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Georg Evers {*}

Wave of Violence

India's Christians Taken Aim at by Radical Hindus

 

From: Herder Korrespondenz, 11/2008, P. 551-557
webmaster's own, not authorized translation

 

    In various places in India, especially in the federal state Orissa, in the last months bloody acts of violence of radical Hindu groups against the Christian minority occurred. Background are above all the church's social activities in favour of the native population and casteless people.

 

On 23 August 2008 the 84-year-old Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati and four of his companions were murdered in his ashram in Jalespata in the Kandhamal district in the Indian federal state Orissa. Immediately after it radical Hindu groups began to commit acts of violence against Christians and Christian institutions. That happened although at the scene of the crime a letter from Maoist fighters was found accusing themselves of the act and taking responsibility for it. Against that representatives of radical Hindu organizations maintained from the outset Christian groups had done it; they were responsible for the act of violence and had to be punished for it.

The suspicions on the part of Hindus that Christians were responsible for the deed go back to the fact that Swami Saraswati, who held a managerial position in the radical Hindu organization Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), during his lifetime belonged to the sharpest critics of the Christian church and had often massively declared himself against conversions of Hindus to Christianity.

 


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On such occasions he had not shrunk from calling for violence in order to stop the missionary efforts of Christians.

The outbreak of violence after the murder of Swami Saraswati was the second wave of violence against Christians in Orissa within nine months. Also during the Christmas days of 2007 in the district of Kandhamal outrages and violence against Christians had taken place. At that time too churches, religious institutions and houses of Christians were the target of the perpetrators of violence, who destroyed more than 400 religious institutions and an even larger number of houses of Christians. Already before that, at the beginning of July 2007, radical Hindus had erected roadblocks around Christian settlements and attacked them. In that already very tense situation of a poisoned relationship between the small minority of Christians and the radical Hindu groups the murder of the in radical Hindu circles highly respected Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati, was like the spark that lets explode a powder keg.

 

The Churches Support the Rights of the Lower Strata

For Orissa in northeast India belongs to the poorest regions of the country. 70 to 75 percent of the population live below the poverty threshold and belong to the Dalits or to the tribal population. The semi-feudal agriculture is run by big landowners who use the traditional form of serfdom in which the members of lower castes or casteless people must slave for minimum wages and are exploited. But apart from massive poverty there are in Orissa also giant economic projects which have to do with the exploitation of bauxite deposits and which in turn cause large ecological problems. With a population of 35 million about 95 percent are Hindus, whereas the proportion of the Christian population is only at 2.4 percent.

Hindus notice the Christian churches as disruptive factors, because they support the rights of the lower castes, of the tribal population and of casteless people. Radical Hindu groups react time and again with violence to Christian activities in the areas of education, health care and social assistance, which they all condemn as covert missionary activities only aiming at converting Hindus of the lower social strata to Christianity.

Far beyond India the murder of the Australian missionary Graham Staines became known, who on 22 January 1999 together with his two sons was burnt in a motor caravan by a mob of Hindu perpetrators of violence in Keonjhar, also in the federal state Orissa. In 2003 the ringleader Dara Singh was sentenced to death, in 2005 the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. In circles of radical Hindus Dara Singh is regarded as a hero, who had distinguished himself by stopping the conversion attempts of Christians among Hindus. There are several Hindu organizations that have promised to continue his fight against Christian missionary activities in every way.

Since 25 percent of the population belong to the tribal population, which has its own religious and cultural traditions, the assertion of Hindus that these sections of the population were all Hindus is simply untrue. As animists the members of the tribal population were for a long time classed as belonging to the Dalits. Only recently they joined the major religions. The tribal group of Kondh, who in their vast majority declare their faith in Hinduism, makes 52 percent of the population, while the Pana, from whom most Christians come, supply 17 percent of the population.

Already a few days after the assassination of Swami Saraswati there were acts of violence against Christians by Hindu radical groups in 13 of the 30 districts of the federal state Orissa. More than 60 000 Christians were forced to leave their homes and flee to the forests, where they were persecuted by armed fanatical Hindu groups. In several villages there were enforced conversions of Christians to Hinduism, when radical Hindus, under threat of armed force called upon Christians "to return to Hinduism". On that occasion Christians were forced to sign papers in which they had to declare that they had become Christians for the only reason that Christian missionaries had promised them money and material benefits and now, after they had realized their mistake, "voluntarily" returned to Hinduism.

