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Associated Press/Photo by Biswaranjan Rout

Castes vote

India | Religious-rights advocates watch for signs of change from India's month-long elections

Issue: "On the road again," May 9, 2009

Praful Mallick isn't hopeful about India's national elections. More than eight months after Hindu nationalists led violent campaigns against Christians in the country's central state of Orissa, Mallick still lives with 43 other Christian families in a makeshift camp on the outskirts of a small Orissa town.

Fear of more violence keeps these Christians-and scores of others scattered throughout the region-from returning to the homes they fled during persecution-driven riots. Mallick says he doesn't think political change would ease their plight. "There are peace committees," he told the BBC. "But the peace committees are full of the people who led the riots. What difference is that going to make?"

Others are more anxious about political tides: With India's elections underway through May 13, Indians from every region, caste, and political party are waiting to see what changes could come to the world's largest democracy. And religious-freedom advocates are waiting to see what changes could come for the persecuted minorities in the largest Hindu nation in the world.

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They'll all need patience: The massive undertaking will last a month, with officials staggering elections over five dates. Elections began on April 16. Results are due May 16. Some 714 million voters are eligible to vote at more than 800,000 polling stations, with more than 6 million security and election officials overseeing the process.

Two major coalitions made up of several parties are competing for power: The United Progressive Alliance has been in power for the last five years. Its leading party is the Congress party. The National Democratic Alliance forms the opposition, and its leading party is the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a Hindu nationalist party accused of violence and persecution against both Christians and Muslims in India's northern regions.

Neither alliance grabbed a significant lead ahead of elections, and both face pressure from a so-called "Third Front" alliance made up of regional parties scattered throughout the country. If neither major party wins a clear majority, the groups may seek support from the Third Front to gain control.

Much of India's elections will hinge on the economy. While the nation has enjoyed soaring economic growth in recent years, India hasn't been immune to the worldwide financial downturn, and masses still live in grinding poverty. Another dominating issue: security. After the deadly Mumbai terrorist attacks in November, the Congress party faces criticism for its security policies. Both parties will try to convince voters they are most competent to keep the country safe.

The first wave of voting in April highlighted security concerns: Officials say Maoist insurgents killed 17 people in 14 attacks on polling stations and vehicles carrying election officials. Maoist rebels have long waged low-level attacks on the government, saying they are defending landless farmers.

Religious-rights advocates are concerned about religious minorities in India. Activists at Jubilee Campaign-a D.C.-based religious-rights organization-are particularly concerned about outcomes in the state of Orissa. The organization estimates that Hindu-led violence in Orissa last August drove more than 50,000 Christians from their homes, killed at least 60 people, and left tens of thousands wounded in refugee camps.

Gospel for Asia (GFA)-a missions organization with hundreds of churches in India-reports persecution and violence against its indigenous Christian workers in Orissa and elsewhere. The group says Hindu extremists have damaged or destroyed dozens of GFA church buildings in Orissa over the last six months.

At least part of the Hindu violence against Christians stems from opposition to Christian ministry to Dalits-also known as "the untouchables"-the lowest group in the Indian caste system. Hindu extremists view Christian help for Dalits as a threat to their own power. Indian authorities have often ignored persecution, and at least five states have passed anti-conversion laws.

Ann Buwalda of Jubilee Campaign asks Christians to pray that the elections will yield officials willing to protect Christians, particularly in Orissa: "The violence still continues in several Indian states, but Orissa is the hotspot where the 2009 elections have the potential to make a great difference in the lives of Indian Christians."

Jamie Dean
Jamie Dean

Jamie lives and works in North Carolina, where she covers the national political beat and other topics as news editor for WORLD. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.

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