Hindu Extremists Seek to Outlaw Christian Conversion

JAIPUR, India — A small but solid Christian community in a remote area of India has been put to the test by attacks by Hindu politicians and the passage of a state anti-conversion bill.

But 200 secular activists and leaders of opposition parties attended a meeting convened by Rajasthan Christian Fellowship April 1 in Jaipur, capital of Rajasthan, expressing solidarity with the Christians.

“We were really overwhelmed by the solidarity and support of these groups,” Father Raymond Coelho, president of Rajasthan Christian Fellowship, told the Register April 4.

The anti-conversion bill is the latest in the harassment of the Christians under the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party regime controlling the normally quiet Rajasthan, a desert state bordering Pakistan.

Father Coelho said the bill is similar to the anti-conversion legislation enacted in neighboring Gujarat state — also ruled by the Hindu-associated party. The draft bill provides for jail term of two to five years and a fine up to $1,140 for conversions by “allurements, fraudulent means or by force.”

The vague definition of these key terms, Father Coelho said, “could be misused to foist false cases” on Christians and others.

Christians, who number fewer than 100,000 among the state’s 57 million people, have been on the receiving end of unprecedented atrocities by Hindu fundamentalists since the Hindu-associated party won the state elections two years ago.

“This bill has to be seen in the context of the violence we have suffered recently,” said Father Babu Chirayath, director of the pastoral center at Banswara in the Udaipur Diocese, which has reported several incidents of violence targeting the Christians. “It is nothing but a move to threaten and harass us.”

Speaking to the Register from Banswara, Father Chirayath pointed out that even his bishop, Joseph Pathalil of Udaipur, was stoned by Hindu groups in the presence of police when he reached the region to conclude the International Eucharistic Year celebrations last October.

This was followed by several attacks on priests and nuns — beaten up on the road and in public buses — and attempts to poison the well of an orphanage run by the Prabhu Dasi (Handmaids of the Lord) congregation of Ajmer.

However, the climax to the attacks came in February following the finding of the book Haqiqat, which allegedly contains negative references to Hindu gods and goddesses and prominent Hindu leaders, in the bookstore of Emmanuel Mission International center in Kota.

The state machinery and Hindu extremists went on a rampage of the evangelical Protestant center that runs 49 schools, a hospital and an orphanage. The 2,000 orphans were on the verge of starvation as Hindu-associated marauders disconnected the cooking gas supply and the Hindu-associated state government froze its bank accounts.

Parliamentary Visit

This forced a team of members of the federal parliament to visit the besieged center and demand an end to the harassment.

Hundreds of bookstore staff had not been paid while its top officials, including Director Samuel Thomas, were illegally arrested. Teachers and doctors attending Christian book centers stopped work under threat by Hindu fundamentalists.

Simultaneously, several Church targets across Rajasthan came under renewed assault from Hindu fundamentalists. The statue of St. Paul at the leading Catholic school in Kota was destroyed.

In Jaipur, Hindu ruffians prevented the faithful who came for Sunday Mass from entering the church while police looked on. In another incident, Hindu fundamentalists climbed on top of a Protestant church and desecrated the cross by writing OM (Hindu holy words) on it — all in the presence of police.

Exasperated over these orchestrated attacks, Christians had an unprecedented protest march March 21 in Jaipur. As the silent rally passed through downtown Jaipur, known as Pink City, onlookers watched curiously as 200 nuns fingered rosary beads in one hand and held aloft placards that said “Protection of Minorities Is the Responsibility of the Government.”

“We are here to protest the injustice meted out to us,” said Prabhu Dasi Sister Antonita, who traveled more than 80 miles from Ajmer with fellow nuns. Sister Antonita said that “we cannot suffer these attacks silently any longer,” referring to three recent incidents when nuns from her congregation had been beaten up by Hindu fundamentalists.

At the end of the march and the three-hour sit-in near the state legislature, a delegation of protesters led by Bishop Oswald Lewis of Jaipur called on state chief minister Vasundara Raje, demanding “stern action to stop attacks against the Christian community and other minorities.”

However, four days after the march, the state cabinet approved the pending anti-conversion bill the Hindu-associated party had promised to enact during its election campaign.

“We are not surprised by this move at all. Such legislations are inevitable in BJP’s scheme of things,” John Dayal, one of the leading Christian activists and president of All India Catholic Union, said.

Just the Beginning?

The anti-conversion bill has become a standard plank in the political platform of the BJP in state elections. Almost all states ruled by the Hindu-associated party, like Gujarat and Orissa have anti-conversion laws.

Dayal, who attended last week’s meeting in Jaipur against the proposed bill, pointed out that the Rajasthan government has been “waiting for an opportune moment to bring in this legislation.”

The state government and the Hindu groups, he said, have been using the furor over Haqiqat “to launch the vigorous anti-Christian propaganda” ahead of the bill.

Bishop Lewis echoed similar feelings about the timing of the bill at the climax of the anti-Christian violence.

“It seems they were trying to create an atmosphere to justify this bill,” he pointed out.

Asked whether the recent attacks were the “culmination” of the anti-Christian propaganda, Bishop Lewis replied: “I wish these [attacks] were the end of it. But, I am afraid, it only looks like the beginning.”

Anto Akkara

writes from New Delhi.