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Farewell to Religious Freedom: Persecution of Christians and Muslims in Hindu India

April 4, 2024
By 28804

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party of Prime Minister Modi has fanned the flames of Hindu nationalism to reap political gains at the expense of India’s religious minorities and the ideals of secular democracy and cultural diversity, writes Amit Singh (University of Coimbra, 2020–21), who notes that religious intolerance could also lead to the curtailing of academic and press freedom.

*     *     *

Alarm about an impending genocide of Muslims and the persecution of Christians in India has been sounded, triggering a crisis in human rights. Why has a nation known for religious diversity and cultural unity turned against its own citizens—particularly Christian and Muslim minorities? The answer lies in the ideology of Hindu nationalism (also known as Hindutva) that has guided the government of Narendra Modi, who came to power in 2014 seeking to transform secular India into a Hindu state. The rise of Modi as prime minister has emboldened Hindu extremists to carry out violence against religious minorities with tacit government approval. Hindu nationalists employ religion and nationalism to polarize the masses and capture political power.

Hindu nationalism is an ethnic ideology that seeks to achieve the dominance of the Hindu religion and culture over religious minorities. It is often associated with the belief that Indian Muslims and Christians are not loyal to the state and should thus be seen as foreigners. Hindu nationalists accuse them of defiling the purity of the country and Hindu culture and have promoted violence from time to time, such as the communal riots in Gujrat (2002), Orissa (2008), Delhi (2020), Gurugram (2023), and more recently Manipur (2023–24).

When India gained independence in 1947, it chose to become a secular state, rather than a Hindu nation. Secularism was considered essential to Indian democracy in order to prevent the Hindu majority from dominating religious minorities. Some Hindu nationalists who believe in the supremacy of the Hindu religion were troubled, however, by the idea of religious equality, which granted the same constitutional rights to Muslim minorities. The Indian Constitution guarantees the freedom of religion to all religious minorities, including Christians and Muslims. It affirms that all Indian citizens are equal, irrespective of their religion, and that the State shall maintain an equal distance from all religions, denying any role of religion in state affairs.

A Changed Situation

On January 22, 2024, Prime Minister Modi crossed the line separating religion and state by participating in the inauguration ceremony for a controversial Hindu temple in Ayodhya. This, at least metaphorically, made India a Hindu state. The visit to the Ayodhya Ram temple, built where a mosque was demolished in 1992 by Hindu fundamentalists, was a stark warning to all who still believed in religious equality and cultural diversity in secular India.

The Ram temple premises in Ayodhya (photo taken by the author).

What does a Hindu India mean for Christian and Muslim minorities? It means “subordination to the Hindu majority and living as second-class citizens, just like the Jews under Nazi Germany,” a Christian priest in the north Indian district of Varanasi told me, adding, “Religious persecution of Christian minorities by Hindu fundamentalists has reached a critical stage.”

Musa Azmi, a Muslim activist in Varanasi, expressed concern that large-scale riots against Muslims may be organized by Hindu fundamentalists before the national election in 2024. “Even the local courts are taking decisions that favor the Hindu majority,” he complained. Indian religious minorities feel that they no longer enjoy the religious freedom and rights they had under the secular Congress Party until 2014. 

In the first eight months of 2023, there were 525 attacks against Christians in India. Manipur has experienced several incidents of targeted violence against Christians amid ongoing civil unrest. According to a report by the United Christian Forum (UCF), Christians are also legally harassed, as the police have failed to prosecute perpetrators of mob violence. Statements made by ruling party leaders appear to have acted as a force multiplier, leading to greater impunity. The ruling Hindu nationalists party, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has threatened Catholics in Goa with calls to “wipe out” the history of Portuguese presence.

Hijacking Religion for Political Gain

Most of the religiously motivated attacks have been carried out by ultranationalist, right-wing Hindu groups, such as Hindu Yuva Vahini, Hindu Jagran Manch, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Bajrang Dal, and Vishva Hindu Parishad. These groups are linked to the ruling BJP, which uses the Hindu identity and religion to turn the sentiments of the majority against not only Christian and Muslim minorities but also the core of principles of the Indian Constitution, such as secularism, religious pluralism, and respect for cultural harmony and diversity. The Modi government has hijacked Hinduism and the national media to demonize religious minorities and the political opposition, who are portrayed as enemies of the Hindu religion.

