India’s Christians Suffer Spike in Assaults in Past Decade

Hindu nationalists were often politically motivated in their attacks.

NEW DELHI, December 30 (CDN) — Christians in India faced a spike in attacks in the past decade, suffering more than 130 assaults a year since 2001, with figures far surpassing that in 2007 and 2008.

This year Christians suffered at least 149 violent attacks, according to the Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI). Most of the incidents took place in just four states: two adjacent states in south India, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, and two neighboring states in north-central India, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, noted EFI in its report, “Religion, Politics and Violence: A Report of the Hostility and Intimidation Faced by Christians in India in 2010.”

Of India’s 23 million Christians, 2.7 million live in the four states seen as the hub of Christian persecution. While north-central parts of the country have been tense for a decade, the escalation of attacks in southern India began last year.

This year Karnataka recorded at least 56 attacks – most of them initially reported by the Global Council of Indian Christians, which is based in the state capital, Bengaluru. Chhattisgarh witnessed 18 attacks, followed by Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh with 15 and 13 attacks respectively.

Christians are not stray incidents but are part of a systematic campaign by influential [Hindu nationalist] organizations capable of flouting law and enjoying impunity,” the EFI report said.

In 2009 there were more than 152 attacks across India, and the same four states topped the list of violent incidents, according to the EFI: 48 in Karnataka, 29 in Andhra Pradesh, 15 in Madhya Pradesh and 14 in Chhattisgarh.

Three of the four states – Karnataka, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh – are ruled by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and the EFI noted that the high number of attacks on Christians in those states was no coincidence.

“While it cannot be said that the ruling party had a direct role in the attacks on Christians, its complicity cannot be ruled out either,” the report stated.

In Andhra Pradesh, ruled by centrist Indian National Congress (commonly known as the Congress Party), most attacks are believed to be led by Hindu nationalist groups.

EFI remarked that “although in 2007 and 2008 two major incidents of violence occurred in eastern Orissa state’s Kandhamal district and hit headlines in the national as well as international media, little efforts have been taken by authorities in India to tackle the root causes of communal tensions, namely divisive propaganda and activities by powerful right-wing Hindu groups, who do not represent the tolerant Hindu community.”

The violence in Kandhamal district during Christmas week of 2007 killed at least four Christians and burned 730 houses and 95 churches, according to the All India Christian Council (AICC). These attacks were preceded by around 200 incidents of anti-Christian attacks in other parts of the country.

Violence re-erupted in Kandhamal district in August 2008, killing more than 100 people and resulting in the incineration of 4,640 houses, 252 churches and 13 educational institutions, according to the AICC.

Soon the violence spread to other states. In Karnataka, at least 28 attacks were recorded in August and September 2008, according to a report by People’s Union of Civil Liberties, “The Ugly Face of Sangh Parivar,” released in March 2009.

Before the two most violent years of 2007 and 2008, incidents of persecution of Christians had dipped to the lowest in the decade. In 2006 there were at least 130 incidents – more than two a week on average – according to the Christian Legal Association of India.

At least 165 anti-Christian attacks were reported in 2005. But from 2001 to 2004, at least 200 incidents were reported each year, according to John Dayal, secretary general of the AICC.

In 1998, Christians were targeted by the BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or RSS –India’s chief Hindu nationalist conglomerate and the BJP’s ideological mentor – when Italian-born Sonia Gandhi, Catholic by descent, became the president of India’s Congress Party. Gandhi, the wife of former Prime Minister of India Rajiv Gandhi, was seen as a major threat to the BJP, which had come to power for the first time at the federal level the same year. The Gandhi family has been popular since the Independence of India in 1947.

But Christian persecution – murder, beating, rape, false accusation, ostracism, and destruction of property – had begun spreading across the country in 2001, especially in tribal-inhabited states in central India. The attacks on Christians were apparently aimed at coaxing Sonia Gandhi to speak on behalf of Christians so that she could be branded as a leader of the Christian minority, as opposed to the BJP’s claimed leadership of the Hindu majority. Observers say it is therefore not surprising that Gandhi has never spoken directly against Christian persecution in India.


Change in Political Atmosphere

After Hindu nationalist groups were linked with bombings in late 2008, the RSS and the BJP distanced themselves from those charged with the terrorist violence. The BJP also adopted a relatively moderate ideological stand in campaigns during state and federal elections.

The BJP, mainly the national leadership, has become more moderate also because it has faced embarrassing defeats in the last two consecutive general elections, in 2004 and 2009, which it fought on a mixed plank of Hindu nationalism and development. The voters in the two elections clearly indicated that they were more interested in development than divisive issues related to identity – thanks to the process of economic liberalization which began in India in 1991.

