India's Christians see rise in hostility by Hindu extremists

Threats against churches and prayer meetings in eastern states have risen in recent weeks.

Manish Swarup/AP/FILE
No violence: Christians protested in New Delhi on Dec. 27, against attacks on churches during Christmas in the state of Orissa by Hindu extremists.
Rich Clabaugh

Radha Bai knew something was up when she heard the trucks thundering into Bothali, a bucolic village of low, whitewashed houses in the central state of Chhattisgarh. "They came into my house waving sticks and chanting," she says. "They were looking for me, saying they would cut me into pieces."

Ms. Bai, a Christian, was hosting a prayer meeting on Jan. 16 when 50 Hindu extremists from a group calling itself Dharma Sena ("Army for Religion") arrived. They beat up several men and set fire to 10 motorcycles and a car, witnesses say.

In recent weeks, Hindu extremists in India's eastern "tribal belt" – home to large numbers of forest-dwelling animists – have stepped up a campaign against Christians.

In the neighboring state of Orissa, over Christmas, mobs destroyed 55 churches and 600 houses – "the worst anti-Christian violence in India since independence [in 1947]," says Asghar Ali Engineer, who heads the Centre for Study of Society and Secularism in Mumbai.

"It is getting worse all the time," says Arun Pannalal, general secretary of the Chhattisgarh Christian Forum. He cites numerous cases in which Christians have been threatened and prayer services halted by hostile mobs.

Lalit Surjan, editor-in-chief of a group of newspapers in Chhattisgarh, blames the aggression on the growth of "fringe groups" such as Dharma Sena.

Ramesh Modi is president of the state's branch of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), or World Hindu Council, a proponent of the Hindutva ideology which holds that India is a Hindu nation and religious minorities outsiders. The VHP says it has close links with Dharma Sena.

"The Christians are responsible for the violence themselves," Mr. Modi says, when asked who carried out the attacks in Bothali. "They are converting Hindus by all means possible. We cannot wear bangles [an expression meaning we cannot be feminine, gentle] all the time."

This is the chief justification given for attacks against Christians in India, that they are converting Hindus by force. With the rise of political Hindu nationalism in recent years, groups like the VHP have intensified their calls for legislation to curb conversions from Hinduism. At least seven states – including Chhattisgarh and Orissa – have laws ruling that Hindus must inform the authorities before switching religions.

It is true that Chhattisgarh has an expansionist evangelist movement in full swing; many Christians here are recent converts from Hinduism. Officially, less than 3 percent of India's population of 1.1 billion are Christian. But Mr. Pannalal reckons that Christians constitute closer to 6 percent of the population in Chhattisgarh and even nationwide. Christian converts often claim to be Hindus for fear that they'll lose their rights to the government jobs and university spots that are kept for lower castes.

Sometimes, says Pannalal, the evangelizing style of these new Christians appears insensitive. "Some pastors are only trained for a month or two before they start proselytizing," he says. "We've been trying to teach them that you don't have to criticize other gods and goddesses when you preach."

A popular way to target evangelical Christians, as a result of the state's conversion law, is to accuse them of forcible conversions to get them arrested. "Few of those cases go to court...." says Pannalal. "But by then the extremists have done their job, which is to terrify people."

Hindu groups in the area are themselves engaged in conversion activities, Pannalal adds. But because Christians tend to vote for the secular Congress Party, hard-line Hindu groups, which support the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), are trying to win Hindus back to the fold and convert tribal residents to Hinduism.

It is no coincidence, say observers, that nationalist Hindu activities have increased a few months before Chhattisgarh, which is ruled by the BJP, goes to the polls.

"This is a movement that stirs the religious sentiments of Hindus and then makes political capital out of it," says Mr. Surjan. He adds, however, that few ordinary Hindus are swayed by groups like Dharma Sena.

Most Christians seem to agree. Nelson Daniel, a pastor based in Durg, a town near Raipur, Chattisgarh's capital, suspects that Hindu extremists who have threatened to knock down his church are paid thugs. "They are never local Hindus," he says. "There's no problem between Hindus and Christians where I live."

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