Public acts of violence against Muslims appeal to core Hindu nationalist supporters. In their efforts to restore India’s lost glory, Hindu nationalists pursue such policies as securing the site of the Babri mosque for a Hindu temple and renaming places with Hindu names (often replacing Muslim names). The identities of religious minorities are being erased, and past events are being retold to create an “official” Hindu state history. Simultaneously, they have been stripping Jammu and Kashmir of its special status through the dilution of Article 370, and moving towards a new Citizenship Law with the potential to exclude Muslims from Indian citizenship.

Studies have shown that religious strife politically benefits the Hindu nationalist party, and this has encouraged violence against religious minorities and their sacred sites. Now that the Ram temple has been inaugurated, the controversial Gyanvapi Mosque in Varanasi appears to be the BJP’s next target in an effort to win the national election in 2029. This means that religious polarization and the vilification of religious minorities are likely to increase in the coming years.

The author published a study on the impact of Hindutva on secular democracy and human rights in 2024.

The use of the Hindu religion under the Modi government has reached new heights, leading to an increase in the Hindu majority’s hostility toward religious minorities. Not only religious freedom but academic and press freedom have also been severely curtailed in India. With the growing influence of Hindu nationalism on Indian society, the religious persecution of minorities is likely to escalate in tandem with a decline of secular democracy.

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Has the Hindu Majority Developed a ‘Nazi Conscience’ in India?

August 28, 2023
By 28804

Emboldened by state support, Hindu nationalists have unleashed violent attacks on religious minorities in India, writes Amit Singh (University of Coimbra, 2020-21), leading to the development of a ‘Nazi conscience’ among the country’s Hindu majority.

*     *     *

Organized and sporadic violence by Hindu extremists against religious-ethnic minorities in India has shocked the world, particularly ethnic violence in Manipur. Under the Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi, cases of mob-lynching and killings are becoming pattern in a religiously polarized Hindu India, targeted to minorities. The prominence of ethnic revival, large number of Hindu participations in such violence, and lack of their condemnation of these acts, all of these factors give rise to the question as to whether the Hindu majority has developedNazi conscience.’

Nazi concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz-Birkenau. Photograph by the author

The idea of Nazi conscience was originally applied in the context of the genocide of Jews in Nazi Germany, where the Nazis, along with an ordinary Germans, morally justified the murder of Jews. A general apathy to the human rights of minorities, a lack of respect towards the life of ‘others,’ and normalization of violence against them are fundamental parts of the Nazi conscience. 

In the Indian context, Hindutva as a vehicle of Hindu nationalism has ignited a kind of Nazi conscience in ordinary Hindus that makes violence against religious minorities seem normal and justified. This includes witnessing daily violence against Muslim minorities and Dalits and not intervening in such acts.

The Hindutva’s political narrative of past invasions by Muslim rulers and their atrocities against Hindus in the middle ages and the partition of India in 1947 has made the Hindu majority hostile to Muslims. Constitutional privileges such as personal family rights for Muslims and religious grants anger the Hindu majority. They feel victimized and insecure, and Hindutva leaders manipulate these anti-Muslim sentiments for political victory.

Ideologically Justified Violence

The RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh), a Hindu militant organization, has shaped Hindu nationalism into a hegemonic ideology and propagates Hindu exclusivity of religion and culture. The Hindutva ideologue MS Golwalkar asserted that the country's minorities should be treated in the same way as the Nazis treated the Jews. With its political front BJP currently in power, the RSS has succeeded in influencing the collective Hindu psyche to take vengeance against Muslims.

These calculated attempts by the RSS have been instrumental in creating a militant identity and Nazi conscience amongst the Hindu majority against perceived foreign “invaders,” such as Muslims and Christians. With each passing ethno-religious riot, the Hindu collective self is gradually being desensitized and freed from collective guilt in the observation or killing of human life. For a person with a Nazi conscience, violence is now perceived to be morally righteous.

Violence has become essential for Hindutva politics, and in this way it could be said that the Hindu majority has developed a ‘Nazi conscience.’ The Hindus have lost historical sensitivity towards religious minorities with whom they have lived for hundreds of years. The use of ‘Hindu nationalism’ in post-colonial India has actually benefited the BJP in elections. However, at the same time, Hindu nationalism has done great harm to communal harmony of Indian society. Hindus have been turned against Muslims—although, in some exceptional cases, Hindus did save the lives of Muslims.

