Beleaguered minority has much to lose, gain in polls.

NEW DELHI, May 1 (Compass Direct News) – With elections underway in India, its 2.3 percent Christian minority – which faced a deadly spate of attacks in the eastern state of Orissa last year – is praying for a secular party to come to power.

Along with the Muslim community, Christians fear that if the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies form the next government or an ideologically loose coalition comes to the helm, their already compromised welfare may further deteriorate.

Dr. John Dayal, secretary general of the All India Christian Council, said that the end of the Congress Party’s monopoly on power in the 1990s led to the rise of several major individual groups, including the BJP, political wing of the Hindu extremist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) conglomerate.

“The rise of regional and linguistic or caste-based parties spells a danger for pan-national minorities, as parties with a narrow and localized outlook will have neither the strength nor the political need to come to their defense,” Dayal told Compass. “What is at stake now, as never before, is the stability and consistency of India’s constitutional institutions in their response to critical situations, their zeal to correct wrongs and their commitment to the welfare of the weakest and the lowest.”

Religious minorities, Dayal said, were hoping for a strong showing by a secular party, “possibly the Congress [Party],” supported by regional groups of a secular character.

“Personally, I would even welcome a Third Front [a grouping of anti-Congress Party and anti-BJP parties led by the Communist Party of India-Marxist] government supported by the Congress Party,” he added. “Certainly, a BJP-led government is the least desirable, as we fear major erosion and even regression in issues of freedom of faith, Dalit liberation and affirmative action for the poor.”

With the BJP in power, directly or as part of the ruling alliance, in 10 states – Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, and Punjab in the north; Chhattisgarh and Bihar in the east; Gujarat in the west; Nagaland and Meghalaya in the northeast; and Karnataka in the south – he said Christians believe it is important that a strong, secular government comes into power at the federal level.

The federal government can issue warnings and ultimately dismiss state legislatures and state executives if they fail to protect the lives of their people or major unrest erupts. The federal government can also make laws applicable across the nation.

The BJP-ruled states have become “absolutely inhospitable” and “hostile” to Christians thanks to the “inaction of the federal government,” said Sajan K. George, national president of the Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC).


Orissa, Andhra Pradesh

The eyes of Christians are also on state assembly elections in Orissa state.

Orissa is ruled by the Biju Janata Dal (BJD), which on March 7 broke its 11-year-old alliance with the BJP over the latter’s involvement in Kandhamal district violence. Elections in Orissa, held on April 16 and 23, are particularly important given that the results will either embolden Hindu nationalists to launch more attacks to polarize voters along religious lines or compel them to abstain from violence.

In December 2007, a series of brutal attacks began in Kandhamal. The violence that lasted for around 10 days killed at least four Christians and burned 730 houses and 95 churches under the pretext of avenging an alleged attack on Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati, a leader of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council).

Violence re-erupted in the district following the killing of Saraswati on August 23, 2008. A Maoist group took responsibility for the murder, but BJP supporters claimed that Christians were behind the assassination.

The BJP has made the killing of Saraswati its main election plank. The party’s two candidates from Kandhamal – Manoj Pradhan for the G. Udaygiri assembly seat and Ashok Sahu for the Kandhamal parliamentary constituency – contested the elections from jail. Pradhan, a primary suspect in the August-September 2008 violence, has been in jail for the last few months. Sahu, a former senior police official, was arrested on April 14 for delivering a hate speech against Christians in the run-up to elections. He was released on bail on April 17.

In its election campaign, the BJD promised to provide protection to the Christian community in Kandhamal and elsewhere in the state, putting the blame of the Kandhamal violence entirely on the BJP.

“It was important to break up with the BJP because I don’t consider them healthy any longer for my state after Kandhamal – which I think is very apparent to everyone,” Orissa Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik told CNN-IBN on April 19. “Before Kandhamal, we were lucky in the early years of the state government not to have a serious communal problem at all. But Kandhamal was very tragic and serious.”

According to the CNN-IBN private news channel, the Congress Party could benefit from the divorce of the BJD and the BJP. Nevertheless, the BJD is expected to form the next state government in Orissa.

The Congress Party, on the other hand, blamed both the BJD and the BJP for last year’s violence.

Elections in Kandhamal took place despite the fact that over 3,000 Christians were still in relief camps and hundreds of others had fled to others parts of the state fearing more tensions. Father Ajay Kumar Singh of the Catholic Archdiocese of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar reached Kandhamal from the neighboring Gajapati district early on April 16, election day.