 

Many Christians Had for Weeks to Stay in Reception Camps

Also more than three weeks after the outbreak of violence the authorities were not in a position to guarantee the safety of the Christian population. The government of Orissa, led by the Hindu party Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was reproached with

 


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giving the radical Hindus for too a long time a free hand and not stopping the mob. The Minister of the Interior of the national government, Sripakash Jaiswal, flew to the crisis area and reproached the political leadership of the federal state of Orissa and its head of government Naveen Patnaik with having done too little to prevent the acts of violence in Kandhamal. Only when after a prolonged manouvering and inadequate measures the government gave the police the order to shoot at looters and arsonists the wave of violence decreased a little. But since also then the violence against Christians did not stop the government on 26 September imposed a curfew on the areas where the violence was fiercest. At the same time 700 additional policemen were sent into the crisis areas.

Many Christians for weeks remained kept in the reception camps, while others continued to look for refuge in the forests and only during the day dared to go into their villages. After the murder of Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati his followers threatened Archbishop Raphael Cheenath of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar, who is responsible for the region, with death. They publicly announced, "Your missionaries have killed our leader. Now we will also kill your leader!" As a result of that Archbishop Cheenath was forced to hide from the potential assassins, so that he could only in a restricted way perform the administration of the church in that difficult time.

In most of the villages in the countryside there were no longer services, because the churches were often destroyed and the participating Christians had to reckon with violence by Hindu groups. How the radical Hindus proceeded reports for instance the parish priest Basil Kullu, whose parish in the remote village Madhupur was attacked on 25 August 2008 by more than 500 Hindus. Together with other priests, nuns and 300 of his parishioners he succeeded in escaping into the nearby forest. The mob destroyed the church, the presbytery, the accommodation for needy children and the hospital. The Tabernacle of the Church was broken open, all statues of saints smashed and the pictures of saints destroyed.

Already some time before the outbreak of violence the parish priest Kullu had been called upon by radical Hindus to refrain from his priestly, but especially his social activities for the poor and to leave the area. When after the assassination of Swami Saraswati the acts of violence against Christians erupted, local Hindu groups took advantage of the opportunity to destroy the church but above all the educational and social institutions of the Catholic Church, which primarily serve the members of the lower castes and casteless.

In the village Sankarakhole near Bhubaneswar, the capital of Orissa, on 25 August 2008 a group of Hindus beat up Father Edward Sequeira and carried the seriously injured into his house, to which the attackers then set fire. Previously he became a witness how the mob plunged Rajni Majih, a Hindu girl who worked as maid on the mission station, into the fire, in which she burned to death. Father Sequeira survived seriously injured.

In the village Paburia, likewise in Orissa, the 27-year-old Rajesh Digal was first beaten by Hindus and then buried alive. A Hidu accompanying him, who because of his friendship with a Christian was also beaten, reported that the culprits called upon Rajesh, "Now do shout to your Jesus, he will then save you!", when they buried him alive. Since the police and other security forces were not able to stop the acts of violence, up to 50.000 Christians fled to save their lives.

 

Violence against Christians not only in Orissa

Since the assassination of Swami Laxmanananda the number of Christians killed has constantly risen and in early October 2008 reached the number 59. The material damage is also immense. In Orissa 4420 houses and 177 churches have been devastated or set on fire and 20 schools and numerous social institutions destroyed. Even though in early October the violence subsided and was largely under control, the radical Hindus had to a large extent achieved their aims. Also for the state security forces there was no longer much to do, for in the fought over district Kandhamal there was nothing left to be protected. The Christians had been expelled, had fled into the woods or found a makeshift accommodation in refugee camps; their churches and houses had been destroyed, their possessions stolen.