Modi’s Hindutva state has played a key role in this process. The state has granted impunity to those involved in the lynching of Muslims and has rewarded those responsible for inciting riots. And the State has constantly harassed those who have come out in protest against Hindu intolerance and Islamophobia.

In large-scale riots, such as the Gujrat riots in 2002 and ethnic violence in Manipur, the perpetrators were Hindu extremists and victims were primarily religious ethnic minorities. Big riots, moreover, usually happen with the complicity of the state machinery and the Hindu majority. So, the majority is not just a passive onlooker but a participant in the ritual of violence.

Rewarding the Islamophobic Leader    

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is notorious for his complicity in the anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujrat in 2002. He has built his political career on the basis of communal violence and fear. And the Hindu majority reelected him in 2019. The Hindu majority bears deep resentment against Muslims. In fact, one study reveals that the BJP gains in the polls after every anti-Muslim riot.

Under the RSS-backed Modi’s regime since 2014, anti-Muslim narratives have been strategically propagated by the government. The mainstream media has consistently cultivated a deep animosity against religious minorities. This process of vilification has normalized violence against them. The ascendency of Hindu nationalism has given Hindus ‘the power to claim, and receive, impunity for violence from elected governments.’

Muslims and Dalits have been lynched by mobs of Hindutva fanatics; violence against them is normalized and seems to be supported by the Modi government. Vijay Narayan, a political activist in Varanasi, argues that the Hindu majority is influenced by the fascist ideology of Hindu nationalism.

Failed Secularism

After the bloody partition in 1947, secularism was introduced as an alternative to Hindu nationalism to protect Indian society from communal frenzy and religious fanaticism. Indian secularism, unique in its kind, is associated with religious tolerance. Yet, ironically, the Hindu majority has never abandoned the idea that India is a Hindu nation. It has rejected traditional Hindu tolerance, an idea that enabled communal harmony among India’s diverse population.

Indian secularism has failed to prevent the rise of Hindutva and the communalization of the Hindu masses. As long as the public institutions and the mainstream media are under the influence of the Hindu nationalist government, the process of Nazification of the Hindu majority cannot be checked. Alarm about the possibility of an impending Muslim genocide is already being sounded. To achieve communal harmony, the state must rid itself of Hindutva and follow constitutional secularism. This seems almost impossible under the present Hindu nationalist government.

If the influence of Hindutva on the Hindu majority and the Hindu religion increases, the general state of human rights, especially freedom of expression and rights of religious-ethnic minorities, and secularism is likely to deteriorate. However, we must remember that religious tolerance and resistance is a part of the India’s ancient secular traditions that challenged Hindu fundamentalism thorough the various periods of Indian history. In the longer run, there is a possibility of resistance to Hindu religious bigotry that could weaken the influence of Hindutva on Indian society. It can bring secular democratic change stalling the process of the Nazification of the Hindu majority and preventing them from becoming a Nazified Hindu.

This article was originally published in The Loop and is reprinted here following slight modification by the author. The views presented here are of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Sylff Association.

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Madness Not Allowed: A Review of Spiritual Travelers under Religious Conservatism in Indonesia

November 29, 2022
By 28871

Religious activists in Indonesia have taken to social media to harass spiritual travelers who do not belong to the Muslim majority. Jesada Buaban, a 2019–2022 Sylff fellow at Universitas Gadjah Mada, argues that the religious majority sees the spiritual travelers as morally sick persons who need to be cured. Jesada was a Theravada monk in Thailand for 18 years and now researches gender, violence, and religious legitimacy.

* * * 

Religious diversity in Indonesia is limited because religious organizations must express their nationalism. Minority religions are especially at risk when they are not in line with mainstream organizations like Majelis Ulama Indonesia.[1],[2] The state also forces its population to believe in God and identify as belonging to one (state-recognized) religion.

On a smaller scale, this Islamization paves the way for the rise of religious specialists who play a significant role in each province. Some activists are even popular on social media. These factors affect the lives of spiritual travelers who are seen as mad/insane persons who must be medicalized and convinced to change their behaviors. Ultimately, they become commercial objects of “moral restoration.”

