India: Political Fears Spurs Anti-Christian Violence

Thursday, October 5, 2006

(Compass Direct News) -- Growth in the incidence of violence against Christians in India this year is rooted largely in the political insecurity of Hindu nationalists, sources say.

Increased attacks against Christians this year have grown out of a trend of violence going back to 2001. Each year from 2001 to 2005, about 200 anti-Christian attacks were reported in India. This year nearly 150 such incidents were reported by mid-September, with the annual total expected to exceed 200.

Whereas the trend began after the Hindu extremist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came into power in 1998, the recent campaign is rooted in the party’s attempts to recover from political loss and internal division. Then as now, most of the attacks have been led, directly or indirectly, by Hindu extremist organizations linked with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Forum or VHP) and its youth wing, the Bajrang Dal.

The incidents have taken place mainly in states ruled by the political wing of the RSS – the BJP, reeling on its heels after being voted from federal power in 2004.

Christian leaders attribute the heightened incidence of anti-Christian attacks to a crisis in the RSS and the BJP, compelling the Hindu extremist organizations to exploit the touchy issue of Christian conversions. In the wake of upcoming assembly elections in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Uttaranchal, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh and Manipur, the BJP has revived its pet slogan, “Threat to Hinduism.”

Critical Stage

The RSS and affiliate organizations promote the ideology of Hindutva, or Hindu nationalism. Though registered as a socio-cultural organization, the RSS’s leaders are officially appointed by the BJP. (But as the RSS dictates affairs within the BJP, unofficially it is the RSS that makes appointments to key party posts.)

Father Henry D’Souza, head of the Commission for Social Communication of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, said the RSS and BJP have reached a critical stage marked by confusion, disunity and intense rivalry. An increase in anti-Christian propaganda is a reaction to an “insecurity alarm” among these groups, he said.

Dr. John Dayal, member of the National Integration Council of the Government of India and secretary general of the All India Christian Council (AICC), told Compass that the BJP was on the retreat in the states it rules and had no guarantee of progress in other states. The BJP rules in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Gujarat, and it forms part of ruling coalitions in Karnataka, Bihar and Orissa states.

In the latest state assembly elections in Tamil Nadu, Kerala, West Bengal, Assam and the union territory of Pondicherry during April and May 2006, the BJP was unable to come to power even in one state.

Leadership Crisis

Dayal said the BJP was under strain due to the approaching retirement of the party’s two figureheads, former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, now leader of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance, and former Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani, leader of the opposition.

“This put huge stress on the next generation of leaders – three of whom have been tried, and each one has failed,” Dayal noted.

Former BJP president Bangaru Laxman has been caught accepting a bribe; another former party chief, Venkaiah Naidu, “was a dismal failure” unable to generate any confidence in the party; and the incumbent Rajnath Singh also has failed to move the masses, he explained.

BJP General Secretary Arun Jaitley and Member of Parliament (MP) Sushma Swaraj “hardly are the types the RSS will back,” he added.

While Pramod Mahajan, whom Vajpayee projected as the future leader of the party, was killed by his own brother earlier this year, half a dozen MPs of the BJP were expelled from Parliament in December 2005 for allegedly accepting money to introduce issues in the House.

Apart from the leadership crisis, there is intense internal conflict within the party.

National daily The Hindustan Times remarked on September 7, “Rajnath Singh’s supporters admit that though he is the party chief, L.K. Advani still calls the shots. All party leaders turn to Advani to understand the ways of the BJP and even what to tell the media. None of the general secretaries is particularly enamored of Rajnath Singh, though outwardly they show him respect.”

BJP Legacy

Persecution of Christians rose to new heights in India after the BJP came to power as head of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in 1998.

According to the figures of the federal home ministry, between 1950 and 1998 there were only 50 recorded attacks on Christians. The number grew to 100 in 2000, and from 2001 to 2005 at least 200 incidents of anti-Christian attacks were reported every year, according to Dayal.

Besides numerous incidents of anti-Christian violence that go unreported, he said, total known attacks this year are likely to exceed 200.

