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

India Briefs: Recent Incidents of Persecution

Karnataka, India, November 30 (CDN) — Police on Nov. 24 detained three Christians after Hindu extremists falsely accused them of forced conversion in Raghavendra Colony, Madugere, Tumkur district. The Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) reported that 35 to 40 extremists barged into the rented apartment of Christians identified only as Prabhu, Steven and Shivananda, all workers for Operation Mobilization (OM). The Hindu hardliners confiscated all Bibles, compact discs and gospel tracts and burned them, and then took the Christians to the Madugere police station. Police who searched the apartment found no evidence of forcible conversion, however, and offered protection to the Christians. The next day the extremists again stormed into the apartment, dragging the three Christians outside. Nearby police took the Christians to the police station, along with the OM director, who had rushed to help them, and nearly 40 Hindu extremists followed demanding that the Christians be arrested for “conversion activities,” mistakenly believing that conversion is illegal in India. A GCIC representative told Compass the Christians were detained till midnight and released without being charged – after agreeing to vacate the apartment and immediately leave the village. 

Karnataka – Based on a false complaint by Hindu extremists, police detained five pastors on baseless charges of forceful conversion on Nov. 24 in Nangli, Kolar district. The Evangelical Fellowship of India reported that Hindu extremists stormed into the inauguration of the Friends Missionary Prayer Band prayer hall, and police alerted by the extremists arrived and took the five pastors to the police station for questioning. The Christians were released at about 8:30 p.m. after agreeing to give police prior notice of any worship services as a security measure. 

Madhya Pradesh – About 20 Hindu extremists attacked a pastor in Balaghat on Nov. 24. Pastor Ghanshyam Chowkse of Jeevan Jyoti Ashram was visiting a local Christian family when the extremists broke into the house of Purnima Dhuarey and dragged the pastor out, striking him with their fists and legs. They also struck Dhuarey with their hands. Pastor Kamlesh Nagpure told Compass that the mob was carrying a gas container with them, intending to burn Pastor Chowkse alive, and he said Pastor Chowkse was traumatized for days afterward. The extremists were members of the Bajrang Dal, the right-wing youth wing of the Hindu extremist Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council). Dhuarey was also attacked and beaten four months ago for recently converting to Christianity. She and Pastor Chowkse have filed two separate First Information Reports at the local police station. Dhuarey named the extremists in her FIR as she was able to recognize them, but Pastor Chowkse reported only unidentified men. “No major proceedings have yet taken place in both the cases,” Pastor Nagpure told Compass.

Karnataka – Hindu extremists from the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council) falsely accused Pastor K. Manjunath of forceful conversion, verbally abused him and stopped construction of his church on Nov. 12 in Shimoga. Pastor Manjunath had received approval from the government to construct the church building, which is registered under the Bhadravati Municipality. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that the extremists filed a complaint against the pastor with the Shimoga Development Authority, which issued a show-cause notice asking him to answer the complaint. After investigating, police allowed construction of the church building to continue.

Karnataka – About 20 Hindu extremists beat two Christians on Nov. 10 in Attibele, Karnataka. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that Chandrachari Gangadhari and Chandra Gowda were visiting Christian homes when the intolerant Hindus verbally abused, beat them and burned Bibles and gospel tracts. Gowda sustained internal injuries. As is customary in India, police detained the victims rather than the aggressors, holding the Christians at the police station until 11 p.m. and joining the extremists in warning them not to return to the village.

Chhattisgarh – About 50 Hindu extremists stormed a prayer meeting and beat Christians until one fell unconscious on Nov. 8 in Bliaspur. A Christian identified only as Tekchand invited a couple, Keshup and Sangeeta Baghel, to their house to pray for their sick child when the extremists broke in and beat the Christians. Tekchand fell unconscious. The extremists dragged the couple to the police station, and along with about 100 other Hindu hardliners tried to pressure the police into filing baseless charges of forceful conversion. On hearing of the incident, four Christians went to the police station, where the extremists beat them on their arrival. Tekchand filed a police complaint against the intolerant Hindus, and the Christians were taken to the police station for medical checkup. The Christians were released at about 3 a.m. that night.

