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


Another man killed, more houses and churches attacked in Orissa’s Kandhamal district.

NEW DELHI, September 16 (Compass Direct News) – A policeman was killed today, the body of another victim of Hindu extremist violence was discovered and more houses and churches burned in Orissa state’s Kandhamal district even as anti-Christian violence spread to at least five more states across India over the weekend.

Christians and churches were targeted in Karnataka, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand as fallout from violence in Orissa that began following the assassination of a Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP) leader, Laxmanananda Saraswati, and four of his disciples in Kandhamal district on August 23.

A mob of around 500 rioters today killed a policeman and burned down a police station in Orissa’s Kandhamal district, where Hindu extremists launched a spate of attacks three weeks ago blaming local Christians of killing Saraswati and his disciples. Maoists have claimed responsibility for the murders of the Hindu leaders.

“A large number of attackers armed with country-made guns and crude weapons gunned down a constable and set ablaze the police station at Gochapada early this morning,” Director General of Police Gopal Nanda told The Indian Express. Gochapada is 36 kilometers (22 miles) from Phulbani, the district headquarters of Kandhamal.

Police sources told the daily that the mob was demanding release of a man held by security personnel, but local residents felt the attack came in retaliation for police firing into a crowd in Kurtamgarh in Tumudibandh area, killing at least one person, on Saturday (Sept. 13).


Murder in Orissa

While the body of another person was found and at least 14 houses were burned on Sunday night (Sept. 14), a church and several houses were set ablaze on the previous day.

The Statesman newspaper reported that at least nine houses of Makabali village and five in Sanakbali village were torched in the Gunjibadi area. Authorities found the body of Purander Naik, who had fled to a relief camp where mainly Christians had taken refuge, in his village of Nilungia.

“The decomposed body of Naik was found by police near the Ratingia dam yesterday,” the newspaper reported yesterday. “Naik was at the G. Udayagiri relief camp for over 10 days but had left for his village to see the condition of his house and poultry. His family was at the relief camp. Apparently he was killed during his visit to the village.”

The Press Trust of India reported that while nine houses were torched in Toposi village, another house was burned in Dibadi village under the Raikia police station in Kandhamal.

The Rev. Ashis Parida of the Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI) reported that more than 2,000 Hindu extremists set fire to a church belonging to the Church of North India (CNI) denomination and several houses of Christians in Kurtamgarh village on Saturday afternoon (Sept. 13). Kurtamgarh is about seven kilometers (four miles) from the ashram (religious center) of Hindu leader Saraswati.

Compass received reports that a Hindu extremist mob on Friday (Sept. 12) burned one church and a mission hostel in Mangapanga, Tumulibandh; three churches in Mundabali, Badipankha; and one church in Baringia in Phulbani. An estimated 40 houses were also destroyed on the same day by the intolerant Hindus.

The next afternoon a large Hindu extremist mob descended on Kurtamgarh, burning several houses and the CNI Church. Sources said the extremists were targeting the village headman of the area, a Christian whose house they destroyed.

A local source said that “while the mob was attacking the Christian homes and churches, the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) forces took notice of it and fired in the air to disperse the crowd. To their surprise the mob retaliated with gunfire aimed at the CRPF, which wounded two soldiers of the CRPF, one of whom was reported to be quite serious and had to be taken to Behrampur for his medical treatment.”

The CRPF forces retaliated with gunfire of their own, killing one person and injuring about 12. Early reports suggested that two people had died in the CRPF firing, but only one body was said to be recovered by the CRPF after the incident.

Krishan Kumar, district collector of Kandhamal, told media that on that day, “At least 400-500 people, some of them carrying firearms, attacked a man’s home and set it on fire at Kurtamgarh village.”

While the state government says 24 people, mainly Christian, have died in the Orissa violence, the All India Christian Council (AICC) maintained that 45 Christians were confirmed dead and five more were still missing.

According to the AICC, 14 districts of Orissa witnessed violence with Kandhamal as the epicenter. It reported at least 50,000 people from 300 villages have been affected by the violence, with hundreds still hiding in forests, and 4,000 houses and 115 churches burned or destroyed.


Death in Relief Camps

At least 20,000 people are in the 14 relief camps set up by the state government in Kandhamal. Two elderly persons and two children are known to have died in three of the relief camps.

The Statesman reported that while two ailing men, 75-year-old Sua Naik from Budrungia village and 66-year-old Kasipatra Naik from Tatamaha village, died at the Raikia relief camp, two children, one from the Phulbani camp and the other from G. Udayagiri camp, died during the week.

One of the children was reportedly a 10-year-old girl who had been hiding in the forest since the violence began who died from disease attained by being constantly on the run. The name of the girl was not known, but she was said to be from Kotgarh.

The Statesman also reported that the chief secretary of Orissa state, Ajit Tripathy, held a review meeting yesterday to discuss health and sanitation measures at the relief camps.

Orissa is ruled by a coalition of a regional party, Biju Janata Dal, and the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).