Pilgrimage to the tomb of Muslim saints on Mt. Tidar, Central Java (photo by Jesada 2022)

In the Javanese tradition, visiting the tombs of saints (wali) is viewed as a pilgrimage. Some people also leave household life and become homeless, like an ascetic (petapa). These people tend not to cut their hair and wear old, dirty clothes. But since YouTube and Facebook became popular in Indonesia, such spiritual travelers began to be bothered by groups of social-media activists such as Sinau Hurip and Pratiwi Noviyanthi.

These two groups are non-profit foundations (yayasan). Sinau Hurip (Learning Life from Lives of Other People) has 1.01 million subscribers on YouTube (channel created in 2019). Meanwhile, Pratiwi Noviyanthi (Ripple) is followed by 3.4 million (channel created in 2020). The same names are used on Facebook. Videos are uploaded every day by the foundations’ teams, consisting of 5-10 members. The channels earn income via YouTube and Facebook advertisements.

These two groups look for the homeless or solo-traveling persons, sometimes acting on tips from their Facebook followers. They especially focus on people who travel on foot. Walking is the symbol of those who have no job, which means (in these YouTubers’ opinion) that they have mental problems and do not want to work, associate with friends, marry, or live a household life—all of which are contrary to Islamic practices. If someone wears a necklace or a rosary, they will be asked to remove it because it is considered heretical according to Islamic radicalism.

The YouTubers always begin by asking permission to talk with the spiritual travelers but turn to force if they deny it. Fights erupt in some cases. Even though the YouTubers start the disturbance, their compassion is emphasized—they are the ones who come to “help.”[3] The homeless are usually asked/convinced to cut their long hair, take a bath, wear new clothes (mostly clothes of the YouTubers’ foundations), and receive some food and drink, and then are allowed to leave.[4]

Talkative spiritual travelers seem to be disturbed less compared to the quiet ones: physical compulsion tends to occur less when the YouTubers can engage in a discussion with the traveler, even if they disagree on religious beliefs.[5]

Being non-talkative does not mean that the spiritual traveler must be mad or has a mental illness; they could simply be introverted, for example. But the foundations’ YouTube and Facebook followers seem not to understand the diversity of lifestyles. They perceive the two activist groups as heroes who help correct the distorted behaviors and beliefs of the spiritual travelers. Pratiwi always invokes the name of God, like saying “please go back, this is Allah’s word” when asking the spiritual traveler to stop their journey and return to their homeland.

If a commenter on YouTube or Facebook warns the groups to stop disturbing the spiritual travelers, writing “this person may be a saint (wali),” other followers will reply “there is no correct practice outside Islam. Muhammad is the last prophet and his teaching is complete.” Many commenters also suggest bringing the travelers to Islamic schools (pesantren) on the grounds that they would live as good Muslims.

Interestingly, there are no comments that directly mention human rights. In Indonesia, especially in the religious sphere, rights are not important. And few people consider photographing or recording a video of someone without consent as an ethical issue.

Michael Foucault said that medication is not pure science but a combination of medicine, economics, power, and society.[6] The “medical gaze” means the medical separation of a patient’s body and identity, in which people are dehumanized into an object of analysis based upon medical knowledge.[7]

The imagined “mad” persons in Indonesia are not judged by medical knowledge but by religious conservatism that does not understand nor respect those who are different from the Islamic mainstream.


[1]     Jesada Buaban, “Online Waisak: Celebrating Discrimination of Indonesian Buddhists,” Journal of Human Rights and Peace Studies 7, no. 2 (2021), https://so03.tci-thaijo.org/index.php/HRPS/article/view/249397.

[2]     Syafiq Hasyim, “Majelis Ulama Indonesia and Pluralism in Indonesia,” Philosophy and Social Criticism 41, no. 4-5 (2015).

[3]     Sinau Hurip, “BRIINGAAS BANGET!!! Jempol Mas Adi Harus Dijahit Karena Robek di Gigit” [So violent!!! Brother Adi’s thumb had to be stitched because it was bitten], posted on June 24, 2022, Facebook video, https://www.facebook.com/sinauhurip/videos/1723907224628113/.

[4]     Pratiwi Noviyanthi, “Lamongan!! Semua Warga Bilang ODGJ Ini Memakai Rambut Palsu Untuk Ngemis??” [LOL!! Everyone says this guy wears fake hairs to beg], April 21, 2021, YouTube video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TZKlwSgCY0k.

[5]     Sinau Hurip, “Macan Putih? Jalannya Emang Cepat Bangat, Apakah?” [White tiger? Travelling is really fast, is it not?], July 26, 2022, YouTube video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2OO6osk9IZs.