Karnataka – Police on Nov. 1 entered a children’s hostel run by Christian Outreach Ministries (COM) in Udupi and arrested the manager on baseless charges of forceful conversion. Saroja Margaret was sent to Mangalore District Prison after a magistrate ruled against judicial custody and was released on bail on Nov. 3. The Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI) reported that Margaret and her husband, the Rev. Joseph Jamkandi, were shocked to learn that two girls who had sought shelter for four months beginning in June had supposedly accused them of forceful conversion and of criticizing Hinduism. After the girls, identified only as Megha and Shilpika, had visited their parents in Madikere, their parents and Hindu extremists filed a complaint at Kapu police station charging that Margaret had forced the children to read the Bible and had criticized Hinduism. Police questioning the remaining 63 girls and others at the hostel, as well as neighbors, did not find anyone offering any statements to support the accusations, according to EFI. The hostel provides shelter, food and clothing to 65 girls from various castes and religious backgrounds. EFI reported that the remaining 63 girls told police there was never an instance when they were forced to read the Bible or participate in Christian devotion, and they said criticism of any religion was never uttered in the hostel. Nevertheless, the Deputy Superintendent of Police on Nov. 1 told Kapu police to present Margaret before a magistrate, as the Hindu hardliners had filed a First Information Report. Margaret was arrested for “uttering words with intent to hurt religious feelings of others” (Section 298 of the Indian Penal Code) and for “creating problems in the community” (Section 153 Part 1-b).

Maharashtra – In Pune, a Christian identified only as Sanjeev was beaten by about 60 students at Ferguson College on Oct. 27 for leading a Bible study. A source reported that Sanjeev was proclaiming Christ to two students at their request when the attacking students came from different directions and began beating him; they berated him for preaching and informed the college principal of his activities. The principal filed a complaint against Sanjeev for trespassing and “hurting the religious sentiments” of the students. Police took the Christian into custody, seizing Bibles and Christian literature from him. With local Christian leaders’ intervention, he was released without charge.

Andhra Pradesh – Hindu extremists pressured Christians to recant their faith and convert back to Hinduism on Oct. 27 in West Singhbhum, Jharkhand. The All India Christian Council reported that representatives of the Hindu extremist Adivasi Maha Sabha, along with village leaders, disrupted a prayer meeting and threatened to cut all economic and community ties from the Christians if they did not obey their demand to return to Hinduism. The extremists took away the handle of a water pump that served as the only source of water for the Christians. Police refused to register a First Information Report on the incident but assured the Christians that they would investigate. The village water pump has been repaired.

Karnataka – Hindu extremists on Oct. 23 claimed that a church building in Ankola, Karwar district was used as a center for forceful conversion. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that the extremists also accused Christians there of cheating poor people and disturbing the neighborhood with their prayers. The extremist leaders went to the home of the owner of the land on which the church building is built, Shankar Naik, and reprimanded him for allowing it to remain open. The extremists filed a baseless complaint of forceful conversion with the local administrator, who in turn filed a police complaint against Naik. Due to extremist pressure, police forced Naik to shut down the building, threatening to arrest him if he opened it again. The Christians there now worship in the house of area pastor.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Massive ‘Reconversion’ Event in India Aimed at Christians

Hard-line cleric leads campaign in Maharashtra, ideological capital of Hindu nationalism.

MUMBAI, India, October 27 (CDN) — Hundreds of tribal Christians and adherents of aboriginal religion from villages in Maharashtra state were reportedly “reconverted” to Hinduism yesterday in the Mumbai suburb of Thane at a ceremony led by a Hindu nationalist cleric.

Swami Narendra Maharaj’s goal was to “reconvert” 6,000 Christians in the so-called purification ceremony, reported The Hindustan Times, which put the number of “reconversions” at around 800. Hindu nationalists believe all Indians are born Hindu and therefore regard acceptance of Hinduism by those practicing other religions as “reconversion.”

Maharaj, a Hindu cleric known for opposing proclamation of Christ, has allegedly led anti-Christian attacks in tribal regions. On March 15, 2008, his men reportedly attacked two Catholic nuns, Sister Marceline and Sister Philomena, from the non-profit Jeevan Jyoti Kendra (Light of Life Center) in Sahanughati, near Mumbai.

The attack took place in a camp to educate tribal women on HIV/AIDS, which also provided information on government welfare programs, according to Indo-Asian News Service. The assault in Sahanughati, Alibaug district was followed by a mass “reconversion” ceremony in the area on April 27, 2008, said Ram Puniyani, a well-known civil rights activist in Mumbai.

Rightwing Hindu groups are mostly active in tribal areas. Hindu nationalists attack Christians in tribal areas because they provide social and development services, regarded as competition by rightwing Hindus seeking to woo tribal voters, said Anwar Rajan, secretary of the People’s Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL) in Maharashtra’s Pune city.

Kandhamal district in the eastern state of Orissa, where a massive spate of anti-Christian attacks took place in August-September 2008, is also a tribal-majority area. At least 100 Christians were killed, 4,600 houses and churches were burned, and over 50,000 people were rendered homeless in the violence.

