Commission on religious freedom would have found violence-torn Orissa far from normal.

NEW DELHI, June 29 (Compass Direct News) – The Indian government is silent on why it refused visas to allow members of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) to visit troubled Orissa state, but there are indications that it was ducking protests from Hindu nationalist groups.

The USCIRF team was to leave for India on June 12, but the Indian embassy in Washington did not give them visas in time, the religious panel said in a June 17 statement.

“Our Commission has visited China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and over 20 other countries,” Commission Chair Felice D. Gaer said in the statement. “India, a close ally of the United States, has been unique among democracies in delaying and denying USCIRF’s ability to visit. USCIRF has been requesting visits since 2001.”

The team was to discuss religious freedom with officials of the new government, which began its second five-year term on May 22, as well as with religious leaders, civil society activists and others in the wake of anti-Christian attacks in Kandhamal district of the eastern state of Orissa in December 2007 and August-September 2008.

The U.S. panel also intended to discuss conditions in the western state of Gujarat, where more than 2,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed in a communal riot in 2002. The victims have reportedly not been properly rehabilitated, and many of their attackers remain at large. In 2005 the chief minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), was denied a visa to the United States to attend the World Gujarati Meet because of his alleged involvement in the violence.

In 2002 the USCIRF, a bipartisan federal commission, recommended India be designated a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) following the 2002 violence in Gujarat. India was removed from the CPC list in 2005.

The Commission released its 2009 annual report on religious freedom across the globe on May 1 but put the India report on hold, planning to prepare it after the intended visit this month.

“I am profoundly surprised and distressed that it is the government of Dr. Manmohan Singh, in its second and so much secure term, which has denied visas to the USCIRF at the last moment,” said John Dayal, member of India’s National Integration Council.

Dayal, secretary general of the All India Christian Council (AICC), told Compass that such a decision would have been more expected under the previous administration of the BJP-led alliance.

“There would have been an acceptable, albeit very perverse, logic if a National Democratic Alliance, led by the BJP federal government – as existed in New Delhi until 2004 – had refused visas to the USCIRF,” he said, “because they had so much to hide and because that government’s professed ideological moorings were in fascism and theocratic arrogance.”

The United Progressive Alliance (UPA), led by the left-of-center Congress Party, won the general elections in April and May of this year with a comfortable majority in. While the UPA got 262 of the 543 parliamentary seats, the National Democratic Alliance, led by the Hindu nationalist BJP, could bag only 160.

The Rev. Dr. Babu Joseph, spokesperson of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India, said the Indian government’s decision was “very unfortunate.”

“Its visit and objective report would have helped in clearing the air of suspicion about the whole tragic episode in Kandhamal,” he said. “For, since the tragic events, there have been claims and counter-claims about what triggered and sustained the communal flare-up that caused unprecedented damage to life and property of people who were already in disadvantaged conditions.”

What USCIRF Would Have Found

The atmosphere in Orissa’s Kandhamal district has remained tense since a spate of attacks began in December 2007 that killed at least four Christians and burned 730 houses and 95 churches. The attacks were carried out to avenge an alleged attack on a Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP) leader, Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati.

Violence re-erupted in Kandhamal in August 2008 after the assassination of Saraswati by a Maoist group, though non-Marxist Christians were blamed for it. This time, the violence killed more than 100 people and resulted in the incineration of 4,640 houses, 252 churches and 13 educational institutions.

Had the USCIRF team been able to visit Kandhamal, Christian leaders said, it would have found the situation far from normal even eight months after violence reportedly ended.

According to The Indian Express of May 31, the deployment of five companies of the Central Reserve Police Force, a federal agency, was extended for another month. One company comprises 100 personnel. The federal internal minister had earlier decided to withdraw the force from Kandhamal, but state Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik requested he retain some of the contingent.

The Rev. Ajaya Singh of the Cuttack-Bhubaneswar Catholic Archdiocese said that around 3,000 victims were still living in government-run relief camps, and some 900 families were in village relief camps. Initially about 24,000 victims were housed in government relief camps. These internally displaced people cannot go back to their villages because of continuing threats from “fundamentalists and criminals,” he added.

Most of the people who carried out attacks remain at large, continue to pressure victims to withdraw complaints they filed against the rioters, and are still threatening harm to Christians who refuse to convert to Hinduism, he complained.

