Politics by Other Means: Attacks Against Christians in India

India's inter-religious violence now extends to Christians, and its underlying causes are the same as those promoting violence against Muslims, Dalits ("untouchables"), and other marginalized groups in the country-political and economic power struggles linked rhetorically to the creation of a Hindu nation. Attacks against Christians, which have increased significantly since the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (Indian People's Party, BJP) came to power in March 1998, point to a disturbing trend of the assertion of Hindu nationalism by governments in power at the state and central level. They are part of a concerted campaign of right-wing Hindu organizations, collectively known as the sangh parivar, to promote and exploit communal tensions to stay in power-a movement that is supported at the local level by militant groups who operate with impunity. The number of Christians being attacked is still relatively small but has increased in the months preceding national parliamentary elections in September and October 1999. Corresponding closely to particular election contests in which Hindu nationalist groups have pursued major strategic goals, the attacks have continued in the periods following electoral victory.

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 southeastern 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. Human Rights Watch was able to document patterns there that are representative of anti-Christian violence in many other parts of the country. 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.

Between January 1998 and February 1999, the Indian Parliament reported a total of 116 incidents of attacks on Christians across the country. Unofficial figures may be higher. Gujarat topped the list of states with ninety-four such incidents. Attacks have also been reported in Maharashtra, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Orissa, Andhra Pradesh, Haryana, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Manipur, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, and New Delhi. Attacks on Christians have ranged from violence against the leadership of the church, including the killing of priests and the raping of nuns, to the physical destruction of Christian institutions, including schools, churches, colleges, and cemeteries. Thousands of Christians have also been forced to convert to Hinduism.

Jamuna Bhen, a thirty-year-old agricultural laborer in Dangs district, Gujarat, told Human Rights Watch, "The Hindus removed the ornamentation from our church on December 25 [1998]. 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."1 Along with twenty-four other Christians, Jamuna was taken to a hot springs that night to undergo a "reconversion" ritual to Hinduism: "They took us to Unai hot springs, they took twenty-five people and converted us.... 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."2

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.3 The communities affected represent some of the poorest in the country and include Dalits 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.

These recent attacks fall into a pattern of persistent abuse against marginalized communities. They represent a clear failure on the part of both the central and state governments to ensure that such communities enjoy the full protection of their constitutional rights to freedom of religion and equal protection under the law. Despite the existence of comprehensive legislation to address the problem of religious intolerance and communal violence, the government has failed to prosecute offending individuals and organizations; instead, it has in many cases offered tacit support and indirect justification for the attacks.

Christians are not the only minority to be targeted by the sangh parivar. Violence against Sikhs in northern India in 1984 and against India's Muslim community nationwide in 1992 and 1993 also stemmed from the activities and hate propaganda of these groups. Members of the sangh parivar include the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteer Corps, RSS), the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council, VHP), and the VHP's militant youth wing, the Bajrang Dal. In the state of Maharashtra, the Shiv Sena political party has also been implicated. The RSS seeks to promote a Hindu ethos within India and among Indians living abroad. Although an ostensibly cultural organization, RSS cells are involved in supporting political candidates for government, trade unions, and student organizations. The VHP was established in 1964 to unite Hinduism's regional and caste divisions under a single ecumenical umbrella. It is actively involved in Sanskrit education, the organization of Hindu rites and rituals, and the converting of Christians, Muslims, and animists to Hinduism. These organizations, although different in many respects, have all promoted the argument that although India is a democracy, because Hindus constitute the majority of Indians, India should be a Hindu state.

In the words of a sangh parivar activist in Gujarat, "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]."4

Despite this ideological position, the VHP has denied any involvement in the attacks on Christians; instead, it has repeatedly accused Christian missionaries of converting the poor by force, a charge that the Christians have rejected. The Christian community also asserts that the situation has worsened since the Hindu nationalist BJP came to power in Delhi in March 1998. Although Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee has publicly dissociated himself from the VHP and given assurances of safety to all Christians, his position has been ambiguous: while officially condemning the killing of Australian missionary Graham Staines in January 1999, for example, the prime minister called for a "national debate on conversions."5 Human rights groups criticized the move as legitimizing the motives behind the Staines attack.

The response of other BJP officials has been to echo the VHP and blame the violence on a conversion campaign by the Christian community. A Christian conspiracy, some argue, exists on a global scale. In February 1999, BJP national General Secretary K. N. Govindacharya alleged that the church has set a target to turn at least 51 percent of the world's population to Christianity by the dawn of the twenty-first century. After having converted large populations in Africa, he added, evangelists had now made Asia the prime target.6 Govindacharya added that Christian missionaries use "fraud, allurement and fear to bring about religious conversions."7 In response to a question on the reconversions of Christians to Hinduism, Govindacharya asserted that the reconversions were merely a homecoming process.8

In Gujarat's Dangs district, local officials, including police officers, have given outright support to rallies organized by groups that have fomented the violence. State and local officials have also attempted to downplay the destruction of Christian property, dismissing the burning of churches as attacks on mere temporary structures. Though authorities have characterized the violence as spontaneous eruptions or communal clashes between local groups, there is much evidence to suggest that they have been carefully organized by the leadership of extremist Hindu groups.

Local police have not provided adequate protection to villagers in the affected areas, even though there have been early warnings of violence. In some cases, police have refused to register complaints by members of the Christian community, whereas they have registered complaints by others against Christians. Some Christians who have filed charges with the police have been pressured to withdraw their complaints. Officers who have taken action in response to anti-Christian attacks have been threatened with transfers. India's National Human Rights Commission has taken notice of recurring attacks in various states and has also issued notices to the chief secretaries of Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, and Gujarat, and to the Union home secretary seeking immediate and effective measures to prevent such events in the future. The National Commission for Minorities has also submitted several reports to state and central governments recommending prosecutions and accusing the government of willful neglect at all levels.

This report documents the gang rape of four nuns in Madhya Pradesh in September 1998 and the killing of an Australian missionary and his two sons who were trapped in their car and burned alive in the state of Orissa in January 1999. The follow-up to the killings revealed serious irregularities in official treatment of anti-Christian violence. A government-appointed commission of inquiry accused Bajrang Dal activist and BJP member Dara Singh of leading the attack in the Orissa killings. The commission exonerated the Bajrang Dal as such, insisting that Singh acted alone, and blamed the Congress Party-led state government for allowing the murders to take place under its watch. Despite Singh's numerous television interviews following the attack, police claimed that they were unable to find him.

With India's national parliamentary elections in September and October 1999, the situation deteriorated recently as the Hindu right sought to form a BJP-led single-party government at the center. On August 26, 1999, Bajrang Dal activist Dara Singh struck again, chopping off the arms of Sheikh Rehman, a Muslim trader, before setting him on fire before a crowd of 400. One week later, Rev. Arul Doss was shot in the chest with an arrow and beaten to death by a group of unidentified assailants. Just days before the national parliamentary elections, both attacks took place within twenty miles of the Graham Staines killing in the state of Orissa, and each one coincided with a major Hindu festival.9 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, as of this writing, the main perpetrators of the attacks were still at large.

Legacy Link

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. This 37-page report 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.

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