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 


Two killed in Uttarakhand state; more violence in Orissa, Karnataka and Kerala.

NEW DELHI, September 24 (Compass Direct News) – The unprecedented wave of anti-Christian attacks that began a month ago continued in the past week with more incidents of murder, rape and arson, mostly in the eastern state of Orissa and southern state of Karnataka. Two Christians were also found murdered in the northern state of Uttarakhand.

“The atmosphere in the Kandhamal district of Orissa is still volatile,” an attorney visiting Kandhamal with a team to provide legal aid to victims told Compass. “Yesterday afternoon, we were going to the Raikia area, but as we were about to reach there, we were informed that a mob had attacked a police station and the police had to open fire. We had to flee Kandhamal right away.”

According to The Indian Express, around 2,000 people, including women, surrounded the Raikia police station yesterday to demand the release of two fellow villagers from Masakadia village who had been arrested on charges of arson and rioting.

Security personnel from the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), a federal agency, opened fire to prevent the mob from entering the police station. The security personnel resorted to fire after failing to control the mob with persuasion and the use of batons, added the daily. One person died and two were critically injured from the gunfire.

The attorney also said Hindu extremists had destroyed all communication links in Kandhamal, including mobile phone networks, and blocked some roads with trees and stones.


Rape, Murder, Arson in Orissa

Attacks on Christians continued in the Kandhamal district. While a young woman was reportedly gang-raped by unidentified rioters on Sunday night (Sept. 21), a man went missing and was allegedly killed on Friday (Sept. 19).

Father Ajay Singh of the Catholic Archdiocese of Bhubaneswar, Orissa’s capital, told Compass that a local Oriya-language newspaper, Dharitri, reported that a 20-year-old woman was raped by about 15 men in an area under Tikabali police jurisdiction in Kandhamal late on Sept. 21.

The victim, who was living in a relief camp and believed to be Christian, had gone back to her house to see her grandmother. A group of men stormed the house and took her to a nearby jungle and raped her, Singh said, adding that the police had confirmed the incident.

The Press Trust of India (PTI) reported that Iswar Digal, who had taken refuge at Ghumusar Udayagiri relief camp and was believed to be Christian, went missing after he went to meet his ailing father in Gatingia village on Friday (Sept. 19). Digal’s wife, Runima Digal, filed a police complaint stating that Hindu extremists killed her husband after he had gone to the village along with her to visit his father.

She said the extremists had warned them not to return to the village if they did not convert from Christianity to Hinduism. Police, however, have registered only a case of kidnapping, added PTI.

The news agency also reported that at least 10 houses, believed to be that of Christians, were burned in Gochhapada area on Saturday (Sept. 20). An Orissa state official told The Times of India, “It is difficult to guard all the remote areas. But we are trying our best.”

The violence in Kandhamal began following the assassination of a leader of the Hindu extremist Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP), Laxmanananda Saraswati, and four of his associates on Aug. 23. Although Maoists claimed responsibility for the murder, the VHP put the blame on local Christians, saying they killed him because he was resisting conversion of Hindus to Christianity.

According to the All India Christian Council (AICC), at least 14 districts witnessed violence with Kandhamal as the epicenter, and at least 50,000 people from 300 villages have been affected by the violence, with hundreds still hiding in forests. Some 4,000 houses and 115 churches have been burned or destroyed, and the AICC reported 45 Christians were confirmed dead with five others still missing.


Killing in Uttarakhand

Amid persistent tensions in various parts of the country following the violence in Orissa, two Catholics, including a woman, were found murdered on Monday (Sept. 22) in the Dehra Dun district of the northern state of Uttarakhand (formerly known as Uttaranchal).

A 56-year-old Catholic preacher, Sadhu Astey, and his disciple, identified only as Mercy, 32, were found strangled to death at their prayer center, called Samarpanalaya, in Chotta Rampur village near Herbertpur area in Vikasnagar Block, reported The Tribune.

Police said local residents grew suspicious when there was no movement at the center the past two days and informed officers. The center was found ransacked.

“We are investigating these murders to know whether it was done by dacoits [bandits] with an intention to loot, or there is something else,” Police Inspector Harish Verma told media. Dr. Sajan K. George of the Global Council of Indian Christians said he suspected Hindu extremists were behind the killing.

The Tribune said it was the fourth attack on Christians in the Dehra Dun district in the past few months.

Sangh Parivar [family of Hindu nationalist groups led by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or RSS] activists had attacked Christian missionaries on Aug. 15 when they were distributing their leaflets,” the daily reported. “They were brought to the police station and beaten up. Interestingly, instead of taking action against the attackers, the police detained five of the Christian leaders for nine hours.”