Anti-Christian incidents thus far in 2006 include the gang rape of two Christian women and a spate of false accusations of “forced” conversions, followed by violent attacks in Madhya Pradesh; sustained harassment of the Emmanuel Mission International (EMI) for more than six months in Rajasthan; a massive anti-Christian campaign in the districts of Dangs and Phulbani in Gujarat and Orissa respectively; and a sudden increase of attacks on Christians in Karnataka state.

Most recently, Hindu extremists on September 3 attacked a 60-year-old evangelist in Guttigar village in Karnataka, Varghese Thomas, and his wife. (See Compass Direct News, “Hindu Extremists Trap, Beat 60-Year-Old Evangelist,” September 8.) On his way to a meeting Sunday evening, the couple saw the apparent victim of a motorcycle accident lying in the middle of the road, and Thomas left his car to assist the victim.

As soon as Thomas bent over the victim, however, the man threw red chili powder into his eyes, temporarily blinding him. A group of around 15 extremists hiding in the bushes nearby then jumped out and assaulted Thomas, accusing him of tricking people into coming to prayer meetings.

In Madhya Pradesh, extremists of two Hindu groups severely beat two pastors on September 24 before dragging them to a police station and accusing them of forcing conversions in Badvani district. Two days earlier, Hindu extremists had attacked and injured two evangelists in Betul district, later accusing them of “hurting Hindu sentiments.”

Additionally, the BJP has enacted anti-conversion laws in some states and amended existing law in others. It amended the anti-conversion law in Gujarat on September 19. In Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, it passed amendment bills to make existing laws stricter on August 3 and July 25 respectively. On April 7, it passed an anti-conversion bill in Rajasthan state assembly.

When the BJP-led NDA won the general elections for the first time in 1998, it succeeded in dividing voters along religious lines following the demolition of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh in December 1992. The destruction of the mosque led to Hindu-Muslim riots.

The BJP won again in 1999 and ruled the federal government till April 2004, when it lost the election to the Congress Party-led United Progressive Alliance.

Striking the Hindu Heartland

Dayal said the “RSS bosses” were anxious due to leader Uma Bharti’s exit from the party and a depletion of stalwarts in Parliament’s upper house.

Bharti, former chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, was expelled from the party in December 2005 after she walked out of a party meeting to appoint the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh.

“These bosses, in the final analysis, have to do the nurturing and provide the cadres for the chosen leaders,” Dayal said. “For the RSS, the search is both for a mass leader and a mass slogan. The issue of Ram Temple [proposed at the site of the Babri mosque] is not really alive. Economics has taken over.”

Political analysts in part ascribed the defeat of the BJP-led NDA in 2004 general elections and in assembly elections in four states and the union territory earlier this year to increasingly mature voters who seemingly voted against Hindu fundamentalism.

Dayal said the BJP realizes it cannot promote Hindutva by targeting Islamic extremism alone, as Muslim violence erupts in various part of the globe and is not limited to India. But he added that the party recognizes a need to promote the slogan, “Hinduism is in danger” in order to divide voters along religious lines – possible also by exaggerating the end of the Hindu king in Nepal and then presenting Christianity in India as a bogey.

In states ruled by the BJP and those ruled by the Congress Party, “The RSS is using all issues,” Dayal said, “from the demands of affirmative action for Dalit Christians to the need for anti-conversion bills, to present Christianity as poised to strike the Hindu heartland as never before.”

RSS Tightens Grip

In the wake of the crisis, the RSS has tightened its control over the BJP, which also has contributed to the increase in the number of anti-Christian attacks.

According to the Telegraph newspaper of May 29, Rajnath Singh, “who is perceived to have won the party crown at the RSS’s behest,” led a drive to pass four amendments to give overwhelming powers to RSS leaders working as BJP state officials known as “organizing secretaries.” According to one amendment, only the national party president – not even state heads – can overrule the decision of a state organizing secretary.

Thanks to the amendments, according to the newspaper, the RSS presence will nearly double in the BJP.

“By amending the party constitution, Rajnath has allowed the state organizing secretaries to freely dictate terms to the party units,” it said.

