Nepal Christians Begin Legal Battle for Burial Ground

Hindu group declares country a Hindu state; upper castes seek halt to conversions.

KATHMANDU, Nepal, April 19 (CDN) — With the government refusing to listen to their three-year plea for an official cemetery and ignoring a protracted hunger strike, Nepal’s Christians are now seeking redress from the Supreme Court.

“Every day there are two to three deaths in the community, and with each death we face a hard time with the burial,” said Chari Bahadur Gahatraj, a pastor who filed a petition in the high court on March 13 asking it to intervene as authorities of Nepal’s oldest Hindu temple had begun demolishing the graves of Christians there.

Gahatraj and Man Bahadur Khatri are both members of the newly formed Christian Burial Ground Prayer and National Struggle Committee that since last month began leading a relay hunger strike in a public area of the capital, asking for a graveyard. They said they were forced to go to court after the Pashupati Area Development Trust (PADT), which runs Nepal’s oldest Hindu shrine, the Pashupatinath temple, said it would no longer allow non-Hindus to use the temple’s forested land.

“We don’t want to hurt the sentiments of any community,” Gahatraj told Compass. “Nor are we trying to grab the land owned by a temple. We are ready to accept any plot given to us. All we are asking for is that the burials be allowed till we get an alternate site.”

Judge Awadhesh Kumar Yadav has since ordered the government and PADT not to prevent Christians from using the forest for burials until the dispute is resolved. The legal battle, however, now involves a counter-suit. Hindu activist Bharat Jangam filed a second writ on March 20, saying that since the forest was the property of a Hindu temple, non-Hindus should not be allowed to bury their dead there just as churches do not allow Hindu burials.

Subsequently, the court decided to hear the two petitions together, and yesterday (April 18), the hearings began. While two lawyers argued on behalf of Gahatraj and Khatri, a cohort of 15 lawyers spoke against their petition. The next hearing is scheduled for May 3.

Along with the legal battle, Christians have kept up their relay hunger strike. To step up pressure on the government, the protestors also announced they would lead a funeral march to the offices of the prime minister and the culture minister and hand over coffins to them as a symbolic protest. If that too failed, they warned they would have no option but to go on hunger strike in front of the prime minister’s office and parliament, this time carrying dead bodies with them.

Alarmed at the rate the issue was snowballing, the government finally responded. Yesterday Culture Minister Gangalal Tuladhar opened talks with the protestors, agreeing to continue the negotiations after three days. The government also formed a four-member committee to look into the demand. Currently, Christians are asking for cemetery land in all 75 districts of Nepal.

Protestors were wary of the government’s intent in the overture.

“This could be a ploy to buy time and bury the issue,” said a member of the Christian committee formed to advise parliament on drafting the new constitution, who requested anonymity.

Though the committee formed to look into the Christians’ demand for burial land has been asked to present a report within two weeks, Christians suspect the panel is dragging its feet.

“The new constitution has to be promulgated by May 28, but it does not seem likely that the main political parties will be able to accomplish the task,” the Christian committee member said. “And if the constitution doesn’t materialize in time, there will be a crisis and our problem will be shelved.”


Hindu Nation

Adding to their unease, Christians are now facing a redoubled campaign by Hindu groups for the restoration of Hinduism as the state religion, five years after parliament declared Nepal, the world’s only Hindu kingdom, secular.

If the new constitution had been promulgated last year, it would have consolidated secularism in Nepal. But with the country missing the deadline due to protracted power-sharing rows among the major political parties, Christians still feel under threat.

On Thursday (April 14), when the country celebrated the start of the indigenous new year 2068 with a public holiday, the Rastriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal, which seeks the reinstatement of Hinduism as the state religion, kicked off a campaign at the Bhadrakali temple in Kathmandu. As curious onlookers and soldiers patrolling the nearby army headquarters looked on, party members fervently blew into conch shells and rang bells to draw people’s attention to their demand.

The party, which is also seeking the restoration of monarchy, took some oblique shots at the Christian community as well.

“There is a deliberate and systematic attempt by organizations to convert Hindus,” said Kamal Thapa, party chief and a former minister. “These organizations are guided by foreign powers and foreign funds. If the widespread conversion of Hindus is not stopped immediately, we will have to take stern measures.”

Three days later, an umbrella of Hindu groups – the Rastriya Dharma Jagaran Mahasabha (the National Religion Resurrection Conference) held a massive gathering in the capital, declaring Nepal a “Hindu state” and meeting with no official objection. The proclamation came as the climax to a three-day public program calling for the restoration of “the traditional Hindu state.” Several Hindu preachers and scholars from neighboring India attended the program, held on the grounds of the Pashupatinath temple, which is also a UNESCO-declared World Heritage Site.

The “Hindu state” proclamation was the brainchild of Shankar Prasad Pandey, a former member of parliament from Nepali Congress, the second largest party in Nepal, now in opposition. Though Pandey was a sitting Member of Parliament in 2006, when the body unanimously declared Nepal secular, he began opposing the move soon afterwards, leading four campaigns against it nationwide.