The incidence of Christian persecution, however, remains high because not all in the BJP and the RSS leadership seem willing to “dilute” their commitment to Hindu nationalism. Especially some in the lower rungs and in the regional leadership remain hardliners.

How this ideological rift within the Hindu nationalist family will play out next year and in the coming decade is yet to be seen. There is speculation, however, that more individuals and outfits formerly connected with the RSS will part ways and form their own splinter groups.

Although politicians are increasingly realizing that religion-related conflicts are no longer politically beneficial, it is perhaps too early to expect a change on the ground. This is why none of the “anti-conversion” laws has been repealed.

Four Indian states – Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Orissa and Arunachal Pradesh – had introduced legislation to regulate religious conversion, known as “anti-conversion” laws, before 2001, and since then three more states – Gujarat, Rajasthan, and Himachal Pradesh – brought in such laws, while two states sought to make existing laws stricter.

Anti-conversion laws are yet to be implemented, however, in Arunachal Pradesh and Rajasthan. The anti-conversion amendment bills in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh have also faced political hurdles.

Although the anti-conversion laws claim to ban conversions undertaken by force or allurement – terms that have not been defined adequately – they are commonly used to jail or otherwise harass Christians who are simply following Christ’s mandate to help the poor and make disciples. The laws also require all conversions to be reported to the authorities, failing which both convert and relevant clergy can be fined and imprisoned.

Some of these laws also require a prospective convert to obtain prior permission before conversion.


Concerns in 2011

Hard-line Hindu nationalists are seeking to create more fodder for communal conflicts and violence.

In April 2010, Hindu nationalists declared their plan to hold a rally of 2 million Hindus in Madhya Pradesh state’s Mandla district in February 2011, with the aim of converting Christians back to Hinduism and driving away pastors, evangelists and foreign aid workers from the district.

Several spates of violence have been linked to past rallies. India’s first large-scale, indiscriminate attack on Christians took place in Dangs district of Gujarat state in December 1998 after local Hindu nationalist groups organized such a rally. The violence led to mass destruction of property belonging to local Christians and Christian organizations.

Law and order is generally a responsibility of the states, but how the federal government and other agencies respond to the call for the rally in Madhya Pradesh may indicate what to expect in the coming months and years in India.

Report from Compass Direct News

Recent Incidents of Persecution

Karnataka, India, October 29 (CDN) — Police arrested Pastor Muthyalan Paul on Oct. 26 in Nelamangala, Bangalore, after Muslim radicals barged into a prayer meeting, accused him of forceful conversion, tore Bibles and damaged household items. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that police, alerted by the Muslim extremists, charged the pastor with “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage the religious feelings of others.” A judge sent the pastor to Nelamangala Sub-Jail, but with area Christian leaders’ intervention he was released on bail the next morning.

Karnataka – Hindu nationalists on Oct. 20 burned down a house church in Bellakatte village, near Chitradurga. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that Pastor Mallappa Hanumanthappa Andrew of Samadhana Prayer House and his brother were walking on a village road when six area extremists waylaid them and began slapping the pastor, falsely accusing him of forcible conversion. They also slapped and shoved his brother when he tried to come to Andrew’s aid. Cursing, the extremists then burned down the house used for worship. Baramasagara police arrested four extremists identified only as Manjunath, Parashuram, Ramanna and Devaraj, charged them with unlawful assembly and released them after two hours.

Madhya Pradesh – Threatening to file a police complaint, Hindu nationalists in Chattarpur on Oct. 19 accused Pastor Kunal Parichha of forcibly converting people and sending them to Bible college, a source said. The pastor and the nationalists met for talks the next day, only to have the extremists threaten to kill him if he continued to lead worship meetings. At press time area Christian leaders were taking steps to resolve the conflict.

Karnataka – Police detained a pastor identified only as Surendra for more than three hours on Oct. 15 after Hindu nationalists disrupted the worship of Calvary Assemblies of God Church and beat him in Boothanhalli Kaval, near S. Bidra village, Chickmagalur district. The Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) reported that at 7:30 p.m., as the pastor was leading worship in another Christian’s house where 15 others had assembled, nearly 25 cursing extremists stormed in, chased them
out and repeatedly slapped and punched Pastor Surendra. A GCIC coordinator told Compass that the extremists dragged the pastor outside, ripped his shirt off, took away his mobile phone, and telephoned police that “conversion activities” were taking place. Conversion and “conversion activities” are legal in India. Police arrived at 9 p.m., arrested the pastor and interrogated him. With GCIC intervention, Surendra was released at 12:30 a.m. without being charged.

