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Anti-Christian Violence in India Builds on Fear of Conversions

Extremist Hindu groups and the ruling government are linked to September attacks.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 5, 1998



AHMEDABAD, INDIA

As a priest in his native India, the Rev. Stanley Pinto used to feel respect. But the young Jesuit says that as a Christian he now feels like a second-class citizen. As a priest, for the first time he's a little afraid to move around.

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Father Pinto knows colleagues who've been beaten, raped, and killed. In a clear escalation of intimidation and violence against Christians in India, last month four nuns in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh were raped, allegedly by a Hindu gang. This summer churches were attacked and desecrated, prayer meetings raided. In July a group of Hindu militants, the Bajrang Dal, stormed a Pentecostal school, terrifying students, injuring one, and seizing 300 Bibles that the mob burned. Local media paint lurid pictures of devious missionaries undermining Hindu culture and converting India to Christianity in a few years' time.

"The police watch. They don't do anything," says Pinto, who serves at St. Xavier's Hostel in a small coastal town in the northwest state of Gujarat.

Since the election of a Hindu nationalist coalition in March that ran on a platform of India as a holy Hindu land, the 2 percent Christian population is increasingly under attack in a nation that has had a proud tradition of religious tolerance. So far, anti-Christian incidents do not approach the historic bitterness between Hindus and Muslims. Nor has the violence matched events of 1984, when thousands of Sikhs were butchered after Indira Gandhi's assassination.

What is unusual is that both the propaganda and violence are traced to a network of Hindu groups with links to state governments - as well as the nation's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government. Says Tahir Mahmood, former dean of law at Delhi University and chair of India's National Commission for Minorities: "For the first time, with the election of a government whose party has historically supported communalism, common people with a grudge have a feeling they are supported and protected by the authorities."

Politics and religion

The attacks, mainly in rural areas, are due as much to an aggressive new Hindu identity politics as they are to anti-Christian sentiment, say experts. Most incidents have occurred in Gujarat, an economically progressive state that gave Mohandas Gandhi to the world - but which is today a stronghold for a number of extremist groups. Human rights activists say the state is a test for a larger India-wide campaign.

"The heat is off the Muslims; it is now on the Christians," says Mushiral Hasan, a leading scholar of communal violence at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.

To Western eyes, perhaps, militant Hinduism may seem a contradiction. Yet that very impression is what BJP wants to change. Hindu activists, from wealthy landowners to laborers who work for $1 a day, cumulatively fall under an umbrella called the "Sangh parivar" - or "family" of some 50-plus groups loosely organized under the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a 70-year-old organization focusing on education and recruitment. In Ahmedabad, the RSS office is open 24 hours a day to show its seriousness.

In at least half the Gujarat cases against Christians, eyewitnesses say that members of the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP), a powerful network of Hindu ritual observers with wealthy international members, or the Bajrang Dal, a youth group of local foot soldiers (also called the Hindu lumpen), were present.