INDIA: REFUSAL OF VISAS TO U.S. PANEL STUNS CHRISTIANS


Commission on religious freedom would have found violence-torn Orissa far from normal.

NEW DELHI, June 29 (Compass Direct News) – The Indian government is silent on why it refused visas to allow members of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) to visit troubled Orissa state, but there are indications that it was ducking protests from Hindu nationalist groups.

The USCIRF team was to leave for India on June 12, but the Indian embassy in Washington did not give them visas in time, the religious panel said in a June 17 statement.

“Our Commission has visited China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and over 20 other countries,” Commission Chair Felice D. Gaer said in the statement. “India, a close ally of the United States, has been unique among democracies in delaying and denying USCIRF’s ability to visit. USCIRF has been requesting visits since 2001.”

The team was to discuss religious freedom with officials of the new government, which began its second five-year term on May 22, as well as with religious leaders, civil society activists and others in the wake of anti-Christian attacks in Kandhamal district of the eastern state of Orissa in December 2007 and August-September 2008.

The U.S. panel also intended to discuss conditions in the western state of Gujarat, where more than 2,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed in a communal riot in 2002. The victims have reportedly not been properly rehabilitated, and many of their attackers remain at large. In 2005 the chief minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), was denied a visa to the United States to attend the World Gujarati Meet because of his alleged involvement in the violence.

In 2002 the USCIRF, a bipartisan federal commission, recommended India be designated a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) following the 2002 violence in Gujarat. India was removed from the CPC list in 2005.

The Commission released its 2009 annual report on religious freedom across the globe on May 1 but put the India report on hold, planning to prepare it after the intended visit this month.

“I am profoundly surprised and distressed that it is the government of Dr. Manmohan Singh, in its second and so much secure term, which has denied visas to the USCIRF at the last moment,” said John Dayal, member of India’s National Integration Council.

Dayal, secretary general of the All India Christian Council (AICC), told Compass that such a decision would have been more expected under the previous administration of the BJP-led alliance.

“There would have been an acceptable, albeit very perverse, logic if a National Democratic Alliance, led by the BJP federal government – as existed in New Delhi until 2004 – had refused visas to the USCIRF,” he said, “because they had so much to hide and because that government’s professed ideological moorings were in fascism and theocratic arrogance.”

The United Progressive Alliance (UPA), led by the left-of-center Congress Party, won the general elections in April and May of this year with a comfortable majority in. While the UPA got 262 of the 543 parliamentary seats, the National Democratic Alliance, led by the Hindu nationalist BJP, could bag only 160.

The Rev. Dr. Babu Joseph, spokesperson of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India, said the Indian government’s decision was “very unfortunate.”

“Its visit and objective report would have helped in clearing the air of suspicion about the whole tragic episode in Kandhamal,” he said. “For, since the tragic events, there have been claims and counter-claims about what triggered and sustained the communal flare-up that caused unprecedented damage to life and property of people who were already in disadvantaged conditions.”

What USCIRF Would Have Found

The atmosphere in Orissa’s Kandhamal district has remained tense since a spate of attacks began in December 2007 that killed at least four Christians and burned 730 houses and 95 churches. The attacks were carried out to avenge an alleged attack on a Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP) leader, Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati.

Violence re-erupted in Kandhamal in August 2008 after the assassination of Saraswati by a Maoist group, though non-Marxist Christians were blamed for it. This time, the violence killed more than 100 people and resulted in the incineration of 4,640 houses, 252 churches and 13 educational institutions.

Had the USCIRF team been able to visit Kandhamal, Christian leaders said, it would have found the situation far from normal even eight months after violence reportedly ended.

According to The Indian Express of May 31, the deployment of five companies of the Central Reserve Police Force, a federal agency, was extended for another month. One company comprises 100 personnel. The federal internal minister had earlier decided to withdraw the force from Kandhamal, but state Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik requested he retain some of the contingent.

The Rev. Ajaya Singh of the Cuttack-Bhubaneswar Catholic Archdiocese said that around 3,000 victims were still living in government-run relief camps, and some 900 families were in village relief camps. Initially about 24,000 victims were housed in government relief camps. These internally displaced people cannot go back to their villages because of continuing threats from “fundamentalists and criminals,” he added.

Most of the people who carried out attacks remain at large, continue to pressure victims to withdraw complaints they filed against the rioters, and are still threatening harm to Christians who refuse to convert to Hinduism, he complained.

Singh told Compass that a legal aid center run by the Christian Legal Association (CLA) from a rented house in Phulbani, district headquarters of Kandhamal, had been ordered to move out after Hindu nationalist groups pressured the owner of the house.

“For the last one month, lawyers have been staying here to help the witnesses to speak the truth,” he said. “The momentum of the cases was picking up, but now the legal center itself is facing problems.”