Singh told Compass that a legal aid center run by the Christian Legal Association (CLA) from a rented house in Phulbani, district headquarters of Kandhamal, had been ordered to move out after Hindu nationalist groups pressured the owner of the house.

“For the last one month, lawyers have been staying here to help the witnesses to speak the truth,” he said. “The momentum of the cases was picking up, but now the legal center itself is facing problems.”

Singh also said some witnesses were issued death threats on June 17. The witnesses were told not to go to court or else they would be killed.

“However, a complaint has been lodged at the police station and an affidavit submitted before a judge,” he added.

In addition to the 753 cases filed by police in connection with the August-September 2008 violence, the CLA has filed 63 private complaints, and 70 more will be filed in the coming days.

The Orissa United Forum of Churches (OUFC), a new interdenominational grouping, wrote to Chief Minister Patnaik recently, informing him that an administrative officer of the Raikia area had taken victims from the relief camp to their respective villages on June 6, but the local residents did not allow them even to enter their villages.

The OUFC added that there were around 2,000 Christians who were asked to go back to their villages, but that villagers chased them out. They are now living in marketplaces or on the outskirts of those villages in abject conditions.

According to the Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI), extremists on June 2 burned down three homes that were partially destroyed during the August 2008 violence in Sirsapanda area in Kandhamal to prevent victims from returning to their villages.

The Christians were able to identify the attackers, but police advised them against naming them, said the EFI report.

“Christian properties were seized by local villagers, and having the Christians back in the village means giving back the land to their owners,” said the EFI’s Ashish Parida.

A CLA team, which recently visited two camps in Kandhamal, also said that the Christians were consistently ostracized by their neighbors.

Orissa is ruled by a regional party, the Biju Janata Dal (BJD), which was in partnership with the BJP when the violence took place. The BJD broke up with the Hindu right-wing party before the state assembly elections that were held simultaneously with the general elections.

Federal Internal Minister P. Chidambaram was in Kandhamal on Friday (June 26) to assess the law-and-order situation there and admitted police failure.

“What happened on Aug. 23 and thereafter was regrettable and condemnable. Moreover, it was the failure of the police for 30 to 40 days,” he said, according to The Hindu. “Now the situation is returning to normal but we cannot lower our guards.”

Chidambaram also said he wanted displaced Christians to return to their homes, seemingly because it will be difficult for the government to claim that normalcy has returned as long as they remain in relief camps.

“The government will ensure that no one harms you anymore. It is absolutely safe for you to return to your villages,” Chidambaram said at a relief camp in Raikia block, according to The Indian Express. “You have every right to practice your religion, build and pray in churches. You please return to your villages. I want to come back within one month and would like to see you in your homes in your villages.”

Christian leaders said that if the displaced people return home, many more reports of threats, attacks and ostracism are expected.

Why Visas Were Denied

Sources told Compass that both the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) and the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) were behind the government’s move to block the USCIRF from entering the country.

Compass persistently tried to contact the spokesperson of the MEA, Vishnu Prakash, without success. The spokesperson of the MHA, Onkar Kedia, was travelling.

According to the June 17 The Times of India, the Indian Embassy in Washington pleaded innocent, saying the visa applications of the USCIRF team had been forwarded to New Delhi, as is the standard practice for all such visits.

Sources in the government in New Delhi denied that the visas were deliberately withheld, saying the time was not “proper” for such a visit, according to the daily.

“We really don’t care about what they [USCIRF] report,” it quoted an official as saying. “But a high-profile visit seen as having government sanctions would have raised hackles in India.”

The visas were denied amid diatribes by Hindu right-wing groups against the proposed visit of the U.S. religious freedom panel. An influential Hindu leader, Shankaracharya Jayendra Saraswati, had called for refusal of entry to the USCIRF team. “We will not allow interference in our internal religious affairs by external bodies,” he said in a press conference in Mumbai on June 12, according to the Press Trust of India. “We see USCIRF as an intrusive mechanism of a foreign government which is interfering with the internal affairs of India.”

Jayendra Saraswati is known to be close to Hindu nationalist groups.