“Along the way, we came across numerous felled trees blocking the road in at least six places,” Fr. Singh told Compass. “The roads were deserted, and my colleagues and I were scared. But we somehow managed to reach Kandhamal.”

He added that in Dharampur in Raikia Block and in Kattingia near Tiangia in G. Udaygiri Block – where eight Christians were killed during last year’s violence – Christians were threatened if they did not vote for the BJP.

In Nilungia village, seven kilometers (four miles) from G. Udaygiri, where a Christian was killed, at least 40 Christians did not cast their votes out of fear of a backlash, Fr. Singh said.

“They feared tensions if they returned to their village and stayed out of the district,” he said.

The Catholic Church in Orissa had urged the Election Commission of India to postpone elections in Kandhamal, but polls were held as scheduled.

According to the district administration, the poll turnout on April 16 in Kandhamal was around 55 percent.

The violence following Saraswati’s murder lasted for over a month, killing more than 127 people and destroying 315 villages, 4,640 houses, 252 churches and 13 educational institutions, besides rendering more than 50,000 homeless.

The incidence of Christian persecution is high in Andhra Pradesh, too. Analysts anticipate a neck-to-neck competition between the ruling Congress Party and the regional Telugu Desam Party (TDP), which recently allied with Left parties in the Third Front. The BJP is also in the fray but doesn’t appear strong enough to stake claim to power in the state.


Obscure Prognosis

With election results not due until May 16, the outlook at this point is murky.

“About all that can be said with certainty in the resulting alphabet soup of political parties is that the BJP won’t be aligning with Congress, or with the Left. Beyond that it’s a numbers game,” The Times of India noted in an editorial today. “Most observers agree that alignments determining who will form the next government will be decided only after the elections.”

The national daily added, “As India’s long, hot election summer grinds on, with the third phase held yesterday and the fifth and final phase not scheduled before the 13th of this month, it’s regrettable that no overarching themes have emerged even at this late stage, which can define the election.”

With 714 million eligible voters of the more than 1 billion people in the country, the five-phase elections for the 15th Lok Sabha (Lower House of Parliament) and for the state assemblies of Orissa, Andhra Pradesh and the north-eastern state of Sikkim began on April 16.

The three main parties are the left-of-center Congress Party (officially known as the Indian National Congress), which leads the governing United Progressive Alliance (UPA); the Hindu nationalist BJP, a leading party of the opposition National Democratic Alliance (NDA); and the Third Front.

A party and its allies need 272 members to rule in the 545-member Lok Sabha.


Expediency over Ideology

The regional and caste parties involved include the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), headed by Dalit (formerly “untouchable”) woman Mayawati, chief minister of Uttar Pradesh state in the north; and the Samajwadi Party (SP), also a powerful party in that state.

Other significant parties are the Janata Dal-United (JD-U) party and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) party in the eastern state of Bihar; the BJD in Orissa; the Trinamool Congress party in the eastern state of West Bengal; the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the Shiv Sena party in the western state of Maharashtra; the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) party and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) party in the southern state of Tamil Nadu; the TDP and Telangana Rashtriya Samiti (TRS) party in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, and the Janata Dal-Secular (JD-S) party in the southern state of Karnataka.

The Congress Party is hoping that it will be supported by the SP, the RJD, the Trinamool Congress party, the NCP, the DMK, and the TRS in case it emerges as the single-largest party post-elections. The JD-U, the Shiv Sena and the AIADMK, on the other hand, are likely to extend their support to the BJP-led NDA. The BSP, the BJD, the TDP, and the JD-S are expected to join the Third Front.

Most of these smaller parties, however, are keeping their options open and will formally declare their allegiances only after the results are announced on May 16.


Decade of Persecution

The concern of Indian Christians can be understood against the backdrop of the decade since 1998, when the BJP, under the aegis of the NDA, came into power at the federal level, marking the beginning of systematic persecution of Christians.

In January 1999, an Australian missionary, Graham Staines, and his two young sons were burned alive in Orissa’s Keonjhar district. From 2000 to 2004, around 200 anti-Christian attacks were reported each year from various parts of the nations. In March 2004, India’s second massive spate of anti-Christian attacks took place in the Jhabua district of the central state of Madhya Pradesh.

The incidence of persecution remained high despite the change of the federal government in mid-2004 – after the Congress Party-led UPA defeated the BJP-led NDA.

At least 165 anti-Christian attacks were reported in 2005, and over 130 in 2006. Including the Orissa attacks, the total number of violent anti-Christian incidents rose to over 1,000 in 2007. And 2008 turned out to be the worst year for the Christians as violence returned in Kandhamal.