[6]     Michel Foucault, “The Crisis of Medicine or the Crisis of Antimedicine?,” Foucault Studies (2004): 9.

[7]     Michel Foucault, The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception (New York: Random House, 1973): 165.

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Religion, Caste, Social Mobility: Researching Precolonial Bengal

October 7, 2022
By 27497

As a 2016 Sylff fellow and 2019 SRA awardee, Abhijit Sadhukhan has studied how religious philosophy and attitudes toward the caste system interact, focusing on a Hindu sect called Chaitanya Vaisnavism. As his thoughts on the subject evolved over time, for his doctoral studies he set out to challenge the conception of the caste system as a static structure and proposes a ‘grammar of change’in the mobility pattern. His findings, based in part on archival documents in the British Library, contextualizes social mobility in precolonial India.

 * * *


While studying as a Sylff fellow at Jadavpur University in the MPhil program back in 2016–17, I was particularly focused on exploring the interaction between religious philosophy and attitude toward the caste system in a particular religious sect. To be specific, I was working on Chaitanya Vaisnavism, a devotional religious sect propounded by Chaitanyadeva in sixteenth-century India. This school, highly popular in Bengal as well as in other parts of the country, has a distinct orientation toward the caste system. Caste is a kind of social stratification unique to India and is a hierarchical model based on the principle of hereditary occupation, restrictions in marital relations and commensality, and rank-based privileges and discriminations. It is often seen as a “closed system of stratification” that offers very little opportunity for change in and of society. The caste system has its own historical, sociological, economic, anthropological, philosophical, and religious underpinnings. I explored how religious philosophy shaped the attitude toward the caste system of a group of followers in the Chaitanya Vaisnava school in medieval Bengal. At the time, I mainly worked on normative texts (such as scriptures), philosophical texts, and literature to find out the importance of religious philosophy in shaping attitudes toward the caste system in the theoretical and partly practical spheres. But my attitude to this topic gradually changed, and after being enrolled in the PhD program, I began focusing more on the practical sphere of the caste system and tried to locate the idea of change in this “static” structure.

In my doctoral thesis, therefore, I have handled a wide range of sources (literature, scriptures, inscriptions, travel accounts, administrative records, census reports, and so forth) and interacted more and more with sociological and anthropological research and works on economic history along with my disciplinary training in literature. I have chosen to work on the process of upward mobility of three hitherto marginalized groups (Subarnabanik, Bagdi and Sadgop)in the caste hierarchy in medieval Bengal and the role of Chaitanya Vaisnavism in this process. Essentially, the idea was to propose a “grammar of change” in this hierarchical model through the investigation of three cases and confront the age-old idea of a “static” precolonial India. The research also intended to analyze the varying importance of ritual status in the process of upward mobility from precolonial to modern times. My work has focused on the interaction between the religious ideology of Chaitanya Vaisnava schools, the economic condition of a particular subregion in Bengal, the aspirations of upwardly mobile groups, and dominant Brahmanical ideology seeking sustainability in the existing hierarchical system.   


Choice of Methodology

As I had a plan to propose a “grammar of change” in the process of mobility, I set three different markers: cause of change, register of change, and intensity of change. These markers demand a diachronic study of the entire process; this is especially applicable for the latter two markers. Here I diverge from the research of the sociologists and the anthropologists. The sociologists and the anthropologists, because of their disciplinary training and limitations, tend to focus on the “product.” They do not always have the opportunity to probe into a diachronic study, as they are mainly concerned with the contemporary field view. I therefore took the opportunity to reveal the shifting connotations of the register of change as well as the change in intensity across time. For example, the Subarnabaniks, an upwardly mobile group, achieved legitimate rights in rituals and social customs through their economic supremacy and started to gain higher ritual status in one of the eminent Chaitanya Vaisnava schools in sixteenth-century Bengal. But no claim was made in the community then to wear the “sacred thread” to prove their mobility, while the same group was eager to wear the “sacred thread” in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as a marker of their higher ritual status. This is evident from their activities and writings to the census administrators and is an example of how register of change can take a new turn over time.

I have always had a dialogue with the “process” and the “product” in my research and tried to assimilate both historical and sociological-anthropological insights in my writing. This also means handling a wide range of primary sources across time. In particular, I was able to access unpublished documents available in the India Office Records of the British Library with the support of a Sylff Research Abroad (SRA) award. These documents were very helpful in getting a clear idea of the ongoing process of mobility and common perceptions regarding the attempts of upward mobility of a few aspirant groups, which allowed me to substantiate my arguments even more boldly.


