A majority of the reported incidents of violence against Christians in 1998 occurred in the western state of Gujarat, the same year that the BJP came to power in the state. The year began with an unprecedented hate campaign by Hindutva groups and culminated with ten days of nonstop violence against Christian tribals and the destruction of churches and Christian institutions in the southeastern districts at the year's end. Human Rights Watch investigated these attacks in Dangs district in southeastern Gujarat. The events were preceded by escalating violence throughout the state in which many police and state officials were implicated.
In February 1998 the heads of the village police attacked a prayer hall in Divan Tembrum village while prayers were taking place, and physically assaulted the worshippers.61 In April, a crowd of 400 used tractors and iron bars to destroy St. Antony's Catholic Church and several other affiliated structures in different stages of construction in Naroda, a suburb of Ahmedabad city. The crowd smashed icons and stole the contents of the donation box. Witnesses said the crowd included members of the police, the VHP, and the local BJP government. In an interview, the head of the village council, Sumbubhai Maiatbhai, admitted to attending the demolition but claimed that the church was razed because it stood in violation of a local building code. Church officials said they were unaware of any such code violation.62
In June several prayer halls were burned in Ahwa town, Dangs district. On July 8, a Methodist man's corpse was dug up in a Christian cemetery in Kapadvanj and dumped near his church.63 Witnesses said local VHP leaders led this desecration.64 Attacks and harassment of Christian-run schools were also on the rise. On July 16, the Shantiniketan High School in Zankhav village, Surat district, was broken into and stoned; its playground was ploughed by a tractor. The school was run by Jesuit priests of the Loyola Education Trust. The following day large numbers of "hooligans" from the neighboring village entered the market place in Zankhav, and violence ensued. Prior to the incident, two local language dailies, the Gujarat Samachar and Sandesh, had published a series of inflammatory articles charging that the Jesuit priests were engaged in forcible conversions of tribals to Christianity and that the school was admitting only Christian students.65 The same month, suspected VHP and Bajrang Dal activists burned hundreds of copies of the Bible at the I. P. Mission School in Rajkot district.66
On August 9, a church in Ahmedabad was demolished by RSS activists. On October 9, the Home Minister of Gujarat, Harin Pandya, threatened evangelist Roger Houstma with legal action if he continued to hold preaching and healing meetings in Gandhinagar. The next day Houstma's meeting in Rajkot was attacked.67 On November 11, in Dahunia village in the Dangs district, several Christian tribals, including an ailing woman, were beaten up. Several Christian families in the village were forced to undergo a "conversion" ritual and bathe in Unai hot springs just north of the district. The village sarpanch (elected head of the village council) supported the attackers and said that Christians could not draw water from the village well or have their cattle graze with the animals of other villagers. The sarpanch also issued a decree preventing Christians in the village from working in any government or government-aided projects.68
The state's chief minister, Keshubhai Patel, and VHP General Secretary Dr. Pravin Togadiya have both denied the involvement of sangh parivar activists in any of the attacks. Togadiya claimed that most of the incidents being blamed on VHP activists were "fits of imagination of a section of the media." "The provocations, if any," he added, "have come from the minorities, and the Hindus might have retaliated."69 Chief Minister Patel described the incidents as minor and isolated and, succumbing to VHP demands for immediate action against the "guilty minorities," ordered an inquiry into conversions activities at the missionary school in Rajkot where hundreds of copies of the Bible were burned in July 1998.70 In a clear indictment of Christian missionaries, Patel also threatened to ban conversions by "force or inducement."71 According to a report by the United Christian Forum for Human Rights, an ecumenical organization based in New Delhi:
The constant effort of the state government, the political leadership, the senior administrators and police officers has been to dismiss the violence as minor, to describe the places of worship as "wood and mud structures" and to point out that there have been no deaths among the Christian tribals so far. The constant effort has been to make it seem like a communal clash between two communities.72
Despite numerous arrests, the assaults continued through the end of the year and reached their peak during Christmas week 1998. The Hindu Jagran Manch (HJM), an offshoot of the sangh parivar consisting of people who belong to the Bajrang Dal, VHP and RSS, obtained permission to hold a rally on December 25 in Ahwa town in the Dangs district. Over 4,000 people participated in the rally, shouting anti-Christian slogans while the police stood by and watched. After the rally, the attacks began on Christian places of worship, schools run by missionaries, and shops owned by Christians and Muslims. Between December 25 and January 3, churches and prayer halls were damaged, attacked, or burned down in at least twenty-five different villages in the state. Human Rights Watch investigated the attacks, and further details are documented below.
A Campaign of Hate
Several fact-finding missions to southeastern Gujarat by local and national human rights organizations have attributed the increase in violence to the growing presence and activities of sangh parivar groups in these areas. According to an October 1998 joint report by the Committee to Protect Democratic Rights and the Andhra Pradesh Civil Liberties Committee:
A well planned strategy is being operated by the Hinduvata forces in Gujarat and it aims at communalising society at the grass root level. Youngsters belonging to the age group of fifteen to twenty-five are being recruited as activists of the Bajrang Dal for this purpose. They are taught to carry out operations covertly and deny any knowledge of those incidents where communal flare-ups do take place.... The VHP has also intensified its activities all over Gujarat. Activities such as the distribution of the idols of Hindu Gods, revival of Hindu festivals, conducting of `Artis' [prayer ceremonies] etc., are on the increase in recent months.... A well planned program to "Hinduvise" the tribals is in full swing in the entire tribal belt of South Gujarat. The founding of the units of the VHP and the BD [Bajrang Dal] in each tribal locality, the regular visits and preaching of Swamis, the construction of temples for tribals, etc. are being pursued vigourously. The attack on Christian churches, disruption of prayer meetings, physical assaults on Christians, etc. are the part and the result of this programme.73
None of the fact-finding missions found any evidence to support the accusation that Christians were converting tribals by force or trickery, accusations that were included in anti-Christian propaganda and distributed to the community at large:
A large number of pamphlets authored by the VHP are also in circulation.... They speak of the assault by minorities on the majority community without substantiating the charges with the sole aim of whipping up communal passions.... Even the police personnel and the administrators whom we talked to admitted that communal flare-ups have become frequent in recent months with the spurt of activities of the VHP and BD [Bajrang Dal]. This spurt in turn coincides with the assumption of power by the BJP at the centre.74
The December 1998 attacks were at least a year in the making. On December 25, 1997, exactly a year before the rally in Ahwa town, VHP organized an anti-Christian rally in Pipalwada, a village bordering Dangs district. During the year that followed, a series of rallies organized by VHP, HJM, and the Bajrang Dal were held in Surat, Dangs, Valsad, and Baruch, all districts in southern Gujarat.75 The message of the rallies was the same: Hindus need to protect themselves from the deceptive practices of Christian missionaries and "teach them a lesson." Throughout 1998 Christian communities, churches, and missionaries in southern Gujarat came under attack.
