India: Attacks on Christians a challenge to the secular state

In the last two months, radical Hindu nationalist mobs have rioted and attacked Christians in a number of Indian states, claiming that lower-caste Hindus and tribal peoples are being forcibly converted to Christianity. More than 30 people have been killed, and thousands have taken shelter in government camps or in forests. Churches, prayer halls and Christian institutions have been vandalised, and nuns and priests have been attacked and beaten; one nun was stripped naked and gang-raped. It has been described as the most serious violence against the Christian community in India in the last 50 years.

There are approximately 24 million Christians in India, 2.3% of the population, belonging to diverse denominations. Indian Christians include Roman Catholics (approximately 70% of the total Christian community), Protestants, Orthodox Christians, and today, a growing number of evangelicals. Christianity has a long history in India (it is supposed to have been introduced by St Thomas the Apostle), and is visible because of numerous Christian educational institutions, social services, and hospitals. Nevertheless, in recent times it has come to be viewed by hard-line Hindu nationalists as a foreign influence and a threat to the Hindu nature of India.

The recent attacks on Christians began in the eastern state of Orissa, after a Hindu religious leader, Swami Laxamananda Saraswati, was murdered. He was associated with the right-wing Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP). Hindu nationalists accused Christians of killing him, even though a Maoist rebel faction (whose members include Christian tribal people) claimed responsibility for his death; they say they killed Saraswati because he was forcing tribal people to convert to Hinduism. Right-wing Hindu groups, such as the VHP, its youth wing, the Bajrang Dal, and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) accuse Christian groups of converting Hindus, particularly from lower castes and tribal groups. It is alleged that Hindu activists in Orissa have tried to intimidate Christians to reconvert to Hinduism.

Blogger Raj in Chennai is disgusted by recent events:

In recent months, there is a new plague spreading like wildfire in different parts of India. This vile disease threatens to destroy the very spirit of India, its soul of tolerance. […] The greatest threat that India faces today is the curse of religious fascism.

First, it was savage violence unleashed on thousands of Christians in Orissa by mobs of disgusting thugs. […] Then the violence spread to other states in India like Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Uttarakhand. All these states have governments run by the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). […] The government in Orissa is a coalition government in which the BJP is the junior partner. The scum […] are emboldened to carry out attacks on Christians in states ruled by the BJP because they believe the administration will be deliberately slow to respond in containing the violence. In some places in Mangalore, the police even beat up Christians who were protesting against the violent attacks with lathis (long wooden batons).

Christian leaders accuse Hindu nationalist groups of engineering the attacks to increase support for the BJP, the main opposition party, in next year’s national elections. The BJP became a major party through pro-Hindu policies and exacerbating communal divisions, and analysts expect anti-Christian violence to increase. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has called the violence a ‘national shame’, but has not suspended state governments for failing to stop the violence.

The radical Hindu groups accuse Christians of bribing tribal peoples and low-caste Hindus to convert, while Christians argue that if people convert, they do so willingly, and wish to escape the Hindu caste system. Catholics deny attempting to convert Hindus, but evangelical Protestant groups such as the New Life Church are doing so openly, and there are television evangelists who attack other religions and present converts from Hinduism.

Kim, writing at Desicritics, can't believe what is going on:

What the hell is wrong with our country and its people? […] Today morning between 9am and 10am, Bajrang Dal activists attacked and destroyed 4 churches in Mangalore City. Why? Because New Life members distributed pamphlets which said “Do not Worship Hindu Gods”. While I admit that this could be an incendiary statement, does this justify attacking people and churches who do not even agree with the methods used by the New Life preachers?

Then she protests official apathy:

Why are Christians being given the short end of the stick? Religious Christian institutions have a large role to play in education, medicine, caring for the orphans, abandoned, old and dying in India. Christians have been one of the most tolerant minorities in India (imagine what would have happened by now if by chance the Bajrang Dal hooligans had desecrated a mosque this morning) who have contributed immensely to the growth of the country. […] Do they deserve a government that is apathetic to their religious sensibilities being trampled upon? […] Why are these atrocities against Christians being downplayed in the media?

