Hostilities Flare in BJP-Run Madhya Pradesh, India

Anti-Christian violence, efforts to tarnish church increase in past five years.

NEW DELHI, October 14 (CDN) — Since the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in Madhya Pradesh in December 2003, Christians in the state have suffered increased attacks and concerted efforts to tarnish their image, church leaders said.

Before the BJP took office the state recorded two or three attacks against Christians per year, they said, whereas Jabalpur Archbishop Gerald Almeida said that in the past five years 65 baseless charges of forceful conversion – commonly accompanied by mob violence – have been registered in his diocese alone.

“There are some groups who are closely monitoring the Christian movement, and these people are bent on creating problems for the Christians for the past five years,” Almeida told Compass.

The state is not able to control these groups, he added. Indeed, police routinely working with Hindu extremist groups filed an average of more than three unsubstantiated complaints of “coerced” conversions each month in the past five years, according to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Madhya Pradesh (see sidebar below).

In the first eight months of this year, Madhya Pradesh saw the third highest number of attacks against Christians and Christian institutions in the country with 11, behind Karnataka with 43 and Andhra Pradesh with 14, according to Christian advocacy organizations.

The Rev. Anand Muttungal, spokesman for the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Madhya Pradesh, said growing attacks on Christians were a symptom of fear among Hindu extremists that the Catholic Church’s influence is spreading.

“The Church as an organization is doing very well in many fields,” Muttungal said. “It causes those fundamentalists to worry. It could be one of the main reasons for the continuous attacks on Christians.”

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 serves as a pretext for harassing Christians.

Igniting anti-Christian violence shortly after the BJP came to power was an incident in Jhabua district, where the body of a 9-year-old girl called Sujata was found in one of the Christian schools on Jan. 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 to get Christians arrested without evidence.

Jabalpur Archbishop Almeida cited cases chronicled by the NCM such as the arrest under the anti-conversion law of two local women who were merely distributing gospel tracts in March 2006. Almeida also cited the NCM report on the jailing of four pastors in January 2006 for alleged “forceful conversion” after Hindu extremists from the Bajrang Dal dragged them to a Hindu temple and forced them to deny Christ.

Catholic Church records show that in 2007, a 70-year-old woman identified only as Mrs. Godwin was arrested along with another woman on charges of forceful conversion; they too were only distributing religious literature, a right they had under the nation’s constitution.

Christian leaders said one aim of such abuses of the state’s anti-conversion law is to tarnish the image of Christians by showing them as lawbreakers. Hate propaganda and spurious allegations against Christians continue unabated in the state, church leaders said.

The customary practice in India and especially in Madhya Pradesh, they said, is for Hindu extremists to raise false allegations on the slimmest of pretexts and get police to make hurried arrests.

Political Machinery

After the NCM report in 2006 first documented the violence, the Madhya Pradesh political machinery’s influence became evident when State Minorities Commission Chairman Anwar Mohammed Khan asserted that reports of Hindu extremists attacking Christians in the state were “baseless.”

Khan told Frontline magazine that extremists had not targeted Christians. The magazine also quoted state Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan as saying the BJP government was greatly concerned about “unethical conversions” – presumably of Hindus to Christianity.

The magazine criticized the state Minorities Commission for speaking “the same language as the Bajrang Dal and the state chief minister,” thereby failing its mandate to defend minorities.

This year the commission tried to increase state control over church activities, unofficially recommending that the government enact a law to set up a board to manage church properties such as schools, colleges, hospitals and charities. The Christian community strongly protested, and the state withdrew the proposal.

Leo Cornelio, archbishop of Bhopal, said the Minorities Commission recommendation “shows beyond doubt that it is disloyal to minorities” and “loyal to the government,” according to the Indian Catholic.

The battle over state control of church properties is not over. Muttungal told Compass that the Minorities Commission has started to collect details of church properties through the Education Department. It is certain, he said, that this will lead to a legal battle involving the Education Department, Minorities Commission and the Catholic Church.


Police Collusion Seen in ‘Forced Conversion’ Complaints

NEW DELHI, October 14 (Compass Direct News) – Hindu extremist groups in collusion with the state police filed an average of more than three baseless complaints of “coerced” conversions per month in the past five years – shortly after the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power – according to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Madhya Pradesh.

“I have gathered information from all the districts of the state, according to which the number of [forced or fraudulent] conversion complaints against Christians in the last five years is over 180,” the Rev. Anand Muttungal, spokesman for the state’s Catholic body, told Compass.

Muttungal said he asked the Madhya Pradesh State Crime Records Bureau, a body under the state interior ministry that monitors criminal complaints, about the number of forced conversion complaints in the last five years, and the state agency put the number wrongly at fewer than 35.