Singh also said some witnesses were issued death threats on June 17. The witnesses were told not to go to court or else they would be killed.

“However, a complaint has been lodged at the police station and an affidavit submitted before a judge,” he added.

In addition to the 753 cases filed by police in connection with the August-September 2008 violence, the CLA has filed 63 private complaints, and 70 more will be filed in the coming days.

The Orissa United Forum of Churches (OUFC), a new interdenominational grouping, wrote to Chief Minister Patnaik recently, informing him that an administrative officer of the Raikia area had taken victims from the relief camp to their respective villages on June 6, but the local residents did not allow them even to enter their villages.

The OUFC added that there were around 2,000 Christians who were asked to go back to their villages, but that villagers chased them out. They are now living in marketplaces or on the outskirts of those villages in abject conditions.

According to the Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI), extremists on June 2 burned down three homes that were partially destroyed during the August 2008 violence in Sirsapanda area in Kandhamal to prevent victims from returning to their villages.

The Christians were able to identify the attackers, but police advised them against naming them, said the EFI report.

“Christian properties were seized by local villagers, and having the Christians back in the village means giving back the land to their owners,” said the EFI’s Ashish Parida.

A CLA team, which recently visited two camps in Kandhamal, also said that the Christians were consistently ostracized by their neighbors.

Orissa is ruled by a regional party, the Biju Janata Dal (BJD), which was in partnership with the BJP when the violence took place. The BJD broke up with the Hindu right-wing party before the state assembly elections that were held simultaneously with the general elections.

Federal Internal Minister P. Chidambaram was in Kandhamal on Friday (June 26) to assess the law-and-order situation there and admitted police failure.

“What happened on Aug. 23 and thereafter was regrettable and condemnable. Moreover, it was the failure of the police for 30 to 40 days,” he said, according to The Hindu. “Now the situation is returning to normal but we cannot lower our guards.”

Chidambaram also said he wanted displaced Christians to return to their homes, seemingly because it will be difficult for the government to claim that normalcy has returned as long as they remain in relief camps.

“The government will ensure that no one harms you anymore. It is absolutely safe for you to return to your villages,” Chidambaram said at a relief camp in Raikia block, according to The Indian Express. “You have every right to practice your religion, build and pray in churches. You please return to your villages. I want to come back within one month and would like to see you in your homes in your villages.”

Christian leaders said that if the displaced people return home, many more reports of threats, attacks and ostracism are expected.

Why Visas Were Denied

Sources told Compass that both the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) and the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) were behind the government’s move to block the USCIRF from entering the country.

Compass persistently tried to contact the spokesperson of the MEA, Vishnu Prakash, without success. The spokesperson of the MHA, Onkar Kedia, was travelling.

According to the June 17 The Times of India, the Indian Embassy in Washington pleaded innocent, saying the visa applications of the USCIRF team had been forwarded to New Delhi, as is the standard practice for all such visits.

Sources in the government in New Delhi denied that the visas were deliberately withheld, saying the time was not “proper” for such a visit, according to the daily.

“We really don’t care about what they [USCIRF] report,” it quoted an official as saying. “But a high-profile visit seen as having government sanctions would have raised hackles in India.”

The visas were denied amid diatribes by Hindu right-wing groups against the proposed visit of the U.S. religious freedom panel. An influential Hindu leader, Shankaracharya Jayendra Saraswati, had called for refusal of entry to the USCIRF team. “We will not allow interference in our internal religious affairs by external bodies,” he said in a press conference in Mumbai on June 12, according to the Press Trust of India. “We see USCIRF as an intrusive mechanism of a foreign government which is interfering with the internal affairs of India.”

Jayendra Saraswati is known to be close to Hindu nationalist groups.

The U.S. branch of the Hindu extremist VHP had also criticized the intended visit of the U.S. Commission, calling it “incomprehensible,” reported The Times of India. “The largest functioning democracy in the world with an independent judiciary, a statutorily constituted Human Rights Commission, an independent press and other supporting organizations would appear to be quite capable of taking care of the religious freedoms and human rights of its citizens,” it said.

Later, on June 22, Ashok Singhal, international president of the VHP, said in a statement that the USCIRF was “a self-appointed committee as an expression of the big brother attitude of the USA to enquire into the status of religious freedom in other countries … This commission is concerned only about the Christians in other countries whenever there is a hue and cry by the church that the Christians are persecuted in such countries. They never bother about the status of religious and racial discriminations meted out to other religionists in the Western countries, including the U.S.”

Rev. Joseph of the Catholic Bishops Conference, however, said it was “preposterous” to construe the USCIRF’s visit as interference in India’s internal matters, “as the organization is recognized the world over as a credible watch-dog of human rights and religious freedom.”

