New, More Dangerous Hindu Extremist Groups Emerge in India

Christians concerned as rightwing factions splinter to form militant outfits.

PUNE, India, October 29 (CDN) — After more than a decade of severe persecution, India’s Christian minority is growing increasingly concerned over the mushrooming of newer and deadlier Hindu extremist groups.

Gone are the days when Christians had to watch out only for the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council) and its youth wing, Bajrang Dal, which are closely linked with the most influential Hindu extremist umbrella organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). With voter support faltering for the RSS’s political wing, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), moderate and extremist sections within the Hindu nationalist movement are blaming each other, and militant splinter groups have emerged.

Claiming to be breakaway factions of the RSS, new groups with even more extreme ideology are surfacing. The Abhinav Bharat (Pride of India), the Rashtriya Jagran Manch (National Revival Forum), the Sri Ram Sene (Army of god Rama), the Hindu Dharam Sena (Army for Hindu Religion) and the Sanatan Sanstha (Eternal Organization) have launched numerous violent attacks on Christian and Muslim minorities.

The Sri Ram Sene was one of the most active groups that launched a series of attacks on Christians and their property in and around Mangalore city in the southern state of Karnataka in August-September 2008, according to a report, “The Ugly Face of Sangh Parivar,” published by the People’s Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL), in March 2009. In Jabalpur city in the central state of Madhya Pradesh, suspected extremists from the Abhinav Bharat attacked the Rhema Gospel Church on Sept. 28, according to the Global Council of Indian Christians. They had earlier attacked Pastor Sam Oommen and his family in the same city on Aug. 3.

The Hindu Dharam Sena has become especially terrifying for Christians in Jabalpur. Between 2006 and 2008, Jabalpur was plagued by at least three anti-Christian attacks every month, according to The Caravan magazine. In the western state of Gujarat and other parts of the country, the Rashtriya Jagran Manch has also violently attacked Christians, according to news website Counter Currents.

At an ecumenical meeting held in New Delhi on Saturday (Oct. 24), the secretary general of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, Archbishop Stanislaus Fernandes, said the rise of fundamentalism was “seriously worrying” the church in India. The meeting was held to discuss prospects for immediate enactment of federal legislation to counter religious extremism with the proposed Communal Violence (Prevention, Control and Rehabilitation of Victims) Bill.

RSS ‘Too Mild’

The new groups, formed mostly by former members of RSS-connected outfits, find the Hindu nationalist conglomerate too “mild” to be able to create a nation with Hindu supremacy.

The Sri Ram Sene, mainly active in south India, was started by Pramod Muthalik after he was expelled in 2007 from the Bajrang Dal, one of the most radical groups in the RSS family, for being an extremist, according to the daily newspaper DNA. The Hindu Dharam Sena was started by Yogesh Agarwal, former worker of the Dharam Jagran Vibhag (Religion Revival Department) of the RSS, also in 2007, as he felt “the RSS did not believe in violence,” according to The Caravan. He had earlier launched the Dharam Sena, an offshoot of the RSS, in Madhya Pradesh and neighboring Chhattisgarh state in 2006.

The founding members of the Abhinav Bharat, which was started in Pune in 2006, also believe that the RSS is not militant enough. Outlook magazine notes that its members were planning to kill top leaders of the RSS for their inability to implement Hindu extremist ideology. The Rashtriya Jagran Manch, also a breakaway group of the RSS founded in 2007, has close links with the Abhinav Bharat.

Based out of Goa, a western state with a substantial number of Christians, the Sanatan Sanstha provides the ideological base for Hindu militant groups. It has close links with the Sri Ram Sene and publishes a periodical, Sanatan Prabhat, which occasionally spews hate against Christians.

Media reports warn of tensions due to the recent spurt in activity of the splinter groups.

“The hardliners are now getting into more extreme activities,” The Times of India daily quoted V.N. Deshmukh, former joint director of India’s Intelligence Bureau, as saying on Oct. 21.

The most extremist sections are disillusioned with the way the RSS is functioning, said Mumbai-based Irfan Engineer, Director of the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. Most RSS cadres were mobilized with an ideology that called for elimination of minorities, mainly Muslims and Christians, he told Compass, adding that many of them were highly disappointed with the way the movement was being led.

He said the BJP was restricted when it led a coalition government at the federal level from 1998 to 2004, keeping it from effectively working towards a Hindu nation. A majority of the BJP’s allies in the National Democratic Alliance were not Hindu nationalists.

“One section of the [Hindu nationalist] movement believes in acquiring state power by participating in parliamentary democracy, and the other wants to create a Hindu nation by violent means,” Engineer said.