The U.S. branch of the Hindu extremist VHP had also criticized the intended visit of the U.S. Commission, calling it “incomprehensible,” reported The Times of India. “The largest functioning democracy in the world with an independent judiciary, a statutorily constituted Human Rights Commission, an independent press and other supporting organizations would appear to be quite capable of taking care of the religious freedoms and human rights of its citizens,” it said.

Later, on June 22, Ashok Singhal, international president of the VHP, said in a statement that the USCIRF was “a self-appointed committee as an expression of the big brother attitude of the USA to enquire into the status of religious freedom in other countries … This commission is concerned only about the Christians in other countries whenever there is a hue and cry by the church that the Christians are persecuted in such countries. They never bother about the status of religious and racial discriminations meted out to other religionists in the Western countries, including the U.S.”

Rev. Joseph of the Catholic Bishops Conference, however, said it was “preposterous” to construe the USCIRF’s visit as interference in India’s internal matters, “as the organization is recognized the world over as a credible watch-dog of human rights and religious freedom.”

“Everyone knows that the government of the day did/could not effectively check the communal frenzy,” he added. “And the failure of the state has to be investigated not by the officials of the same state themselves, but by someone who can objectively view and make independent judgment on it.”

The USCIRF is expected to release the pending India report in the next few weeks.

“The denial of visas seeks to make opaque an otherwise healthy transparency in India’s human rights discourse,” said the AICC’s Dayal. Added Joseph, “Probably India missed a chance to come clean on its track records on human rights and religious freedom.”

Report from Compass Direct News


How Hindu extremist BJP will respond to surprising defeat, though, remains to be seen.

NEW DELHI, May 21 (Compass Direct News) – Christians in India are heaving a sigh of relief after the rout of a Hindu nationalist party in national and state assembly elections in Orissa state, a scene of anti-Christian arson and carnage last year.

The ruling centrist party won a second term, but concerns over persecution of minorities remain.

A local centrist party, the Biju Janata Dal (BJD), took charge of the government of the eastern state of Orissa today, and tomorrow the new federal government led by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will be sworn in, representing a second term for the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), led by the left-of-center Indian National Congress, commonly known as the Congress Party.

“The election result is a statement against the persecution of non-Hindus,” Vijay Simha, a senior journalist and political analyst, told Compass.

“There were a string of incidents against non-Hindus, which were principally enacted by right-wing outfits,” added Simha, who reported on anti-Christian violence in Kandhamal district of Orissa in August-September 2008. “Since the vote went against right-wing parties, the result is a strong rejection of extremist religious programs.”

John Dayal, secretary general of the All India Christian Council (AICC), said the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was “defeated not by Christians or Muslims, but by secular Hindus.”

Over 80 percent of the more than 1 billion people in India are Hindu. Christians form around 2.3 percent of the population, and Muslims about 14 percent.

The Times of India on Saturday (May 16) quoted Rahul Gandhi, general secretary of the Congress Party, as saying that his party’s victory was a rejection of politics of caste and religion and acceptance of “clean and honest” policies symbolized by Prime Minister Singh.

“Internal criticisms within the BJP have brought out that it is losing popularity among youth as well as among the urban middle classes, two segments where it had been strong earlier and which represent the emergent India of the 21st century,” stated an editorial in the daily.


The BJP’s defeat at the national level is expected to compel the party to decide whether it turns to moderation in its ideology or more extremism in desperation.

“The BJP now faces a dilemma … Its appeal based on Hindutva [Hindu nationalism] and divisiveness stands rejected by the electorate,” wrote Prem Prakash of ANI news agency. “Where does the party go from here? … The party seems to be waiting for the RSS to provide answers for all this . . . The time has come for it to clearly define what kind of secularism it accepts or preaches.”

Hopes of Christians, however, abound.

“I am hoping that the BJP will learn that it does not pay to persecute minorities, and that civilized Hindus are disgusted with divisive antics of the RSS family,” said the AICC’s Dayal.

Father Dominic Emmanuel of the Delhi Catholic Archdiocese is also hopeful.

“Let’s hope that the new government would work harder to protect all minorities, particularly the constitutional guarantees with regard to religious freedom,” he said.

Father Babu Joseph of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India said, “The Indian Catholic bishops are confident that the Congress Party-led UPA government will keep its promises of safeguarding the country from communal and divisive forces and restore confidence among all sections of people, particularly among the religious minorities for providing a stable, secular and democratic government.”