“Everyone knows that the government of the day did/could not effectively check the communal frenzy,” he added. “And the failure of the state has to be investigated not by the officials of the same state themselves, but by someone who can objectively view and make independent judgment on it.”

The USCIRF is expected to release the pending India report in the next few weeks.

“The denial of visas seeks to make opaque an otherwise healthy transparency in India’s human rights discourse,” said the AICC’s Dayal. Added Joseph, “Probably India missed a chance to come clean on its track records on human rights and religious freedom.”

Report from Compass Direct News

INDIA: CHRISTIANS BREATHE EASIER AFTER ELECTIONS


How Hindu extremist BJP will respond to surprising defeat, though, remains to be seen.

NEW DELHI, May 21 (Compass Direct News) – Christians in India are heaving a sigh of relief after the rout of a Hindu nationalist party in national and state assembly elections in Orissa state, a scene of anti-Christian arson and carnage last year.

The ruling centrist party won a second term, but concerns over persecution of minorities remain.

A local centrist party, the Biju Janata Dal (BJD), took charge of the government of the eastern state of Orissa today, and tomorrow the new federal government led by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will be sworn in, representing a second term for the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), led by the left-of-center Indian National Congress, commonly known as the Congress Party.

“The election result is a statement against the persecution of non-Hindus,” Vijay Simha, a senior journalist and political analyst, told Compass.

“There were a string of incidents against non-Hindus, which were principally enacted by right-wing outfits,” added Simha, who reported on anti-Christian violence in Kandhamal district of Orissa in August-September 2008. “Since the vote went against right-wing parties, the result is a strong rejection of extremist religious programs.”

John Dayal, secretary general of the All India Christian Council (AICC), said the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was “defeated not by Christians or Muslims, but by secular Hindus.”

Over 80 percent of the more than 1 billion people in India are Hindu. Christians form around 2.3 percent of the population, and Muslims about 14 percent.

The Times of India on Saturday (May 16) quoted Rahul Gandhi, general secretary of the Congress Party, as saying that his party’s victory was a rejection of politics of caste and religion and acceptance of “clean and honest” policies symbolized by Prime Minister Singh.

“Internal criticisms within the BJP have brought out that it is losing popularity among youth as well as among the urban middle classes, two segments where it had been strong earlier and which represent the emergent India of the 21st century,” stated an editorial in the daily.

Crossroads

The BJP’s defeat at the national level is expected to compel the party to decide whether it turns to moderation in its ideology or more extremism in desperation.

“The BJP now faces a dilemma … Its appeal based on Hindutva [Hindu nationalism] and divisiveness stands rejected by the electorate,” wrote Prem Prakash of ANI news agency. “Where does the party go from here? … The party seems to be waiting for the RSS to provide answers for all this . . . The time has come for it to clearly define what kind of secularism it accepts or preaches.”

Hopes of Christians, however, abound.

“I am hoping that the BJP will learn that it does not pay to persecute minorities, and that civilized Hindus are disgusted with divisive antics of the RSS family,” said the AICC’s Dayal.

Father Dominic Emmanuel of the Delhi Catholic Archdiocese is also hopeful.

“Let’s hope that the new government would work harder to protect all minorities, particularly the constitutional guarantees with regard to religious freedom,” he said.

Father Babu Joseph of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India said, “The Indian Catholic bishops are confident that the Congress Party-led UPA government will keep its promises of safeguarding the country from communal and divisive forces and restore confidence among all sections of people, particularly among the religious minorities for providing a stable, secular and democratic government.”

Threats Continue

The defeat of the BJP, however, may not bring much respite to those facing persecution at the hands of Hindu nationalist groups.

“One would expect a lessening in persecution of Christians and other non-Hindus – however, extremist groups often step up activities to garner funds and patronage when they are on the retreat,” warned journalist Simha. “So, one could also see a rise in anti-minority activities.”

The BJP, which began ruling the federal government in 1998, was defeated by the Congress Party in 2004, which, too, was seen as a mandate against Hindu nationalism. Prime Minister Singh said during his swearing in ceremony in May 2004 that the mandate for the Congress-led UPA was for change and “strengthening the secular foundation of our republic.”

After the BJP’s defeat, however, Christian persecution did not stop. According to the Christian Legal Association, at least 165 anti-Christian attacks were reported in 2005, and over 130 in 2006. In 2007, the number of incidents rose to over 1,000, followed by the worst-ever year, 2008, for the Christian minority in India.

Forsaking its extremist ideology could also be difficult for the BJP because there was a leadership change in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu nationalist conglomerate and the parent organization of the BJP, a month before the elections. On March 21, Mohan Rao Bhagwat, formerly general secretary, was made the head of the RSS.

