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 


Hindu extremists move to stop yuletide celebrations as suffering in Kandhamal continues.

NEW DELHI, December 3 (Compass Direct News) – Christians in Orissa state are anticipating Christmas with fear as Hindu extremists have called for a state-wide bandh, or forced shut-down on all sectors of society, on Dec. 25 – a move that could provide Hindu extremists the pretext for attacking anyone publicly celebrating the birth of Christ.

Last year one of the area’s worst spates of violence came during the Christmas season.

The state’s chief minister has said there should be no such shut-down but stopped short of prohibiting the Hindu extremists’ plan. The federal government has expressed its disapproval of the proposal, but the Hindu extremist umbrella organization Sangh Parivar has vowed to press ahead with the shut-down, reported newspaper Outlook India on Nov. 20.

Though such shut-downs were declared illegal by India’s Supreme Court in 1998, the president of the Laxmanananda Saraswati Condolence Society (SLSSS) sent a threatening notice to the Orissa government on Nov. 15, warning that the Hindu extremist group would impose a bandh on Christmas unless the state government arrested those who murdered Hindu leader Laxmanananda Sararawati on Aug. 23.

A Maoist group on Sept. 1 admitted killing Saraswati and four of his aides, and police on Oct. 6 confirmed that Maoists killed them, but the Hindu extremist Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP) has continued to blame local Christians for the assassinations, stoking anti-Christian sentiment that led to a wave of violent attacks for more than two months. At least 500 people, mostly Christians, were estimated to have been killed, according to a report by a Communist Party fact-finding team, and at least 4,500 houses and churches in Orissa’s Kandhamal district were destroyed.

Ratnakar Chaini, president of the SLSSS, has demanded the release of Hindu leaders arrested in connection with the killing of Christians in the violence following the assassination of Saraswati.

In a massive rally in Delhi on Nov. 15, Chaini called for the shut-down in order to ensure “a completely peaceful Christmas.”

The general secretary of the Christian Legal Association (CLA) took the Hindu extremist’s comment as sarcasm.

“How can they have a peaceful Christmas if there is a bandh?” Tehmina Arora told Compass. “There can be no celebration, no going out the house also. So there can be no question of peace.”

Inflammatory speeches at the rally by Chaini and other Hindu extremists against Christianity and its leaders in India led Christians to believe the shut-down would serve as the pretext for another spate of violence against those publicly celebrating the holiday.

The Hindu extremists’ rally also included pledges that all Christian converts would be “re-converted” to Hinduism.

“If Hindus decided to take on anyone to protect our religion and culture, then nothing can stop us,” Chaini said. “Unchecked conversions by churches would be opposed with tooth and nail.”

The Sangh Parivar, including the state unit of the VHP, said in a press statement that the government has been shielding those guilty of murdering Saraswati.


Prohibition Demanded

Archbishop of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar Raphael Cheenath told Compass that the intention of the Hindu nationalists in calling the shut-down was malicious and done for political advantage – a way of garnering tribal peoples’ support for Hindu nationalist candidates by setting up Christians as disobedient trouble-makers.

“If the government allows the bandh to take place on Christmas Day, it will mean that they are allowing more attacks and violence against the Christians,” said Archbishop Cheenath.

Violence has broken out against Christians on previous shut-downs in Kandhamal district.

“There is a great deal of apprehension, because it was on previous bandhs that there have been attacks against the Christian community,” said Arora of the CLA. “The district collector informed us that they were taking strong steps to ensure that the bandh would not be taking place. Unless the district collector and state administrator take serious steps to see that it is not enforced, it would again be a violent attack against the Christian community.”

Orissa church authorities headed by Archbishop Cheenath met a team of visiting government ministers on Nov. 19. Subsequently Christian leaders delivered a memorandum demanding the proposed shut-down be prohibited as illegal. The memorandum demanded the state punish the people and organizations involved in such activities.

