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India: Attacks on Christians a challenge to the secular state

Categories: South Asia, India, Politics, Protest, Refugees, Religion

In the last two months, radical Hindu nationalist [1] 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 [2] have been killed, and thousands have taken shelter in government camps or in forests [3]. 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 [3]. It has been described as the most serious violence against the Christian community in India in the last 50 years [4].

There are approximately 24 million Christians in India, 2.3% of the population [5], 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 [5]. Christianity has a long history in India (it is supposed to have been introduced by St Thomas the Apostle [6]), 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 [7] of India.

The recent attacks on Christians began in the eastern state of Orissa [8], after a Hindu religious leader, Swami Laxamananda Saraswati, was murdered. He was associated with the right-wing Vishwa Hindu Parishad [9] (VHP). Hindu nationalists accused Christians of killing him, even though a Maoist rebel faction (whose members include Christian tribal people [4]) claimed responsibility for his death; they say they killed Saraswati because he was forcing tribal people to convert to Hinduism [2]. Right-wing Hindu groups, such as the VHP, its youth wing, the Bajrang Dal [10], and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh [11] (RSS) accuse Christian groups of converting Hindus, particularly from lower castes [12] and tribal groups [13]. It is alleged that Hindu activists in Orissa have tried to intimidate [3] Christians to reconvert to Hinduism.

Blogger Raj in Chennai [14] is disgusted by recent events [15]:

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 [16], Madhya Pradesh [17], Chhattisgarh [18] and Uttarakhand [19]. All these states have governments run by the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party [20] (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 [21], the police even beat up Christians who were protesting against the violent attacks with lathis [22] (long wooden batons).

Christian leaders accuse Hindu nationalist groups [3] 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 [23]. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh [24] has called the violence a ‘national shame’, but has not suspended state governments for failing to stop the violence [25].

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 [26] are doing so openly, and there are television evangelists who attack other religions and present converts from Hinduism [4].

Kim, writing at Desicritics, can't believe what is going on [27]:

What the hell is wrong with our country and its people? […] Today morning between 9am and 10am, Bajrang Dal activists attacked and destroyed [28] 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 [29]:

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 [30]:

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 [31] — the daughter of Narayan [32] — is a prostitute. Vashishtha [33] 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 [34].” … “It was Brahma [35] himself who kidnapped Sita [36]. Since Brahma, Vishnu [37] and Shiva [38] 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 [39], believes that Indian Christians need to come together and create a strategy [40]:

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 [41] says that the ‘truth’ should be handled carefully [42]:

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.