India’s Christians Suffer Spike in Assaults in Past Decade

Hindu nationalists were often politically motivated in their attacks.

NEW DELHI, December 30 (CDN) — Christians in India faced a spike in attacks in the past decade, suffering more than 130 assaults a year since 2001, with figures far surpassing that in 2007 and 2008.

This year Christians suffered at least 149 violent attacks, according to the Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI). Most of the incidents took place in just four states: two adjacent states in south India, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, and two neighboring states in north-central India, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, noted EFI in its report, “Religion, Politics and Violence: A Report of the Hostility and Intimidation Faced by Christians in India in 2010.”

Of India’s 23 million Christians, 2.7 million live in the four states seen as the hub of Christian persecution. While north-central parts of the country have been tense for a decade, the escalation of attacks in southern India began last year.

This year Karnataka recorded at least 56 attacks – most of them initially reported by the Global Council of Indian Christians, which is based in the state capital, Bengaluru. Chhattisgarh witnessed 18 attacks, followed by Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh with 15 and 13 attacks respectively.

Christians are not stray incidents but are part of a systematic campaign by influential [Hindu nationalist] organizations capable of flouting law and enjoying impunity,” the EFI report said.

In 2009 there were more than 152 attacks across India, and the same four states topped the list of violent incidents, according to the EFI: 48 in Karnataka, 29 in Andhra Pradesh, 15 in Madhya Pradesh and 14 in Chhattisgarh.

Three of the four states – Karnataka, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh – are ruled by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and the EFI noted that the high number of attacks on Christians in those states was no coincidence.

“While it cannot be said that the ruling party had a direct role in the attacks on Christians, its complicity cannot be ruled out either,” the report stated.

In Andhra Pradesh, ruled by centrist Indian National Congress (commonly known as the Congress Party), most attacks are believed to be led by Hindu nationalist groups.

EFI remarked that “although in 2007 and 2008 two major incidents of violence occurred in eastern Orissa state’s Kandhamal district and hit headlines in the national as well as international media, little efforts have been taken by authorities in India to tackle the root causes of communal tensions, namely divisive propaganda and activities by powerful right-wing Hindu groups, who do not represent the tolerant Hindu community.”

The violence in Kandhamal district during Christmas week of 2007 killed at least four Christians and burned 730 houses and 95 churches, according to the All India Christian Council (AICC). These attacks were preceded by around 200 incidents of anti-Christian attacks in other parts of the country.

Violence re-erupted in Kandhamal district in August 2008, killing more than 100 people and resulting in the incineration of 4,640 houses, 252 churches and 13 educational institutions, according to the AICC.

Soon the violence spread to other states. In Karnataka, at least 28 attacks were recorded in August and September 2008, according to a report by People’s Union of Civil Liberties, “The Ugly Face of Sangh Parivar,” released in March 2009.

Before the two most violent years of 2007 and 2008, incidents of persecution of Christians had dipped to the lowest in the decade. In 2006 there were at least 130 incidents – more than two a week on average – according to the Christian Legal Association of India.

At least 165 anti-Christian attacks were reported in 2005. But from 2001 to 2004, at least 200 incidents were reported each year, according to John Dayal, secretary general of the AICC.

In 1998, Christians were targeted by the BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or RSS –India’s chief Hindu nationalist conglomerate and the BJP’s ideological mentor – when Italian-born Sonia Gandhi, Catholic by descent, became the president of India’s Congress Party. Gandhi, the wife of former Prime Minister of India Rajiv Gandhi, was seen as a major threat to the BJP, which had come to power for the first time at the federal level the same year. The Gandhi family has been popular since the Independence of India in 1947.

But Christian persecution – murder, beating, rape, false accusation, ostracism, and destruction of property – had begun spreading across the country in 2001, especially in tribal-inhabited states in central India. The attacks on Christians were apparently aimed at coaxing Sonia Gandhi to speak on behalf of Christians so that she could be branded as a leader of the Christian minority, as opposed to the BJP’s claimed leadership of the Hindu majority. Observers say it is therefore not surprising that Gandhi has never spoken directly against Christian persecution in India.


Change in Political Atmosphere

After Hindu nationalist groups were linked with bombings in late 2008, the RSS and the BJP distanced themselves from those charged with the terrorist violence. The BJP also adopted a relatively moderate ideological stand in campaigns during state and federal elections.

The BJP, mainly the national leadership, has become more moderate also because it has faced embarrassing defeats in the last two consecutive general elections, in 2004 and 2009, which it fought on a mixed plank of Hindu nationalism and development. The voters in the two elections clearly indicated that they were more interested in development than divisive issues related to identity – thanks to the process of economic liberalization which began in India in 1991.