Wide Network

The RSS has a wide network of agents throughout the country, mainly in states ruled by it for several years.

For instance, it has a far-ranging presence of “one-teacher schools” known as Ekal Vidyalayas. The Ekal Vidyalaya Foundation (EVF), which was registered as a charitable trust in India in 1999, is trying to expand its base to 100,000 schools across the tribal belt by 2012. There are already more than 17,500 such schools in 20 states with the involvement of over 13,000 teachers, 2,500 voluntary workers, and 20 field organizations.

There are 2,818 EVF schools in Madhya Pradesh, 1,641 in Chhattisgarh, 1,569 in Jharkhand, 1,164 in Maharashtra, 1,148 in Uttar Pradesh, 1,109 in Orissa.

These schools allegedly aim at spreading hate against the Christian minority community in the guise of providing education and preventing conversion of tribal people to Christianity. The children of these schools are exposed to Hindu symbols and deities, saints and patriots apart from the regular syllabus.

Ekal Vidyalayas, along with another Hindu extremist group, Seva Bharti, organized an “orchestrated anti-Christian campaign” in Jhabua district of Madhya Pradesh to “step up their propaganda war to expose the real nature of Christian missionaries” in December 2001 and January 2002, reported the Indian Express, a national daily.

Similarly, the RSS has a wide network of shakhas, or daily gatherings, where RSS pracharaks, or propagandists, influence people. According to RSS data, there were 49,734 shakhas in 34,732 locations across the country as of March 2005.

Through the eyes of the Hindutva ideology propagated by the RSS, Christianity is a Western religion brought to India under British colonial rule – contrary to evidence that Christianity spread to parts of India almost from its inception. Thus the anti-British sentiments held by many Hindus are extended towards the Christian community.

In recent years, some Hindu extremists have claimed that missionaries are part of an international conspiracy to convert and overtake India. Opponents of Christianity also claim Western missionaries use material bribes or force to convert the poor and illiterate.

Fr. D’Souza of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, however, said Christians were not discouraged.

“As Christians, we always live under the shadow of the cross of Christ – we do not hate our attackers,” he said. “We rather forgive them and pray for them.”


From Murder Charges to Gang Rape

Key incidents of persecution in India this year reflect a range of attempts to stifle Christian growth:

In Rajasthan state, an already tense situation exploded during the second week of March after Hindu extremists objected to a book on comparative religion for sale on the campus of Emmanuel Mission International. Police arrested three EMI staff members and issued “cease and desist” orders for several of EMI’s social institutions, including schools, a hospital and an orphanage. Hindu extremists attacked churches and individuals throughout the state in recent months with virtual impunity.

On March 16, Rajasthan state police officers arrested the Rev. Dr. Samuel Thomas, EMI president and son of Archbishop M.A. Thomas, EMI’s founder. Both men had gone underground after Hindu extremists accused them of distributing a controversial book they alleged denigrated their religion and deities. In Noida, Uttar Pradesh state, several policemen in civil dress stopped the car in which Thomas’ party was traveling and forced him into their own vehicle. Samuel Thomas has been released on bail, and his father has been granted anticipatory bail. Previously police detained without charges EMI’s chief operating officer and the officer in charge of its Hope Center Orphanage in Raipura.

In late May, the administration of Kota district leveled fresh charges of “exciting . . . disaffection towards the government of India” against M.A. Thomas and his son. The new accusation was based on Kota police reportedly charging that the map of India shown on the website of Georgia-based Hopegivers International, which funds EMI, excluded Jammu and Kashmir states. An offense under this law can lead to imprisonment for life.

In the second week of May, a concerted attack on EMI orphanages, schools and other ministries had intensified when the state social welfare minister, Madan Dilawar, said he should be stoned to death if his government effort to take over EMI’s properties failed. The statement came less than a month after the state unduly revoked the licenses of an EMI Bible institute, orphanage, school, hospital and church in the northern state. The licneses and frozen assets of EMI have since been temporarily restored. Hindu extremists on March 3 had offered a reward of $26,000 each for the heads of Archbishop Thomas and his son.

