April 1998
Special Report

Saffron targets People of the Cross

In the six weeks between February 14 and March31, Christians religious persons were attacked in seven different places in the country.There appears to be a definite saffron method at work in this targeting of the Church.

In the six weeks between February 14 and March31, Christians religious persons were attacked in seven different places in the country. In five of these cases, the assailants’ identities have been traced to the BJP and its affiliates, the RSS, the VHP, the Bajrang Dal and the ABVP. This has caused serious alarm among India’s Christian community forcing them to go petitioning before the National Human Rights and the National Minorities Commissions.

The sudden spurt in attacks on Christians from different missions across the country in the past several weeks highlights, yet again, the long–standing tension between the proponents of Hindutva and Christian missionaries located in far–flung rural areas of the country. Inaction by local district authorities against the assailants in most of these cases is another part of the sorry tale. Ironically, opposition parties which accused the BJP of working with a ‘hidden agenda’ failed to highlight these concerted attacks as an example of what they were talking about.

In the past and even today, Hindutvavaadis have tacitly justified violence against priests and nuns on the ground that the schools, health centres, and other programmes for the welfare and empowerment of Dalits, tribals and other disadvantaged groups by the Christian missions is a mere “cover” for conversions. In recent years, the VHP has been demanding that the Church “apologises for its unsavoury role in the past and gives an assurance that it will desist from such acts in future.” An example of this was the letter written by the president of the VHP, V.H. Dalmia, to Archbishop Simon Pimenta of Mumbai in mid–1996.

The Church, on its part, claims that because its emissaries are working sincerely for alleviation of poverty and towards the goal of social justice, vested interests feel threatened. And, the “forced conversions” charge is just a convenient ploy to whip up local sentiments against the Church people. Investigations by independent human rights groups and, recently, even the National Minorities Commission in many of the incidents of violence confirm the Church’s claim: missionary whose threatens vested interests who find in Hindutva a convenient ally.

The most blatant instance of this was the case of the stripping and parading naked of Father Christudas by activists belonging to the BJP–led Janajati Raksha Samiti at Dumka in Bihar on October 27 last year. An investigation team sent by the National Minorities Commission indicted the district authorities for partisan behaviour. (A separate investigation into a similar incident at Ludhiana produced similar findings). The beheading of a Jesuit scholar in an unrelated incident in the Hazaribagh area of Bihar on October 24 had added to the insecurity of Christians in the state.

In the case of the assault on the CHAI in Latur, Maharashtra (see accompanying story), the collective began its activities in the region with relief work in the village of Nandurga after the terrible earthquake in 1993. Thereafter, it established a permanent camp and has been concentrating on empowering the locals through education and health related activities. There is no religious preaching in their activities with the villagers. But, the Jan Kalyan Samiti, affiliated to the RSS raised the “conversion” bogey.(CC, March,’98). The 17 reported cases of killing and aggression against Christian religious persons between 1989 and 1991 (CC, June 1996) suggest a method in the madness.

“The basic question is the state’s inability to maintain law and order and to give protection, a basic fundamental right, to its minorities,” says the president of the Catholics Bishops Conference of India Archbishop, Alain de Lastic. In a telephonic interview to CC, the archbishop said the Church is not concerned with the ideology of the government in power and will continue to strive for social justice and act as the conscience of the nation. “There is also a strategy by some fundamentalists to try and stem the popularity of Christianity that is behind some of these incidents. Why do they feel so threatened? Because ours is the path of non–violence, they feel they can terrorise those working for the Church. But that will never happen. Our work will continue,” he adds.

Bishop Karam Masih of the Church of North India feels that these incidents are evidence of how Indian society is heading towards acute communal polarisation:“It is very unfortunate that when we are serving the country faithfully according to the principles of Jesus Christ, our actions are being misunderstood.” Said Reverend Grace Valson Thampu of TRACI, a theological research institute:“There is something spiritually vibrant about this land that is being corrupted and vandalised. This land has had a rich tradition of openness, assimilation and tolerance and these acts are a knife to the throat of India,” he told CC. It was also pertinent to ask, he felt, why the target has now shifted from Muslims to Christians. “Is it because today it is not politically profitable to target the Muslims?” he asked.

