Christian Persecution: India

The following article by Manini Chatterjee, a respected senior Indian journalist, was released by the Indian News Service on July 10,1998. It was published in the Asian Age today, 11 July 1998, and other newspapers.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-run Delhi government's move earlier this month to remove churches from the list of places of worship because sacramental wine is distributed there is not an isolated instance of hurting the sentiments of the minority Christian community and threaten its identity.

Over the last few years and more so in the last three months, there has been a systematic plan executed by RSS, VHP, Bajrang Dal and Shiv Sena cadres (political parties) to denigrate, harass, intimidate and terrorise the miniscule Christian community in India who number around 23 million forming barely 2.6 per cent of the Indian population.

Following the outcry in Parliament over the Delhi government's move on churches, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee in a characteristic display of hand-wringing innocence, claimed that his government respected the sentiments of the Christian community. It was a typical instance of hypocrisy, of a piece with his much publicised lament at the demolition of the Babri Masjid, for neither the prime minister nor the union home minister have made any statements leave alone taken against the series of attacks on Christian priests, institutions and prayer meetings, a bulk of which have taken place in BJP-ruled states in recent months.

Three pronged attack Representatives of the Christian community such as the Catholic Bishops Conference of India and the All India Catholic Union which have compiled statistics of the spate of attacks see a sharp rise in last five years. According to incomplete data collected by the CBCI of the killings of priests and rape/molestation of nuns, while only six cases took place in the first five years after 1978, there have been 17 cases in the last five years.

But that is only one, albeit extreme, form of violence against the community. According to the All India Catholic Union national secretary, John Dayal, the attacks on Christians have been launched on three different fronts.

First, there is direct violence against the religious community of priests and nuns. These include in the years 1996 and 1997 the torture of Father Christudas in Bihar, the killing of Fr AT Thomas in Bihar, the shooting of Fr NV Jose in Manipur, the murder of Sister Augusta in Assam, of Sister Maria in MP, grievous attack on Brother Tirkey on May 15, 1998 in Ranchi attack on pastor Jahkya Digal in Phulbani, Orissa.

Second, attacks on evangelists (teachers of the faith) and violent disruption of prayer meetings. There has been a steep rise in this category particularly since the BJP came to power at the Centre. Such attacks have taken place in Gujarat, Maharashtra, Punjab, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh in recent months.

Third, pressure on Christian institutions including schools, colleges, hospitals, churches. These include a sudden spurt in harassment from municipal authorities regarding land permit, charges of encroachments and a rash of cases revolving around disputed land hitherto held by Christian institutions. The Christian community has experienced a distinct increase of harassment against schools (campaigns against school principals, school curriculum, charges or proselytisation), hospitals (for instance two established mission hospitals in Delhi are being needled by the authorities regarding land) and of course churches some of which have been demolished.

Pre-planned pattern

There is a frightening similarity in the pattern of attacks taking place, suggesting an apex level guidance and coordination by the RSS and VHP leadership. A cursory study of the recent instances of violence will bear this out.

The site of the highest number of attacks in recent months has been the state of Gujarat. This is not surprising because it is the state in which the Vishwa Hindu Parishad has the most widespread network and where the BJP's growth has been built on the VHP base. Any nationwide strategy on part of the Saffron brigade to attack Christians would be most effectively carried out on this state. The attacks in Gujarat have taken place with dizzying frequency. On March 2 this year, a meeting attended by local and some foreign missionaries was attacked in Padra village of Baroda district with the missionaries violently manhandled by slogan shouting youths. Two days later on March 4, a prayer meeting and healing session organised by the Pentecostal Church in the Polo grounds in Baroda town was violently disrupted. It was the first day of a scheduled four-day long Ishu Mahotsav or Jesus celebration. Shouting slogans such as Garv Se Kaho Hum Hindu Hain, over 200 activists of the VHP and Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) broke the mike, set the stage on fire and beat up those who were on the stage. The four day meeting was abandoned after this incident. On April 11, yet another attack by RSS-VHP members took place on a meeting of Christians at Palanpur municipal hall. A three day meeting from April 10 (Good Friday) was being held. The authorities had been informed and police protection sought. Police constables were on duty on April 10. On April 11 afternoon, a special session was being held for women. At 4.30 pm, 15 persons entered the municipal hall after climbing over the wall from behind. They first ransacked the kitchen, then entered the hall and beat up the women, and damaged a bus parked outside before leaving. On April 15, residents of Naroda village led by their deputy sarpanch demolished a Roman Catholic church around 25 km from Ahmedabad on grounds that it was allegedly being built without permission from the civic authorities though it stood on land brought by the church about five years ago. Most recently, the St Mary's School in the Naroda locality of Ahmedabad was vandalised by Bajrang Dal members on May 28. The frenzied youth were in the midst of their so-called swadeshi campaign against Coke and Pepsi and shouted slogans in the school against institutions allegedly spreading foreign culture. In Maharashtra too, the Shiv Sena and RSS have stepped up attacks on Christians. Early this year, an RSS-outfit Jankalyan Samiti attacked a voluntary organisation called Shruti run by the Catholic Health Association of India in Nandugarh in Latur district. A large number of goons attacked the Shruti office and pelted sister Marlee and Father Jeevendra Jadhav with stones and beat them up accusing them of converting the village children to Christianity.

