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India: Anti-Christian Violence Up in Pre-Election Madhya Pradesh

Friday, August 1, 2008 | Tag Cloud

BJP begins to play ‘Hindutva’ card as it fights for survival in the state it rules.

NEW DELHI, July 29 (Compass Direct News) -- As elections approach in Madhya Pradesh state, Christian leaders say their community is increasingly targeted as part of an effort by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to consolidate Hindu nationalist (Hindutva) votes.

“This year alone, since January we have recorded 35 major incidents of atrocities against the Christian community,” Father Anand Muttungal, spokesman for the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Madhya Pradesh, told Compass. “When we talk of major incidents, we do not count minor incidents like cases of harassment, beatings, attacks on church halls and filing false cases against Christian workers.”

Fr. Anand Muttungal added that “quite alarming” major incidents of violence have numbered more than 150 since the BJP came to power in the state in 2003.

With elections scheduled for December, the Hindu extremist BJP already has begun saber-rattling against the Christian community, drawing sharp reactions from church leaders.

On June 22, Fr. Anand Muttungal sent a legal notice to the state president of the youth wing of the BJP, Vishwas Sarang, asking him to apologize for “irresponsible comments” that missionaries were engaging in large-scale conversion activities in Madhya Pradesh. Sarang’s comments triggered threats and demonstrations against area Christians.

Sarang reportedly had issued the comments at a press conference in Indore, a commercial hub close to Bhopal, the state capital. There Archbishop Leo Cornelio reportedly said the comments could “tarnish the good image of the church.”

Indira Iyengar, a former member of the Madhya Pradesh State Minority Commission, agreed that atrocities against Christians have escalated since the BJP came into power in the state in December 2003.

“As elections draw closer,” she told Compass, “the BJP, which is used to segregating masses on religious lines and attacking minorities, even physically, will do so even more and would like to show Hindus that they are the only saviors of Hinduism, and that if they do not protect the Hindus, they will all become Christians or Muslims.”

Iyengar expressed her fear in doleful terms. “If the BJP wins the coming election, there is no hope for the minority communities.”

Discouraged but Not Defeated

Such discouragement is understandable. On June 15, around 25 people shouting Hindu chants entered the Believers Church in Rewa district, dragging out and beating pastor Rampal Masih.

The attackers were accompanied by the police, who watched as the pastor was beaten, and then warned him against leading further worship in the village. Officers threatened to arrest him if he did so again.

On July 3, police forcibly entered the premises of David Vinayagam, a Christian social worker who has run a children’s home in Katni district since 2006, questioning him and searching the facility without search warrant. They arrested Vinayagam, leaving his family and the young ones from the children’s home in chaos.

Police charged Vinayagam with forced conversion and also detained and beat his colleagues without charging them. Media have portrayed Vinayagam and his organization in bad light, though local residents say the children’s home serves the area well.

Subsequently, police forcibly transferred all 26 children from the home to a government-run children’s home with a capacity for only eight to 10 residents. Unfed and badly treated, the children received visits and “counsel” from Hindu extremists from the BJP and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) urging them to testify against Vinayagam.

Separately, on June 28 police accompanied by RSS and BJP workers disrupted a worship service, manhandling and arresting pastor Hatey Singh Rawat. He was charged with hurting religious sentiments of Hindus. Police used sticks to beat members of the congregation who tried to protest the arrest of the pastor.

On May 15, intolerant Hindus armed with hockey sticks, bats and stones attacked the Novitiate of the Presentation Sisters at Bhopal. They beat two novices and destroyed property, causing a damage of US$2,333.

Election Strategy

Fr. Anand Muttungal said these incidents “are a technique to polarize the votes. They [BJP and affiliates] want to threaten the Hindu community that Christians are going ahead of them.”

When Christians file First Information Reports over the atrocities against them, police usually do not arrest the BJP and RSS workers, and when they do, they usually file no formal charges against them, he said.

Dr. John Dayal, secretary general of the All India Christian Council, told Compass that victimization of all marginalized communities has increased this year.

“The BJP thinks that by doing this they can consolidate the Hindu votes, which is not true,” he said. “Time and again the past has proved this.”

Another reason the BJP is compelled to “play the Hindutva card,” sources said, is the significant threat that Bharatiya Janashakti Party chief Uma Bharati poses. She had led the BJP to a 75 percent majority government in 2003 and was its first Chief Minister, but on July 18 Bharati, who has almost a fanatic fan following, ruled out returning to the BJP.

While general elections aren’t due until 2009, many BJP-ruled states will hold elections later this year, with the BJP concentrating especially on Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan states.

History of Intolerance

Madhya Pradesh has a Christian population of 170,381, only 0.3 percent of the total in the state, according to the 2001 census. The state’s history of religious intolerance runs deep, with an “anti-conversion” law passed in 1968 that has served as a pretext for harassing Christians.

Anti-Christian violence rocked Jhabua district after the body of a 9-year-old girl called Sujata was found in one of the Christian schools in the district on January 11, 2004. Although a non-Christian confessed to the crime, Hindu extremists used the event to justify various attacks against the Christian community.

Abuses became so rampant in 2005 and 2006 that the National Commission for Minorities (NCM) sent a fact-finding team to Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh in June 2006. Investigators found that Hindu extremists had frequently invoked the state’s anti-conversion law as a means to incite mobs against Christians and have Christians arrested without evidence.

“The life of Christians has become miserable at the hands of miscreants in connivance with the police,” the NCM said in its report. “There are allegations that when atrocities were committed on Christians, the police remained mere spectators, and in certain cases they did not even register their complaints.”

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