Threats Continue

The defeat of the BJP, however, may not bring much respite to those facing persecution at the hands of Hindu nationalist groups.

“One would expect a lessening in persecution of Christians and other non-Hindus – however, extremist groups often step up activities to garner funds and patronage when they are on the retreat,” warned journalist Simha. “So, one could also see a rise in anti-minority activities.”

The BJP, which began ruling the federal government in 1998, was defeated by the Congress Party in 2004, which, too, was seen as a mandate against Hindu nationalism. Prime Minister Singh said during his swearing in ceremony in May 2004 that the mandate for the Congress-led UPA was for change and “strengthening the secular foundation of our republic.”

After the BJP’s defeat, however, Christian persecution did not stop. According to the Christian Legal Association, at least 165 anti-Christian attacks were reported in 2005, and over 130 in 2006. In 2007, the number of incidents rose to over 1,000, followed by the worst-ever year, 2008, for the Christian minority in India.

Forsaking its extremist ideology could also be difficult for the BJP because there was a leadership change in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu nationalist conglomerate and the parent organization of the BJP, a month before the elections. On March 21, Mohan Rao Bhagwat, formerly general secretary, was made the head of the RSS.

On March 22, The Hindu quoted an anonymous leader of the BJP as saying, “Mr. Bhagwat has clarity in ideology; he is a quick decision-maker; he takes everybody along; and he expects 100 per cent implementation of decisions.”

A day before his ascent to the top position, Bhagwat had sent a message to RSS workers across the country to come out in full force and “ensure 100 percent voting” in “the interest of Hindus” during this year’s elections, added the daily.

Further, after the BJP’s defeat in 2004, sections of the cadre of the RSS and affiliated groups broke away from the conglomerate as they felt the organization was too “moderate” to be able to establish a Hindu nation. Among the known Hindu splinter groups are the Abhinav Bharat (Pride of India), which operates mainly in the north-central state of Madhya Pradesh and the western state of Maharashtra, and the Sri Ram Sene (Army of Rama, a Hindu god), which recently became infamous for its violently misogynistic moral policing in the city of Mangalore, Karnataka.

Furthermore, there are pockets, especially in the central parts of the country and parts of Karnataka in the south, where the BJP remains a dominant party.

Embarrassing Defeat

Results of the general elections and state assembly polls in Orissa and the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, which were held simultaneously between April 16 and May 13, were declared on Saturday (May 16).

Of the 543 parliamentary constituencies, 262 went to the UPA. The National Democratic Alliance (NDA), led by the BJP, got 160, while the Third Front, a grouping of smaller and regional parties led by communists, bagged only 79.

The Congress Party alone won 206 seats, whereas the BJP’s count was 116 – a strong indication that a majority of the people in Hindu-majority India are against Hindu extremism.

The UPA has the support of 315 Members of Parliament, far higher than the 272 minimum needed to form government.

The embarrassing defeat for the BJP came as a surprise. Hoping to gain from its hardcore Hindu nationalist image, the BJP had made leader Narendra Modi, accused of organizing an anti-Muslim pogrom in the western state of Gujarat in 2002, its star campaigner.

Modi, chief minister of Gujarat, spoke in around 200 election rallies, out of which the party could win only 18 seats outside Gujarat.

In Orissa, where the BJP had openly supported the spate of attacks on Christians in Kandhamal district following the murder of a Hindu nationalist leader, Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati, by Maoists on Aug. 23, 2008, the party won not a single parliamentary seat – not even in Kandhamal.

The BJP candidate for the Kandhamal constituency, Ashok Sahu, contested from jail, as he was arrested on April 14 for making an inflammatory speech against Christians. Sahu hoped to gain the sympathy of Hindus by going to jail.

The BJP was sharing power with the ruling BJD in Orissa until March 17. The BJD broke up its 11-year-old alliance with the BJP over its role in the violence that lasted for over a month and killed more than 127 people and destroyed 315 villages, 4,640 houses, 252 churches and 13 educational institutions, besides rendering more than 50,000 homeless.

Even in the state assembly elections in Orissa, the BJP faced a debacle. Of the 147 seats, it won only seven. The BJD swept the polls with 109 seats. The Congress Party managed to get 27.