Ten days before the rally in Ahwa town, pamphlets promoting the rally and containing anti-Christian propaganda were distributed in Ahwa and neighboring villages. The English translation of a Gujarati pamphlet distributed by HJM in preparation for the rally reads as follows:
COME TO THE RALLY... COME TO THE RALLY...
HINDU JAGRAN MANCH, DANGS DISTRICT
The priests of the Christian religion are scared of the awakening of patriotic Hindus and have begun insulting holy people and volunteers of the "Hindu Jagran Manch" through daily papers. This is an insult to the whole of Hindu society. It is indeed the sacred duty (dharmanu kaam) of the Hindu religion to teach the bold Christian priests a lesson and to put them in their place.
The conspiracy of converting gullible tribals by giving money, goods, black magic and also through threats is unearthed now. Hence, the "Hindu Jagran Manch" is determined to stop the conversions and curb all activities of Christian priests.
For the safety of the nation and the Hindu religion we have organized a massive rally at Ahwa. All Hindus are requested to join the rally in large numbers.
Signed by Janubhai A. Pawar, President, Hindu Jagran Manch.76
Pamphlets distributed to announce an earlier rally on June 29, 1998, in part read:
Conversion activity by Christian Priests is the most dangerous burning problem at present in Dangs district. Innocent and illiterate tribals are converted through cheating, alluring by offering temptations and other deceiving activities, under the pretext of services, these devils are taking advantage of tribal society and exploit them. In the world, wherever these Christian priests have looted its people and have made them helpless. Lie and deceit are their religion....
Hindus, awake and struggle, continuous with these robbers who snatch away your rights by telling lies and teach these people a lesson....
Yours, Coordinator, Rameshbhai Chaudhari, Hindu Jagran Manch-Dangs District.77
RSS and HJM fliers in August 1998 proclaimed, "India is a country of Hindus.... Our religion of Rama and Krishna is pious. To convert [or] leave it is a sin." Another flier by the VHP in Bardoli, Gujarat, warned, "Caution Hindus! Beware of inhuman deeds of Muslims.... Muslims are destroying Hindu Community by slaughter houses, slaughtering cows and making Hindu girls elope. Crime, drugs, terrorism are Muslim's empire."78 While a flier produced by the Bajrang Dal and VHP in November 1998 described the Bajrang Dal as a "wide organisation of youth," "working under the Vishva Hindu Parishad," with the objectives of "protect[ing] mother India," "rais[ing] a loud voice against people who ignore Hindu Sabha [assembly]," raising people's awareness against the "trapping of Hindu girls by Muslims and anti-national activities of Christian missionaries," and working for the "protection of religion and culture."79 A parallel anti-Christian campaign was supported by the vernacular press that printed false reports of Hindu temples being destroyed, cited an increase in the percentage of Christians in the area, printed announcements for upcoming rallies, and repeatedly labeled the Christians as the main instigators of violence in December 1998 and January 1999.80
While Hindutva groups have accused Christian missionaries of deceiving illiterate tribals, human rights activists argue that militant groups have long used Dalits and tribals as their foot-soldiers, preying on their social and economic "backwardness" and tempting them with money and alcohol. According to John Dayal, veteran journalist and national convenor of the United Christian Forum for Human Rights: "Dalits and tribals are used as instruments. They are paid, drugged, alcoholized, they are in a stupor."81 A local activist, who wishes to remain anonymous, expressed similar sentiments: "Hindu tribals are used to attack Christian tribals, Dalits are used to attack Muslims. High-ranking members of the RSS are never physically involved."82
Parash Chaudary, an attorney with the Center for Social Justice in Ahwa town, told Human Rights Watch that many of the people distributing the leaflets are unaware of their contents:
The local people's consciousness is low. They do what they are told and don't even know what RSS/VHP is. I spoke to Janu Pawar, the local president of HJM, who was distributing a leaflet that claimed that in the Bible Jesus said he was born to kill those who are not Christian. He didn't even know what the Bible was, so obviously he did not write the leaflet. It came from someone higher up outside of Dangs.83
Nevertheless, local HJM President Pawar seems to command respect from local authorities. As noted by members of the fact-finding team of the Citizens' Commission, an initiative of the National Alliance of Women's Organizations to investigate violence in Gujarat: "Obviously he has the backing of the Government as is evident from the way he took us to a Government office to give his views
-when the officials at his very sight stood up to receive him and wait outside."84
The same report also found that HJM had distributed pamphlets stating that Christians would soon outnumber Hindus in the district and would ultimately demand an independent state like Nagaland.85 These accusations were again unsupported by evidence and further undermined by population statistics: "Out of a total population of about 1.70 lakhs [170,000] the Christian population [does] not exceed 15,000. We also found no evidence whatsoever to imagine remotely that the Christian population was thinking or was even capable of thinking in terms of Nagaland for themselves."86
Vijay Moray, a former RSS member, told Human Rights Watch that the Hindutva campaign had been in the planning in southeastern Gujarat for years:
Two and a half to three years ago I was told that in three years there would be a revolution. I laughed out loud. Then I realized that they had been planning this slowly and intensely for the last three years. We didn't know about it, only the top-level management did. They had also planned to get the BJP here. "When it's our government, whatever we say goes," that sort of thing.... For two years Swami Asheemanand along with HJM went through 311 villages of Dangs and spread propaganda....87 The attacks were the first phase. The second phase is the conversion process. Once people were scared, they exploited their fear and started forced conversions. They are still converting. Now I hear that tribals are being taken, not Christians. If someone takes someone for a conversion they get Rs. 500 [US$11.90] per person from HJM. It is all for money.88
Moray also explained the significance of caste to the structure of RSS and other Hindutva groups: "They don't name caste in their meetings, but inside their whole structure is dominated by Brahmins and other upper-castes.... They say they want a return of Hinduism's Golden Age when Brahmins ruled and Kshatriyas were their warriors.... Disciplined people become RSS coordinators. People who are interested in politics go to the BJP. People are divided during the training itself. The final objective is to prop up the caste system. To achieve that, RSS will abandon BJP if necessary or any other outfits. Three and a half years ago I realized that the RSS was upper-caste-dominated. I changed my views and got out."89
During his membership, Moray was responsible for recruiting and training new RSS members in Ahwa town, Dangs district, Gujarat, from 1990 to 1995. He described the daily rituals:
It happened from 6:00 a.m. to 7:00 a.m. daily. There could be fifteen to 150 boys at a time, as young as pre-school children, ages five and six, up to college age and above. We did prayers. We stood in a circle and gave statements. We talked about pre-independence Hindu politicians. We also taught pride to the children. "We are Hindu, we have to protect our nation," things like that. Then we sang patriotic songs and performed a sun prayer. Then we did training with lathis [batons] and training on how to protect the Hindu nation. Outside of the meetings, the trainers would say that the Christians are toeing the American line, that Muslims are toeing the Pakistan line, and that eventually Hindus would be kicked out of their own country. "There is no other Hindu country for us to go to," they would say.90
An increase in the number of Christians in southern Gujarat over the past ten years has also been used by RSS and its allies to support the accusation that tribals are being forcibly converted by Christian missionaries. Human rights activists contend that tribal conversions to Christianity must be placed in a social context. As noted by the Citizens' Commission report, "The question of conversion cannot be considered without taking into account the background of the people involved-particularly tribals in Dangs living in abject poverty, illiteracy, and with no facility for health care and comfort."91 Commenting on Christian conversions in India generally, the report added:
In India, if Christian missionaries have succeeded in converting certain sections of people belonging to Hindu society, this is because of the oppressive caste system that treats millions of human beings worse than animals. Sangh Parivar is not interested in eliminating the caste system as they still talk of Sanatani Hindu faith which still considers birth in any caste as the sole determining factor of social status.92
According to social workers in the region, tribals choose to convert for many reasons. As one social worker put it, "People go to Christianity because they believe they can be cured of disease. They give up drinking and other habits [and thereby] improve their financial position and their domestic relations. They also convert for literacy and education services."93 Although tribals are animists or spirit worshippers, Hindutva groups have been claiming that when tribals are converted to Christianity, they are being taken away from the Hindu faith. The term "reconversion" is therefore a misnomer:
Since many of the adivasis [tribals] are not Hindu to begin with, though some have been "Hinduised," there can be no "reconversion" from Christianity to Hinduism.... As the sangh parivar's ideology treats Hinduism as the original and authentically Indian religion and tradition, for them any conversion from non-Hindu religion to Hinduism is "reconversion."94
Focusing on conversions also deflects attention from other possible motivations underlying the attacks. As is often the case in organized communal incidents, the motivation is political in nature. As John Dayal noted:
Tribals have been pauperized. Forests have been made into reserved forests. Tribals are denied the right to use forest produce. They go to work in the fields of the upper castes; women's sexual exploitation is endemic. Evangelical empowerment leads to education that tells them that they are equal. They are free. Still they are being exploited, they do not get decent wages, this is how they live despite the constitution. Not only does it rock the boat, it turns it upside down.95
A social activist who has lived and worked in Dangs district for the last six years explained some of the possible political motivations underlying increased violence in the area:
The Hindus want to rally the tribals and in order to do so they have to target the Christians. They want to rally them for multiple reasons. The first is to achieve an immediate political objective. The tribal belt of Gujarat has traditionally been a Congress Party base. To break the base and make a BJP entry they played the communal card. The BJP has only six or seven of the twenty-six reserved seats for scheduled-tribe MLAs [members of legislative assembly]. The rest are predominantly Congress. The second objective relates to the RSS plan to establish a Hindu raj [rule]. Non-Hindu communities are treated as second class citizens. Their long-term objective is for all to accept Hindu domination.96
The activist also contends that these short- and long-term political objectives have the support of non-tribals in the area, in particular upper-caste Hindus. Over the last several years, tribals have been formulating a movement for self-rule through implementation of the fifth schedule of the constitution in the eastern belt. The fifth schedule calls for autonomous councils in tribal areas that would possess many decision-making powers and would exert control over development funds. Non-tribals whose authority is threatened by the movement are able to use the communal incidents and divisions among tribals on religious grounds to successfully undermine the movement.
Violence in Dangs District, Southeastern Gujarat
Dangs district in southeastern Gujarat on the Maharashtra border is a remote forest area populated predominantly by tribal communities. According to the 1991 census, a total of 144,091 people lived in a total of 311 villages.97 The current population is estimated at 170,000. Human Rights Watch visited Dangs in April 1999. According to Reverend Gaikwaud, superintendent of the Church of North India in Dangs: "We were established in 1907, the year the Christianity came to Dangs. There have been no incidents since then. When the BJP [state] government appeared [in 1998] we see this violence."98 Gaikwaud and other Dangs residents argue that the main casualties of the violence and propaganda have been tribal relationships and tribal culture. The incidents have destroyed work and family relationships-particularly in families with both Christian and Hindu members-while the practice of tribal rites and rituals continues to decline.99
The district is currently home to eighteen Christian denominations. With many groups actively involved in proselytizing, the population of tribal Christians in the area increased significantly between the 1981 and the 1991 census.100 Though Hindutva groups have warned that conversions will only increase and have used this warning as a rallying point for Hindus and non-Christian tribals in Dangs, the district police have no reported incidents of forced conversions to Christianity.101
In December 1998, the Dangs district collector (a local government official) gave permission to HJM to carry out a rally on Christmas day in Ahwa town. Approximately ten days before December 25, pamphlets promoting the rally and containing anti-Christian propaganda began appearing throughout Ahwa town and surrounding villages. Over 4,000 people participated in the rally, mainly from outside Ahwa, shouting anti-Christian slogans as the police stood by and watched. Later in the day, during a meeting at the center of town, the collector was garlanded by rally organizers. Following the meetings, the attacks began on Christian places of worship, schools run by Christian missionaries, and shops owned by Christians and Muslims. The attacks continued into the first week of January 1999 and ultimately led to nationwide protests calling for the dismissal of the BJP-led state government.