The team of central government ministers visiting riot-hit areas on Nov. 19 advised the state chief minister to ensure that there be no shut-down on Christmas Day. Finding the Kandhamal situation tense and Christians fearful, the team leader, Union Agriculture Minister Sharah Pawar, said they requested Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik to see that the shut-down on Christmas Day does not take place.

“We don’t understand why Christmas was chosen for calling the bandh,” Pawar told Outlook India. “Agitation should not be allowed on major festival days like Diwali [a Hindu festival], Christmas and Chhath [a Muslim festival].”

Stating that the minority community is under tremendous pressure because of such a threat, Pawar reportedly said the need of the hour is to restore normalcy in the riot-affected areas.

“We have requested Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik to make efforts to stop such a bandh on Dec. 25, a major festival day,” Pawar told reporters after meeting with Patnaik.

Patnaik later said, “There should not be a bandh on Dec. 25,” but he made no appeal to the Sangh Parivar to refrain from the Christmas Day shut-down.

Church leaders also requested the ministers pressure the state government to put a halt to Hindu extremists forcing Christians, under threat of death, to convert to Hinduism. Christians are allowed to live in the district only if they became Hindu, they said.


Deaths Continue in Orissa

A Christian woman who had fled Hindu extremist violence was killed on Nov. 25 after leaving a relief camp to harvest her paddy.

Lalita Digal, 45, was murdered in Dobali village, Kandhamal district, where she was staying with a friend, reported the Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI). She had returned to the village on Nov. 21. On Nov. 25 she was allegedly dragged from the house and murdered. No arrest had been made at press time, according to EFI.

The state administration has forced people to leave relief camps even though they have no homes to return to, according to a local Christian body. Representatives of the Kandhamal Christian Jankalyan Samaj (KCJS) said at a press conference this week that threats continue from Hindu nationalists demanding that frightened Christians “re-convert” to Hinduism.

Conditions at the camps remain poor. At Daringbadi camp, Leunsio Digal died on Nov. 24 due to lack of proper medication, EFI reported. He had been suffering a fever for a week without access to medications to alleviate it. Digal had served as catechist for 25 years at Simonbadi parish, in the archdiocese of Cuttack- Bhubaneswar.

On Nov. 22, Orissa police fired at two Christians in Kandhamal’s border village of Kutunniganda, killing one and severely injuring another, according to the Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC).

Junesh Badaraita died on the spot. The injured Karnel Badaraita later told a television station that they were searching for lost cattle with a flashlight when police fired at them.

Police were combing the area in their hunt for a Naxalite (Maoists or Marxist-Leninist revolutionaries) Training Camp. Under Inspector-in-Charge Narbada Kiro, they reportedly fired at the two Christians from a distance of 350 meters.

Police claimed that the two Christians were Naxalites, though villagers refuted this assertion. In protest, the agitated villagers blocked a public road and kept government officials from arriving at their offices in the area.

At press time, the district administrator promised compensation to the family of the deceased and suspended the squad in charge, said the GCIC.  

Report from Compass Direct News


At least two killed today, another succumbed to axe injuries Wednesday; 400 houses burned.

NEW DELHI, October 3 (Compass Direct News) – At least two more Christians were killed today in Orissa state’s Kandhamal district after Hindu extremists this week set fire to nearly 400 homes there and in Boudh district. A third man succumbed to axe injuries on Wednesday (Oct. 1).

Weeks after Hindu extremist violence erupted against Christians, this morning tribal peoples in Sindhipankha village killed Dushashan Majhi, a local influential Christian, first shooting him and them cutting him to pieces. Local Christian leaders reported that Majhi was a government servant working in the treasury.

The mob then turned on Sanyasi Majhi, also said to be Christian, who was with Dushashan Majhi. There were unconfirmed reports that a third victim was killed along with the other two.

A local Christian who wished to remain unnamed told Compass that after killing the two men, the assailants massacred cattle belonging to village Christians and burned Christian-owned houses. Sindhipankha is about seven kilometers (four miles) from Tumudiband.

