December  2000
Tagetting Minorities

Christmas sans joy

For the third successive year, the sangh parivar has chosen the Christmas season to terrorise Christians in tribal Gujarat

By Lancy Lobo 
Around November 15, 2000 Puniyabhai Kothwalia, of Chhindia village in Surat, picked up some quarrel with 
 the local congregation of the Evangelical Church of India (ECI) of which he was a member, allegedly at the instigation of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP). He had also got “converted” to Hinduism a week ago, courtesy VHP. On the night of November 26, 2000 a crowd of over 400 VHP men came in trucks and jeeps led by Bhagubhai Janiyabhai Gamit, local leader of the VHP. They dismantled the door and windows, removed the cross and broke it into pieces and removed the dedication stone. One of the pictures they left behind carried the name of the VHP under it. The cross over the roof of the church was dismantled and in its place was hoisted a saffron flag with OM sign. 

The local pastor Amarsinh and the village people informed the police that they were apprehending trouble before this incident happened but police did nothing. On November 27, 2000, the local Christians made a complaint to the local police on the incident of the desecration and still the police took no firm action. Samson Christian, a prominent Christian, rushed to the spot from Ahmedabad and requested the police to act but to no avail. He, therefore, wrote to senior district police and civil authorities apart from the President of India and the central government. Police refused to register a FIR. 

On hearing of the vandalism and desecration, the head of the ECI in India, Bishop Ezra Sargunam rushed from Chennai at the insistence of the local pastors. In his words, “When I arrived here in Chhindia, to my surprise, in front of the church, there were a large number of police officials, and the collector of Surat assembled. I wished everyone of them, gave my name card to the collector who said she wanted to discuss something with me. I said, let me go inside the church, say my prayers and get back to you for discussion. She said, OK. 

“When I entered the church, to my horror, I found on the altar one of the small pictures of a local deity, which the villagers later told me was placed by the police themselves. Without any offence to anyone, I gently removed the picture and walked back to the door to hand over the picture to the collector. 

“But the police officials snatched it from my hand and put the picture back on the altar of the church. Meanwhile, the pastor who had arrived on the scene and the local congregation entered the church to pray. But they were assaulted and forcefully thrown out the church. 

“When I knelt down to pray, within minutes, police officials came and manhandled me, lifted me up bodily and pushed me around. I asked them to show me the court order restraining me or my congregation worshipping in the church, which they said they do not have. Finally in the presence of the collector, I was dragged out of the church and thrown out. In this scuffle, I received injury in one of my fingers. They were very rude and ruthless with me. The officials had the least regard either for my office as bishop or as chairman of the minority commission of another state (Tamil Nadu).” 

The bishop began an indefinite fast, protesting against the oppressive tactics against adivasis and suppression of minorities and their rights. The bishop said that even the preamble of the Constitution gives to every citizen of India, justice, liberty, freedom to worship and practice one’s faith. This right was denied in Chhindia. The bishop demanded the removal of the police who are now occupying the church and have desecrated and sacrileged the Holy place by cooking, eating, sleeping, smoking, spitting and drinking. The bishop has demanded that the VHP activists who dismantled the church and made an attempt to convert it into a Ram Hanuman temple be arrested and a judicial inquiry conducted. 

On the sixth day of his fast the bishop was removed from the house, pushed into a police van and driven to Surat civil hospital, where he continued his fast as a protest against the government–sponsored vandalism in connivance with the VHP. Pressure was brought upon him by the Gujarat state, in collusion with the government of Tamil Nadu, from where the bishop hails, to call off the fast. 

A press release by Haren Pandya, home minister of Gujarat (The Times of India, December 7) carried a bunch of lies claiming that:
Ø     The police arrested the bishop following a dispute over a church in the village. 
Ø  The bishop as chairman of a state minorities rights commission was out to malign the BJP state and VHP. 
Ø  He went to the village to instigate trouble. 
Ø  The bishop disobeyed the police. 
Ø  Bishop had already begun consuming food on reaching the hospital. 

A fact–finding team of the All India Christian Council, including John Dayal and others, who visited the village submitted a strongly worded memorandum: “It is the responsibility of the government of Gujarat through the district administration to ensure the freedom of religion and worship of the minority 
Christian community in the state, and especially in the Chhindia village of Vyara, Surat district, where it is directly under threat of lawless communal elements.” 