“The results of the elections on May 16 will show whether the ideology of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the father of the nation who promoted communal harmony, will prevail in India, or that of his killer Nathuram Godse, allegedly a member of the RSS,” said George of the GCIC.

Report from Compass Direct News


Suspecting cover-up, Communist investigators say 500 people may have been killed.

NEW DELHI, November 5 (Compass Direct News) – Terrified Christians already ravaged by more than two months of violence in Orissa state’s Kandhamal district braced for more carnage as suspected Maoists today gunned down a local worker of the Hindu extremist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).

Dhanu Pradhan was an RSS activist said to be on the Maoists’ hit list. Police said he was shot by three suspected Maoists in Kumharigaon village under Brahmanigaon jurisdiction in Kandhamal at 1 p.m., reported The Indian Express. Modern India’s worst-ever spate of violence began in the forest district of Kandhamal on Aug. 24, a day after a leader of the Hindu extremist Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP), Laxmanananda Saraswati, was killed.

Although a Maoist group admitted killing Saraswati and four of his aides, the VHP blamed local Christians for the assassinations. The wave of violent attacks carried on unabated for more than two months, destroying at least 4,500 houses and churches in the district.

More than 500 people, mostly Christian, might have been killed in the past few months’ violence in Kandhamal district, according to a report by a Communist Party fact-finding team. The report also suggested that the state government downplayed and covered up evidence of unreported deaths.

“The official figure for deaths has been reported to be 31, however, a senior government official on the condition of anonymity informed that he himself consigned two hundred dead bodies – found from the jungle – to flames after getting them collected in a tractor,” said the report by the Communist Party of India-Marxist-Leninist (CPI-ML).

The unnamed official estimated that, based on the intensity and pace of killings, the number of those killed was more than 500, according to the report. The fact-finding team visited Kandhamal district on Oct. 15-16 and published its report in the Oct. 27 issue of the party’s official publication, Liberation.

The report, signed by CPI-ML member J.P. Minz, also said that Hindu extremists might have used state government machinery to “minimize the evidence and possibly destroy dead bodies.”

Dr. John Dayal, a member of the National Integration Council of the Government of India, told Compass the report was startling but not surprising.

“I have been tabulating the data from independent church groups,” he said. “Even the Bishop’s House in Bhubaneswar has maintained that tens of thousands of refugees are hiding in forests, many of them with injuries of various degrees of grievousness.”

Dayal said that people must have been killed in the forests. “Even in villages, bodies have been discovered in neighboring fields,” he added.

The fact-finding team reported that the numerous attacks, acts of vandalism and killings took place “in full view of police, and the police remained mute spectators.” At least 200 Christian villages and 127 church and prayer halls were either destroyed or burned, it added.

Victims in numerous relief camps told the fact-finding team that the VHP and its youth wing, Bajrang Dal, were responsible for the tensions and violence.

“They used to organize meetings of the Kandha tribals and incite them to attack the Christian hamlets and also provided funds for doing this,” the report said.

Dayal said the Supreme Court of India should act on the report’s findings.


‘Great Terror’

The CPI-ML reported that Christians continued to experience “great terror,” and that Hindu nationalist groups were demanding the withdrawal of security personnel sent by the federal government to contain the violence.

“Riot victims are frightened to go back to their villages because they have been threatened that if they return they will be cut into pieces,” said the report. “The rioters are also proclaiming that only Hindu converts will be allowed to return. On the other hand, those in charge of the relief camps are pressuring the riot victims to return to their villages, saying that the life has returned to normalcy and peace has returned.”

The Indian Express yesterday reported that about 250 riot victims who had taken shelter in the Meliaputti and Mandasa areas of Srikakulam district in neighboring Andhra Pradesh state were refusing to go back to their villages “out of fear.”

“As many as 109 persons of 35 families of Sarlaguda, Raikia, Nuagaon, Baliguda, Bataguda, Barkhama, G. Udaygiri, Tikabali and Suraballi areas have been residing at Sourakaligam village of Meliaputti area, Andhra Pradesh, since the Kandhamal violence,” said the newspaper, adding that 140 others had taken shelter in Kumudhisingi village of the Mandasa area.

There are 12,641 violence-affected people in seven relief camps in Kandhamal, according to the district authorities.


Violence in Another District

The violence in Kandhamal has led to tensions in several other districts of Orissa. Yesterday a mob of around 400 people surrounded and beat five Christian men in the Bindha area of Bhadrak district’s Tihidi Block, according to the Christian Legal Association.