Attacks in Karnataka

Attacks were reported also from the southern state of Karnataka, where Hindu extremists ratcheted up hostilities after the state education ministry served show-cause notices to over 2,000 Christian schools in the state for staying shut on Aug. 29 to protest the violence against Christians in Orissa.

On Sunday (Sept. 14), Hindu extremists attacked several churches in Karnataka’s district of Dakshina Kannada, in Udupi and Chikmagalur, on the pretext that Christians were engaging in “forcible” conversions of Hindus to Christianity.

In Dakshina Kannada district, suspected extremists from the Bajrang Dal, VHP’s youth wing, attacked the Adoration Monastery near the Milagres Church on Falnir Road in Mangalore region.

“The 10-member group barged into the prayer hall and damaged the tabernacle, where the holy Eucharist is kept,” reported the Times of India. “They damaged windowpanes, furniture as well as the crucifix. Police said the same group attempted to vandalize another prayer hall in Kankanady, but were driven back.”

The daily added that Christians later gathered in large numbers in front of the Milagres Hall to protest the attacks, which resulted in a day-long stand off between the protestors, who reportedly hurled stones at the police, with officers using batons in return. Several vehicles were damaged in the tussle.

In Udupi district, three churches of the New Life Fellowship were attacked by suspected Bajrang Dal extremists while Sunday prayers were in progress, reported the daily. At least 15 Hindu extremists entered its prayer hall, attacking worshippers and ransacking the hall during the worship service. A music system and projector were damaged.

In Shiroor area, Hindu extremists attacked another prayer hall of the New Life Fellowship, burning a vehicle and striking some members of the congregation, including the pastor.

The daily reported another attack on a church in Mudur, near Kollur, resulted in damaged materials. It added that police prevented yet another such attack in prayer halls of the New Life Fellowship in Kaup and Karkala areas.

In Chikmagalur district, extremists attacked three churches and the house of a new convert. “In one incident, 15 activists came in a vehicle and barged into Harvest India church in Makkikoppa near Jayapura in Koppa Taluka [Block] in the morning and assaulted a parishioner and the Protestant pastor,” the daily reported. “They broke the window panes and the plastic chairs.”

On Sunday night (Sept. 14), a mob attacked a prayer hall in the Padavu Pre-University College on the Mangalore-Udupi Road.

Yesterday morning, Hindu extremists attacked a shop in Kalladka village and the St. Ann’s Friary Grotto near Canara College, about 25 kilometers (almost 16 miles) from Mangalore, in two separate incidents. A Christian prayer hall in Chickballapur district, about 50 kilometers (31 miles) from Bangalore, also was attacked.

Some Christians reportedly retaliated by targeting policemen in different parts of Dakshina Kannada district. At least four policemen were injured, with one reportedly stabbed yesterday.

According to Indo-Asian News Service (IANS), police arrested about 100 people, almost all Christians, for staging allegedly violent protests.

Hindu extremists also attacked churches in Belthangady, Moodabidri, Koloor, Kodaikal, Hemanagatta, Kadur and Puttur, Kundapur and Balehanoor. All together 18 churches and prayer halls in and around Mangalore and in Udipi and Chikmaglur districts were attacked on Sunday (Sept. 14).

Police reportedly had arrested seven Bajrang Dal members by Sunday night. Schools and shops remained shut in Mangalore yesterday in protest, and vehicles were kept off the roads. Christians continued to protest, and in some places police had to fire tear gas shells to maintain order. A curfew was imposed in Mangalore as well.

But that did not stop Hindu extremists from throwing stones at a church in Mangalore yesterday morning, in spite of an order the previous day banning assembly of more than five people for three days. Chief Minister B.S. Yeddyurappa stoked fires by stating, “There is no room for forcible conversion in democracy. No one should indulge in it.”

Asked what action he was going to take against the Bajrang Dal during a press conference yesterday evening, the chief minister said only, “Whoever was involved in this act will be arrested very soon.”

But he was quick to blame church groups, saying “No one has the right to insult any other religion. As we know some community called ‘New Life’ is converting people, we have asked the bishop to support us in this regard. But as per the bishop, New Life is not under his control and the bishop is not the in charge of this community.”

There was little to suggest the involvement of New Life Fellowship churches in forced conversion. NDTV 24X7, a national television news channel reported that “so far there seems to be little evidence that New Life is carrying out forcible conversions.”

A team from the National Commission for Minorities (NCM) will reportedly make an on-the-spot assessment of attacks on churches and prayer halls in different parts of Karnataka and submit its report to the federal government. Members will visit churches damaged in attacks in Dakshina Kannada, Udupi and Chikmagalur districts, as well as Mangalore.

Bajrang Dal representatives unabashedly admitted to the violence that was carried out on Sunday (Sept. 14), telling NDTV 24X7 that they are targeting evangelical groups in and around Mangalore.


Violence in Other States

In the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, Bajrang Dal extremists on Sunday (Sept. 14) attacked two pastors in Kanpur district, accusing them of beating their supporters, reported IANS.