It is believed that the divide within the RSS family may deepen even further.

Analysts believe that Hindu nationalism is losing relevance in national politics, as was evident in the two successive defeats of the BJP in the 2004 and 2009 general elections. Consequently, the RSS and the BJP may distance themselves from the hard-line ideology or make it sound more inclusive and less militant.

After this year’s elections, the RSS increasingly has begun to talk about the threat China poses to India and the need for development in rural areas, instead of its pet issues like Islamist terrorism and Christian conversions. This has disappointed sections of the highly charged cadres even more, and the splintering may accelerate.

For the next few years, “we will see more new names and new faces but with the same ideology and inspiration,” said Anwar Rajan, secretary of the PUCL in Pune.

Whether the new groups truly have no connection with the RSS is not fully known – that appearance may be an RSS strategy to evade legal action, said Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer, chairman of the Centre for Study of Society and Secularism in Mumbai.

He said relations between the RSS and the new groups can be compared with the ones between Maoist (extreme Marxist) rebels and the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) in India. While the CPI-M distances itself from Maoist violence, it speaks for the rebels whenever security forces crack down on them.

At base, the newer rightwing groups surely have the sympathy of the RSS, said Pune-based S.M. Mushrif, former Inspector General of Police in Maharashtra, who has been observing Hindu extremist groups for years.

Report from Compass Direct News 


Islamic-based legislation may be a key issue in this year’s elections.

DUBLIN, February 2 (Compass Direct News) – As candidates hit the campaign trail in preparation for Indonesia’s presidential election in July, rights groups have voiced strong opposition to an increasing number of sharia-inspired laws introduced by local governments. They say the laws discriminate against religious minorities and violate Indonesia’s policy of Pancasila, or “unity in diversity.”

With legislative elections coming in April and President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono likely to form a coalition with several Islamic parties for the July presidential election, such laws could become a key campaign issue.

Although Aceh is the only province completely governed by sharia (Islamic law), more than 50 regencies in 16 of 32 provinces throughout Indonesia have passed laws influenced by sharia. These laws became possible following the enactment of the Regional Autonomy Law in 2000.

The form of these laws varies widely. Legislation in Padang, West Sumatra, requires both Muslim and non-Muslim women to wear headscarves, while a law in Tangerang allows women found “loitering” alone on the street after 10 p.m. to be arrested and charged with prostitution. Other laws include stipulations for Quran literacy among schoolchildren and severe punishment for adultery, alcoholism and gambling.

“Generally the legal system regulates and guarantees religious freedom of Indonesian citizens … but in reality, discrimination prevails,” a lawyer from the legal firm Eleonora and Partners told Compass.

Some regencies have adopted sharia in a way that further marginalizes minority groups, according to Syafi’I Anwar, executive director of the International Center for Islam and Pluralism.

“For instance, the Padang administration issued a law requiring all schoolgirls, regardless of their religion, to wear the headscarf,” he told the International Herald Tribune. This is unacceptable because it is not in line with the pluralism that the constitution recognizes.”

Freedom of religion is guaranteed by Article 29 of the country’s constitution, he added. “Therefore the government must assist all religious communities to practice their beliefs as freely as possible and take actions against those who violate that right.”

While Indonesia’s largest Muslim group, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), has publicly denounced the implementation of such laws, other groups actively support them. The Committee for the Implementation and Maintenance of Islamic Law (KPPSI) has held several congresses in Makassar, South Sulawesi with the goal of passing sharia-inspired legislation and obtaining special autonomy for the province, similar to that in Aceh.

KPPSI has also encouraged members to vote for politicians who share their goals, according to local news agency Komintra.


‘Threatening’ Decision

In February of last year, Home Affairs Minister Mardiyanto declared that the government saw no need to nullify some 600 sharia-inspired laws passed by local governments. His announcement came after a group of lawyers in June 2007 urged the government to address laws that discriminated against non-Muslims.

Moderates were alarmed at Mardiyanto’s decision, fearing it would encourage other jurisdictions to pass similar laws. Last August, Dr. Mohammad Mahfud, newly re-elected as head of the Constitutional Court, slammed regional administrations for enacting sharia-inspired laws.

“[These] laws are not constitutionally or legally correct because, territorially and ideologically, they threaten our national integrity,” he told top military officers attending a training program on human rights, according to The Jakarta Post.

Mahfud contended that if Indonesia allowed sharia-based laws, “then Bali can pass a Hindu bylaw, or North Sulawesi can have a Christian ordinance. If each area fights for a religious-based ordinance, then we face a national integration problem.” According to Mahfud, sharia-based laws would promote religious intolerance and leave minority religious groups without adequate legal protection.