Local news reporter Lalit Jena told Compass from Kandhamal that the attacks – which have continued unabated since Hindu extremists blamed Christians for the death of Hindu leader Laxmanananda Saraswati on Aug. 23 even though Maoist militants admitted murdering him – involve women first ransacking the Christian homes.

“The modus operandi of the tribal mob is such that women go first and attack the Christian houses,” he said. “They ransack and rob the household’s gold and other jewelry, TVs and all that is precious. The men then follow and burn the houses. Lately it has been reported that now they are fighting among themselves for the booty.”

Jena added that tribal peoples who lived in poverty before the violence now have obtained many heads of cattle, including goats and cows, within a short span, as well as household goods.

“They may have no electricity in their villages, but one can see lots of television sets, nearly all of it looted from the Christians,” he said.


Axe Murder

On Wednesday (Oct. 1), Lalji Nayak, believed to be about 80 years old, died from axe wounds after a Hindu extremist mob attacked his village of Hrudangia the previous day. Nayak and 14 others were wounded, with Nayak struck between his neck and chest.

While three of the wounded received first-aid at a health center in Kandhamal, eight others, including Nayak and his wife Mandaki, were admitted to MKCG Medical College in Berhampur. At press time Nayak’s widow, who received an axe blow just below the ear, remained in the medical center with a serious head injury.

Local Christians in Berhampur wanted to give Lalji Nayak a Christian burial, but police did not allow it. Utkal Christian Council members B.D. Das and J.R. Patro expressed strong objections to the police action.

Nayak’s brother, Junas Nayak, was taken to Cuttack Medical College for gunshot wounds. He remained in critical condition at press time with multiple gunshot wounds, and according to Jena has a total of 13 bullets in him.

“Seven are on his left thigh, and six in his right hand, but the doctors have so far done nothing to remove them from his body, even though he has been admitted in the hospital since September 30,” Jena told Compass. “We are concerned that he may develop septic [shock or infection] because of the delay.”

In the attacks, an 8-year-old boy miraculously survived after being hit by an axe in the middle of his skull.

Two pregnant Christian women, Archana and Geeta Sahu, this week were brought from Kandhamal to Berhampur hospital, where they gave birth and were said to be out of danger.


Houses Burned

Nearly 400 houses were burned or destroyed in Orissa state’s Boudh and Kandhamal districts this week.

On Wednesday (Oct. 1), mobs set fire to dozens of houses in the Raikia area of the Kandhamal district. Yesterday the violence crossed over to neighboring Boudh district as about 100 houses were torched by mobs in at least nine villages. Worst affected was the village of Kantamal.

The burning of houses continued this morning, with more than 400 houses reported to have been either burnt or destroyed in Boudh and Kandhamal districts.

Police have reportedly arrested five people so far in connection with the burning of the houses in Boudh district.

Additional District Magistrate Mihir Chandra Mallik told reporters, that unidentified people set fire to over a hundred houses of Dalit Hindus in at least nine villages in Boudh district.

“We have set up a relief camp at Kantamal town to provide food and shelter to the people who have lost their homes,” he added.

The administration said that the motive for burning these houses was ethnic, as Kandh tribal peoples attacked Dalit Pana homes.

Area church leaders confirmed this, but one said on condition of anonymity, “First they were targeting Christian Panas only, but now even Hindu Panas are not being spared. All Hindus who have not joined the mobs in attacking Christians are also being treated in the same way as Christians.”

Both Dalit Pana houses as well as homes belonging to the Christian Pana community have been targeted in Boudh district, he said.

In Barakhama village near Kandhamal, Christians may move to the safer Daringbadi. A local pastor told Compass that Barakhama was also targeted last December, when around 400 homes belonging to Christians were burned and demolished.

“The same continues now,” he said on condition of anonymity. “The Christians love their homes, but it is just not safe to live here anymore, for the government has failed to protect us. The Christians in Barakhama have almost decided to move collectively to Daringbadi, which is at least a bit safer.”

It is estimated that around 500 Christian families will leave the village.