The incidence of Christian persecution, however, remains high because not all in the BJP and the RSS leadership seem willing to “dilute” their commitment to Hindu nationalism. Especially some in the lower rungs and in the regional leadership remain hardliners.

How this ideological rift within the Hindu nationalist family will play out next year and in the coming decade is yet to be seen. There is speculation, however, that more individuals and outfits formerly connected with the RSS will part ways and form their own splinter groups.

Although politicians are increasingly realizing that religion-related conflicts are no longer politically beneficial, it is perhaps too early to expect a change on the ground. This is why none of the “anti-conversion” laws has been repealed.

Four Indian states – Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Orissa and Arunachal Pradesh – had introduced legislation to regulate religious conversion, known as “anti-conversion” laws, before 2001, and since then three more states – Gujarat, Rajasthan, and Himachal Pradesh – brought in such laws, while two states sought to make existing laws stricter.

Anti-conversion laws are yet to be implemented, however, in Arunachal Pradesh and Rajasthan. The anti-conversion amendment bills in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh have also faced political hurdles.

Although the anti-conversion laws claim to ban conversions undertaken by force or allurement – terms that have not been defined adequately – they are commonly used to jail or otherwise harass Christians who are simply following Christ’s mandate to help the poor and make disciples. The laws also require all conversions to be reported to the authorities, failing which both convert and relevant clergy can be fined and imprisoned.

Some of these laws also require a prospective convert to obtain prior permission before conversion.


Concerns in 2011

Hard-line Hindu nationalists are seeking to create more fodder for communal conflicts and violence.

In April 2010, Hindu nationalists declared their plan to hold a rally of 2 million Hindus in Madhya Pradesh state’s Mandla district in February 2011, with the aim of converting Christians back to Hinduism and driving away pastors, evangelists and foreign aid workers from the district.

Several spates of violence have been linked to past rallies. India’s first large-scale, indiscriminate attack on Christians took place in Dangs district of Gujarat state in December 1998 after local Hindu nationalist groups organized such a rally. The violence led to mass destruction of property belonging to local Christians and Christian organizations.

Law and order is generally a responsibility of the states, but how the federal government and other agencies respond to the call for the rally in Madhya Pradesh may indicate what to expect in the coming months and years in India.

Report from Compass Direct News


Recent Incidents of Persecution

Karnataka, December 19 (Compass Direct News) – Hindu extremists from the Bajrang Dal on Dec. 14 attacked a Christmas program of Christian social organization Helping Hands and accused the director of forcible conversion in Bangarapet, Kolar. The intolerant Hindus disrupted the program of the organization, which helps rural women and children, and accused Samuel Moses of trying to forcibly convert women and children, reported the Evangelical Fellowship of India. The extremists burned gospel literature and took Moses and his accountant to the Bangarapet police station. The Christians were detained in the police station for about nine hours, with the incident publicized on local broadcast and print media. The Christians were later released without charges. Police Inspector Chinnana Swami told Compass that the Christians were detained for questioning but police found no forcible conversion and the case has been closed.

Karnataka – Hindu extremists allegedly belonging to the Hindu extremist Rakshane Vedike on Dec. 8 attacked a pastor, accusing him of forceful conversion in Ibrahim Pura, Bellary. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that at 5 p.m Assembly of God pastor N. Satyam and another Christian were on their way home from a prayer meeting organized by convert Krishna Veni when a mob of about 25 extremists led by Sidesh Mallesh and Mahendra Bhatt dragged the Christians from an auto-rickshaw, cursed them in foul language, beat them and falsely accused the pastor of forceful conversion. The Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI) reported that police arrived and took the Christians to the police station, where about 100 Christians later protested against the violence. The Christians were released without charges at 11:30 p.m., and the matter was settled peacefully between the two parties, EFI reported.

Andhra PradeshHindutva (Hindu nationalist) extremists from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh on Dec. 7 beat a pastor in Bhainsa Mandal, Adilabad district. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that at about 7 p.m. Bethel Church pastor Prabhu Das and church members identified only as Mark and Raju were on their way back from a prayer meeting when nearly 25 Hindu extremists armed with wooden batons surrounded them and angrily questioned them about their reason for coming to the village. The extremists repeatedly slapped Das and Mark and snatched Raju’s bag, which contained a Bible, and the latter fled. A local pastor told Compass that on identifying Das as pastor, the extremists falsely accused him of forcible conversion and beat him up with their batons on his hands and legs. Raju phoned a Christian who came with a vehicle and took Das to a private nursing home for treatment for a fracture in his left hand. Later he was admitted to the Adilabad Government Hospital. Das has declined to file a First Information Report, saying he has forgiven his attackers. A local pastor told Compass that on Dec. 12, the Pastors’ Fellowship of Adilabad presented a memorandum to the superintendent of police requesting security for pastors of the district.