An unpublished letter written to Mr. H. H. Risley, census commissioner of British India, in 1901, available at the India Office Records, British Library.


Major Findings

My research has yielded a number of observations. Firstly, upward or downward mobility of any group was not a pan-Indian phenomenon. Mobility is in most cases very limited spatially and temporally. Hence local economic factors, dominant religious ideology, and local caste hierarchy must be studied very carefully. This is why each and every case study is unique and important for the discourse. These case studies, in my research, also signify that the marginalized groups were trying to seek upward mobility within the caste structure. They were not interested in conversion in any other religion and achieving a better status. These studies suggest that these groups preferred upward mobility within the structure because of some context-specific economic and political benefit and didn’t consider conversion much as an alternative.  

Secondly, I have also discovered through this work that economic supremacy was not the only factor in establishing higher status in precolonial Brahmanical society. Ritual status was probably even more important, and almost all of the upwardly mobile groups tried to forge “ritual status” with the help of economic and political power. This suggests that one cannot just straitjacket precolonial India into a Marxist mode of interpretation.

Thirdly, a religious school can accommodate and legitimize the mobility of a certain group within its own domain. This is an indication of the autonomy of the religion. However, no two schools will have the same positive inclination to this process of mobility. The inclination varies depending on the material situation as well as the religious philosophy of a particular school. Some Bhakti schools may seem reluctant to accelerate the mobility. They may have a reluctance to mere adjustment within the hierarchy, likely striving toward annihilation of the caste structure at least in their philosophical realm. Some other schools are not so nonconformist in nature and allow the mobility of a few groups if necessary to sustain the structure. This point bridges my earlier research with this one.

Lastly, mobility is also a way to sustain a structure. Instead of annihilation, this process actually gives the system a new lease on life every time. However, mobility is not necessarily progressive; it has its own trajectory associated with discrimination and exploitation. The process of climbing up the ladder probably cannot avoid that either.

This research, on one hand, examines the factors of sustainability of the caste system and its relative flexibility, and on the other, provides a framework to conceptualize mobility in general.


Suggested Readings

Chakrabarty, Ramakanta. Vaisnavism in Bengal 1486–1900. Calcutta: Sanskrit Pustak Bhandar, 1985.

Kane, P. V. History of Dharmasastra. 5 vols. Poona: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 1977.

Sanyal, Hitesranjan. Social Mobility in Bengal. Calcutta: Papyrus, 1981.

Srinivas, M. N. Social Change in Modern India. New Delhi: Orient Black Swan, 1995.



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Jewish Religious Life in the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic

July 28, 2017
By 19815

Karina Barkane, a 2014 Sylff fellow from the University of Latvia, visited the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in the United States to reveal unexplored aspects of Jewish religious life in the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic (1944–90) using an SRA award. In this article she describes the challenge of preserving Jewish religious and cultural identity under the Soviet regime in the historical context of secularization and assimilation.

* * *


My interest in Jewish history was sparked by my grandfather, who told me many fascinating stories about the Jewish people and their religion. I was captivated by its temporal and spatial breadth. Since its inception over several thousand years ago, Jewish religion has been influenced by other cultures. With a remarkable ability to adapt to changing circumstances, the Jewish people and religion have overcome persecution and flourished over the centuries, integrating cultural assumptions of the neighboring communities into their own social and religious systems and preserving a distinct identity. 

A prayer service in the synagogue in Riga during Soviet times. Photo: The Ghetto Fighters' House Archives.

Growing assimilation and integration with surrounding cultures have given rise to the fundamental question: What does it mean to be a Jew? Is it a religious identity, ethnic identity, or a combination of the two? Moreover, as Judaism encompasses a way of life, wherein the religious element cannot be completely separated from the secular, the issue is made that much more complex and remains open to the present day.

Jews in Latvia

Diversity has also characterized the history of the Jewish community in Latvia. Jews who immigrated to Latvia came from different regions. The first Jews came from Prussia and settled in Courland (western Latvia) at the end of the sixteenth century. They were well-educated and influenced by German culture. Meanwhile, Jews in Latgale (eastern Latvia) first appeared in the mid-seventeenth century and were closer to the traditional Lithuanian and Russian Jewish communities. They were less educated than the Courland Jews but more strictly observed religion.