Muttungal also said most of the complaints were filed by third parties – not the supposed “victims” – who were unable to produce any unlawfully converted people to support their allegations. He added that the complainants were mainly members of the Hindu extremist Bajrang Dal, youth wing of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP).

“In Jabalpur, the complaints were lodged mainly by the Hindu Dharam Sena [Hindu Religion Army],” he said.

Most recently, the leader of the Hindu Dharam Sena on Sept. 27 got police to interrogate, without cause, a Catholic group traveling through Jabalpur. The Rev. Anto Mundamany of the Carmelite of Mary Immaculate order said the inspector-in-charge of the Civil Lines police station and four other policemen came to the Carmel Niketan center, where the group had stopped for dinner. Police interrogated him and the 45 Catholic visitors about their religious identity, he said, to determine whether the visitors were Hindus whom the priests and nuns at the center might be forcibly trying to convert.

Journalists accompanied the police, and the following day local newspapers reported on the incident, portraying the Christians as inherently suspect.

“Although the police left after making sure that all the participants who had arrived for an inter-parish tour were Christians, the newspapers made no mention of that fact,” Mundamany said.

The local daily Dainik Bhaskar reported that Yogesh Agarwal, head of the Hindu Dharam Sena, had informed police about a supposed “conversion plot” by the Catholic order.

“There can be little doubt that the police are party to this disturbing trend,” Muttungal said.

The incidence of anti-Christian attacks is the highest in the state in Jabalpur – local Christians say the city witnessed at least three attacks every month until recently, mainly by Agarwal and his cohorts. Although numerous criminal complaints are pending against Agarwal, he remains at large.

A Christian requesting anonymity said police officers personally act on his complaints against Christian workers.

A June 2006 report by the National Commission for Minorities (NCM) found that Hindu nationalist groups in Madhya Pradesh had frequently invoked the state’s anti-conversion law as a pretext to incite mobs against Christians. The NCM report also pointed at police collusion in the attacks.

“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.”

The NCM is an independent body created by Parliament in 1993 to monitor and safeguard the rights of minorities.

Muttungal said the Catholic Bishops’ Conference would approach the state high court with the facts it has gathered to prove police involvement in complaints against Christians.

Most complaints against Christians are registered under Section 3 of the Madhya Pradesh “Freedom of Religion Act” of 1968, popularly known as an anti-conversion law. The section states, “No person shall convert or attempt to convert, either directly or otherwise, any person from one religious faith to another by the use of force or by inducement or by any fraudulent means nor shall any person abet any such conversion.”

Offenses under the anti-conversion law are “cognizable,” meaning police are empowered to register a complaint, investigate and arrest for up to 24 hours, without a warrant, anyone accused of forced conversion.

Police also use Sections 153A and 295A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) to arrest Christians. Section 153A refers to “promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion and doing acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony.” Section 295A concerns “deliberate and malicious acts to outrage religious feelings.” These IPC crimes are also cognizable.

Report from Compass Direct News 


Body found in Andhra Pradesh state with 30 stab wounds, broken skull.

NEW DELHI, August 19 (Compass Direct News) – Christian leaders in Andhra Pradesh suspect the grisly murder of a Catholic priest was the work of Hindu extremists and that police have prematurely ruled out that possibility.

The battered body of Father Thomas Pandipally was found lying on a roadside in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh early on Sunday (August 17). The 38-year-old priest from the Carmelite of Mary Immaculate (CMI) order was killed while he was traveling by motorbike from the Lingampet area to Yellareddy village in Nizamabad district after 9:30 p.m. on August 16, reported Indian Catholic News Service (ICNS).

Fr. Pandipally, who was also the manager of a local school run by the CMI order, was to conduct the Sunday mass at St. Francis of Assisi Church in Yellareddy the following morning.

Nizamabad Superintendent of Police Rajesh Kumar told Compass that the murder had no religious motive. “There is communal harmony, and there has been no communal incident in the district at all,” he said.

There are only two possible angles in the murder case, Kumar said.

“One, the school where Fr. Pandipally was working is doing very well, and it also has a dispute with another school,” he said. “Second, Fr. Pandipally had expelled the driver of a school bus over some dispute on his salary.”

But the Rev. Father Alex Thannippara, a provincial superior of the CMI order, said he was in “complete disagreement” with Kumar’s claim of communal harmony in the area.

The Hindu extremist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or RSS, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council) and the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (All India Students’ Council or ABVP, student wing of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party) are all violently active in Nizamabad, Fr. Thannippara said.

He pointed out that on January 16 a mob of around 500 people led by ABVP workers prevented the Hyderabad archbishop from blessing the new building of an HIV/AIDS care center run by the Franciscan Clarist Congregation (FCC) sisters in Lingampet.