Sociologists maintain that India’s tribal peoples are not Hindus but practice their own ethnic faiths. Hindu nationalists run Ekal Vidyalayas (one-teacher schools) in tribal regions to “Hinduize” local villagers and repel conversions to other faiths. These schools are operating in over 27,000 villages of India.

Dubious Claims

An anonymous spokesman of Maharaj said the plan for yesterday’s event was to “reconvert” 6,000 Christians to achieve the larger goal of “bringing back” 100,000 Christians, according to the Press Trust of India (PTI) news agency.

The rightwing spokesman in Maharashtra, a western state where Hindu nationalism originated decades ago, claimed that Maharaj and his followers had overseen the conversion of more than 94,000 Christians “back to their original faith” and plan to complete the target of 100,000 in the next two years.

Maharaj, whose followers call him Jagat Guru (Guru of the World), told PTI that those who “reconverted” were not coerced.

“We are not having a religious conversion here – it’s a process of purification,” Maharaj was quoted as saying. “We taught them the precepts of the Hindu religion, and they decided to convert to Hinduism on their own after repentance. They were not forced.”

Many reports of “reconversions,” however, have been found to be false.

In 2007, Hindi-language daily Punjab Kesari reported that four Christian families in Nahan town, in the northern state of Himachal Pradesh, had “reconverted” to Hinduism. But a fact-finding team of the All India Christian Council revealed that none of the members of those families had ever converted to Christianity.

The Hindustan Times reported yesterday’s ceremony included rituals involving cow’s milk, seeking forgiveness from ancestors, installation of idols of the Hindu gods Ganesh and Vishnu, and an offering ritual performed by priests from Ayodhya, in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. Ayodhya is believed to be the birthplace of the Hindu god Rama.

Home of Hindu Nationalism

The basic philosophy of Hindu nationalism was expounded by Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, popularly known as Veer Savarkar, in 1923 through the publishing of a pamphlet, “Hindutva: Who is a Hindu?” Savarkar, who is from Maharashtra, argued that only those who have their ancestors from India as well as consider India as their holy land should have full citizenship rights.

A follower of Savarkar, Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar, also from Maharashtra, further developed the Hindu nationalist philosophy through a book, “A Bunch of Thoughts,” in 1966. He claimed superiority of Hinduism over other religions and cultures of the world.

“In this land, Hindus have been the owners, Parsis and Jews the guests, and Muslims and Christians the dacoits [bandits],” he said.

The emergence of Hindu nationalist ideology from Maharashtra came in reaction to the politics of social justice by Dr. Bhim Rao Ambedkar and Mahatma (Jyotirao) Phule, said Irfan Engineer, director of the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies in Mumbai and an expert on religious conflicts. Phule led a mass movement of emancipation of lower castes, mainly Shudras and Ati-Shudras or Dalits, in the 1870s. Ambedkar, known as the architect of the Indian Constitution, began movements against “untouchability” in the 1920s.

Also born in Maharashtra was the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteer Corps, or RSS), India’s most influential Hindu nationalist conglomerate. It was founded in 1925 in Nagpur by Dr. K.B. Hedgewar.

Hindu society has traditionally had four castes or social classes, namely Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra. While Shudras belong to the lowest caste, Dalits were formerly known as “untouchables” because the priestly Brahmin class considered them to be outside the confines of the caste system.

During British colonial rule in the Indian subcontinent between 1858 and 1947, sections of the Brahmins felt the British were sympathetic towards the Dalit reformist movement, said Engineer of the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. Mahars, Maharashtra’s largest Dalit people group, have been very organized and powerful since then.

The PUCL’s Rajan said that the Brahmins have long portrayed minorities as enemies of Hinduism.

“Since the Dalit reformist movement is essentially against the Brahmin hegemony, the Brahmins had to react and get organized,” Rajan said. “As a part of their strategy to weaken the reformist movement, Brahmins projected minorities as the ‘real’ enemies of all Hindus, including Dalits and other lower castes, diverting attention away from the atrocities they meted out on them.”

Most of the founding leaders of Hindu nationalism, including Savarkar, Hedgewar and Golwalkar, were Brahmins. Since communal troubles benefited Hindu nationalists politically, the use of divisive issues became routine for them, Rajan added.

After two successive defeats of the Bharatiya Janata Party, political wing of the RSS, in general elections in 2004 and 2009, differences between the moderate and extremist sections within the Hindu nationalist movement – which blame each other for the party’s downfall – have deepened to unprecedented levels.

In frustration, the extremists have accelerated their activities, especially in Maharashtra, the ideological capital, said Dr. Suresh Khairnar, a well-known civil activist from Nagpur.

Report from Compass Direct News