On the night of December 24 and early morning on December 25, truckloads of participants from outside Dangs district began arriving in Ahwa town in preparation for the rally. The town's main road was decorated with saffron flags and banners, prominent sangh parivar symbols, while rally organizers drove through the town in jeeps, shouting anti-Christian slogans and calling on the people of Ahwa to attend the rally.102 Two days before the rally, an Ahwa town resident, who wishes to remain anonymous, was present at a meeting organized by local VHP President Pradip Patil. According to the resident, Patil was addressing a crowd and encouraging them to participate in the rally. "He was saying that even if they cut up Christians and throw them, nothing can happen to them. `The government is ours,' he said. `Don't worry. Up to Delhi the government is ours. Even if I call [Prime Minister] Vajpayee, he won't say anything.' He was getting the people ready for the rally."103
At approximately 11:30 a.m. on December 25 the rally began. For the next several hours, rally participants circled the town, shouting anti-Christian slogans and carrying banners and placards as they passed Christian institutions, many of which were hosting Christmas day festivities. Reverend Gaikwaud told Human Rights Watch:
Why they started we do not know. They wanted to harass us, demolish the prayer halls. They [say] that we are forcibly converting people. On December 25, 1998, we were busy with Christmas programs. They purposely did this to harass us. They came from outside villages to gather for the rally, they were given money to participate. Hindu Jagran Manch organized this. The same people who have been forcibly reconverting the Christians... Some were arrested; we do not know what the policy is. Even when the deputy superintendent of police takes action, the state ministers force him not to.104
At 5:00 p.m. the rally culminated in a meeting on the local school grounds. The Christian community was again made the target of speeches that openly instigated people to engage in violence against members of minority communities. While the meeting was taking place, ten to fifteen tribal Christians, mostly women, were identified in the marketplace by rally participants who began pelting them with stones. Three women and one child were injured.105 Soon thereafter, Christians began throwing stones at meeting participants. The participants split into two groups. One group headed toward the Church of North India while the other made its way to Deep Darshan High School. On its way to the church, the angry mob destroyed several Christian and Muslim shops, being careful to spare those that carried saffron flags. As the mob approached the church, police, including members of the State Reserve Police Force, began indiscriminately lathi-charging (charging with batons) and firing tear gas at the mob and at Christian by-standers in the crowd. Several Christians were also beaten up by the police even after they entered their own homes.106
In the meantime, the second group made its way to Deep Darshan, a high school run by Christian missionaries but open to all children. The crowd threw stones, damaging the roof and breaking the windowpanes of the boys' hostel. In a letter addressed to Prime Minister Vajpayee, Sister Carmen Borges, principal of Deep Darshan High School, appealed for government intervention to "help restore peace and amity" in the region. The letter also provided details of the attack:
On the 25th of December, 1998... the Adivasi Boys' Hostel of the Deep Darshan High School was attacked by a mob of about 120 people. They pelted stones on the roof, damaging it and broke the window panes. As this occurred on Christmas day, the hostel inmates (all of them belonging to the tribal community) were away on holiday. The stoning would otherwise have caused serious injuries to our students.... The majority of our students belong to the deprived and marginalised section of the society.107
Later in the night of December 25, truckloads of rally participants returned to the villages surrounding Ahwa town and began destroying prayer halls and assaulting Christian villagers. The same villagers were then taken to Unai hot springs and forced to undergo a reconversion ritual and become Hindus. In the eyes of the converters, the villagers were being brought back into the Hindu fold. Originally tribals, or animist spirit worshippers, they had never left the Hindu fold to begin with.
Jamuna Bhen, a thirty-year-old agricultural laborer, described the attack on her church in Jaman Vihar village:
The Hindus removed the ornamentation from our church on December 25. They threatened us by saying that they will set the church house on fire. Then they started taking down the roof tiles. This was around 8:00 p.m. There were one hundred to 200 people who came from other villages. They said, "We will burn everything." We begged them not to. We said, "Don't do this," and said we will become Hindu.108
Like many villagers that night, Jamuna Bhen was taken to Unai hot springs to be "reconverted" to Hinduism.
They took us to Unai hot springs, they took twenty-five people and converted us.... First we went to a swami. Then they gave us food and took us to the hot springs. They took our photos and gave us photos of Hanuman [a Hindu deity] and gave us a saffron-colored flag. Then they forced us into the water, all twenty-five of us. Then we were brought home. I started feeling sick in my stomach; I had a fever. They said, "You are now Hindu," but we remain Christian.109
Kashubhai Gulab, a sixty-year-old tribal of Jamla Pada village, described the attack on his church:
At 11:30 p.m. they came and destroyed our church, they set it on fire. They set fire to the table, chair and clock inside. The drums used for prayer were also destroyed. There were people from seven to eight different villages. Seven hundred to 800 people came in trucks. They came with trishuls [tridents], finger weapons, all mythological Hindu weapons.110
According to thirty-five-year-old Anand Bhai Kasubhai, also of Jamla Pada village, the attackers also engaged in looting: "Rs. 1,500 [US$35.71] was taken from Suman Ignu's house. They also took six chickens and damaged the roof of the house. But they did not take us for conversion."111
Human Rights Watch also spoke to Gumujbhai, local HJM secretary at the time of the rally, who denied any wrongdoing on the part of rally participants. He claimed that those marching said nothing against Christians. Human Rights Watch, however, heard a tape recording of the rally in which the following slogans were raised (translated from Hindi):
There is a noise in the streets
That the Christians are thieves
Whoever gets in our way
Will be ground into dust.
Hindus are brothers
Praise mother India
Praise Lord Ram
Who will protect our faith?