On 3 September 2008 the St. Xavier School of the Jesuits in Jaipur, the capital of the state of Rajasthan, was attacked by a mob of 100 Hindus, who smashed up the inventory and threatened the teachers present. The action was a protest against the dismissal of seven students who had been dismissed because of a service in honour of the Hindu deity Ganesha organized by them in a free hour in a classroom. The protesters called that disciplinary measure of the school an insult to the god Ganesha, which had to be avenged.

The recourse to violence in the city Jaipur, which is otherwise free of religious unrest, can only be explained against the background of the acts of violence against Christians in Orissa, which have consequences for the living together of religious communities also in other areas of the country. After talks with the school headship a peaceful solution was found. The school took back the dismissal of the students, as they were in the final year and did without a charge against the protesters.

 


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In Jamshedpur in the state of Jharkand on 24 September there was a break-in at the Catholic Church of St. Mary, the tabernacle was opened by force, the hosts from the Ciborium scattered and the communion-cup itself stolen. On 14 September in Mangalore in the federal state Karnataka fifteen Christian churches were attacked and partly destroyed. The radical Hindu groups involved represented the acts of violence as a response to the protests of local Christians against the violence of their fellow-believers in Orissa. Most of the churches attacked belong to the Pentecostal church.

Great dismay far beyond the Christian community was triggered by the attack on the convent of the poor Clares in Mangalore in which the sisters were attacked during a worship service, the monstrance desecrated, and pictures, statues and stained-glass windows destroyed. On television the local Bishop Aloysius Paul D'Souza called upon the Christians, not to allow being provoked and to remain quiet. The Prime Minister of Karnataka, who belongs to the Bharatiya Janata Party, visited Mangalore and promised to provide public money for the reconstruction of the destroyed churches. At the same time he condemned any form of violence to settle religious quarrels.

In his speech he also made clear that it represented a violation of the Indian Constitution to defame other religions and their beliefs. With it he referred to publications of Protestant groups such as the Pentecostal movement, in which Hindu beliefs had been condemned as superstition and idolatry. The often aggressive missionary activity of Evangelical and charismatic groups causes time and again violent reactions among Hindus, who then generally reproach all churches and Christian groups with condemning Hinduism.

 

Legal Measures against Radical Hindu Organizations Demanded

The protests by Hindus are mainly directed against the so-called "New Life Churches", Evangelical Christian churches of "Born Again Christians", which for a good 20 years have been founded by missionaries who came from the USA. Hindus accuse that group of having circulated pamphlets in which Hinduism is denigrated as paganism and of making the Hindu gods as idols a laughing-stock. The New Life Movement denies that it ever ordered such publications, and assumes that it is here about a deliberate provocation of radical Hindus.

But on 23 September the government of Karnataka then more sharply reacted to the violence against Christians and put into force the regulations of the "Anti-Goonda Act" of 1985, which gives the authorities the power to proceed against all who attack institutions of religious minorities. That happened after the Archbishop of Bangalore, Bernard Moras, had protested with sharp words against the inactivity of the Government of Karnataka.

On 20 September 2008 Hindu extremists broke into Jacob's Church in Bangalore, broke open the tabernacle and destroyed statues of saints and the liturgical vestments in the sacristy. Meanwhile the police have arrested the suspected ringleader Mahendra Kumar of the radical Hindu organization Bajrang Dal together with more than 70 other suspected culprits from the same organization, who are made responsible for the attacks in Mangalore, Udupi and Chikmaglur. Probably to save his organization from further action by the authorities Mahendra Kumar has in a letter to the national organization officially resigned from the leadership of the Bajrang Dal in Karnataka and declared that he will as an ordinary member continue to fight for the defence of the interests of Hinduism.

On 19 September 2008 an arson attack on the 120-year-old Peter and Paul Cathedral in Jabalpur in the Federal state Madhya Pradesh was committed in which the fire could be checked by the quick action of the rescue team, so that only one altar was destroyed by the fire. But whether the culprits will be tracked down and punished is uncertain, as the Hindu nationalist BJP party is the governing party in Madya Pradesh. In Kerala too churches were attacked: On 22 September in Akapparambu, a village near Kochi, the windows of the cathedral of the Jakobites, which goes back to the year 825, were broken. In the cemetery of another church a more than two-meter-high statue of Christ was smashed. Also in the federal state Tamil Nadu in late September Christian churches were under attacks.