The incident took place when five men and two women, all staff of the Discipleship Centre, were returning from a few villages where that Christian organization has projects. A cyclist suddenly appeared before them and had an accident, incurring minor injuries. Soon a mob of about 300 people gathered and began beating the men, accusing them of converting Hindus, as if such activity were illegal in India.

The mob dragged the Christians to a Hindu nationalist rally where slogans against them were chanted. Police arrived and took the Christians to a police station, charging them under laws against forcible or fraudulent conversion. The seven Christians remained in jail at press time.

Police also filed a counter-complaint against the attackers, but no one was arrested at press time.


Nun’s Rape Case

In the case of a Catholic nun raped on Aug. 25 during the initial violence, the Kandhamal district court today issued a notice summoning her to appear for identification of the culprits, reported the Press Trust of India news agency.

The victim, who said she was raped in K. Nuagaon in Baliguda, had refused to cooperate with police, demanding that a federal agency investigate her case. On Oct. 24, she appeared before media and blamed police for not coming to her rescue. She said she was raped while police did nothing, and that later she saw a policeman talking congenially to one of the rapists.

Previously she had filed a complaint at the Baliguda police station, but officers did not make any arrests until a national newspaper, The Hindu, highlighted the case on Sept. 30. When the nun initially went to the police station to file her complaint, an officer had warned her of possible negative consequences of doing so.


One-Man Investigation

While Christians are demanding that a federal agency take over investigation of the violence in Orissa, the state government has appointed a one-man panel, the Justice S.C. Mohapatra judicial commission, to carry out the probe.

The commission placed an advertisement in a local newspaper, Sambad, on Nov. 3 seeking affidavits of victims by Nov. 15. It also said that people could appear before the commission on Nov. 28 in its office in Bhubaneswar, the state capital.

The commission will analyze the sequence of events and circumstances leading to the killing of Saraswati on Aug. 23 and the subsequent violence. It will also probe the role, conduct and responsibility of individuals, organizations, groups and agencies in precipitating and committing the crimes and investigate whether the measures that followed were adequate.

Mohapatra is a retired judge of the Orissa High Court.

Orissa is ruled by a coalition of a local party, the Biju Janata Dal, and the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, which has close ties with the VHP.

Report from Compass Direct News


Rampaging Hindu extremists kill four more Christians today.

NEW DELHI, August 26 (Compass Direct News) – At least 18 people are confirmed dead in 92 incidents of violence against Christians since suspected Maoists murdered Hindu leader Swamiji Laxmanananda Saraswati and four others on Saturday (Aug. 23) in Orissa state.

With Hindu extremists inciting hatred by heated accusations that Christians killed Saraswati, the national newspaper Hindu reported today that nine people had been killed in Orissa violence, and a Compass source near the state capital of Bhubaneswar confirmed an additional nine people slain.

The death count by the Hindu included four people killed in the Barakhama area. News agencies had earlier confirmed three dead in Raikia and two others, including a woman, killed in Bargarh, where a missionary-run orphanage was set on fire yesterday. The figure of 92 incidents thus far comes from the Global Council of Indian Christians.

Additionally, the Compass source said that Hindu extremists today killed pastor Samuel Naik of the Bakingia Seventh-Day Adventist Church at Kandhamal, and Jacob Digal and Gopan Naik of Damba village were slain this morning. Also killed today was Golok Naik of Pidinanju village (under Mondakia police station), and yesterday pastor Mukunda Bardhan from Mukundapur, Gajapati was burned to death.

Three other people whose names have not yet been verified, said the source, were killed in Katingia village of G. Udaygiri, along with a pastor belonging to Operation Mobilization from the same area. In Badimunda, about 12 kilometers (seven miles) from G. Udaygiri, nearly 25 Christian homes were burned down.

There were many reports of Christians being pulled from their homes and killed or beaten, with many homes of Christians torched in Baliguda. According to reports by the Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI), the East India office of Compassion International in Bhubaneswar was ransacked.

Saraswati and four others were killed by suspected Maoists in the swami’s ashram, or religious center, in the Jalespata area of Kandhamal district’s Tumudiband Block in Orissa state. A warning letter found at the Saraswati religious center and use of expensive arms suggested Maoists were behind the attack.

In a state with a strong Maoist presence, police reportedly said they have evidence to link the communist rebels to the murders of Saraswati and his four associates. One police theory is that Maoists would attack Hindu leaders in a misguided effort to gain support among area tribal people, many of whom have converted to Christianity.

On Sunday (Aug. 24) the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a partner in the state’s ruling coalition, and the Hindu extremist Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP) called for 12-hour a shut-down in which inflammatory speeches were made accusing Christians of killing Saraswati.