“I consider the nation and the Hindu religion to be more important than the party,” said Pandey, known as the MP who began to go barefoot 32 years ago to show solidarity with Nepalese, who are among the poorest in the world. “Over 90 percent of the Nepalese want Nepal to be a Hindu state. However, the government is led by people whose only concern is power and money.”

Pandey’s campaign is supported by Hindu groups from India and the West: Narendranath Saraswati, who is the Shankaracharya or religious head of a prominent Hindu shrine in India’s Varanasi city; Dr. Tilak Chaitanya, chief of a group in the United Kingdom that propagates the Gita, the holy book of the Hindus; and Tahal Kishore, head of a Hindu organization, Radha Krishna Sevashram, in the United States.

Two weeks before the May 28 deadline for the new constitution, Pandey and his followers plan to step up the campaign for a “Hindu state” in the capital. Though Pandey denies it could stir up animosity between the majority-Hindus and Christians – whose minority population is said to have crossed 2 million but is actually only 850,801, according to Operation World – there are fears of religious tension if not outright violence.

The Hindu rallies continue to grow as a pressure tactic. Yesterday (April 18), members of Nepal Brahman Samaj, an organization of “upper castes” from whose echelons temple priests are appointed, fought with security forces in front of parliament house, demanding their rights be respected and an end to conversions.

More Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) campaigning is scheduled on April 29, when the Rastriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal’s Thapa has called for a mass gathering in the capital.  

Report from Compass Direct News


Recent Incidents of Persecution

Madhya Pradesh, February 27 (Compass Direct News) – Police on Feb. 25 arrested the Rev. Venkata Rao Paulose in connection with the sale of a book said to hurt the religious feelings of Hindus; the book was sold near a Christian conference Rev. Paulose organized in January in Sanjay Nagar Colony, Anuppur district. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that Rev. Paulose, founder of Pine Mount English Medium School, was directing the conference at the school on Jan. 16-18 while, unknown to him, two persons were selling books near the school compound. Hindu extremists from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Bajrang Dal purchased copies of a book, “Secularism and Hindutva” by M.G. Matthew, and took it to the Chachai police station. There they filed a complaint against Rev. Paulose, pastor of Pentecostal Church of God. At 1 a.m. on Jan. 19, police ordered the pastor to the police station, where he gave a statement saying he didn’t know who was selling books near the conference site; he was reprimanded and released. On Feb. 19, police arrested pastors Kailash Mashih and Sharda Prasad Muthel in Anuppur in connection with the complaint about the book and took them to the Chachai police station. Investigating Officer D.S. Divedi told Compass that the pastors were arrested under Section 295(A) of the Indian Penal Code for “deliberate and malicious acts to outrage religious feelings.” One of the pastors (undisclosed) was put in Shadol district jail, and the other was freed on bail. On Feb. 25, police for unknown reasons again arrested Rev. Paulose in connection with the complaint about the book. An Anuppur district court judge refused to grant him bail, and at press time the pastor of the 150-member church was in jail at the Chachai police station.

Karnataka – Police on Feb. 24 detained two Christian women in Chickmagalur after Hindu extremists filed a complaint of forcible conversion based solely on the women welcoming two new converts into their home. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that the Hindu extremists saw a recent convert to Christianity identified only as Panamma and her daughter visit the home of Christians identified only as Sangamma and K.P. Mary. The Hindu nationalists filed the complaint against Mary and Sangamma at N.R. Pura police station, and the Christian women were in police custody for about two hours. A station officer who goes by only one name, Revannea, told Compass that an inquiry was made into the matter and the two women were released without charges after a warning not to undertake further evangelism. 

Chhattisgarh – Hindu extremists on Feb. 23 disrupted a prayer service in Ambikapur, accused the pastors of forceful conversion, beat them and damaged motorcycles. A Compass contact said pastor Joseph Toppa was leading the prayer meeting at the house of Parmeshwar Lakda when the Hindu extremists barged in at about 7 p.m. The extremists belonged to the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarhi Parishad (student wing of the Bharatiya Janata Party), Dharm Sena (Religious Army) and Dharm Jagran Manch (Religious Awakening Forum), all affiliated with the Hindu extremist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Police arrived and, as is customary in India, arrested the victims; officers took about 30 Christians to the police station. Local Christian leaders intervened, and the Christians were released at about 11:30 p.m. after giving their statements. There were no serious injuries.

Andhra Pradesh – On Feb. 22 Hindu extremists led by a village leader barged into the Sunday worship meeting of a church in Ranga Reddy, attacked a pastor and demanded that he turn the property over to them. Led by village head Rokalbanda Ramulu, the intolerant Hindus arrived at about 11 a.m. and beat the pastor, tearing his shirt. About six policemen arrived at the spot and brought the situation under control. Pastor K. Krupanamdam of True Wine Church filed a police complaint. Two officers have been posted to protect the church, but no First Information Report was filed.