One day after the assassination of Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati and his companions the chairman of the Indian Bishops' Conference, Cardinal Varkey Vithayathil of Ernakulam-Angamaly and the Vice President, Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Mumbai had condemned the murder and declared themselves in favour of peace and the end of violence. After the outbreak of violence against Christians in Orissa the Indian Bishops' Conference on 27 August asked the national government to send troops into the area around Kandhawal to stop the violence. Linked with it was the demand that India's central investigation authority should investigate and clear up the circumstances of the murder of Swami Saraswati and his companions, so that the accusation of the Hindu groups Christians were responsible for that bloody deed was refuted by the arrest of the real culprits.

Because of the security forces' constant inactivity in stopping the violence against Christians in Orissa,

 


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Archbishop Raphael Cheenath of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar turned to the Supreme Court of India with the request the Court should give the authorities in Orissa the order to protect the Christians in Orissa by providing enough police and security forces in order to take effective measures against the radical Hindu groups. On 3 September the Supreme Court called upon the government of the federal state Orissa within 24 hours to prepare a report in which was described what measures the state government had undertaken to protect the Christians.

An ecumenical delegation of seven representatives of Christian churches has handed over a memorandum to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in which the disastrous situation in Orissa was described and asked to send army units to help the local security forces, since the local authorities were obviously not able or, even worse, unwilling to protect the Christian population. Prime Minister Singh has subsequently called upon the prime minister of Orissa immediately to take measures in order to re-establish peace and security in the region.

An interreligious delegation, leaders of Christians, Hindus and Muslims on 1 September 2008 in Delhi met with the President of the Indian Union, Pratibha Patil, and asked her to issue an order in which the government of the federal state Orissa was obliged to stop the violence against Christians. At the same time they demanded that the government took legal measures against several radical Hindu organizations such as Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP, World Hindu Conference) and Bajrang Dal (Party of the Strong and Brave) which both are regarded as organizations connected with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and as its militant tools. Also some political parties, including the Communist Party, have demanded to ban violent radical Hindu organizations.

 

A Day of Fasting and Prayer

On 29 August all Christian schools and educational institutions in the country, which are after all 45.000 institutions with more than 10 million pupils and students, stopped for one day their teaching in protest against the violence against Christians in Orissa. It is noteworthy that 60 percent of those institutions are in villages and primarily serve the lower and marginalized groups in the population. The school authorities in the Indian federal states in which the BJP is the governing party demanded explanations as to why the schools were closed without the permission of the government agencies and announced sanctions.

 


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In response to the closure of the Christian schools supporters of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) in various cities attacked Christian schools, destroyed school buses and threatened to burn down the institutions. Only the deployment of police forces prevented them from putting that plan into effect. In those demonstrations the supporters of VHP carried posters on which Christians were accused of being responsible for the assassination of Swami Saraswati. The leader of the VHP, Praveen Togadia, justified the violence against Christians as self-defence of Hindus against the violence which had first come from the Christians

Other Hindu leaders went even further and insinuated that the Christians themselves had set fire to their churches and houses in order to get compensations from the state and at the same time to denigrate the Hindus.

On Cardinal Vithyathil's initiative on 7 September 2008 the Catholics in India organized a day of fasting and prayer. The leaders of the Protestant churches of North and South India joined that appeal and also invited their faithful to a day of fasting and prayer for the victims of the violence in Orissa and for peace and harmony between the religions. In response to the violence against Christians in many places in the country special prayer services took place in which Christians together with Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and members of other religious communities prayed for the victims in Orissa.

 

A Negative Light on India

In Varanasi, a centre of Hinduism, representatives of various religions met on the square in front of the Catholic cathedral in order to pray for an end of violence and for the victims. Texts from various Holy Scriptures were read, in which violence in the name of religion is condemned.

On 2 October 2008, the birthday of Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948), in New Delhi more than 10.000 members and leaders of different religions demonstrated against the persecution of Christians in Orissa and elsewhere. Hindu leaders like Swami Agnivesh noted with regret that the same radical Hindu groups which also killed Gandhi continue to exist and are in a position to direct their violence against Christians. Also leading politicians attended the demonstration, which made clear that the radical Hindu groups of the Sangh Pariwar among Hindus still meet with resistance and are only a minority.