“The crowd also indulged in vandalism and demolished a statue of Mother Mary,” Fr. Thannippara said. “The police had to lock up the building and take the keys with them to pacify the crowd.”

He added that the tensions erupted despite the support of district authorities for the center.

“Later, the FCC sisters filed a suit in the court of law against the protestors,” Fr. Thannippara said. “And the sisters started receiving threats on phone that if they did not withdraw the case, some members of their communities would be attacked.”

The school where the slain priest was working was also targeted around two years ago. “A huge crowd led by RSS supporters gathered around the school and tried to parade the then-principal naked under flimsy pretexts, but the police protected him,” he said.

Fr. Thannippara said the school had no dispute with any other school, though he acknowledged that other schools may be jealous of the CMI order. He added that Fr. Pandipally didn’t ask the school bus driver to leave but only refused to raise his salary.

When school workers heard about Fr. Pandipally’s murder, all staff members came except the driver, he said, but “that does not necessarily mean he is the culprit.”

“Fr. Pandipally was very humble,” Fr. Thannippara said. “Why should anyone kill him so brutally, I can’t understand.”

According to ICNS, there were more than 30 stab injuries on Fr. Pandipally’s body, especially in the abdomen.

“His head was hit with sticks and boulders, and the skull was split open,” ICNS reported. “All over his face, on his eyes, lips and cheeks, deep wounds were found. His motorcycle was thrown in bushes about four kilometers away. He was done to death in the forest, and his body was brought back and thrown in the middle of the road.”

ICNS also reported that Fr. Pandipally received a phone call inquiring when he was leaving for Yellareddy.

Archbishop Marampudi Joji of Hyderabad has also linked the murder to growing intolerance against Christians in parts of India.

“The Indian church is shocked and deeply saddened by this barbarous killing, which is the result of a growing climate of intolerance and violence against Christians in the country,” he told Asia News.

Brutal, Mysterious Murders

Andhra Pradesh has witnessed a strange trend of brutal and mysterious murders of Christian workers.

On June 8, 2006, the body of Prem Kumar, a 67-year-old preacher from the Church of South India, was found in a forest in the same district, Nizamabad. Kumar’s head was crushed beyond recognition, apparently with heavy stones. (See Compass Direct News, “Preacher Murdered in Andhra Pradesh, India,” June 12, 2006.)

A young man approached Kumar early in the morning requesting that he hold a prayer meeting in Rampur Thanda village later that day. He never returned from that “meeting” and was found murdered.

In May 2005, pastors K. Isaac Raju and K. Daniel were brutally murdered near the state capital, Hyderabad. (See Compass Direct News, “Second Pastor Found Dead in Andhra Pradesh, India,” June 6, 2005.) Unknown persons called both pastors by phone before they disappeared, asking if they would act as wedding celebrants. Raju went to meet a caller in Anantpur district on May 24, 2005 and disappeared; an unidentified caller then phoned the police on June 2, describing where to find Raju’s body.

Previously, on May 21, callers had put Daniel into a motorized rickshaw and taken him to a cemetery in Karwan, where they beat him severely before strangling him and dumping his body on the city outskirts.

An anonymous letter was sent to a local newspaper claiming the murders were carried out by an organization called the Anti-Christian Forum. The letter promised further killings.

An article in the New Indian Express on June 27, 2005, quoted a man identified only as Goverdhan, who along with his two friends allegedly murdered the two preachers.

“I am not against Christianity, but Raju and Daniel converted hundreds of Hindu families,” Goverdhan said. “They enticed them with money. We have done this to prevent further conversions. This act should be a lesson for others.”

In 2000, Pastor Yesu Dasu, 52, was killed in a similar fashion. Two people riding a motorbike came to his home on the evening of September 11 and asked for Dasu, saying someone wanted to speak with him.

Assailants then took Dasu to the outskirts of Mustabad in Karimnagar district. They bound his hands together and hit him repeatedly with an axe, eventually severing his head.

Dasu’s body was found in a pool of blood at a cattle shed near Kothakunta, along the Mustabad-Siddipet highway, three kilometers (nearly two miles) from Karimnagar. Several pieces of the body were found scattered at the murder scene.

Extremists had earlier warned Dasu to cease preaching or face the consequences. (See Compass Direct News, “Murder of Christian Preacher Remains Unsolved in India,” October 10, 2003.)

The Congress Party, with Dr. Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy, a Christian, as the chief minister, rules Andhra Pradesh state. Hindu extremists have accused Reddy of giving a free hand to Christian missionaries in the state.  

Report from Compass Direct News