Bajrang Dal, Bajrang Dal
Praise Lord Hanuman.112
When asked about the destruction of churches, prayer halls, and schools, Gumujbhai responded, "These are all lies, we did not touch a single church. They broke it themselves to get money from the government. There were no physical assaults. We don't know who attacked Deep Darshan school. I told everyone not to touch the churches. They [the Christians] wanted new churches and were given money to replace them.... Some of the churches were even burned by Christians in order to place the blame on Hindus."113
Gumujbhai also claimed that between December 25, 1998, and the time of the Human Rights Watch interview on April 22, 1999, thousands of people had been converted to Hinduism in Dangs district alone.
Every day in the morning people get converted, around fifty a day. No force is used. We explain that outside Christians come and create problems and that we need to stick together. Like that they listen. First we go to Unai [hot springs], then to the ashram to do a prayer before Hanuman. Then they get a locket with Hanuman inside to wear around their neck. They also get a photo for their home. It is organized by HJM. At 8:00 a.m. every morning we go, from all over Dangs. They think of themselves as Hindu now.114
Gumujbhai emphasized that none of the conversions were done by force. Several villagers who had gone through the process, however, told Human Rights Watch that they converted out of fear and intimidation. Human Rights Watch also spoke to Janubhai, a resident of Gadvi village, and a former member of HJM:
We used to organize against Christians. That day [of the rally] they did a little more. Christians give insults against Hindu gods. This is not a fight against people but their beliefs. The Congress party uses Christians as vote banks. BJP is a Hindu party, and everyone knows that. BJP knows that they won't get Christian votes. In the last twenty-five to thirty years, [Dangs district] went from 500 to 15,000 Christians. They were all Hindu before that.... Reconversions are now taking place and the new Christians [those who converted in the past year] are getting scared. Just the other day two men came to me and said, "Make us Hindus." I sent them to HJM and they were taken to Unai [hot springs].115
Janubhai, as well as other Hindus and Christians in the area, attributed the increase in "reconversion" activity to the arrival of Swami Asheemanand in Dangs district in early 1998: "Since Swami Asheemanand came to town, four to five thousand conversions have taken place. They convert new Christians. The old Christians are too fixed."116 Swami Asheemanand has also been credited with creating the hot springs conversion ritual.
When asked about the structure of leadership of HJM and its sister organizations, Janubhai responded:
People take leadership in turns, and there is no fixed membership. I'll go back to it if they need me, if the Christians do wrong. There will be problems in the future. Now it has quieted down because they put the brakes on the Christians. VHP and Bajrang Dal continue with their work and will work more during [national parliamentary] elections. Christians will vote for Congress always. We want BJP to win. BJP, VHP, and Bajrang Dal all are one; it is only the type of work that is different.117
When asked about the mandate of the various groups, Janubhai explained:
The VHP is for the promotion of religion, the Bajrang Dal is for the protection of Hindus, and the BJP is for politics. The work systems are different, but the aim is the same. We all want akand bharat: all nations under India. We want what we had before independence, minus the British. We should have a Hindu nation. Other religions can do whatever they want but they should not insult Hinduism. We also don't want them to distribute their vote but to give it to the Hindus. Everyone will come together to support against [the] Congress [party].... We have no problems with the police.118
Response of the State and Local Administrations
Between December 25, 1998, and January 3, 1999, in Dangs and neighboring districts, over twenty churches were burned or destroyed, and scores of individuals were physically assaulted, in some cases tied and beaten up and robbed of their belongings while angry mobs invaded and damaged their homes. Rallies continued to take place in several districts for the sole purpose of intimidating and terrorizing Christian community members. According to an article in The Hindu, "The disturbances broke out only in [those] tribal-dominated areas where the BJP failed to make inroads in the last few elections, despite setting up a special tribal cell in the party. The division on religious grounds could ensure support to the BJP of the majority community voters among the tribals."119
The role of the district collector and the deputy superintendent of police (DYSP) has also come under scrutiny. Prior to the rally, the Christian community had submitted four memoranda to the district collector, the chief minister of Gujarat, and the National Commission for Minorities all warning of the potential for violence and destruction should the rally be allowed to take place.
The collector, who was aware of the distribution of anti-Christian literature and the distribution of trishuls (tridents) and other weapons in the area, informed the groups that he had already given permission for the rally but that "appropriate arrangements" for police protection would be made. The collector also stated that the DYSP's report indicated that there was no danger of violence, despite the fact that several churches in the area had already been burned the previous month.120 Despite a heavy police presence, the destruction continued late into the night and continued for the next week. During the meeting that followed the rally, the collector was asked to approach the dais and was garlanded by rally organizers. As part of a placating exercise that accompanied Prime Minister Vajpayee's visit to the area, the collector was transferred within one month of the rally but only after much of the destruction had already taken place, and after much resistance from the state government.121
A memorandum detailing attacks on Christians in Dangs was submitted to the president of the Gujarat Minority Board on January 5, 1998. A memorandum was also submitted to the Minorities Commission at Surat on August 11 detailing seventeen instances of attacks on individuals and the destruction of five churches. Gujarat's Chief Minister Keshubhai Patel was also sent a letter dated November 10, 1998. The Dangs district collector received a similar memorandum on December 4, 1998.122 Prior to the events of December 1998 and January 1999, the National Commission for Minorities had already received complaints of 130 incidents of anti-Christian violence in 1997 and 1998.123
Upon learning that HJM planned to organize a rally on December 25, 1998, three Christian organizations submitted memoranda to the district collector on December 18, 21, and 22, respectively, asking him not to give permission for the rally and to ensure adequate police protection for Christmas festivities. A fourth memorandum was submitted on December 24 by the South Gujarat Lok Adhikar Sang, a human rights NGO.124 On December 23, the collector called for a meeting with representatives of the Christian community in which he was again informed of increasing attacks in the area and was requested not to let the rally proceed. He told the representatives that he would arrange for adequate police protection on that day.125
An article in The Hindu on January 12, 1999, scrutinized the steps taken by the state administration prior to and immediately following the rally:
There is no plausible explanation why on the same day the Navsari District Superintendent of Police, Mr. Amarsinh Vasava, a controversial police officer, was given the additional charge of Dangs district to boss over the Deputy Superintendent of Police, Mr. Ranjan Gaekwad, a Christian, who the in-charge DSP of Dangs for the last few months. Mr. Vasava, whose name had once figured in an alleged pay-off scandal, was believed to be close to the BJP....