Orissa – Hard-line Hindus in Paikamara, Puri, Orissa district on Oct. 14 confined three recent converts to Christianity in a house, assaulted them and pressured them to deny their new faith. The Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) reported that Aswini Sahu, Sanatana Jena and Amulya Swain became Christians six months ago after listening to Christian radio broadcasts. When the Hindu extremists learned of it, they threatened them and expelled them from the village after the Christians continued to worship Christ. The Christians took shelter in different homes, and then went back to their village after receiving word by telephone that tensions had cooled. As soon as they returned, however, the extremists caught hold of them, beat them and confined them. With GCIC and area Christian leaders’ intervention, police rescued the Christians and warned the extremists not to disturb them again.

Haryana – Hindu extremists on Sept. 30 attacked a church’s Christian school in Ghaziabad. A source said that the extremists showed up in a truck armed with guns and other implements of destruction at the Ingram Institute and broke a wall. Trying to occupy the church property, they started building a wall around a student hostel and other properties near the school and verbally abused director Hepesh Shepherd, staff members and students. Christians immediately filed a complaint, and police detained two extremists. They were later released without charges.

Chhattisgarh – Hindu extremists assaulted Pastor Suresh Deep of The Church of God on Sept. 28 in Rajnandgan. A source reported that the incident began the previous day when two church members, Shilembra Sahu and Raj Kumar, started quarrelling about whether Kumar was meeting standards for Christian living, and as villagers came to become involved in the conflict, Hindu extremists took Kumar’s side. The extremists filed a complaint against Sahu, and police arrested him for joining an assembly likely to cause a disturbance. The next day, Pastor Deep went to submit a bail petition for Sahu, and some 20 extremists who had gathered at the court verbally abused him, beat him and dragged him to a Hindu temple. There they forced him to drink dirty water and to write that he would refrain from any conversion activity. The pastor sustained bruises all over his body. Area Christian leaders intervened, and police registered a case against the attackers, but no arrests had been made at press time. Sahu was sent to Rajnandgan district jail but was released on bail on Sept 30.

Kerala – Muslim extremists beat a Christian convert from Islam after they saw him worshipping Jesus on Sept. 22 in Vikas colony, Ambalavayal. The Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) reported that a pastor identified only as Chacko had established a friendship with a Muslim man who was an alcoholic. After attending the church, the Muslim stopped drinking alcohol, led a changed life and decided to follow Jesus Christ. Enraged by the change in him, the extremists seriously injured the convert. They also damaged Pastor Chacko’s pipeline, the source for water for about 10 Christian families, and pelted the pastor’s home with stones, damaging the house. GCIC reported that the extremists continued to threaten the pastor by telephone daily.

Madhya Pradesh – Hindu extremists from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) on Sept. 16 attacked a building belonging to the Believers Church in Jabalpur, bringing it to the ground. Believers Church representative Sushant Sona reported that the RSS members arrived in a huge vehicle designed to demolish buildings and destroyed the facility, claiming that they would not allow any church to exist in the area. The Rev. Samkutty Issac and other Christian leaders pleaded with the government officials to take action against the culprits.

Karnataka – Hindu extremists attacked a church building under construction at Byappanahalli village on Sept. 12 near Bengaluru, accusing area Christians of large-scale, forcible conversion. The extremists broke into the church building and tried to pull it down, reported the All India Christian Council. Police arrived in time to stop them, but the extremists filed a complaint against Pastor John Babu and other Christians for alleged forcible conversion. Under the extremists’ pressure, the police later issued a notice to the church to stop construction and issued arrest warrants against the pastor and seven others. To avoid further harassment, the Christians applied for anticipatory bails. They also filed petitions seeking court intervention to stop the extremists from further assaults. At press time the church building remained abandoned and unguarded.

Karnataka – A mob of about 100 Hindu extremists on Sept. 5 barged into the house church worship of a congregation of the Indian Pentecostal Church and beat a pastor in Doni, Gadag. The Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) reported that the extremists ripped Bibles, tore the clothes of Pastor Mallikarjuna Sangalad, dragged him out of the house and beat him. Police arrived and arrested Pastor Sangalad, where they ordered him to stop leading worship meetings, according to the GCIC. Christian leaders intervened, and police released the pastor without charges.

Karnataka – Ramnagar police Sub-Inspector Babu Madhar on Sept. 3 forcefully entered a Calvary Fellowship Prayer house church meeting led by Pastor P.R. Jose and ordered him to immediately stop the service. The Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) reported that police accused the Christians of forceful conversion and ordered them to close down the house church. After area Christian leaders’ intervention, according to the GCIC, the Christians were given police protection for worship.

Report from Compass Direct News