Under the 2000 Regional Autonomy Law, the central government has the power to block provincial laws but showed little willingness to do so until recently when, bowing to pressure from advocacy groups, it pledged to review 37 sharia-based ordinances deemed discriminatory and at odds with the constitution.

Such reviews are politically sensitive and must be done on sound legal grounds, according to Ridarson Galingging, a law lecturer in Jakarta.

“Advocates of sharia-based laws will stress the divine origin of sharia and resist challenges [that are] based on constitutional or human rights limits,” he told The Jakarta Post. “They maintain that sharia is authorized directly by God, and political opposition is viewed as apostasy or blasphemy.”


Empowering Vigilantes

A national, sharia-inspired bill regulating images or actions deemed pornographic sparked outrage when presented for a final vote in October last year. One fifth of the parliamentarians present walked out in protest, leaving the remainder to vote in favor of the legislation.

The bill provided for up to 15 years of prison and a maximum fine of US$1.5 million for offenders.

“This law will only empower vigilante groups like the Islamic Defender’s Front (FPI),” Eva Sundari, a member of the Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP) told reporters. FPI is widely-regarded as a self-appointed moral vigilante group, often raiding bars and nightclubs, but also responsible for multiple attacks on churches.

“Many of the members are preparing for elections and looking for support among the Islamic community,” she added. “Now they can point to this law as evidence that they support Islamic values.”

Although several Golkar Party politicians support sharia-based laws, senior Golkar Party member Theo Sambuaga has criticized politicians for endorsing such legislation to win support from Muslim voters. Several major parties openly back sharia laws, including the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), the United Development Party, and the Crescent Star party.


Key Election Issue

Sharia-based laws may become an even hotter election issue this year as a change to the voting system means more weight will be given to provincial candidates.

Political analysts believe Yudhoyono must form a coalition with most if not all of the country’s Islamic parties in order to win a majority vote against the Golkar party, allied for this election with former president Megawati Sukarnoputri’s PDIP.

The coalition Yudhoyono could form, however, likely would come with strings attached. As Elizabeth Kendal of the World Evangelical Alliance wrote in September 2008, “The more the president needs the Islamists, the more they can demand of him.”

In 2004, Yudhoyono partnered with the NU-sponsored National Awakening Party, the National Mandate Party (founded by the Islamic purist organization Muhammadiyah) and the PKS to achieve his majority vote. Analysts predict PKS will again be a key player in this election.

Few realize, however, that PKS draws its ideology from the Muslim Brotherhood, a group formed in Egypt in 1928 with a firm belief in Islamic world dominance. Crushed by the Egyptian government in the 1960s, members of the Brotherhood fled to Saudi Arabia, where they taught in the nation’s universities – influencing the future founders of Al Qaeda, Hamas, and Sudan’s National Islamic Front.

The Brotherhood took root at a university in Bandung, West Java in the 1970s in the form of Tarbiyah, a secretive student movement that eventually morphed into the Justice Party (JP) in 1998. Winning few votes, JP allied itself with a second party to form the PKS prior to the 2004 elections.

Since then, PKS has gained widespread support and a solid reputation for integrity and commitment to Islamic values. Simultaneously, however, PKS leaders are vocal supporters of Abu Bakar Ba’asyir, leader of the terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah (JI).

Sadanand Dhume, writing in the Far Eastern Economic Review, says the two organizations have much in common. In its founding manifesto, PKS calls for the creation of an Islamic caliphate. Unlike JI, however, “the party can use its position in Parliament and its … network of cadres to advance the same goals incrementally, one victory at a time.”  

Report from Compass Direct News


Draft ‘Bill for the Prohibition of Forcible Conversions’ enters final phase.

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka, January 26 (Compass Direct News) – The Sri Lankan Parliament may soon enact laws designed to restrict religious conversions.

A standing committee assigned to consider a draft “Bill for the Prohibition of Forcible Conversions” presented its report to Parliament on Jan. 6, suggesting minor amendments that clear the way for a final vote in February. The provisions of the bill criminalize any act to convert or attempt to convert a person from one religion to another religion by the use of force, fraud or allurement. Those found guilty of breaking the law could be imprisoned for up to seven years and/or fined up to 500,000 rupees (US$4,425).

The Ven. Omalpe Sobitha Thero, a member of the Buddhist Jathika Hela Urumaya party (JHU or National Heritage Party), first proposed the draft in 2004. While the JHU claims the bill is designed to stop unethical conversions, civil rights groups and Christian churches say it will infringe on the constitutional rights of freedom of religion and legitimize harassment of religious minorities.