Not only that, the State administration devoted all its energies to underplay the impact of the riots in Dangs. It needlessly tried to defend the Collector, Mr. Bharat Joshi, claiming that denial of permission to the Manch [HJM] to take out the rally on Christmas Day would have caused even more serious violence. It also ignored the allegations that the Collector was present on the dais and remained silent when the Manch leaders made inflammatory speeches.126
The same article cited a report by the collector and the DSP to the home secretary and the director general of police. The report did not mention the incidents following the rally and instead blamed the Christians for stoning the rally meeting.127 Further evidence of government support was provided in a report by the United Christian Forum for Human Rights:
Many of them [the attackers] were mobile, riding in tempos [trucks] and in one case in a forest jeep. They were also very well informed of the location of churches/places of worship and of the homes of the Christian families. This is not surprising. Throughout the autumn, the local administration, including the civil, police and forest authorities have been trying to survey the Christian presence in the district. The survey still continues.128 While in the first phase, no explanation was forthcoming [for] the government exercise, the collector claimed that the second survey was to identify the churches and families in order to protect them.129
In the aftermath of the violence, local police refused to register complaints by Christian victims. The United Christian Forum for Human Rights report stated that the police force
went out of its way to ensure that there were counter-complaints by the aggressors and leaders of the mob. Since then, an effort has been deliberately on to establish `parity' between the Christians and the aggressors both in the number of cases and in the number of protests. The collector and the police superintendent have not been able to explain that even after nearly 30 major cases of violence, the number of aggressors arrested is so small compared to the number of Christians arrested.... Coercion and intimidation still continue. Tribals and others who have filed complaints and FIRs130 with the police are being threatened to withdraw their complaints, particularly to withdraw the name of specific Manch [HJM] activists who they have named.131
The response of the state's Chief Minister Keshubhai Patel has been to blame the incidents on an "international conspiracy."132 He claimed that the trouble following the rally in Ahwa town on December 25 started when rally participants were attacked.133 During a two-day BJP state executive meeting held on January 16-17, 1999, the BJP absolved itself of any responsibility for attacks on Christians in Dangs. A resolution adopted at the end of the session accused the Congress party of playing the "Christian card" and criticized the National Commission for Minorities for its "biased views" on the issue. The resolution also highlighted the achievements of the then ten-month old Keshubhai Patel government.134
On February 1, 1999, the National Commission for Minorities submitted its final report on attacks on Christians in Gujarat to President K. R. Narayanan. The commission held the sangh parivar-sponsored "reconversion" of tribals under a "homecoming campaign" responsible for the abuses. The commission also blamed the state government for its "inept handling of the situation."135 While submitting the report, NCM Chairperson Tahir Mahmood and other commission members expressed their concern over the growing incidence of violence under an "inspired campaign" for "religious cleansing of the minorities" in Gujarat and Orissa, a campaign that was spreading to other parts of the country. The report also observed that the sangh parivar outfits were being helped by "outsiders" and local "swamis" in organizing their campaigns.136
Within a span of seven months, the National Commission for Minorities submitted three reports on the incidents in Gujarat. In an unprecedented move, the commission recommended that the central government initiate action under Article 355 of the Indian constitution, which authorizes the center to direct any state government to faithfully implement select provisions of the constitution and the People's Representation Act, and to guarantee the rights of minorities and the separation of law and religions.137
A special branch of the commission elicited testimony from senior officers in Gujarat, including the chief secretary of the state, as well as members of the Bajrang Dal and the BJP. The commission held that the Gujarat government was guilty of "inadequacy of action or neglect" although it could not determine whether the neglect was deliberate. "Certainly there was neglect and inaction in many cases at the higher level," Chairperson Mahmood told Human Rights Watch. "At the same time, at the lower level, district-level officers and lower-level officers were actively involved in some incidents. Also we found no evidence of forced conversions to Christianity anywhere."138 The commission has not investigated forced conversions to Hinduism. The state administration accused the commission of carrying out its investigations with a "biased mind" and of working as a "tool" for opposition parties to defame the BJP administration in the state.139 Chief Minister Patel charged that the report was "biased and one-sided" and was released before the state had issued its own version of the events.140
On February 2, 1999, a day after the National Commission for Minorities submitted its report to the president, the office of the Gujarat director general of police (intelligence) issued a memorandum to all district superintendents of police and police commissioners of the Gujarat state police. In the memorandum he solicited district-level information on, inter alia, the total population of Christians; the location of Christian missionaries; the amounts and sources of foreign funding they received; the addresses and telephone numbers of the "main leaders"; the number of Hindu-Christian conflict cases registered; the number and types of vehicles and weapon-owning licenses possessed by Christian missionaries; and arrangements that had been made for their security in the wake of increasing Hindu-Christian conflict. The memorandum also asked: "What type of trickery is being used by the Christian Missionaries for their defilement activities? How are they increasing it?" A dossier of all Christians involved in criminal activities and "having criminal attitude" was also requested.141
Soon after the circular was sent, the Gujarat High Court initiated a case against the state government to ascertain the constitutional validity of the directive. Echoing statements made in a responding affidavit by the district superintendent of police, Chief Minister Keshubhai Patel stated that such inquiries were "routine" and that the information was required to provide the necessary security to members of the Christian community.142
According to several villagers, heavy police protection in the area since January 1999 has helped maintain the peace. At the time of Human Rights Watch's visit in April 1999, however, the police protection had already begun to fade. Christian villagers were threatened that once the protection was completely lifted, the attacks would resume. Soni Bhen Gunujia, a twenty-seven-year-old agricultural laborer in Jamanvihir, told Human Rights Watch: "The same people who converted us [from Christianity to Hinduism] now threaten us."143 Anand Bhai Kasubhai of Jamla Pada village complained that villagers are still routinely threatened by their Hindu neighbors: "The Hindus tell us to convert or they will destroy the church again. When we go to shops to buy anything, they threaten us. They're always doing that.... They said, `We will burn you and your houses if you don't convert.'"144
Kashu Bhai Gulab, also of Jamla Pada village, said: "They say once police protection goes they will kick us out of our homes and burn our houses. There were outside people also, Bajrang Dal people from Surat. They said they would bring the Shiv Sena and cut everyone up when the police goes." Gulab added that Christians were being refused government-sponsored work by the local panchayat (village council):
In the panchayat's road construction work they do not hire Christians. They say, "This government is ours, so we will work. It is not your government so you will not get work." There is no field work now because there is no rain, but when it starts they say they will destroy our fields using their cattle.145
When Human Rights Watch asked a police constable guarding Jamanvihir village about communal tensions in the area, he responded, "There was some struggle between the two. We don't know who started it. We keep changing posts. We don't ask, our job is to see that nothing else happens."146 The constables did not speak the local dialect and therefore found it difficult to communicate with villagers.
