Anti-Christian attacks flare in India

Some see a government hand in the fanatical Hindu anger against a minority and its converts.

SK Mohan
CHURCH VANDALIZED: In Karnataka last week, Christian protesters also clashed with police.

With its glinting high-rises and harried executives in designer suits, BangaloreSilicon Valley of the subcontinent and capital of Karnataka State – is an icon of the "new India."

But the city has shown a less presentable side in recent days, with a rash of attacks by Hindu fanatics on Christians. On Monday, stone-throwing mobs vandalized two churches, bringing the number of church desecrations in Karnataka to more than 20 in a week.

The attacks are sparks of a conflagration of anti-Christian violence burning across India that many fear will spread further in the run-up to national general elections, scheduled for May.

While Hindu nationalists claim that the unrest is caused by missionaries forcing conversions on Hindus, Christians – and most secular observers – say the violence is politically motivated, designed to win votes for the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.

The BJP has grown to be the main opposition in the last two decades – a triumph many attribute to its focus on Hindutva, an ideology that holds India is a Hindu nation and religious minorities outsiders.

But wretched poverty and a lack of basic necessities – from education to healthcare – have also played their part in what many describe as the worst anti-Christian violence in India since independence in 1947.

The rioting began in the eastern state of Orissa in August, following the murder of a hard-line Hindu priest. Police accept the claims of responsibility from Naxalite rebels – atheist Maoists – but Hindu groups blame Christians.

Allegedly led by the Bajrang Dal, a militant youth wing of the Hindu nationalist Vishnu Hindu Parishad (VHP) group, mobs went on the rampage in the district of Kandhamal, torching churches and homes and displacing tens of thousands of terrified Christians, many of whom are still in camps. More than 20 died.

By this month, the anti-Christian agitation had spread to the central state of Madhya Pradesh, to Karnataka and Kerala in the south, and to Uttar Pradesh in the north. Some of the worst cases have occurred in Karnataka, which earlier this year voted in its first BJP government.

Mohammed Shafi Qureshi, chairman of the National Commission for Minorities, says he perceives a clear link between BJP ascendancy in Karnataka and the violence. "What we found was something unbelievable," he says of his recent fact-finding trip to the state. "The mobs devastated churches and homes, beat up nuns, and the police were nowhere to be seen…. The state government was responsible for this. If the BJP hadn't come to power, this never would have happened."

The BJP says it has no hand in violence against any religious minorities. And hard-line Hindu nationalists from the Bajrang Dal and the VHP deny that the violence is politically motivated. "There was no violence," says Gauri Prasad Rath, the general secretary of the VHP in Orissa. "If there was any, it was because of the fraudulent conversions Christians are doing. They burned their own churches."

Hindus and Christians in India have a long history of peaceful coexistence, but there have long been claims that Christians here are forcibly converting Hindus and threatening India's identity. In some regions, conversions are taking place in large numbers. Especially in impoverished places like Kandhamal, which is heavily populated by animist tribes – a traditionally nature-worshipping ethnic group that is among India's poorest – the lure of institutional Christianity, which often offers education and healthcare, has proved especially strong.

Christians officially constitute less than 3 percent of India's 1 billion-plus population. Many church leaders themselves say that the proportion is a couple of percentage points under-reported in censuses.

Recently, tensions between poor Christian and Hindu communities nationwide have been exacerbated by Christian converts' calls for the benefits afforded dalits – Hindus at the bottom of the caste system – to be extended to dalit Christian converts. In Kandhamal, Christians have been agitating for the right to continue receiving benefits, including government jobs and university places. The issue has proved a rallying cry for political Hindu groups – as has the issue of forcible conversions. Many of the 12 states currently governed or co-governed by the BJP have introduced "conversion laws," which impose stiff prison sentences and fines on anyone found guilty of forcing a person to switch faiths.

But Ravi Nair, executive director of the South Asia Human Rights Documentation Center, says that convictions are extremely rare. "It seems there's a certain paranoiac exaggeration of conversion activity in India."

Unfortunately, convictions over religious violence are also rare. Last March, a United Nations freedom-of-religion investigator warned that the scarcity of prosecutions and "political exploitation of communal tensions" put India at risk of more violence.

Now, Christian leaders fear this injustice may soon ignite violence within their own communities. "Young people are beginning to ask, is the government protecting us?" says Sam Paul, national secretary of public affairs for the All India Christian Council, an umbrella group of churches. "Or do we need to form into groups to defend ourselves? I really, really hope that doesn't happen."

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