On March 22, The Hindu quoted an anonymous leader of the BJP as saying, “Mr. Bhagwat has clarity in ideology; he is a quick decision-maker; he takes everybody along; and he expects 100 per cent implementation of decisions.”

A day before his ascent to the top position, Bhagwat had sent a message to RSS workers across the country to come out in full force and “ensure 100 percent voting” in “the interest of Hindus” during this year’s elections, added the daily.

Further, after the BJP’s defeat in 2004, sections of the cadre of the RSS and affiliated groups broke away from the conglomerate as they felt the organization was too “moderate” to be able to establish a Hindu nation. Among the known Hindu splinter groups are the Abhinav Bharat (Pride of India), which operates mainly in the north-central state of Madhya Pradesh and the western state of Maharashtra, and the Sri Ram Sene (Army of Rama, a Hindu god), which recently became infamous for its violently misogynistic moral policing in the city of Mangalore, Karnataka.

Furthermore, there are pockets, especially in the central parts of the country and parts of Karnataka in the south, where the BJP remains a dominant party.

Embarrassing Defeat

Results of the general elections and state assembly polls in Orissa and the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, which were held simultaneously between April 16 and May 13, were declared on Saturday (May 16).

Of the 543 parliamentary constituencies, 262 went to the UPA. The National Democratic Alliance (NDA), led by the BJP, got 160, while the Third Front, a grouping of smaller and regional parties led by communists, bagged only 79.

The Congress Party alone won 206 seats, whereas the BJP’s count was 116 – a strong indication that a majority of the people in Hindu-majority India are against Hindu extremism.

The UPA has the support of 315 Members of Parliament, far higher than the 272 minimum needed to form government.

The embarrassing defeat for the BJP came as a surprise. Hoping to gain from its hardcore Hindu nationalist image, the BJP had made leader Narendra Modi, accused of organizing an anti-Muslim pogrom in the western state of Gujarat in 2002, its star campaigner.

Modi, chief minister of Gujarat, spoke in around 200 election rallies, out of which the party could win only 18 seats outside Gujarat.

In Orissa, where the BJP had openly supported the spate of attacks on Christians in Kandhamal district following the murder of a Hindu nationalist leader, Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati, by Maoists on Aug. 23, 2008, the party won not a single parliamentary seat – not even in Kandhamal.

The BJP candidate for the Kandhamal constituency, Ashok Sahu, contested from jail, as he was arrested on April 14 for making an inflammatory speech against Christians. Sahu hoped to gain the sympathy of Hindus by going to jail.

The BJP was sharing power with the ruling BJD in Orissa until March 17. The BJD broke up its 11-year-old alliance with the BJP over its role in the violence that lasted for over a month and killed more than 127 people and destroyed 315 villages, 4,640 houses, 252 churches and 13 educational institutions, besides rendering more than 50,000 homeless.

Even in the state assembly elections in Orissa, the BJP faced a debacle. Of the 147 seats, it won only seven. The BJD swept the polls with 109 seats. The Congress Party managed to get 27.

The seven assembly seats won by the BJP include two from Kandhamal district. The BJP’s Manoj Pradhan, who is facing 14 cases of rioting and murder in connection with the Kandhamal violence, won the G. Udayagiri assembly seat in Kandhamal. In the Balliguda assembly constituency, also in Kandhamal, BJP sitting legislator Karendra Majhi retained the seat. Both G. Udayagiri and Balliguda were at the epicenter of the last year’s violence.

Even in Andhra Pradesh state, where Hindu nationalist groups have launched numerous attacks on Christians in the last few years, the BJP had a poor showing. Of the 42 parliamentary seats, the Congress Party won 33. The BJP’s count was nil.

In assembly elections in Andhra Pradesh, the Congress Party won 158 of the 294 seats, gaining a majority to form the state government for another five-year term. The BJP did not get even one seat.

In the northern state of Uttarakhand, where the BJP is a ruling party, its count was zero. The Congress Party won all five parliamentary seats.

In Rajasthan state, also in the north, the BJP could win only four seats. The Congress Party, on the other hand, won 20. The BJP had passed an anti-conversion law in 2006 when it was a ruling party. The bill is yet to be signed by the state governor.

In the 2009 election, the BJP got 10 seats in the eastern state of Chhattisgarh, where the Congress Party got only one. In the northern state of Himachal Pradesh, the BJP won three of the four seats.

In the eastern state of Jharkhand, the BJP bagged eight seats, and the Congress Party only one. In Gujarat, the BJP’s tally was 15, whereas the Congress won 11. In Madhya Pradesh, the BJP won 16 and Congress 12.

Report from Compass Direct News