Chhattisgarh – Police on Feb. 17 arrested 11 pastors from the Believers Church in Sarguja under Chhattisgarh’s anti-conversion law after Hindu extremists stormed into their revival meeting and beat them. The Evangelical Fellowship of India reported that Hindu extremists led by the local legislative assembly member from the Hindu extremist Bharatiya Janata Party, Renuka Singh, arrived at about 7 p.m. and attacked the pastors, tore Bibles and banners and damaged the sound system. The pastors were bruised but reported no serious injuries. The Christians were conducting the meeting with prior permission of the police and the civil administration. Police intervened at about 11 p.m. after persistent calls from local Christian leaders. As is customary in India, authorities took the victims of the violence to the police station “for security measures” but ended up filing charges against them under unsubstantiated claims of forceful conversion. The pastors were released on bail on Feb. 18.

Andhra Pradesh – Hindu extremists on Feb. 14 attacked a Christian media team, accused them of forceful conversion and threatened to kill them in Kawadipally, Ranga Reddy district. Moses Vatipalli of the All Indian Christian Council told Compass that three Christians identified as K. Anand Kumar, Mudi Jacob and Swami Das were distributing gospel tracts when about 15 Hindu hardliners attacked them. The intolerant Hindus assaulted the Christians, tore the remaining gospel tracts, damaged their vehicle and threatened to kill them if they did not leave the village immediately. The Christians were badly bruised but reported no serious injuries. A complaint was filed at Hayath Nagar police station, but no arrests had been made at press time.

Karnataka – Hindu extremists on Feb. 3 burned a Christian’s house and threatened to build a Hindu temple on his land in Tumpur. According to a local source, about 15 extremists went to the house of the Christian, identified only as Dasappa, on Feb. 1 and insisted that the area member of the legislative assembly was asking for the site for a Hindu temple. Dasappa refused, saying that the land was legally owned by his son, and the extremists asserted that there was no place for Christians in the area. On Feb. 3, the Hindu extremists went to his house again, splashed gas on it and burned it to ashes. Local Christian leaders filed a complaint, but police refused to register a case.

Karnataka – A group of Hindu extremists from the Bajrang Dal on Feb. 2 attacked a Christian truck driver in the Deralakatte area on the outskirts of the Mangalore. The Hindu newspaper reported that the extremists beat Albert D’Souza, 48, with iron rods after he found them breaking the windshield of his Jeep and marring the Christian stickers on it. D’Souza was brought to a city hospital in critical condition, the report stated. Konaje police registered a case, saying the attack was communally motivated, and arrested three of the five persons believed to be responsible for the assault.

Karnataka – Police on Jan. 27 arrested a pastor in Bangalore for alleged fraudulent conversion after Hindu extremists who assaulted him filed charges. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that about 30 Hindu extremists led by Shiva Rame barged into the house of pastor G. Kiran Kumar of Bethesda Church and accused him of trying to convert children by luring them with free tuition and asserting that he had insulted Hindu deities. The extremists assaulted the pastor and his father and dragged them to the Vidyaranyapura police station. Surrounding the police station, they bullied officers into arresting the Christians, with pastor Kumar charged under sections 503 and 153(A) of the Indian Penal Code for “criminal intimidation” and “promoting enmity between groups on grounds of religion” respectively. The pastor was released on bail on Jan. 31.

Karnataka – Hindu extremists on Jan. 27 accused a pastor of conversion by allurement in Belgaum because he offered light refreshments at his house church on Christmas Day. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that when the intolerant Hindus heard that pastor Tanaya Sunder Nayak served the refreshments at a prayer meeting of his house church last Christmas, they filed the complaint and manipulated police into going on a hunt for him. Arrest warrant in hand, police went to the pastor’s house while he was away. Umesh Pangam, area additional superintendent of police, told Compass that after an inquiry police realized there was no basis for the charges and dropped the case.

Assam – A mob of about 600 Hindu extremists from the Kamalabari-Sattara Establishment assaulted Christians on Jan. 24 in Majuli Island, Jorhat. The Indian Catholic reported that about 400 believers from St. Anthony’s church in Mariani had gone to Majuli Island for an ordination ceremony. Shouting anti-Christian slogans, the Hindu extremists stopped the Christians as they were en route home, accused them of forcible conversion and threatened to cut them to pieces, according to the newspaper. The Hindu mob asserted that Christians should never enter their area, where a temple affiliated with the Hindu extremist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh is located. The violent mob kicked and punched the Christians, including women and children. Pulling the Christians’ ears, they forced them to walk barefoot to Ferry Ghat five kilometers (nearly three miles) away. Civil administration officials intervened after a priest informed them of the incident and arranged transportation to assist the Christians home. Alan Brooks, spokesman of the Assam Christian Forum, told Compass that Christians filed a First Information Report in Kamalabari and Jarmukh police stations, but no arrests were made.

Kerala – Hindu extremists from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh on Jan. 22 assaulted a pastor and beat him till he fell unconscious in Vaithiry. According to the Evangelical Fellowship of India, pastor T.T. Abraham of the Brethren Assembly Church was distributing gospel tracts when three intolerant Hindus stopped him. In the assault the pastor suffered serious injuries on his neck, stomach and back. The Hindu extremists fled the scene when they saw an approaching auto-rickshaw, and the driver took the pastor to a government hospital. No police complaint was filed, as the pastor said he chose to forgive the extremists.  

Report from Compass Direct News