The seven assembly seats won by the BJP include two from Kandhamal district. The BJP’s Manoj Pradhan, who is facing 14 cases of rioting and murder in connection with the Kandhamal violence, won the G. Udayagiri assembly seat in Kandhamal. In the Balliguda assembly constituency, also in Kandhamal, BJP sitting legislator Karendra Majhi retained the seat. Both G. Udayagiri and Balliguda were at the epicenter of the last year’s violence.

Even in Andhra Pradesh state, where Hindu nationalist groups have launched numerous attacks on Christians in the last few years, the BJP had a poor showing. Of the 42 parliamentary seats, the Congress Party won 33. The BJP’s count was nil.

In assembly elections in Andhra Pradesh, the Congress Party won 158 of the 294 seats, gaining a majority to form the state government for another five-year term. The BJP did not get even one seat.

In the northern state of Uttarakhand, where the BJP is a ruling party, its count was zero. The Congress Party won all five parliamentary seats.

In Rajasthan state, also in the north, the BJP could win only four seats. The Congress Party, on the other hand, won 20. The BJP had passed an anti-conversion law in 2006 when it was a ruling party. The bill is yet to be signed by the state governor.

In the 2009 election, the BJP got 10 seats in the eastern state of Chhattisgarh, where the Congress Party got only one. In the northern state of Himachal Pradesh, the BJP won three of the four seats.

In the eastern state of Jharkhand, the BJP bagged eight seats, and the Congress Party only one. In Gujarat, the BJP’s tally was 15, whereas the Congress won 11. In Madhya Pradesh, the BJP won 16 and Congress 12.

Report from Compass Direct News


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


Legislation leading to anti-Christian attacks said to be planned in violence-ridden state.

NEW DELHI, March 2 (Compass Direct News) – The Hindu nationalist government in the southern state of Karnataka, which recorded the second highest number of attacks on Christians last year, is planning to introduce the kind of “anti-conversion” law that has provided the pretext for anti-Christian violence in other states.

Such laws are designed to thwart forcible or fraudulent conversion, but they are popularly misunderstood as criminalizing conversion in general. Comments from public officials sometimes heighten this misconception: India’s constitution provides for freedom of religion, but Karnataka Minister for Law, Justice and Human Rights S. Suresh Kumar said in the Feb. 22 edition of a Hindu extremist publication that the state’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government “is set to frame an anti-conversion law, as innocent Hindus are getting converted to other religions.”

“Poor and uneducated Hindus are becoming victims of false propaganda against Hinduism, and our government is planning to enact a law after studying the similar anti-conversion acts/anti-conversion bills of various states,” the BJP minister said in the Organiser, official publication of the Hindu extremist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the BJP’s ideological mentor.

Anti-conversion laws are in force in five states – Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat – and its implementation is awaited in the states of Arunachal Pradesh and Rajasthan. Cynically named “Freedom of Religion Acts,” the laws seek to curb religious conversions made by “force, fraud or allurement,” but human rights groups say they obstruct conversion generally as Hindu nationalists invoke them to harass Christians with spurious arrests and incarcerations. Numerous cases against Christians have been filed under various anti-conversion laws, mainly in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Orissa, but no one has been convicted in the more than four decades since such laws were enacted.

Dr. Sajan K. George, national president of the Karnataka-based Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC), expressed anguish over reported plans to introduce a law that has a history of misuse by extreme Hindu nationalists. He also indicated his concern at the government’s slackness in prosecuting those who have attacked Christians.

“Unfortunately, 2008 saw the worst kind of regression in our society as the church in India experienced a wave of violence and persecution unprecedented since the origin of Christianity in India 2,000 years ago,” George said, referring to a sudden rise in anti-Christian attacks in several Indian states, mainly Karnataka and the eastern state of Orissa, in the latter part of last year.

With the BJP forming a government of its own last year, fears within the Christian community that persecution would increase came true, he said.

“Karnataka recorded at least 112 anti-Christian attacks across 29 districts in 2008,” and at least 10 more such incidents have been reported this year, said George. Christians number slightly more than 1 million of Karnataka’s 52.8-million population.