Buddhists form a 70 percent majority in Sri Lanka, with Roman Catholics constituting 7 percent and Protestant Christians only 1 percent of the population.

After the first reading of the bill in Parliament in August 2004, 22 petitions were filed in the Supreme Court challenging the validity of the draft legislation.

The Supreme Court determined the draft bill to be valid except for clauses 3 and 4(b), which it deemed unconstitutional. These clauses required any person who converted or participated in a religious conversion ceremony to report to a government official and prescribed punishment for failure to report such conversions.

The draft was then referred to a parliamentary standing committee for further review. In its report, presented to the House on Jan. 6, the committee made a few amendments to the original draft in keeping with Supreme Court recommendations. The most notable amendment was the deletion of the need to report conversions and the punishment prescribed for not reporting them.

These amendments paved the way for the draft bill to be passed by a simple majority vote when it is presented for a final reading in Parliament this February.

Chief Opposition Whip Joseph Michael Perera, however, has requested a two-day debate on the draft bill on grounds that it would affect all religions.


Fulfilling Campaign Promises

The JHU, founded and led by Buddhist clergymen, made anti-conversion legislation a cornerstone of its debut election campaign in 2004, when it won nine seats in Parliament. With the possibility of an early general election this year, the bill has become a matter of political survival for the JHU.

At a press briefing on Jan. 7, Ven. Ellawela Medhananda Thero, a Buddhist monk and Member of Parliament representing the JHU, called on all political parties to vote in favor of the bill.

“People expected us to fulfill two goals,” he said. “One was to end unethical conversions and the other was to liberate the country from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. That is why we entered politics.”

Ven. Medhananda Thero added that the purpose of the bill was to protect all major religions in the country from fundamentalists and unethical conversions.

Sri Lanka’s Christian community and civil rights groups have strongly objected to the draft legislation. Far from stemming alleged forced conversions, they claim the bill will become a weapon of harassment through misapplication, limiting the fundamental rights of thought, conscience and religion. These rights include the right to adopt a religion and the right to practice, observe and teach religion.

The National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL) said in a recent press statement that, “It is our gravest concern that this bill will grant legal sanction for the harassment of religious communities or individuals, and offer convenient tools of harassment for settling personal disputes and grudges, totally unrelated to acts of alleged ‘forced’ conversion.”


Banning Compassion

According to Section 2 of the draft bill, the offer of any temptation such as a gift, cash or any other gratification to convert or attempt to convert a person from one religion to another is punishable with up to seven years of prison and a maximum fine of 500,000 rupees (US$4,425) – equal to approximately three years’ wages for the average Sri Lankan citizen.

Sri Lankan Christians have repeatedly expressed concern that key sections of the draft bill are open to wide and subjective interpretation that could criminalize not only legitimate religious activity but also legitimate social action by faith-based organizations or individuals.

“A lady who heads a charitable trust caring for orphans asked if she could be charged under this law, since she is a Christian and some of the children she cares for are not,” a lawyer told Compass. “Many people will now think twice before helping the poor or needy, for fear of being accused of committing a criminal act.”

Ironically, on June 4, 2008, in his address to the new Sri Lankan ambassador to the Holy See, Pope Benedict XVI had acknowledged the Sri Lankan government’s appreciation of the Catholic Church’s charity work in the country.

“Such action is a concrete example of the Church’s willing and prompt response to the mission she has received to serve those most in need,” he said. “I commend any future measures which will help guarantee that Catholic hospitals, schools and charitable agencies can continue to care for the sick, the young and the vulnerable regardless of ethnic or religious background.”

He went on to assure the government that “the Church will continue in her efforts to reach out with compassion to all.”

On Jan. 8, at his traditional New Year meeting with all ambassadors to the Holy See, the pope appeared to be addressing concerns over anti-conversion legislation.

“The Church does not demand privileges, but the full application of the principle of religious freedom,” he said. He also called on Asian governments to ensure that “legislation concerning religious communities guarantees the full exercise of this fundamental right, with respect for international norms.”

Since the first draft anti-conversion bill was presented to Parliament in 2004, the National Christian Council of Sri Lanka, NCEASL and Catholic Bishops Conference of Sri Lanka have repeatedly called for an alternative solution based on inter-faith dialogue with fair representation of all religious communities.

“Enactment of laws to regulate something as intrinsically personal as spiritual beliefs will not contribute towards resolving disagreements and promoting religious harmony,” said Godfrey Yogarajah, executive director of the World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty Commission. “On the contrary, it will create mistrust and animosity.”  

Report from Compass Direct News