On June 14, Dilawar allegedly announced plans to take over five institutions operated by EMI, namely Emmanuel Anath Ashram (Orphanage), Emmanuel School Society, Emmanuel Chikitsalaya (Hospital) Samiti, Emmanuel Believers Fellowship and Emmanuel Bible Institute Samiti.

Unidentified youths on July 6 allegedly tried to molest girls and launched an arson attack on the orphanage of EMI. At least six youths tried to enter the girls’ dormitory at the orphanage, Saji Kutty of EMI told Compass. The girls woke up and shouted, after which the youths threw stones at the window. Later, they set a tire on fire and threw it inside the generator room, destroying a generator panel and transformer. Police refused to file a First Information Report on the incident.

Orissa and Gujarat Campaigns

Hindu leaders attending a centenary celebration of the RSS on April 9 allegedly converted at least 344 tribal Christians to Hinduism. Although police were present, they took no action to enforce Orissa state anti-conversion laws that require official permission for such events. The so-called “reconversions” took place as key Hindu dignitaries encouraged the Christians to blow conch shells and recite Hindu scriptures in a symbolic “return” to Hinduism – though most tribal people are traditionally animist, not Hindu. The RSS had set a target of reconverting over 10,000 people.

In Dangs district of Gujarat, organizers of a “reconversion” rally held from February 11 to 13 indicated that Christianity is a major threat to Indian nationalism. Organizers of the Shabri Kumbh event led the 60,000-strong crowd to repeat, “I will save my religion,” and the throng often shouted, “Jai Shri Ram [Praise be to the god Rama].” The assembly resolved to save the Hindu religion and Bharat Mata (Mother India goddess) by reconverting Christians. Sadhvi Ritambhara, a popular Hindu preacher whose programs are aired on several TV channels, said, “They [Christians] call us harvest. They intend to pluck us out. And foreigners want to do this to us.” Ritambhara said it was imperative for Hindus to take up arms to save their religion.

The speakers of the Shabri Kumbh event also encouraged tribal Christians to “reconvert” and passed a resolution calling on the Indian government to enact a nationwide anti-conversion law. But there were no reported attacks or attempts to reconvert tribal Christians as a result of the event – in part due to a heavy police and military presence in the area. A Gujarati police official who spoke on condition of anonymity said the local people of Dangs were not happy about the event. “Most residents stayed in their homes and did not take part,” he said. “Most of the Dangs people who did go to the rally were the poorest tribals who were paid off by the organizers, who offered free food and transport.”

Increase in Attacks in Karnataka

On September 3, two pastors, Santosh George and Madhu Mohan, in the coastal town of Akkiallur in Haveri district were arrested after a mob of about 150 people allegedly led by extremists of the RSS stormed a house church meeting. On the same day (September 3), Hindu extremists investigating the activities of Varghese Thomas, an evangelist in Guttigar laid a trap for him, before beating him and his wife.

On August 20 a Sunday service of the Good Shepherd Community Church was disrupted in Kolar district by about 10 extremists of the RSS.

On August 15, a police inspector and a large crowd of Hindu extremists disrupted a prayer meeting in Ambedkar Beedhi, Malur town, Kolar district. They dragged guest speaker Rev. Peter Muniappa, David Narayanaswamy and a few others outside and punched them in the face. The officers and Hindu extremists then took the Christians to the police station, where they severely beat Rev. Muniappa.

In July, 15 Hindu extremists of the Bajrang Dal entered a district jail in Karnataka and attacked Chetraven Rajan, a Christian businessman accused of compelling his wife to commit suicide. Prison authorities made no attempt to protect Rajan, nor did they file a case against the attackers. Christians say the incidence of anti-Christian attacks has increased in Karnataka since the government of the Janata Dal-Secular party, in coalition with the Bharatiya Janata Party, took power from the Congress Party in February.