Several villagers had received some funding from the state government to reconstruct their churches. According to the new deputy superintendent of police (DYSP), a series of "administrative reforms" since January 1999 resulted in the "general transfer" of twenty-five DYSPs in the state. The only senior local administration official left who was also present during the rally was the sub-divisional magistrate. He told Human Rights Watch that the administration had received no complaints of forced conversions to Hinduism and that he heard no anti-Christian slogans during the rally.147 Although he claimed that there were no longer any problems, there were still visible signs of communal tension. On April 10, 1999, eleven days before Human Rights Watch's visit, evangelist Manglu Bhai and six members of his family were severely beaten by members of the Bajrang Dal and subsequently hospitalized. Human Rights Watch spoke to Manglu and his family twelve days after the attack.
It was a preplanned attack. They drank liquor, shut off the electricity, and came here. Twenty-five to thirty people from Borkhal village and adjacent Timangatha, and Payalgodhi villages. They said, "Why did you shut off the electricity?" I said I didn't do anything. They took my sister's son and beat him. He's twenty-three. They blew a whistle and came with sticks and sickles.148
Manglu's thirty-two year old wife, Situ, added: "They beat me with their hands. They said, `We will kill you.'" Manglu Bhai explained what he believed to be the motivation for the attack:
Bajrang Dal and VHP people told us on December 25 to become Hindu. Since then they have been harassing us. They said, "We will keep beating you until you become Hindu." We said we wouldn't come for conversion. Then they say that it is their government so they won't get arrested, and nothing will happen to them.149
A constable at the police station told Situ that BJP ministers had contacted the station to warn that "their people" should not be arrested and that Manglu should be arrested instead. "The DSP didn't listen to them, though. They were all BJP ministers. The Bajrang Dal all belong to the BJP."150
61 Indian Social Institute, State of Human Rights in India 1998 (New Delhi: Indian Social Institute, 1999), p. 53 [hereinafter State of Human Rights in India].
62 Cooper, "In India, More Attacks on Christians...," The Washington Post; State of Human Rights in India, p. 54.
63 Cooper, "In India , More Attacks on Christians...," The Washington Post; State of Human Rights in India, p. 55.
64 Filkins, "Christians under fire...," Los Angeles Times.
65 State of Human Rights in India, p. 56.
66 State of Human Rights in India, p. 57; Filkins, "Christians under fire...," Los Angeles Times.
67 State of Human Rights in India, p. 59.
69 "VHP blames minorities for Gujarat incidents," The Hindu, August 3, 1998.
71 "Hit ground running: Hypocrisy over Gujarat must be given up," The Statesman (Delhi), January 11, 1999.
72 "Report of the United Christians for Human Rights/CBCI Fact Finding Team to Gujarat (Dangs, Baroda, Surat, Ahmedabad and Gandhinagar) from 1 January to 6 January 1999," Annexure X in Citizen's Commission on persecution of Christians in Gujarat, Violence in Gujarat: test case for a larger fundamentalist agenda ([no city]: National Alliance of Women, 1999), [hereinafter Violence in Gujarat]
73 "Attacks on Religious Minorities in South Gujarat," A Report by the Combined Fact Finding Team of CPDR and APCLC, October 1998, p. 7, [hereinafter "Attacks on Religious Minorities"].
75 "Black Christmas Day: A Report on the Attacks on the Adivasi Christian Community of Dangs District South Gujarat," A South Gujarat Tribal Christian Welfare Council report, December 30, 1998, p. 2, [hereinafter "Black Christmas Day"].
76 "English translation of the Gujarati pamphlet distributed by Hindu Jagran Manch before 25th Dec. 1998," in Violence in Gujarat, p. 41.
77 Violence in Gujarat, p. 43.
78 In towns outside of Dangs, members of the Muslim community have also come under attack. In several districts, inter-religious marriages between Muslim men and Hindu women are being depicted as incidents of "the abduction of girls." The government of Gujarat has also announced that it will "probe into all such marriages, that too, only when the bridegrooms are Muslim." "Attacks on Religious Minorities," p. 7.
79 Violence in Gujarat, p. 45. In early September 1999, in an attempt to polarize voters on the eve of national parliamentary elections in Gujarat, the VHP distributed pamphlets in the slum areas of Ahmedabad, the state capital. Among the many attacks on minorities contained in the pamphlets was the charge that Muslim men were trapping Hindu girls into marriage. The pamphlets also noted that the populations of Christians and Muslims in the country since independence have increased at a far greater rate than the population of Hindus, and that voters should think twice before handing the country back to a Christian foreigner-namely Italian-born Congress Party president Sonia Gandhi. "VHP unleashes pamphlet attack on Sonia, minorities," The Times of India (Ahmedabad), September 3, 1999.
80 "Details of the incidents that have taken place on 25.12.98 (daytime) in Ahwa, Dangs District, S. Gujarat," A South Gujarat Tribal Christian Welfare Council Report, December 29, 1998,
81 Human Rights Watch interview, New Delhi, April 24, 1999.
82 Human Rights Watch interview, Dangs district, Gujarat, April 21, 1999.
83 Human Rights Watch interview, Dangs district, Gujarat, April 22, 1999.
84 Violence in Gujarat, p. 26.
85 Nagaland is a small northeastern state with a Christian majority.
86 Violence in Gujarat, p. 18.
87 Originally from West Bengal, Swami Asheemanand came to Dangs to set up an ashram and organize conversions to Hinduism. "Conversions: a threat or a bogey?" The Hindu, January 17, 1999.