More recently, on May 11, 1998 Shiv Sainiks barged into a meeting being conducted at the MMM High School in Ambarnath. The priest was giving a sermon for Jesus for all Church. The hoodlums attacked the priest, Father Octavio Anthony Nevis, with iron bars, broke an amplifier, speaker and tubelights, and created chaos by throwing crackers among the gathering. The local Shiv Sena boss later justified the attack saying that the meetings were aimed at proselytising the religion. The latest attack in the state took place in the Bombay suburb of Malad on June 16, 1998. A chapel of the St Savariyar Church under the patronage of the famous century old Orien Church was razed to the ground. The church was built 10 years ago and renovated recently. On June 16, without any notification, the P-North ward of the Bombay Municipal Corporation razed the entire chapel.

In response to a complaint by the All India Catholic Union following the initial attacks in Gujarat and Maharashtra, the National Human Rights Commission on March 26, 1998 had directed the police in the two states to take expeditious action against the people who attacked Christians in Baroda and Latur. But the continuing attacks in the subsequent months show that this directive has had no effect.

Apart from these two states, similar attacks have taken place in Punjab, UP and Rajasthan. In Punjab, a prayer meeting was attacked in Ludhiana on October 25, 1997 by VHP activists and six young Christians brutally beaten up. Again on March 31, 1998 a group of youth ransacked a Christian congregation near Grover colony in Jalandhar repeating now by the standard routine: smashing tubelights, breaking furniture, setting the dais on fire, manhandling the organisers and forcing the people to leave.

In Rajasthan, the campaign has been more systematic. The target has been small Christian institutions and activities in the tribal dominated districts of Udaipur and Banswara. VHP leaflets accusing them of spreading their faith and being foreigners has been distributed in the villages of the district. Their aim is to drive out the Christians from the area. In late 1997, they presented a memorandum to the district magistrate to stop all activities of Christians in the district and the state. In Banswara district, after 12 years of peaceful possession of plot of land purchased by a tribal priest, it was forcibly occupied by local youth. A Catholic school in Banswara was recently attacked, and the staff threatened. An instance has come to light even in Uttar Pradesh. Just as in Baroda and Jalandhar and Ambarnath, on March 16, 1998 Bajrang Dal goondas attacked a prayer meeting in Kanpur. A three-day meeting was to be held from March 16 to 18 at Maswanpur under Kalyanpur police station under the aegis of Assembly of believers in India. On March 16, well before the meeting began, Bajrang Dal men descended on the place, threw stones, beat up the organisers, sprinkled kerosene and set the stage on fire. The meeting had to be abandoned even though prior permission had been secured from the authorities and the police informed. The above instances show a definite pattern, some of the salient features of which are: attacks on small, defenceless and isolated Christian groups in states where they are an insignificant minority (the VHP has so far not dared to attack the community in Kerala or Goa where they exist in much larger numbers); accuse all Christian institutions of carrying out conversions; accuse them of being alien and foreign to India; raise and use the above as pretext to carry out violent attacks with the clear aim to terrorise the entire community. The tacit and sometimes active conivance of state power to assist this terrorism is the primary reason for the spate of attacks in BJP-ruled states.

Ideological motivation

It is clear that the attacks on prayer meetings, on churches, on missionary schools are not spontaneous outbursts of anger but part of a systematic plan. Neither are they cases of mindless violence. Rather, the saffron brigade's attack on the Christian community stems from the very essence of Hindutva ideology which sees India as the land of a monolithic "Hindu" community in which members of other faiths are alien and deserve no status. For the RSS, the principal enemies of the Hindu rashtra are the Muslims and the Christians (followed by communists) because they are not rooted in the Indian soil.