The acts of violence against Christians throw a negative light on India, which in the past year, on 15 August 2007 solemnly celebrated the 60th anniversary of independence from British colonial rule. With pride and satisfaction politicians, intellectuals, members of religious communities and many ordinary citizens looked back on what has been achieved during that time in education and health care, in the fields of economy, science and technology. In information technology India has been able to secure a worldwide leading position. In recent years the Indian economy has achieved growth rates in the order of 8 to 9 percent, as a result of which the political weight of India as leading emerging economy in Southeast Asia was underlined.

India is regarded as the world's largest democracy and can be proud that the democratic institutions have proved their worth despite the bloody fights at the time of partition of the Indian subcontinent, the war with the neighbouring country Pakistan, and internal tensions. The status of women too has improved in that period. In the countryside the dowry system admittedly still harms the status of married women and because of problems with the dowry there are time and again murders of women. But it can be seen as characteristic of the change for the better that on 19 July 2007 with Pratibha Patil for the first time a woman was elected President of the Indian Union. Sonja Gandhi as chairwoman of the Congress Party and Mayawati Kumari as prime minister of the federal state Uttar Pradesh are other women in a leading political function. It is of particular importance that Mayawati Kumari, who belongs to the Dalits, has in Uttar Pradesh been elected Prime Minister.

Even though in the 60-year history of the Indian Union repeatedly violent clashes between members of different religious communities happened, the constitutional principle of the "secular state" has never been questioned by a majority. In view of the recent clashes and the violence against the Christian minority observers critically ask to what extent the neutrality of the state towards religions is still in force, according to which religious communities are not allowed to play a role of their own in politics.

The ideology of "Hindutva" represented by Hindu groupings organized in Sangh Parivar speaks strongly against the secular model and wants to establish in India a Hindu state in which non-Hindus would be second-class citizens. Although the Hindus form 80.5 percent of the Indian population, the Muslims with 13.4 percent, the Christians with 2.3 percent and the Sikhs with 1.8 percent are religious minorities which want as little as the Buddhists, Jains, Parsi and Baha'i simply to be pocketed by the Hindu majority. The radical Hindus are of the opinion that only via Hinduism can be defined what actually is India's cultural, religious, social, political and economic identity.

 


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Although that form of a "cultural nationalism" runs counter to the first Indian Prime Minister Pandit Nehru's idea of a secular state and is not supported by the majority of the Indian population, that ideology nevertheless meets with a wide response in organizations like Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), Bajrang Dal and other radical Hindu groups. Among the radical Hindus there is the fear that Dalits and members of the tribal population could turn their backs on Hinduism because they (do) no longer feel at home there or, because of the caste order, had actually never in the full sense had a home there. That's why they reject conversions from Hinduism to other religions in an almost manic-looking manner.

In their fight against conversions they place their hopes in support by the state. Representatives of the VHP on 26 September 2008 e.g. called upon the Indian government to enact a general ban on conversions. At the same time they renewed their accusations that Christian missionaries would only by force and promises of material benefits convert members of the lower classes and the tribal population to Christianity. It is true though that they cannot prove those accusations. For in several Indian federal states - in 1978 in Arunachal Pradesh, in 2003 in Gujarat, in 2006 in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh and in 2007 in Himachal Pradesh - bills were passed which make conversions that happened by force or by material benefits punishable. So far, however, not a single case has been brought before the courts.

The real reason for the fight against the Christian minority, however, lies elsewhere: The radical Hindus take offence at the work of Christians in the education and health sector among the Dalits and those belonging to the tribal population. Those sections of the population which till now could easily be manipulated and exploited through education gained in self-esteem and are more and more in a position themselves to stand up for their rights.

 

    {*} George Evers (born in 1936), attained a doctorate with Karl Rahner on theology of religions. From 1979-2001 he was an Asia assistant in the Institute of Missiology Missio (Aachen). In that capacity he made numerous journeys to Asian countries and took part in important theological conferences in the framework of the Union of Asian Bishops' Conferences (FABC). Numerous publications on interreligious dialogue and mission theology.
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