digital economy.
Clearly, none of the three issues mentioned above seem to be peculiar Indian problems. We find variations of anti-minority racism, ritual shifts, and Christian disinformation in most parts of a globalized world. Perhaps, a pandemic accelerates these processes and assigns them with new meanings. In India, we are witnessing the same.
Nidhin Donald recently submitted his doctoral thesis titled, ‘Reproducing Identities in Digital Spaces: A Sociological Study of Syrian Christian Families,’ at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. His MPhil dissertation was a sociological exploration of Syrian Christian family histories in Kerala. His core interests include – family, religion, caste, internet and social policy.
Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.