(London) – The Indian government has failed to prevent increasing violence against Christians and is exploiting communal tensions for political ends, Human Rights Watch charged in a report released today. The 37-page report, Politics by Other Means: Attacks Against Christians in India, details violence against Christians in the months ahead of the country's national parliamentary elections in September and October 1999, and in the months following electoral victory by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (Indian People's Party, known as the BJP) in the state of Gujarat.
Attacks against Christians throughout the country have increased significantly since the BJP began its rule at the center in March 1998. They include the killings of priests, the raping of nuns, and the physical destruction of Christian institutions, schools, churches, colleges, and cemeteries. Thousands of Christians have also been forced to convert to Hinduism. The report concludes that as with attacks against Muslims in 1992 and 1993, attacks against Christians are part of a concerted campaign of right-wing Hindu organizations, collectively called the sangh parivar, to promote and exploit communal clashes to increase their political power-base. The movement is supported at the local level by militant groups who operate with impunity.
"Christians are the new scapegoat in India's political battles," said Smita Narula, author of the report and researcher for the Asia division of Human Rights Watch. "Without immediate and decisive action by the government, communal tensions will continue to be exploited for political and economic ends."
The Hindu organizations most responsible for violence against Christians are the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council, VHP), the Bajrang Dal, and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteer Corps, RSS). According to a former RSS member, these groups cannot be divorced from the ruling BJP party: "There is no difference between the BJP and RSS. BJP is the body. RSS is the soul, and the Bajrang Dal is the hands for beating."
A majority of the reported incidents of violence against Christians in 1998 occurred in Gujarat, the same year that the BJP came to power in the state. In April 1999, Human Rights Watch visited the Dangs district in Gujarat, site of a ten-day spate of violent and premeditated attacks on Christian communities and institutions between December 25, 1998, and January 3, 1999. The report documents patterns there that are representative of attacks across India. These include the role of sangh parivar organizations and the local media in promoting anti-Christian propaganda, the exploitation of communal differences to mask political and economic motives underlying the attacks, local and state government complicity in the attacks, and the failure of the central government to meet its constitutional and international obligations to protect minorities.
Jamuna Bhen, a thirty-year-old agricultural laborer in Dangs district, told Human Rights Watch, "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…. 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."
In January 1999, Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two sons were trapped in their car and burned alive in the state of Orissa, reportedly by Dara Singh, a local leader of the extremist group Bajrang Dal. On the eve of India's national parliamentary elections in September and October 1999, the situation for minorities in the state deteriorated significantly. In August 1999, Singh struck again, chopping off the arms of a Muslim trader before setting him on fire. One week later, Rev. Arul Doss was shot in the chest with an arrow and beaten to death by a group of unidentified assailants. The BJP charged the Congress-led state government with criminal negligence, while Congress sought to blame the incidents on the policies and activities of sangh parivar organizations. While communal tensions in the state were exploited by political parties on all sides, the main perpetrators of the attacks were still at large.
In a pattern similar to the response to organized violence against lower castes, the tendency is for local officials under pressure to arrest a few members, but not the leaders, of the groups involved. The communities affected represent some of the poorest in the country and include Dalits ("untouchables") and members of local tribal communities, many of whom convert to Christianity to escape abuses under India's caste system. In many cases, Christian institutions and individuals targeted were singled out for their role in promoting health, literacy, and economic independence among Dalit and tribal community members. A vested interest in keeping these communities in a state of economic dependency is a motivating factor in anti-Christian violence and propaganda.
Though eyewitnesses have identified politicians and local officials as participants in the attacks, the state administration and Hindu nationalist leaders continue to portray the incidents as actions instigated by minority communities. The chief minister of Gujarat and BJP spokesmen have even blamed the violence on an "international conspiracy" to defame the political party. The prime minister has called for a national debate on conversions, signaling tacit justification for the motives underlying the attacks. The central and state governments continue to ignore the recommendations of the National Commission for Minorities.
Human Rights Watch called on the Indian government to meet its constitutional and international obligations to ensure that religious minorities may equally enjoy freedom of conscience and the right to freely profess, practice, propagate and adopt religion. In particular, Indian officials should commit to taking steps to prevent further violence and end impunity for campaigns of violence and prosecute both state and private actors responsible for the attacks.