Christians were also attacked in the area on June 4 and June 22, it added.

Uttarakhand is ruled by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).


Attacks in Karnataka, Kerala

Suspected Hindu extremists attacked at least three more churches in the southern state of Karnataka, where violence against Christians rose to new heights after tensions began in Orissa.

On Sunday (Sept. 21), two churches were vandalized in the state capital, Bangalore, and another church was attacked in the Kodagu district, about 300 kilometers (186 miles) from Bangalore.

In Bangalore, extremists desecrated the St. James Church in Mariammanapalya near Hebbal area and the Church of the Holy Name of Jesus in Rajarajeshwarinagar area, reported The Times of India. Police told the daily that they had detained seven people and suspended a constable for negligence in protecting the churches.

In Kodagu district, members of the Brethren’s Church in Nellihudikeri area found portions of the front glass facade of the church broken on Sunday morning, reported the daily. The vandalism occurred despite two constables guarding the church.

Karnataka police arrested the state convener of VHP youth wing Bajrang Dal, Mahendra Kumar, on Friday night (Sept. 19) in connection with the spate of attacks on churches and prayer halls in several parts of the state. Bajrang Dal extremists vandalized numerous churches and Christian institutions in various parts of Karnataka earlier this month.

On Monday (Sept. 22), anguished Catholic Archbishop of Bangalore the Rev. Dr. Bernard Moras told Karnataka Chief Minister B.S. Yeddyurappa that he was ready to “shed blood and give his life for Christ,” reported the Economic Times.

Yeddyurappa had called on the archbishop and senior state officials after an emergency cabinet meeting. Archbishop Moras “greeted the visitors with a grim face without the customary geniality,” the daily reported, “and blurted out his anguish: ‘I am deeply hurt and saddened. This is not a happy occasion to meet the head of the state.’”

The Karnataka chief minister assured the Christian minority community that security at churches and Christian institutions had been increased. He also claimed that the attacks on churches were part of a conspiracy to malign the BJP in Karnataka.

Yeddyurappa said police had arrested three persons including the son of a local Congress Party leader in connection with a violent incident in the Sagar area of Shimoga district, reported the Rediff News on Monday (Sept. 22). “Ravi, another person arrested in connection with the attack, is said to have instigated these youth to desecrate churches by promising to pay 1.5 million Indian rupees [US$32,800],” it reported.

Yeddyurappa had earlier blamed the anti-Christian violence in parts of the state on a booklet reportedly circulated by a Christian organization that allegedly hurt Hindu sentiments.

But a fact-finding team of the National Commission for Minorities (NCM), which visited the violence-hit areas of Udupi, Mangalore and Bangalore in Karnataka last week, has indicted the BJP government for “being in league with the Hindu extremist groups. It has failed to check attacks on Christians and churches,” reported the Hindustan Times.

The NCM will submit the report to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

According to The Times of India, two churches were attacked in neighboring Kerala state on Sunday (Sept. 21) near the international airport in Nedumbassery, close to Kochi city.

Some churches were attacked in Kerala last week also.


Ban on Extremism – or on Conversion

In the wake of the ongoing wave of anti-Christian attacks in various parts of India, the NCM is mulling recommending a ban on the Bajrang Dal.

The Hindustan Times said the NCM was working towards a unanimous decision seeking tough measures against the Bajrang Dal, as its involvement in “frequent attacks on the minorities and their places of worship across the country has been established beyond doubt.”

The former prime minister of India and chief of the Karnataka-based Janata Dal (Secular) party, H.D. Deve Gowda, also demanded a ban on the Bajrang Dal during a sit-in protest in Delhi yesterday. Several other political parties have also urged the federal government to ban the Bajrang Dal.

But a senior BJP leader, Venkaiah Naidu, termed conversion as the root cause of violence and social disturbances, saying a strong federal law to prevent religious conversion across the country would be brought if BJP regained power in the general elections expected to be held early next year, reported PTI on Sunday (Sept. 21).

The BJP leader also asked the Orissa state government to strictly implement the existing anti-conversion law in the state.

The VHP’s central governing body is likely to deliberate on ways to further intensify its campaign against religious conversions in Orissa’s Kandhamal district at its two-day “brain- storming session” in Delhi beginning tomorrow, The Statesman daily reported.

The Federation of Indian American Christian Organizations of North America (FIACONA) will hold a rally tomorrow at Lafayette Square in front of the White House in Washington, D.C. – the day Prime Minister Singh will meet with U.S. President George W. Bush – demanding an end to violence against Christians in India.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has sent a letter to President Bush urging him to raise pressing concerns about religious freedom in India during his meeting with Prime Minister Singh.  

Report from Compass Direct News