However, there are many bloggers who are unhappy with the privileges they believe Christians receive in India. Pseudo-secularism says:

The church is behaving as if it has a divine right to proselytise. As if it is part and parcel of the special minority rights. […] Do the minorities believe that they are super citizens? […] The Christians are on an offensive. […] This is politics, not religion. The provocation came from evangelists. The blasphemous literature they distributed was reported widely in the press. […] These actions strike at the idea of India and harm the country immensely. […] India is the only country that has always protected the minorities. But the definition of minorities in India is strangely distorted. Here the minorities are better off than Hindus and were the ruling class for centuries.

Sandeep B can see why things have reached this point:

The literature that is being used to propagate Christianity is repulsive: Denigrating Hindu gods and goddesses has become the standard practice of preachers flush with foreign funds. […] The following are excerpts from New Life’s Satya Darshani (View of Truth): “Urvashi — the daughter of Narayan — is a prostitute. Vashishtha is the son of this prostitute. He in turn married his own mother. Such a degraded person is the guru of the Hindu god Ram.” … “It was Brahma himself who kidnapped Sita. Since Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva were themselves the victims of lust, it is a sin to consider them as gods.” […] That said, the proper response to defamatory literature is certainly not violence. But, more fundamentally, the correct question to ask is why indulge in wilful defamation of other religions? […] The gruesome murder of Swami Lakshmanananda Saraswati in Orissa and now the events in Karnataka are but logical consequences, and neither will they be the last unless concrete steps are taken to stop religious conversions.

Catholic writer George Menezes, who controversially was once a member of the BJP, believes that Indian Christians need to come together and create a strategy:

When I was a member of the BJP’s National Executive Council, I found it difficult to convince friends in the RSS and the BJP that no conversions were taking place. […] Disassociating myself from fringe Christian activity did not help. Let it be clearly said that the present violence against us and our institutions and Churches by the VHP and Bajrang Dal is no different from the bombs of terrorists in our cities. Both are expressions of anger, humiliation, discrimination and hurt. Some real, some perceived. It should lead us to wake up to the reality of a changing India. A shared vision, […] political savvy, and fresh strategies and goals to deal with a horrific situation is the need of the hour. We must do this without conceding our rights as citizens of this country.

Blogger kochuthresiamma p.j. in Kerala says that the ‘truth’ should be handled carefully:

I got many forwards after the attack on Christians began in Orissa [that] talked about how tolerant and secular Hindu India is, how tolerant India is ‘cos Indian culture is Hindu culture. They pointed out that India has had Muslim Presidents, Christian Defence Ministers, a Muslim on the board of trustees of a Hindu temple, Muslim chief ministers.[…] I agree with every claim and am proud to belong to a model secular state. But I did not forward these forwards as requested. I deleted them instantly.

And then another set of forwards [that] listed the number of Christian Churches destroyed, details of people who lost lives and property in the anti-Christian riots, [and] highlighted how 15 million students of all castes and creeds pass thru Christian educational institutions every year – but the percentage of conversion is nil. […] I agree with every claim and am proud to belong to the Christian community. But I did not forward these forwards as requested. I deleted them instantly.

For I believe that the net should not be used to polarize the nation. […] Speaking the truth but not the whole truth, then interpreting it to inflame passions – that’s mischievous. I do not want to be a party to this virtual propaganda which is doing no good to this beautiful nation that is mine.


  • Naveen Fernandes

    The peace and cordial, mutually supportive relationships between communities have been disturbed by the attacks on minorities. Indian Christians have been at least as patriotic as any other community.

    The first proselytes in history are probably Indian. Hinduism, Buddhism, to a lesser extent Jainism and Sikhism have spread through Asia, more recently the West through substantial efforts over about 2,500 years!!

    Many, claimed as their own by the radical Hindus were never Hindu. Sanathan Dharma was not of, or for, the tribals and nature worshippers. Hinduism is of Aryan religion and surely has a rather small following of true believers. The rest are for political muscle.

    An important tenet of Christianity is conversion – of the heart, which eliminates coercion. This cannot be denied – Mission Sunday would have to be dropped, if it were. Condemning other religions has no role in such conversions. My generation needs to invlove in the charity as earlier generations did and earn my neighbours respect. That might convert India.