88 Human Rights Watch interview, Dangs district, Gujarat, April 22, 1999. The conversion rate used throughout this report is US$1 to Rs. 42.
89 Human Rights Watch interview, Dangs district, Gujarat, April 21, 1999.
90 Human Rights Watch interview, Dangs district, Gujarat, April 22, 1999.
91 Violence in Gujarat, p. 19.
92 Ibid., p. 28.
93 Human Rights Watch interview, Dangs district, Gujarat, April 21, 1999.
94 Violence in Gujarat, p. 19.
95 Human Rights Watch interview, New Delhi, April 24, 1999.
96 Human Rights Watch interview, Dangs district, Gujarat, April 21, 1999.
97 "Report of the United Christians for Human Rights...," Annexure X in Violence in Gujarat.
98 Human Rights Watch interview, Dangs district, Gujarat, April 21, 1999.
99 Human Rights Watch interviews, Dangs district, Gujarat, April 21-22, 1999.
100 "Conversions: a threat...," The Hindu.
101 Human Rights Watch interview with Deputy Superintendent of Police, M. A. Chawla, Dangs district, Gujarat, April 22, 1999; Human Rights Watch interview with Sub-divisional Magistrate S. N. Chaudary, Dangs district, Gujarat, April 22, 1999.
102 "Black Christmas Day," p. 4.
103 Human Rights Watch interview, Dangs district, Gujarat, April 22, 1999.
104 Human Rights Watch interview, Dangs district, Gujarat, April 21, 1999.
105 Human Rights Watch interview with eyewitnesses, Dangs district, Gujarat, April 21, 1999; "Black Christmas Day," p. 5; "Christmas Day 1998 and Thereafter," Submission Made to the Special Bench of the National Commission of Minorities by the United Christian Forum for Human Rights (Gujarat), January 7, 1999, Annexure I in Violence in Gujarat.
106 "Christmas Day 1998...," Annexure I in Violence in Gujarat.
107 "Memorandum to Honourable Prime Minister of India, Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayee," Annexure VI in Violence in Gujarat. On December 26, 1998, activists from the Bajrang Dal also attacked the Navjyot school in Dangs, assaulted the school's principal, and burned a jeep and motorcycle. "Black Christmas Day." Navjyot and Deep Darshan are the only two fully functional schools in the district. Of the 840 students in Deep Darshan, only one hundred are Christian, and of the twenty-four staff members, only seven are Christian. Similarly, only thirty out of 225 students at Navjyot are Christian. Moreover, neither of the schools has ever been involved in conversion activities. Violence in Gujarat, pp. 18, 27.
108 Human Rights Watch interview, Dangs district, Gujarat, April 21, 1999.
110 Human Rights Watch interview, Dangs district, Gujarat, April 21, 1999.
111 Human Rights Watch interview, Dangs district, Gujarat, April 21, 1999.
112 Translation by Human Rights Watch.
113 Human Rights Watch interview, Dangs district, Gujarat, April 22, 1999.
115 Human Rights Watch interview, Dangs district, Gujarat, April 22, 1999.
117 Human Rights Watch interview, Dangs district, Gujarat, April 22, 1999.
119 "PM's visit puts Keshubhai in the dock," The Hindu, January 12, 1999.
120 "Report of the United Christians for Human Rights...," Annexure X in Violence in Gujarat.
121 Human Rights Watch interview with Ahwa town residents Dangs district, Gujarat, April 21 - 22, 1999; "Christians offered sops as churches burn," Inter Press Service, January 17, 1999.
122 "Black Christmas Day," p. 2.
123 "Attacks on Religious Minorities," p. 1.
124 "Black Christmas Day," p. 3; Human Rights Watch interviews, Dangs district, Gujarat, April 21, 1999.
125 "Black Christmas Day," p. 3.
126 "PM's visit...," The Hindu.
128 See also "Christians offered sops...," Inter Press Service.
129 "Report of the United Christians for Human Rights...," Annexure X in Violence in Gujarat.
130 First Information Report: the first report, recorded by the police, of a crime.
131 "Report of the United Christians for Human Rights...," Annexure X in Violence in Gujarat.
132 "Gujarat Govt sees `international plot'," The Hindu, January 25, 1999.
133 "Christians offered sops...," Inter Press Service.
134 "Gujarat BJP washes hands of attacks," The Statesman, January 18, 1999.
135 "Sangh Parivar behind Gujarat anti-Christian violence," The Statesman, February 2, 1999.
137 The People's Representation Act prohibits the use of religion or religious symbols to promote one's candidacy or to adversely affect the election of another candidate. Such offenses, which are seen as "corrupt practices" that debase elections, are punishable under law.
138 Human Rights Watch interview, New Delhi, May 3, 1999.
139 "NCM to stick to its recommendations," The Hindu, January 24, 1999.
140 "Indian state leader rejects `biased' report on anti-Christian violence," Agence France-Presse, January 22, 1999.
141 "English translation of a Gujarati circular sent by the Director Police (intelligence), Gujarat State," Annexure II in Violence in Gujarat. A similar memorandum was sent requesting information on Muslim organizations, leaders, and Pakistani nationals in each district. Ibid.
142 "Circular on Christians routine: Gujarat CM," The Hindu, February 12, 1999.
143 Human Rights Watch interview, Dangs district, Gujarat, April 21, 1999.
144 Human Rights Watch interview, Dangs district, Gujarat, April 21, 1999.
145 Human Rights Watch interview, Dangs district, Gujarat, April 21, 1999.
146 Human Rights Watch interview, Dangs district, Gujarat, April 21, 1999.
147 Human Rights Watch interview, Dangs district, Gujarat, April 22, 1999.
148 Human Rights Watch interview, Dangs district, Gujarat, April 22, 1999.
149 Human Rights Watch interview, Dangs district, Gujarat, April 22, 1999.