The VHP and Bajrang Dal and RSS and BJP goons who go about shouting vicious slogans and indulging in crude violence are only the stormtroopers of an ideology that is equally shared by the likes of LK Advani and Atal Behari Vajpayee. The motivated attacks on the Christian community in recent months is a chilling real life application of what the former RSS chief and its premier ideologue, Guru Golwalkar exhorted decades ago. In his tract we or our nationhood defined, published in Golwalkar wrote: "In Hindustan exists and must needs exist the ancient Hindu nation and nought else but the Hindu nation. All those not belonging to the national ie Hindu race, religion, culture and language naturally fall out of the pale of real national life. "There are only two courses open to the foreign elements, either to merge themselves in the national race and adopt its culture, or to live at its mercy so long as the national race may allow them to do so and to quit the country at the sweet will of the national race. From this standpoint, sanctioned by the experience of shrewd old nations, the foreign races in Hindustan must either adopt the Hindu culture and language must learn their separate existence to merge in the Hindu race, or may stay in the country, wholly subordinated to the Hindu nation, claiming nothing, deserving no privileges, far less any preferential treatment not even citizen's rights. There is, at least should be, no other course for them to adopt. We are an old nation; let us deal, as old nations ought to and do deal, with the foreign races who have chosen to live in our country." From time to time, the BJP leadership has tried to disassociate itself from this tract which remains all purposes the RSS bible. But the tenor and manner of the attacks from Banswara to Baroda, from Latur to Ludhiana show how deeply ingrained is Golwalkar's ideology in the minds of their young cadres even at the end of the 20th century. Ignorance and arrogance The Hindutva ideology is based on a litany of lies and distortions about India's history and culture, but even so the attack on the Christian community is astounding for its colossal combination of ignorance and arrogance. The constraint refrain of the RSS school is that the Christians are abusing our hospitality as though India was the fiefdom of the RSS and its followers. By calling them outsiders and aliens, the Saffron brigade appears completely ignorant of the fact that Christianity came to India in the first century AD long before European colonialism. It is ironic that the VHP, which is largely financed by non-resident Indians (NRIs) who chose to desert their motherland for the charms of the West, should question the patriotism or citizenship rights of a community which has been living harmoniously in India for close to two thousand years. As for the charge of conversion, even after all these centuries and two hundred years of British raj, the truth is that the Christians remain a very small community in India. If the Christian community was hell bent on only converting Hindus, surely they would not have remained less than three per cent of the population.

Tactical shift

While Christians have been a target in Hindutva ideology from the outset, it is only now that they are being marked for systematic attack. An editorial in the November, 1997 issue of Vishal Jagruti, the journal brought out by the All India Catholic Union, stated: "The Sangh Parivar, after forty years of unceasing political and physical violence against the Muslim community has now expanded its arc of attack to include Christians of India, if not indeed Christianity in India. Only this can explain the effort to pervert the Constitution to put pressure on Christian institutions, or the denial of their human rights to Dalit Christians."

The question though is why this shift towards Christians without any provocation. The answer perhaps lies in the BJP's electoral compulsions of which the RSS has always been very mindful. The systematic targetting of the Muslim community culminating in the demolition of the Babri Masjid gave the BJP its "distinctive" profile and an electoral harvest. But the party has reached a certain plateau and cannot milk the Ayodhya issue further. Moreover, in its bid to win allies, the BJP has had to don a moderate image. Since the Muslim community is far larger and relatively more cohesive, and more importantly electorally crucial in a large number of constituencies in the north, the BJP has of late tried to strike a hypocritical peace with the community. This was particularly evident on the eve of the last general elections when Vajpayee tried to woo the Muslims. This does not mean that the Hindutva forces have given up their hostility towards the largest minority community in India. Kashi and Mathura and the temple in Ayodhya remain on their agenda. But for the time being, it is in the interests of the BJP to avoid confrontation with the community lost it lose its allies and remain confined to its limited electoral appeal.

At the same time, however, the ideology of Hindutva based as it is on hate and division and narrow chauvinism cannot be diluted. To keep alive the goal of the Hindu rashtra, the cadres have to be constantly fed with notions of superiority, have to be constantly exhorted to fight the other have to be continuously engaged in violence and terrorism against the weak and defenceless. It is to satisfy this blood lust that the RSS leadership appears to be targetting the Christian community. The Muslims have been identified and taught a lesson. It is now the turn of the Christians. And then will come turn by turn, all those who stand for secular India. It is therefore imperative to fight against the latest tactic of the Saffron brigade. Far from turning moderate with the assumption of power, it has only whetted their appetite for more blood and strife to pave the way to their Hindu rashtra.

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