Govindnagar police station inspector N.K. Singh told IANS that the pastor of the New India Church of God, Jitendra Singh, approached officers late Sunday night and submitted a written complaint against Ram Babu Bajpai, a local leader of the Bajrang Dal.

Pastor Singh said Bajpai, along with a large number of his supporters, attacked him in the church compound in the presence of his wife, Helena Singh, and fellow pastor Anil Gilbert.


Both sides filed complaints

According to the complaint by the Hindu extremists, “The Bajrang Dal has alleged that the church was involved in converting Hindus to Christianity by offering them money, and the pastors attacked them when its activists opposed the practice,” IANS added.

In the north-central state of Madhya Pradesh, at 1:30 p.m. today five unidentified people carrying air guns shot a guard of the Caramel Convent in Banduha village (under the Ghatia police station) in Ujjain district, Madhya Pradesh state. Father Anand Muttungal of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Madhya Pradesh state reported that Amar Singh’s injuries were not fatal.

Fr. Muttungal said that the culprits asked Singh to call the nuns, and when he told them they were away the assailants beat and shot him.

Hindu extremists in Madhya Pradesh also burned the 80-year-old Masihi Mandir church of the CNI denomination in Chhawni (Cantonment) area of Indore city at 10:30 p.m. on Saturday (Sept. 13), reported EFI.

“The fire was spotted by a few onlookers, who managed to extinguish it quickly,” EFI reported. “The doors, windows and other wooden material were burned.”

In the southern state of Kerala, on Sunday night (Sept. 14) Hindu extremists attacked the Jaya Mata Convent School, a Christian kindergarten that doubled as a church in Kottakkani area in Kasargode district under the Catholic diocese of Teleicherry, reported the Times of India.


The Hindu extremists launched the attack to protest conversions

“On Monday morning, we saw the glass panes of a box containing the figure of Mother Mary, as well as window panes of the school, smashed,” Vicar Antony Punnoor told the daily. “It seemed someone had hurled stones.”

The Kerala state interior minister, Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, told the daily that the incident would be investigated.

“Cops would also examine if the attack had any link with such incidents in Karnataka,” he reportedly said. “No one will be allowed to create communal riots in the state.”

In the western state of Jharkhand, Hindu villagers attacked Christians of a Believers’ Church and pressured them to “reconvert” to Hinduism in Talatad village (under Patratu police station) in Hazaribagh district on Sunday (Sept. 14), reported the Christian Legal Association.

Pastor Cyril Tamgaria and 18 others were worshiping in the house of Badhi Oraon when Hindu extremists surrounded the house. They beat them, took them forcibly to a temple in a nearby jungle and asked them to “return” to their old faith. Local Christians reported the incident to police, however, and officers freed the Christians.

The Rev. Dr. Babu Joseph, spokesperson of the Catholic Church in India, said in a statement that the Christian community in India has been conducting itself in a peaceful manner throughout the ordeals, and “even under extreme provocation it has exercised restraint.”

“It is not to be construed as weakness,” he said, “but a preferred option based on sound principles of civilized living.”

Joseph added that the community continued to render its services to all sectors of society without discrimination.

“Nevertheless, baseless allegations of fraudulent conversion have long been hurled at it by certain vested interests whose chief agenda seems to be social polarization on the lines of religious beliefs,” he said. “We, as responsible citizens of India, will not succumb to their divisive tactics, but continue to work, in the spirit of Christ our master, for the unity, integrity and progress of the nation.”


Women’s Group Pans Official Assessment of Orissa

Dismissing claims by government officials, the National Federation of Indian Women (NFIW) reported that their findings from a visit to Orissa’s Kandhamal district last week did match statements made by the central and state governments before the Supreme Court.

Annie Raja, general secretary of the NFIW, told media that the team she led to the riot-torn district Sept. 9-12 concluded that a judicial inquiry was inadequate to uncover abuses.

The NFIW demanded a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) probe into the killing of Laxmanananda Saraswati and subsequent riots in Kandhamal district. The organization’s report notes that the situation in the district was tense and a sense of security was absent among the Christian minority community.

Calling conditions in the relief camps “pathetic,” with about 20,000 people living with inadequate medical facilities, Raja reportedly said that camps with more than 700 children and around 30 pregnant women did not have a pediatrician or a gynecologist.

The NFIW demanded that civil society organizations and women’s organizations be allowed to participate in relief and rehabilitation operations.

Orissa officials have asked the central government to allow the state to retain central and paramilitary forces until the end of October in light of approaching festivals.

Home Secretary T.K. Mishra has described the situation in Kandhamal as “satisfactory” and requested the recall of the Border Security Force, as “they did not fit into the situation” in Orissa. He added, however, that the state needed Central Reserve Police Force and Rapid Action Force personnel to deal with any rioting. He also acknowledged that sporadic violence was taking place in some villages of the Kandhamal district.

Report from Compass Direct News