Madhya Pradesh – Nearly 20 Hindu extremists from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh on Dec. 5 beat pastors Pangala Bhai and Limba Bhai in Palasapara village in Meghasah Tehsil. The Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI) reported that at about 3 p.m. extremists surrounded Pangala and Lima of Indian Evangelical Team as they were returning home from a prayer meeting. Using foul, abusive language, the extremists falsely accused them of forceful conversion, beat them and robbed a mobile phone and cash. The village council chief took the injured pastors to a private hospital. The pastors have not filed a case against the attackers, saying they have decided to forgive them, EFI reported.

Punjab – Hindu extremists from the Bajrang Dal on Dec. 2 attacked two Operation Mobilization (OM) workers in Sangur. The Evangelical Fellowship of India reported that the extremists attacked Pani Garhi and Kiran Bhai as they were distributing gospel tracts in the area. OM men’s team leader Imocha Naorem told Compass that the extremists took the Christians to the police station after verbally abusing and slapping them. Police refused to file a complaint but gave a stern warning to the extremists not to disturb the Christians again.

Karnataka – Hindu extremists on Nov. 26 accused pastor Vantakesh Nayak of forceful conversion and beat him along with four other Christians in Davanagere. The All India Christian Council reported that the Christians had gone to a nearby village to open up a new shop with prayer when the extremists stormed in and assaulted them, tearing their shirts. The intolerant Hindus filed a police complaint of forceful conversion against the pastor in Honnalli police station. Investigating Officer Jai Laxman told Compass that the Christians were detained only as a preventative measure, that they have been released and that the case is closed.

Andhra Pradesh – Hindu extremists on Nov. 25 attacked a pastor, accused him of forceful conversion and vandalized his vehicle in Devarakonda, Telangana. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that pastor Srinivas Naik and two Christians, K. Raju and one identified only as Naresh, were screening the Jesus film at DNT government hostel with prior permission of the hostel warden. As the Christian team was about to leave the extremists surrounded them and pulled them down from their vehicle. The police arrived at the scene and managed to stop the extremists from burning the vehicle. The team members were arrested under Section 295(A) of the Indian penal code for “hurting religious feelings” and were later released on bail.

Madhya Pradesh – Hindu extremists on Nov. 24 attacked and abducted a pastor in Mandla district. Gospel for Asia (GFA) missionary pastor Nandiram Chauhan had gone to conduct a prayer service in the morning when 10 Hindu extremists on bikes began harassing him, a GFA representative told Compass. They snatched the pastor’s bicycle from him, as well as his mobile phone and gospel tracts, forced him onto one of their bikes and headed towards a forest where about 150 extremists waited. They locked him in the room of a structure there. At 8 p.m. about 20 Hindu extremists entered his room and assaulted him, and he was dragged to a waiting jeep. After asking permission to relieve himself, he fled, managing to escape to a Christian’s home in a nearby village with the attackers in hot pursuit. Christians escorted him to his village. A GFA representative told Compass that a police complaint has been filed, and officers assured the Christians that stringent action would be taken against the culprits. At press time, no arrests had been made.

Orissa – Orissa police on Nov. 22 arrested three Christians on false charges of “attempting to rape and murder” in Guntaput, Koraput district. The Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI) reported that the coordinator of Good Shepherd Community Church (GSCC), the Rev. Abiram Singh, said that a worker from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh identified only as Nanda filed a police complaint against three believers from GSCC, Rajat Kuldip, Saliman Kondhpan and Gokul Kondhpan, for “attempting to rape and murder” a tribal woman. The woman, Radha Pangi, told Rev. Singh she had not been attacked and had no idea why the Christians were accused. The Christians were released on bail on Nov. 28. Police are now searching for another three Christians from the GSCC for questioning, according to EFI.

Karnataka – Police disrupted a Sunday worship service on Nov. 2 in Bagalkot, halted it and warned a pastor not to conduct future services, according to the Christian Legal Association. Officers told pastor Basappa Adapur of Shalom Full Gospel Association not to conduct another worship meeting without obtaining prior permission from the Deputy Commissioner. Hindu nationalists in the area have been known to harm Christians who did not inform police that they were meeting for worship, according to police, so for their own security Christians must get permission to meet. Police also collected information on the 25 Christians attending the church.

Report from Compass Direct News