Authorities in Denial

Orissa Police Chief Gopal Chandra Nanda downplayed the violence, telling Reuters that incidents were only “sporadic” and that “some prayer houses have been attacked and vehicles have been burnt.”

Likewise, local authorities and media have painted the shutdown as “peaceful,” denying that organized attacks took place. The state is ruled by a coalition of the BJP and the Biju Janata Dal party.

At the same time, Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) extremists have continued to incite hatred against Christians and criticized the local government. VHP Secretary General Pravin Tagodia accused the state government of Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik of acting like a “eunuch” and demanded his apology for the killing of Saraswati and his companions.

“Christians murdered Swamiji, but the government is lying and giving it a Maoist color,” Tagodia said. “Naveen as an individual and police, in particular, are responsible for this attack orchestrated by the church on Hindu dharma.’’

At the same time, a senior leader from Christian relief and development organization World Vision told Compass that a news report about the arrest of their staff members in connection with Saraswati’s killing was false. The police had merely kept two of their employees for protection, he said.

“No complaint had been lodged against them,” he said. “The employees have safely reached their homes.”


Widespread Violence

Sources from Kandhamal district said hundreds of Christians along with their families have fled to the nearby forests to save their lives in the rainy climate and are without shelter, food and clothing.

“Three adults and one child were reportedly killed in fresh violence in Barakhama, Kandhamal,” EFI News reported.

At least 14 Christians have been killed in Kandhamal, according to the news agency: Hacked to death by a rampaging mob of Hindu extremists were two Christians in Mutungia village, one in Petaponga village, one in Borimunda village, three in Katinga village, three in Tianga village, three in Adikuppa village and one in Bakingia village.

According to reports received from Kalahandi district, many incidents of violence and house burning have taken place even though it is more than 300 kilometers (186 miles) from the place where Saraswati was killed.

Christian sources said pastor Sikandar Singh of the Pentecostal Mission was beaten and his house was burned in Bhawanipatna. In Kharihar, three Christian shops were looted and burned. Pastor Alok Das was beaten at Kharihar, as was pastor I.M. Senapati. In Aampani, pastor David Diamond Pahar was beaten by more than 200 people. They chased him away from Aampani, and he is hiding in nearby villages.

Pastor Pravin Ship and two other area pastor identified only as Pradhan and Barik were beaten and chased away with their families. In Naktikani, an angry mob surrounded the village to attack Christians. The government sent forces to try to control the mob but without success.


Christian Pleas

A delegation of Christian leaders in New Delhi met with Home Minister Shivraj Patil to brief him of the situation and to register their concern. Patil assured the Christian delegation, including the Rev. Dr. Richard Howell, general secretary of EFI, and Father Babu Joseph, spokesperson of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India of the central government’s support in curbing violence against Christians in the state.

Another delegation led by Orissa state Christian leaders met Gov. Rameshwar Thakur with the same objectives. The Rt. Rev. Samson Das and attorney Bibhu Dutta Das were also among those who met with the Orissa governor today.

In Kolkata, the All-India Minority Forum today condemned the attack on churches in Orissa and demanded the resignation of Chief Minister Patnaik for his “failure” to protect religious minorities in his state.

“We condemn in unequivocal terms the incident of burning alive people who belong to the Christian community by Vishwa Hindu Parishad activists, and armed attacks on churches in Orissa,” Forum President Idris Ali said.

‘Kill Christians’

The violence has spread even though church leaders across the country condemned the Hindu priest’s killing and appealed for peace.

The VHP and its allies had called for a 12-hour shutdown to protest the killing of the swami, and Christian leaders expected Hindu mobs would use it to mobilize strikes at the Christian community.

“But what has taken place has even surpassed what we expected,” said one pastor who wished to remain anonymous.

Hindu extremists paraded the body of Saraswati throughout nearby villages, whipping up anger and mobilizing crowds against Christians, in uncontested defiance of a Kandhamal district administration prohibition against the gathering of four or more people. Among the slogans shouted was, “Kill Christians and destroy their institutions.”

In spite of an Orissa state-imposed curfew, crowds violated restrictions and proceeded to attack Christian communities throughout the state. Compass has received reports that the violence has spread to the districts of Gajapati, Phulbani, Nuaparha, Kalahandi, Rayagada and Koraput.

The Orissa Legislative Assembly was disturbed for the second consecutive day at the various calls for the resignation of Chief Minister Patnaik.

Christians make up 2.4 percent of Orissa’s population, or 897,861 of the total 36.7 million people.  

Report from Compass Direct News