  • all that is said by the author is rubbish, and it shows the ignorance of the author about the ground realities.

    christian conversion groups and churches are sponsoring the maoists, naming them people’s war group.. and they threaten hindus to convert into christianity. this led to the violence in karnatka as well as in india. hindus need not learn secularism from anyone. when christian groups rape hindu girls and marry them by force and as it also turns to be a necessity, thereby converting them…

    im nt justifying the violence of hindus in orissa, but why there is a double standard ? when the violence is from christians, it is being named as Naxal attack… in orissa and madhyaprdesh, these things happen very offen, but rarely being reported by media.

  • Ah .. do I spot The Not-So-Great Indian Dingbat? Why, I believe I do .. right there in Comment number 2. Alas, this species is sadly, not an endangered one. Pity.

  • While under no circumstances the mindless attacks on Christians (or for that matter any community) be supported, the respectable Christian missionaries cannot escape their share of responsibility for the unfortunate developments that we are witnessin now. Their way to encourage low caste Hindus to convert into Christianity has always been very controversial, and they have never tried to show any transparency in this regard (which somewhat strengthened this doubt that they were not following fair means).

    Besides, the Christian missionaries are famous for showing scant regards for other religions, if not directly then at least indirectly. They have failed to realise that all this has alienated them from the people of other religions, eventually sending a wrong message to the latter.

  • Raj

    Christian Fundamentalism is the root cause of religious violence not only in India, but in other parts of Asia and Africa. It’s happening in India, in Sri Lanka, in Bangladesh, in Pakistan, in Indonesia, in Thailand, in Burma – you name it. Christian fundamentalists pride themselves on a persecution mentality. As soon as their aggresive and unethical evangelism ends, so will the religious violence.

  • Christianity in India is as old as Christ Himself. And Indian Christians form just over 2% of the population. Just goes to show that conversion is not something on the agenda of Indian Christians. Indian Christians have been involved in education, healthcare and social service for a long, long time. Indians have every right to practise their religion and this includes the right to change one’s religious beliefs.

    Naxals have nothing to do with Christianity! Naxals are armed left-wing guerillas who belong to all communities and the large majority of naxals across the country are Hindus. The violence against Christians in Orissa just because a religious leader belonging to the VHP was killed by naxals is nothing short of ethnic cleansing! It is a shame on India and humanity!

    By the way, I’m a Hindu myself and I am shocked that goon squads have hijacked a tolerant religion and are bringing shame upon India and the majority of Hindus who don’t subscribe to their ideology of hatred.

  • well, this is bad enough, as it goes. the indian secular fabric has alaways been a little thin. The dominant hindu majority always believes in mob dominance, and they have killed sikhs in 1984, and muslims in 2002, and the basic idea is that there are no convictions. One glariing fact is, that after all hindu-created genocide, the government in the state (gujrat in 2002, and delhi in 1984) wins by a huge majority.) this indioactes that every hindu in india rather encourgaes genocide by voting for the government that propogates it

  • A troubled soul

    Who said christians are not involved in conversions? After tsunami, the people in entire coastal belt in tamil nadu have become christians. Thanks to the evangelists who misused people in distress to convert them. Even I studied in a convent. The nuns constantly denounced hinduism by attacking different practices in hinduism. What right does a person from another religion have to abuse hinduism?

  • A troubled soul

    Also the neo – converts are taught wrong things about hinduism eg: hindus are pagans, hinduism doesn’t give salvation and so on. If you want proof, just check bbc site for snaps of converts in orissa and their answers(converts) on why they converted. What is the need of brainwashing people inorder to convert them to christianity. If this had been done in another country( especially muslim) there would have been blood bath on a much larger scale. Hindus only reacted after being alienated and abused for years. I don’t support the activities of right wing groups but hindus are very hurt as evangelists misuse their tolerance.

  • bhattathiri

    Excellent article.

    Conversion make confusion, confusion make coise and coise make pandemonium and it is a curse of the modern day society that is being indulged in by any sect. If you think it is ok to denigrate Hindu gods and prey upon the weak and gullible, then what is wrong in Pepsi claiming that it is a health drink? Why are their laws for truth in advertising? Yeah right. Rightfully, there are laws against conversion by such tactics, and all these pantywalahs should be arrested and put behind bars. Even if they are the anybody who silentyly encourages such illegal acts. Sure, arrest the hooligans who desecrate worshipful places but put them behind bars who are desecrating the minds of the gullible by telling them their gods are to be blamed for their condition, and that only God will make them happy and healthy.

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