Among the more tense districts in Karnataka are Mangalore, Bangalore and Davangere, according to George. The districts of Chikmagalur, Chitradurga, Belgaum, Tumkur, Udupi, Shimoga, Dharwad and Kodagu are also potentially volatile, he said. The GCIC reported that on Jan. 11 unidentified extreme Hindu nationalists barged into the home of a Christian convert in Amrthmahal Kavalu area near Tiptur town in Karnataka’s Tumkur district, verbally abused the four Christians there and burned their Bibles. The nine hard-line Hindus threatened to burn down the house if the Christians continued to worship at the Calvary Gospel Centre.

Besides legitimizing anti-Christian violence in the popular mind, critics say anti-conversion laws make conversion cumbersome and identify targets for Hindu extremists. In Gujarat state, the archbishop of Gandhinagar, Rev. Stanislaus Fernandes, and non-profit organizations have filed a petition in the state high court challenging a requirement in Gujarat’s anti-conversion law that co-religionists obtain prior permission from a district magistrate before performing or participating in a conversion ceremony. The Times of India reported on Friday (Feb. 27) that Justice M.S. Shah and Justice Akil Kureshi have accepted the case and issued a notice to the state government seeking explanation on objections raised by petitioners.

“The Act, by making one’s conversion a matter of public notice and knowledge, really aims at facilitating and encouraging the religious fanatics to take law into their hands to prevent even free and voluntary conversion,” petitioner attorneys contended. “In the name of maintaining law and order, the Act will invite people to disturb law and order.” Counsel added that the Act aims mainly at “preventing Dalits and adivasis [tribal people] from converting to another religion, thereby forcing them to remain in the Hindu fold.”


Orissa Fallout

A fresh spate of attacks hit Karnataka last September following India’s worst-ever wave of persecution in the eastern state of Orissa, where at least 127 people were killed and 315 villages, 4,640 houses, 252 churches and 13 educational institutions were destroyed. The Orissa attacks, allegedly incited by the BJP and the Hindu extremist Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP) under the pretext of avenging the assassination of Hindu nationalist leader Laxmanananda Saraswati in Kandhamal district, also rendered more than 50,000 people homeless. Although an extreme Marxist group claimed responsibility for Saraswati’s murder, the VHP and the BJP, which is part of the ruling coalition in Orissa, blamed Christians for it.

Even as the mayhem in Orissa was underway, VHP’s youth wing Bajrang Dal began attacks on Christians and their institutions in Karnataka on the pretext of protesting alleged distribution by the New Life Fellowship organization of a book said to denigrate Hindu gods. According to Dr. John Dayal, member of the National Integration Council of the Government of India, last September at least 33 churches were attacked and 53 Christians were injured, mainly in the Mangalore region of Dakshina Kannada district and parts of Udupi district.

The state convener for the Bajrang Dal, Mahendra Kumar, publicly claimed responsibility for the attacks and was arrested on Sept. 19, a day after the federal government ruled by the Congress party-led United Progressive Alliance admonished the state government for allowing attacks on Christians, according to The Deccan Herald, a regional daily. Kumar, however, was subsequently released on bail.

While the issue of the “objectionable” book served as the pretext for the attacks, the BJP had already become upset with New Life Fellowship because a film actress known as Nagma announced in July 2008 that she had become Christian a few years prior. BJP attorneys sent her a threatening legal notice for “hurting religious sentiments.”

In a press conference at Tirunelveli in Tamil Nadu state on July 24, the general secretary of the BJP’s legal wing, Sridhar Murthi, said that Nagma – who appeared in several Tamil-, Telugu- and Hindi-language films from 1993 to 1997 – had hurt the sentiments of others while speaking at a Christian meeting in Nalumavadi, in the Tuticorin area.

“In that meeting, she said she is ready to preach the gospel in every city and town that the Lord takes her to,” reported The Christian Messenger, a Christian news website based in Tamil Nadu state. New Life Fellowship later reportedly ordained Nagma as a minister.

Following the attacks – not only on New Life Church but also on churches and individuals from various denominations – the BJP government set up the Justice B.K. Somasekhara Commission of Inquiry to investigate. Churches and Christians had filed 458 affidavits from Dakshina Kannada district. After questioning 49 witnesses, the panel completed its five-day judicial proceeding in Mangalore on Feb. 20 and set the next sitting for March 16-20. The Commission earlier had a sitting in Bangalore, capital of Karnataka.

Karnataka also has gained recent notoriety for violent vigilantes. Last month a splinter group from the extreme Hindu nationalist VHP, the Sri Ram Sene, attacked women in a pub in Mangalore, saying only men were allowed to drink.