Nun Raped

Police have finally confirmed the rape of a nun in Kandhamal two days after the death of Hindu leader Saraswati.

A mob of around 40 men attacked the nun at K. Nuagaon village, where she and a priest, Father Thomas Chellantharayil, had taken shelter after their center was attacked. The mob allegedly dragged her and the priest to a deserted office of a Non-Governmental Organization, where she was stripped and raped. The priest was reportedly doused with gas and beaten as he tried to stop the attack on her.

Police have arrested four suspects in the rape. Juria Pradhan, 52, his 22-year-old son Kartik Pradhan, Biren Sahu, 35, and 26-year-old Tapas Patnaik were arrested in connection with the assault and rape of the 29-year-old Catholic nun on Aug. 25.

The inspector-in-charge of Baliguda police station has since been suspended in connection with the incident. The Orissa government has also ordered a probe, 39 days after the initial complaint.

District Superintendent of Police S. Praveen Kumar this week told reporters that a medical examination report confirmed that the nun was raped.

The Hindustan Times reported today that although the report was filed weeks ago, police obtained the medical examination report only two days ago following media reports and the efforts of Sister Nirmala, Superior-General of the Missionaries of Charity, who wrote to the state seeking justice.

“A police official said they were busy in maintaining law and order and could not find time to look into the case,” the national daily reported.


Attempts at Law and Order

Since Wednesday (Oct. 1), 46 people have been arrested on charges of rioting in Kandhamal district. A police official said that they had arrested more than 300 people in the past month.

Christian leaders attributed the sudden arrest of 46 people in the last two days to new state Director General of Police (DGP) Manmohan Praharaj, who took over from Gopal Chandra Nanda, who retired on Tuesday (Sept. 30).

Hindu extremist Vishwa Hindu Parishad International President Ashok Singhal did not take kindly to the latest arrests.

“The new DGP is indiscriminately arresting leaders of Hindu organizations that are not related to any case,” he told reporters this week.

Nearly 53 companies of paramilitary forces have been appointed in Kandhamal district, and curfew was still imposed. The central government sent 1,000 paramilitary personnel in the form of 10 Central Reserve Police Force companies on Wednesday (Oct. 1) to Kandhamal district. Local sources said 10 more companies were expected by Sunday (Oct. 5).

The central government has come down heavily on the Orissa state government. Union Home Minister Shivraj Patil wrote a strongly worded letter to Orissa Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik on Wednesday (Oct. 3) asking him to take effective measures and provide security for the Christian community in the state.

“Merely continuing to ask for additional forces after every few days cannot be the solution,” Patil wrote. “The state government has to implement overall strategy for creating an environment of security.”

The letter came hours after the Union Cabinet expressed grave concern over the situation in the state, with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh directing Patil to present a report on the situation at the next cabinet meeting.


Peace Rally in New Delhi

In New Delhi, nearly 15,000 Christians joined in a peace march in solidarity with the victims of the Orissa and Karnataka violence yesterday.

The peace march was the culmination of the week-long sit-in organized by the Christians of Delhi and NCR (National Capital Region) beginning Sept. 26 to protest atrocities on Christians in Orissa and Karnataka. The peace march took place on the birthday of Mahatma Gandhi, father of the nation.

Many national leaders, including central ministers Lalu Prasad Yadav and Oscar Fernandes, addressed the gathering at the Dharna (sit-in). Yadav, the union minister for Indian Railways, promised to personally meet with the prime minister and urgently discuss the matter. He said that he would “take up the anti-Christian violence in Parliament and debate the hatred of Hindutva [Hindu nationalist] forces.”

Hindu leaders such as Swami Agnivesh addressed the peace march at Rajghat (Gandhi’s final resting place), saying that the “very killers of Mahatma Gandhi, are the same killers of Christians in Orissa, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and other parts of the country . . . The Hindutva fascists do not represent the peace-loving Hindu societies, rather they are damaging the Sanatam Dharma [eternal law] of Hinduism,” he said.

Report from Compass Direct News