Anti-Christian Violence in India Builds on Fear of Conversions

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

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.

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.

After the rapes of the nuns, the leader of a Hindu group with close ties to the BJP said Sept. 30, "All Christian missionaries should be removed from the country." Acharya Giriraj Kishore, secretary-general of the VHP said in a press conference in Delhi that "forced conversions" of Hindus by Christians "must stop."

"The members of all these groups, from the BJP politicians to the figures in the RSS to the Vishva [VHP] are linked," says Peter van der Veer of the Center for Religion and Society in Amsterdam. "They have a vision of a strong Hindu nation that is casting off the yoke of the foreign invaders, the Muslims, and the British, who are to blame for all their problems."

The Christian community itself hopes the intimidation will blow over - though many priests and ministers say privately they think it will not. "They are going after us because we are an easy target and unlike the Muslims we don't riot," says one Christian leader in Gujarat.

Anti-minority propaganda

In Gujarat anti-Christian propaganda is published daily. The Hindu population, most of whom do not know any Christians, are told that they and their children are being targeted for conversion. Yet a recent study by a special panel sent by the National Minorities Commission from Delhi to Gujarat in August found not a single reported case of conversion in the state capital. Ahmedebad Hindu leaders think the anti-Christian issue is overblown.

The head of VHP for all India resides here, a surgeon named Pravinbhai Togadipi. Dr. Togadipi, who looks a bit like the actor Rod Steiger, characterized the attacks as a result of misunderstanding. "These are a series of isolated incidents that were partly accidental, and I condemn them. It is not Christianity that Hindus worry about. Our main confrontation will be with Islam."

The second-highest RSS official in Gujarat, Bhurat Amin, is less sanguine. Dr. Amin is friendly and talkative, feeding reporters ice cream and soft drinks, mentioning siblings who live in the US. Amin says that by 2010 or 2020, 45 percent of India will be Christian, if conversions aren't stopped.

"Christians are the worst," Amin says. "They are more subtle than Muslims. They go underground in order to convert." In Amin's view, any person born in India is a Hindu. To a true Hindu the land and soil - including what today are Pakistan and Bangladesh - is a holy idea. One day all those born on Indian soil will reconvert. "No one, Muslim or Christian, may choose a loyalty before India," argues Amin. "If a Muslim says his first loyalty is to his religion, then he will be crushed."

In Delhi, one evangelical minister notes: "In the 2,000 years since Christ was born, we've converted 2 percent in India. It will be quite a trick if we get half the population in the next 10 years."

It is true that among the tribal populations, particularly in northeast India, there has been a rising consciousness of equality and individual rights brought by the educational focus of missionaries. Often these populations do convert. The model is similar to Latin America, where peasants feel "empowered" by a liberation theology that tells them they are equal in the eyes of God.

"I think the main problem is propaganda," says Dr. Mahmood. "The problem is the general false belief of the common people that Hindu society is being robbed of its traditional culture by Muslims and Christians."

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