The term “forced conversions” the Archbishop claimed, is an anomaly. “It is like using the term square circle. “Conversion is a free, personal act, a gift from God. It is not a right to be acquired or fought for. Our constitution, under article 25, grants each citizen the freedom to practice and propagate his or her religion. It is the duty of every government to protect this right. What the Church in India is doing is only spreading the good news of God which it is our duty to spread.”

But, requesting anonymity, representatives of the Christian laity from different Catholic organisations admitted while speaking to CC that “the impact of last century’s abusive and aggressive Christianity (where, under a colonial dispensation the attitude was to improve the lot of the ‘pagans’) has left a lasting unease, and suspicion of the term conversion itself, on the Hindu psyche.” They emphasised, however, that it is unfair to view the efforts of the Indian Church today to improve the lot of the poor from the perspective of earlier experience.

Capitalising on negative past experience that has fuelled much of Hindutva’s propaganda, the BJP and its forebears, the Jana Sangh and the RSS, had attempted to table a private members’ bill during the brief Janata Party rule (1977–79). The bill sought a virtual ban on religious conversions. Madhya Pradesh and Orissa are two states that have already passed what is called the Freedom of Religion Acts passed 30 years ago, in 1967–68. The main thrust of these legislations is that any conversion that takes place has to be reported to the local district magistrate within 48 hours.

“The experience of Orissa shows that such a legislation is completely superfluous because no cases in violation of the Act have been brought to the notice of the courts,” said Norbert D’Souza, president of the All India Catholic Union (AICU), the prime organisation for the Catholic laity in the country. “InMadhya Pradesh, the only part where it has been used to harass the local Christian community is the area under the sway of Dilip Singh Judeo, BJP MP from Jashpur and the vice–president of the RSS’ Vanavasi Kalyan Ashram). In 40 cases registered with the courts in the region between 1968-1998, 37 have been dismissed by the courts after reaching the final stages. Three have not yet come up for trial.”

Says D’Souza, “The cases of harassment against Christians include hauling the parents (second generation Christians) baptising their child to court. Therefore, now I will definitely allege that this legislation is malafide in intent.”

AICU has in a petition to the National Human Rights Commission urged its intervention to force the government to take action to punish those guilty of the attacks. The petition signed by several AICU office–bearers says: “In at least six acts of violence in six weeks — in five of which the members of the RSS–Bajrang Dal etc were involved, and in one case, men of the DMK (an election related incident that took place in Tamil Nadu when Christians in protest had decided to boycott the elections) — elements belong to the political formations ruling in those states and in control of the state and district administrations. The exception is Orissa. “We are really stunned and astonished at the conduct of the district officials and the police who in each case failed miserably to discharge their duties. Preliminary enquiries show that they in fact sided with the thugs to coerce the small Christian communities into silence. The AICU calls upon you to give powerful directives to the Union government, the Union home ministry, and the state governments, that they take urgent and strict action to punish the guilty and restore confidence and trust in the rule of law. This is not a demand merely for the welfare of the minorities, but to ensure the right to life, liberty and faith to every citizen of the country. The minorities, and among them the Christians, are the most vulnerable, and they seek your urgent intervention.”

Former home minister, Inderjit Gupta, while opposing the confidence motion in the Lok Sabha on March 28 in support of the Vajpayee government, referred to the increasing attacks on Christians in different parts of the country. The Kanpur Catholic Association, affiliated to the AICU, has also written a petition to the Indian defence minister, George Fernandes, urging his intervention. Tensions are likely to sore under the current political dispensation that has seen the RSS and other Hindutvavaadis blatantly flexing their muscles.

Teesta Setalvad

Jalandhar, Punjab, March 31
Agroup of youth ransacked a Christian congregation near Grover Colony in the city on March 31 smashing tube rods, overturning chairs and setting the dais on fire, forcing the assembly of more than 100 people to flee in panic. The senior superintendent of police Hardeep Singh Dhillon said a case has been registered against those accused in the FIR. The city’s deputy superintendent of police, R K Sharma, said the two accused had been detained and a case registered for hurting religious sentiments, damage to property, and causing minor injuries. District BJP president, Vinod Sharma and former president, Surinder Murgai, were among those who justified the attack charging the Christian preachers with trying to convert people.
(The Indian Express, Chandigarh edition,
April 2, 1998)