By the end of the nineteenth century Jews comprised a substantial part of Latvia’s population. In some cities they accounted for around half of the entire population: 69.6% of the population in Jaunjelgava, 59.4% in Bauska, 54.5% in Ludza, 54.0% in Rēzekne, and 49.0% in Valdemārpils.[1] The majority of the synagogues in Latvia, which had a number of outstanding rabbis, were built during this period.

After the establishment of the independent Republic of Latvia (1918–40), Jews in Latvia were granted all the rights of citizenship and could freely express and develop their religion and identity. There numbered more than 200 Jewish religious communities formed by socially diverse people, from prominent manufacturers to ordinary craftsmen.

Fundamental changes occurred over the years, however. These changes were connected not only with the Holocaust but also with the shifting power structure. In 1944 Latvia was forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union. The Communist Party secured its monopoly on all spheres of public life and sought to transform society. This affected the cultural and social roles that Jews could play in Latvia and had a tremendous impact on Jewish religious life.

My Doctoral Dissertation Research

My doctoral dissertation is devoted to the challenging question of preserving Jewish religious identity under the Soviet regime in the context of secularization and assimilation. As the majority of studies on Jews in Latvia look at the period until the middle of the twentieth century, with the Holocaust as an end point, almost no research has been carried out on the issue to this day and the history of Jews and Judaism during the Soviet era remains a blank page in the history of Latvia. Scientific publications on this topic cover only particular aspects and periods—primarily the issue of anti-Semitism and the Jews’ struggle for the right to emigrate from the USSR—and are scattered across different journals and books that are focused on broader topics.

The main aim of the dissertation is to conduct an in-depth study on Jewish religious life in the Latvian SSR (1944–90) after the Holocaust. Specifically, it seeks to reveal the ideology of and legislation by Soviet power, as well as the local authority’s attitude toward Jews and Judaism; analyze the activities of Jewish religious communities, focusing on their spiritual, social, and financial life; and characterize individual and family traditions among Jews during this period.

The preliminary results are summarized in the following sections.

The Soviet Attitude toward Judaism

The Soviet regime’s attitude toward Judaism was determined to a certain extent by its religious policy, which was based on the assumption that religion in all its forms is a harmful relic of the past that needs to disappear. The Soviet Union was the first country in the twentieth century to commit to an antireligious policy from its very inception; yet, paradoxically, the religious communities maintained their legal status, albeit under constant pressure.[2] The state used a vast apparatus of education, propaganda, and repression to implement a fundamentally antireligious doctrine. Over the years this was adjusted according to the overall social and political context, including development of the state and international relations.

Due to the strong connection between Jewish religion and nationality, which dictates that the only ethnic group practicing Judaism is the Jews, Soviet policies that affected the Jewish religion ipso facto affected the Jews and vice versa.[3]

According to the framework of Soviet policy on nationality, Jews did not conform to the “scientific” Marxist-Leninist definition of a nation and were targeted for assimilation into the dominant nation. For this reason, the existence of a “Jewish question” in the USSR was denied throughout the Soviet era, even though it perpetually stood at the center of public discussion.[4] Soviet authorities did not permit the creation of Jewish educational and cultural institutions. Jews were deprived of even the minimal cultural autonomy: there were no Jewish schools, newspapers, or theaters, for instance. During the so-called campaign against cosmopolitanism[5] of 1949–53, moreover, a number of local Jewish intellectuals were arrested and accused of bourgeois nationalism.

Under these circumstances Jewish religious communities, as the only legitimate organs of Jewish autonomy, came to primarily and, in fact, single-during this period. Even so, all of their activities were dependent on Soviet power. They were constrained by the operations of the Representative of the Council for the Affairs of Religious Cults[6] (which were carried out strictly within the politics of the CARC chairman) and by the local authority’s attitude, as well as by antireligious propaganda, which was widely disseminated throughout society.

Jewish Religious Life

By April 1949, when the process of registering religious communities was completed,[7] seven Jewish religious communities were officially registered in the Latvian SSR.[8] Of these seven communities, three were subsequently closed by authorities due to Soviet policy.