In 1996, seven different households who were owners gifted the land on which the church now stands in favour of the ECI. The church was inaugurated on October 29, 1996. The congregation consisted of tribals, Gamits and Kotwalias. The aggrieved party has gone to the Gujarat high court. It now hopes that the remaining six donors will give affidavits that they are joint owners. But this may not be possible, as the VHP will bring pressure on them. The tribals here are scared of police who terrorise the people as well as non-tribals particularly the Kathiawadis who have settled here. When the police enter a tribal village the menfolk run away out of fear. 
The local congregation strongly feels that the church belongs to the congregation, as it is a symbol of community worship though the land on which it stands may belong to seven persons. Besides the church was built there under this understanding. 

In this case one finds a triple conversion: 
Ø  Punyabhai has been forcibly converted to Hinduism 
Ø    Punyabhai wants to convert a jointly owned land onto his name alone. 
Ø   The church is converted into a temple. 

So here is a situation where the sangh parivar triggers a communal spark by taking the law into its own hands and creates a law and order situation. Then in collusion with the state machinery it tells lies and blames the victims of violence as those fomenting a law and order situation. This is not the first time that the sangh parivar has tried to create law and order problems, disturb communal peace, divide the tribals into Hindu and Christian and that too just before the Christmas season. This outfit has picked up legal or semi–legal avenues to create disturbances. It has successively happened in two previous years just prior to Christmas: in 1998 in Dang, in 1999 in Halmodi. Now, in 2000, its Chhindia. 

Communalisation through symbolic contestation of local sacred space has been a regular and popular mechanism in the spread of Hindutva at the hands of the Sangh parivar. There are other instances of Hindu extremists building temples next to mosques in chronically riot prone areas. In Surat, the second largest city in Gujarat, a temple came up next to a mosque after the riots that followed the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992. 
There are temples and shrines coming up on roadsides and even in middle of the road, with no concern for public safety. In Ahmedabad, the largest city in Gujarat, a survey of the roadside shrines was undertaken with a view to do away with them. It was found that there were 300 Muslim shrines and these were greatly outnumbered by 1000 Hindu shrines. The idea of the demolition of shrines was given up. 

Building of Hindu shrines next to those of other religions are potential explosives to be detonated at an appropriate time to discipline the minorities. When services take place in one shrine the loud singing and preaching in the other disrupt them. These are premeditated acts. In fact they are well–experimented acts. They are a show of strength.

Thus since the past three years (1998–2000), just before Christmas the campaign for contestation of sacred space begins in tribal Gujarat. The modus operandi has become too clear by now. These are replicas of miniature demolitions of Babri Masjids in many parts of the country. The raison d’etre remains the same — To disturb the sacred space of others by loud speakers, rallies, hate speeches just next to shrines when important rituals or services are going on and then put the blame on minority communities who cannot fight back. The alternate strategy is to find a dispute regarding land or a local dispute and then drive divisions among the people and communalise the issue with state support. In this sense the state itself has become a missionary, converting Christian tribals to Hinduism by force or fraud. 

Tribals, both Christians and non-Christians have been living in amity for decades in Gujarat. For the last two years Hindu extremist outfits have been combing the villages using differences in rituals to create divisions and social cleavages among the tribals. They have been using non–Christian tribals to indulge in destructive activities by force, intimidation and allurements. Hindu outfits have been taking the law into their own hands, saying that their own party, viz., Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), rules the State. 

So far the minorities believed that the outfits of Sangh parivar with the connivance of the state have been indulging in such atrocities. What becomes clear now is that the state itself through connivance of sangh parivar is fomenting these troubles by using official machinery to divert the attention of people to non–issues rather than the real issues of tribals. The real issues of tribals concern checks on resource transfer from their habitat, e.g., land, water, and forests. Other issues are unemployment, migration and resettlement.

(The writer is an academic with the Centre for Social Studies, Surat).

[ Subscribe | Contact Us | Archives | Khoj | Aman ]
[ Letter to editor  ]
Copyrights © 2001, Sabrang Communications & Publishing Pvt. Ltd.