Gaya, Bihar, March 24, 1998
Brother Luke, 46, of the Missionaries of Charity Brothers Community, Patna, part of Mother Teresa’s mission, was found murdered with a hole in his skull, probably from a gunshot. The Bihar police found his body at Novada, 120 kilometres from Patna, a week after he was reported missing. He was accompanying a truckload of medicines, food and clothing for leprosy patients and the poor from Calcutta to Patna, on March 22, when he was reported missing along with the truck, its driver and handyman.
(The Hindustan Times
, March 25, 1998)

Kanpur, UP, March 16, 1998
On the evening of March 16, the three–day prayer meeting in Maswanpur, Kalyanpur PS in Kanpur district, organised by the Assembly of Believer’s Church was attacked by a bunch of hoodlums belonging to the Bajrang Dal and other groups chanting "Jai Sri Ram, Jai Sri Ram." They attacked the assembly and cut the power supply. In the ensuing darkness, they burned down the tent, looted the electronic musical instruments, attacked the people present with iron rods and even abducted a young man.

Worse still, when it arrived on the spot, the police prevailed upon the Christian community members present not to lodge an FIR on an assurance that they would see that their stolen property would be returned. The district officials got into the act, got the stolen property returned the next day, after which the prayer meeting continued in a neighbouring hall.
( Amar Ujala and Dainik Jagran, March 17. The Amar Ujala report was headlined, "Isaaiyon ke samaroh mein Bajrangdaliyon ka nanga naach" (Bajrang Dal’s perform a ‘naked dance’ at a Christian gathering). The Dainik Jagran report was under the heading, "Aradhna sabha mein hamla Bajrang Dal ne kiya, dabav mein samjhote se Isaiiyon me rosh" ("Bajrang Dal attacks prayer meeting, Christians angry with pressure to bury the incidence").

Dadra Nagar Haveli, Union Territory, March 14, 1998
Four bus–loads of Christian women from Vasai, who had gone to Dadra Nagar Haveli to visit a local shrine were severely set upon and attacked by unidentified assailants shouting, "Yeh Isaai hai" (These are Christians). The incident is under investigation.
(AICU press release, March 26, 1998)

Baroda, Gujarat, March 7,1998
Evangelists of the Pentecost Church in Baroda were brutally attacked by Vishwa Hindu Parishad activists and members of the BJP’s youth wing, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) on the first day of the four–day long "Jesus celebrations" organised at the Polo ground here. The local edition of The Times of India reported: "Vande Mataram, Bharat Mata ki Jai, Jai Sri Ram, Garv se kaho Hum Hindu Hain hollered fundamentalists as they went berserk at the polo grounds here. A Maruti car was set ablaze, halogen lamps were broken, stones pelted when a group of activists from the VHP and the ABVP at

tacked the procession on the first day of its four–day long "Jesus celebrations." The celebrations were called off on the first day. On Wednesday night, ‘Jesus’ was brought down in the name of Ram. Since four days, the Christians had been inviting the people to the Ishu Mahotsav (Jesus Celebrations). Offended, the VHP decided to vent its ire against the organisers."
(The Times of India,
March 9, 1998)

Beticola (Cuttack), Orissa, February 20, 1998
Local activists of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh(RSS) forcibly prevent the construction of a convent dispensary on land allotted to the local Churches. The district collector takes no action against those responsible for the attack. The same group had entered the Church premises and ransacked it last year.
(AICU press release, March 26, 1998)

Latur, Maharashtra, February 14, 1998
Amob of over 40 youngsters stormed the CHAI (Catholic Hospitals Association of India) camp just off the village, manhandled Father Jeevendra Jadhav, the camp-in-charge and molested and injured other residents including women of which Sister Marlene Parakkadan was one. The telephone connections had been cut off before the attack. Three days earlier, the Pune-based editions of the Tarun Bharat, an RSS’ mouthpiece, the Saamna,, the Shiv Sena organ, and another newspaper, Aikya, had carried inflammatory reports, credited to the RSS’ affiliate, Jan Kalyan Samiti, alleging that the this Catholic group (involved in relief work after the earthquake of 1993 and with health and education thereafter) was engaging in conversion.

When CHAI members visited the local police station to complain, the local PSI Mane asked, "Whom should I support?" "Nobody, just maintain law and order," replied the complainants. But were provided SRP protection only after the attack that night.
(AICU press release, March 26, 1998)



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