Arrest of Victims

On September 21, six Christians working with the Indian Missionary Society in Gujarat state were arrested, followed by the arrest of two women four days later, on murder charges filed by Kanji Nayak – after Nayak and several other Hindu extremists attacked them. The extremists beat and robbed pastor Dasrath Nanji Dilwad and his wife Manjula Bhen, along with another married couple and four male companions, and threatened them with further attacks if they continued to share the gospel in the area. Nayak claimed the eight had tried to forcefully convert him – and that when he refused, Dasrath tried to kill him by firing two rounds of ammunition at him.

On September 13, unidentified assailants attacked and looted a 200-year-old church in Amritsar city of Punjab state. Church authorities suspected that the family of Kartar Rai, a Hindu who formerly worked as caretaker of St. Paul’s Church, carried out the attack and looting. Rai’s family also accused the church of forcing them to convert to Christianity. A member of the BJP announced that a draft anti-conversion bill would be introduced in the next session of the Punjab state assembly, which would require Christian ministers to get permission from district authorities before a conversion could take place.

On September 3, a leader of the Bajrang Dal led an attack on a church in the Shivagiri area of Kathua district, Jammu and Kashmir state. About 40 extremists allegedly stormed the worship service attended by around 20 members, including seven Christians facing charges of “concealing identity” and forcible conversion. The extremists pulled out Pastor P.R. Anthony and started slapping him. After attacking Anthony, the mob started beating worshipers and shoving women who were in an adjacent prayer hall.

Rape in Madhya Pradesh

With the encouragement of a local chief and the apparent backing of a BJP leader, villagers in Nadia village of Madhya Pradesh on May 28 gang-raped two Christian women after the husband of one refused to deny Christ. Earlier villagers had beaten up Gokharya Barela, the husband of one of the victims, and took him to Sirvil village, near Nadia, where the village court demanded he forsake Christianity.

The headman of 12 villages in Madhya Pradesh state, including Nadia, later asked Christians to renounce their faith or leave the village. Pandya Patel warned other villagers that if anyone spoke to the police about himself or about the rapists, they would be expelled from the village – regardless of their religious background.

The villagers also filed a counter complaint of forced conversion against the raped women.

False Accusations

Pastor K.K. Jwala of the Sheopur Bible Fellowship church and three members, identified only as Anup, Jijo and Raju Mathew, were arrested on charges of forced conversion and subsequently released on August 21. A group of about 15 extremists had punched and hit the Christians with hockey sticks soon after worship ended on August 20.

On August 14, a group of about 50 extremists of the Dharma Raksha Sena mobbed pastor Vinod Karsal, 50, as he visited another pastor in Jabalpur to pray for him. The mob gathered outside the house, began shouting anti-Christian chants and broke in. Unable to find the Bible the pastors had hidden, the Hindu extremists planted gospel tracts in the glove compartment of Karsal’s scooter and police soon arrived to arrest him for forcible conversion.

On June 6, police raided a home in Jabalpur city and arrested Christians there after officers and Hindu extremists coerced a neighbor to file a charge. Homeowner Meera Bai, 52, said her 19-year-old neighbor, known as Sukhdev and by the alias of Guddu Usram, had filed a complaint with police earlier that day claiming that Bai had pressured him to become a Christian. After questioning at the police station, however, Sukhdev visited Bai at her home to tell her that Hindu extremist Dharma Sena members and police officers had forced him to file the complaint against her.

On June 4, a mob of Hindu extremists stormed a home prayer meeting in Mayapuri and dragged Christians inside to a nearby temple to force them to bow before local gods, but it was the church pastor who was charged with “insulting religious beliefs.”

“Police also created a scene at the police station, colluding with the fundamentalist elements and encouraging them to beat me up the next time I am caught evangelizing,” Pastor Bharti told Compass.

On May 14, Hindu extremists vandalized an independent church in Gauri Nadi village, about 12 kilometers (seven miles) from Jabalpur city. The attackers beat Dinanath Tiwari, 35, and roughed up Pastor Munnu Kujur, threatening to throw acid on the pastor’s face and bomb his church if he did not stop converting Hindus to Christianity.

On May 1, police in Jabalpur allegedly colluded with Hindu extremists by having Christian “evidence” planted in a social worker’s personal bag in order to charge him with “forcible” conversion of children.

Copyright © 2006 Compass Direct