Individuals who were familiar with Jewish religious customs and agreed to undertake leadership roles were essential to keeping the spirit of the communities alive, as there was a severe shortage of rabbis owing to the Holocaust and Soviet restrictions in rabbinic ordination. Because of their substantial role, however, authorities repressed these individuals in a variety of ways: economic repression, so-called individual work, arrests, and so forth.

Maintaining a religious lifestyle was extremely difficult under the antireligious and anti-Semitic policies. The authorities tended to restrict the obtaining of ritual objects and the provision of kosher meat; attending the synagogue on Jewish holidays, when everyone was obligated to work, could call into question one’s loyalty to the regime and trigger a confrontation with authorities. Most Jews had to negotiate between integration into Soviet society and Jewish identity.

Despite the oppression, many Jews strived to preserve their ties with the synagogue and tradition—some of them directly and others disguising it. For instance, almost all religious rites, such as burials and circumcision, were practiced in secret relatively broadly among the Jewish population, even by Jews who distanced themselves from religion.

Synagogue attendance was very high on Pesach, Simchat Torah (during which a significant proportion of visitors were youth), and High Holidays,  as well as on the regularly organized days to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust.[9] In 1957, for instance, around 4,000 people attended the prayers on Yom Kippur in the Riga synagogue.[10] Even Jews who were members of the Communist Party and those from the cities, where no Jewish religious communities were reestablished, came to the nearest synagogue to celebrate these holidays.

Since legitimate ways to express Jewish identity had been so narrowed, for many Jews these ties with the synagogue were an opportunity to resolve their ambivalent status—they were highly acculturated but not assimilated and remained “Jews” socially and officially.[11] Many Jews expressed their ethnic identity by means of religious practice. The religious aspect of Jewish life thus underwent a radical transformation, increasingly moving away from normative Judaism and forming a new Jewish identity based on ethnicity.

In Closing

Rabbi Gershon Gurevitch , left, performing the chuppah (Jewish wedding canopy) ceremony for Shlomo Lensky, late 80-'s. Photo: Riga synagogue, Peitav-shul (http://shul.lv).

 The SRA grant gave me an opportunity to conduct research at the YIVO Institute and expand the scope of historical sources for my doctoral dissertation. It allowed me to compare previously gathered sources on Soviet authorities with those from the other side of the Iron Curtain, created from different ideological viewpoints, not only revealing previously unknown or overlooked aspects but also posing many new questions for further research. I would like to greatly thank SRA for the invaluable support.

I hope that, in the long term, my research will go far beyond the local context, helping foster intercultural and interreligious understanding and encouraging sensitivity to the positions of minorities.



[1] Leo Dribins, Ebreji Latvijā [Jews in Latvia] (Rīga: Elpa, 2002), 43.

[2] Mordechai Altshuler, Religion and Jewish Identity in the Soviet Union, 1941–1964 (Waltham: Brandeis University Press, 2012), 1.

[3] Zvi Gitelman, “Jewish Nationality and Religion,” in Religion and Nationalism in Soviet and East European Politics, ed. Sabrina P. Ramet (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1989), 59.

[4] Naomi Blank, “Redefining the Jewish Question from Lenin to Gorbachev: Terminology or Ideology?” in Jews and Jewish Life in Russia and the Soviet Union, ed. Yaacov Ro’I, (Portland: Frank Cass, 1995), 53.

[5] Anticosmopolitan Campaign - was an anti-Semitic campaign in the Soviet Union. Cosmopolitans were Jewish intellectuals who were accused of expressing pro-Western feelings and lack of patriotism.

[6] The CARC, with representatives in the Union Republics, was established in 1944 to supervise the enforcement of Soviet legislation regarding religion and manage relations between the Soviet government and religious organizations.

[7] According to Soviet law, a religious group of believers could start its activities only after official registration with the CARC. The registration of a religious community involved many stages and prescriptions. Permission to organize a religious community was granted if the community had at least 20 persons (dvadtsatka), a prayer building, and a religious service provider (rabbi).

[8] State Archives of Latvia, coll. 1448, inv. 1, file 28, p. 3.

[9] Pesach is also known as Passover. Simchat Torah is the festival to celebrate and mark the conclusion of the annual cycle of public Torah readings. High Holidays refer to the two days of Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement).

[10] State Archives of Latvia, coll. 1448, inv. 1, file 257, p. 87.

[11] Zvi Gitelman, A Century of Ambivalence: The Jews of Russia and the Soviet Union, 1881 to the Present (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001), 178.