Persecution of Christians Becomes Violent in India

Government-supported Hindu fundamentalists terrorize minority

NEW DELHI, India—Western Gujarat, the homeland of India's prophet of non-violence, Mohandas Gandhi, has ironically become the center of violence against Christians in India. More than two dozen churches in Gujarat were burnt or damaged during the last week of 1998.

The spate of anti-Christian violence begun on Christmas Day by Hindu fundamentalist gangs was the grand finale to an unprecedented year of terror for Indian Christians. More than 110 attacks on Church targets were reported last year—more than the total number of incidents which had taken place in the previous 50 years. Gujarat recorded more than half of the atrocities committed against Christians in India in 1998.

The violence which has been carried out on the tiny Christian minority—about 300,000 of Gujarat's 47 million people—troubles local Church leaders, as does the response of the Hindu fundamentalist BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party—Indian People's Party) toward the problem, at both the state and federal level.

For instance, the head of the BJPled federal coalition, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, vowed to protect the beleaguered Christians at a public meeting on Jan. 4, declaring that the upsurge of violence against Christians in Gujarat was “a conspiracy to destabilize” the BJP-led coalition he heads. With these words, Vajpayee absolved himself, his party, and its supporting Hindu cadre groups of any responsibility for the anti-Christian violence.

Bishop Godfrey de Rozario of Baroda, whose diocese includes south Gujarat, dismissed Vajpayee's assurances and conspiracy theories as patently absurd. Bishop Rozario told the Register on Jan. 5 that he was resolved “not to mince words” in denouncing the BJP government at both state and federal levels. “The sad part is that the (BJP) government is not concerned at all about what is happening. They are all in collusion with what's happening.”

Had the government wished to curb the violence, the Jesuit bishop said, “they could have done so long back,” referring to the Gujarat government's refusal last summer to arrest agitators who burnt Bibles, attacked evangelical conventions, dug up a body from a Christian cemetery, and even tore down a church in the presence of police.

“The government is camouflaging everything by denying the gravity of the situation,” said Bishop Rozario, who spent the first days of New Year in the Dang district of Gujarat. Dang, a poor area populated largely by members of the tribal ethnic minority, has been the scene of numerous attacks on Christians. In many parts of Dang, Bishop Rozario said, “our people are threatened by Hindu fanatic groups. Christians are absolutely afraid.”

Carmelite of Charity Sister Carmen Borges, principal of Deep Darshan school in Ahwa, is more graphic about the campaign of terror in Dang, whose 200,000 inhabitants are 10% to 15% Christian. For now, the burning of churches, initiated by Hindu Jagran Manch (Forum to Waken Hindus) activists at Ahwa in Dang on Christmas Day, has stopped. But still “terror fills the air” Sister Borges told the Register on Jan. 5.

“This morning, two jeeps full of Christians were forcibly taken (to a stream), thrown in the water, and told that their Christianity has been ‘washed off,’” said Sister Borges.

Scores of poor tribal Christians have been threatened, deprived of their rations and other government benefits, and antagonized by fellow members of their tribal minority. Sister Borges and others assert that the tactics of intimidation are fomented by the government.

Some Christians have succumbed to the pressure, Sister Borges said, largely “because they cannot bear this kind of harassment and want to live in peace with other tribals.” On the other hand, many Catholics have defied the threats, and are now prepared to risk losing the rations and other government benefits they would otherwise enjoy as members of the tribal minority.

Local Christians have also complained of social ostracism, with Christian women being forbidden to draw water from village wells. “They are poor tribals. How long can they face these pressures?” asked Sister Borges.

Sister Borges, who has worked in Dang for eight years, was one of the first to experience the ire of the Hindu Jagran Manch after its Christmas rally during which its leaders called for direct action to “throw the Christian missionaries out of Dang, Gujarat, and the country.”

Recalling her own “terrifying experience” on Christmas night, Sister Borges said that a gang of 100 to 150 youths attacked her Deep Darshan school. Before the assailants could enter the hostel, police arrived and held them back.

A dozen members of the police force are now on round-the-clock vigilance at the school. “Right now, we are safe, because the police are there to protect us and our churches. But once they go, we hear rumors that they will have their tantrums (attacks on Christians) again,” the nun said.

Jesuit Father Cedric Prakash, founder of the Gujarat chapter of the United Christian Forum for Human Rights (UCFHR), added: “The situation is very tense. What we have is a restless peace. People are frightened. They do not know if their houses will be torched. The poor (Christian) tribals are afraid of mob violence.”

Bishop Stanislaus Fernandes of Ahmedabad, the capital of Gujrath, has tried to meet with the inquiry commission sent by the federal Home Ministry at the end of December, after the burning of churches began making headlines throughout the world. Bishop Fernandes went so far as to join the UCFHR delegation in waiting outside the state guest house where two members of the commission were staying—yet the commissioners refused to meet with the bishop and the Christian delegation. The bishop said he decided to take this stance “as Christians in Dang and neighboring areas were under great pressure. People are even asked to reveal their identity as non-Christians by putting up Hindu (flags) in front of their houses.”

Father Prakash, while dismissing Vajpayee's claim that the attacks on Christians were a conspiracy to discredit the BJP government, said that it was readily evident who was “roughing up minorities, burning churches, and terrorizing Christians.” Beyond the wall of words, he insisted, lies a “terror campaign against Christians,” conducted by Hindu fanatics under the protection of the ruling BJP.

Pamphlets distributed in Ahwa prior to the Christmas rally contained wild allegations against nuns and priests, and called for removing Christians from the area. UCFHR has collected several examples of such anti-Christian propaganda printed by Hindu organizations such as the VHP (Vishwa Hindu Parishad, or World Council of Hindus) and the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or National Volunteer Corps). Yet those groups have been absolved by the BJP of any wrongdoing in the recent violence.

The Indian media have blamed the Hindutva family of organizations, including the BJP, VHP, and RSS, for the violence on Christians. Ardent advocates of Hindutva, however, including several federal ministers, have continued to promise safety to Christians, while denying that the BJP and its cadre groups have played any role in the violence. At the same time, these leaders have accused Christians of engaging in “forced conversion” of tribals.

Though BJP leaders have disowned the violence against Christians, John Dayal, the head of the Indian Catholic Bishops’ Conference investigation team in Gujarat, noted that “the forces behind the attacks are the same” as those behind the BJP. Groups like the Hindu Jagran Manch, which is active in Dang, are effectively associated with the BJP.

As for the Hindutva charge of “forced conversion” by Christians of tribals, O.P. Mathur, the chief of police in Gujarat, went on record in early January saying that not a single charge of forced conversion had been brought against Christians in the region.

The hate campaign against Christians is not confined to the tribal region in south Gujarat. Recently, a senior VHP leader told a panel discussion on state television that Christians need to be wiped out from the whole state and the country, just as the Nazis did to the Jews.

Anto Akkara writes from India.