“These girls come from all over India, drink, smoke, and walk around in the night spoiling the traditional girls of Mangalore,” Pravin Valke, founding member of the Sri Rama Sene, told The Indian Express on Feb. 3. “Why should girls go to pubs? Are they going to serve their future husbands alcohol? Should they not be learning to make chapattis [Indian bread]? Bars and pubs should be for men only. We wanted to ensure that all women in Mangalore are home by 7 p.m.”

With national elections expected to be held in April-May this year, Christians fear that attacks could continue. Dr. Bokanakere Siddalingappa Yeddyurappa, the 66-year-old chief minister of Karnataka, has been part of the RSS since 1970.

Report from Compass Direct News


Orissa police confirm Maoists killed Saraswati; thousands flee amid continued violence.

NEW DELHI, October 10 (Compass Direct News) – After police in the eastern state of Orissa confirmed this week that Maoists killed Hindu nationalist leader Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati, a Hindu extremist group circulated allegedly forged documents in an attempt to implicate a local church in the Aug. 23 murder.

The Hindu Jagaran Samukhya (Society for Revival of Hinduism or HJS) circulated documents saying the plan to kill Saraswati in Kandhamal district was made at a meeting at Bethikala Church on May 25 attended by 17 people following a briefing and command from religious leaders, the Press Trust of India news agency reported yesterday.

Local Christian leaders responded by saying they will file defamation charges.

“We will file both civil and criminal defamation cases against the person who made such allegations,” Father Joseph Kalathil from the Catholic Archbishop House in Bhubaneswar and the Rev. Fr. Prafulla Ku Sabhapati, president of the Bethikala Parish Council of Kandhamal, said in a statement. “Not only our signatures were forged, the contents of the documents were also fabricated.”

On Oct. 6 Orissa state police confirmed that Maoists killed Saraswati, a day after the chief of the Orissa unit of the banned Communist Party of India-Maoist, Sabyasachi Panda, told NDTV 24X7 news that his organization was behind the murder.

The Maoists killed Saraswati because he was a key leader of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP), Panda told the channel. The VHP, he said, used non-tribal traders’ money to build VHP’s youth wing, Bajrang Dal, and ran a campaign against Christians, falsely accusing them of forced conversions and killing cows, considered holy by Hindus.

“This forced us to attack him,” Panda said. “We left two letters claiming responsibility for the murders. But the [Chief Minister Naveen] Patnaik government suppressed those letters. It is a BJP [Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party] government; they will support the VHP. The state government made it look like Christian groups were responsible for the attack. The Christian community in Orissa does not have any Maoist organization supporting them here.”

There were also reports, however, of the Orissa police having arrested three tribal Christians in connection with Saraswati’s murder. The Indian Express reported that the three had confessed their involvement.

A representative of the Christian Legal Association told Compass that according to sources, the police had tortured the three Christians to pressure them to confess a crime they did not commit.

After the assassination of Saraswati, Hindu extremist groups blamed local Christians and began attacks on them, their houses and their churches. The worst violence against Christians in modern India erupted in spite of the Orissa police and media stating on the day of the murder that suspected Maoists killed Saraswati.

According to the All India Christian Council, more than 60 people have been killed, more than 18,000 injured and around 4,500 houses and churches destroyed in the “retributive” violence. Two Christian women, including a nun, were also gang-raped. The violence, which later spread to at least 14 districts of Orissa, has left more than 50,000 people homeless.


Attacks Continue

Orissa’s Kandhamal district remained tense even 48 days after the violence began.

Yesterday about 15 houses were burned down by a mob in the Lansaripalli village in Kantamal Block of neighboring Boudh district, The Hindu reported. The attackers came from the Gochhapada area of Kandhamal district.

“Thursday’s was the third incident in Boudh district,” added the daily. “More than 100 houses were burnt down in two separate attacks in the past few days.”

On Wednesday (Oct. 8), a mob burned and looted at least 25 houses belonging to Christians in the Balligada village under Daringbadi police station in Kandhamal’s Nuagam Block, Father Ajay Singh of the Catholic Archdiocese of Bhubaneswar told Compass.

On Tuesday (Oct. 7), over five houses were torched in Jalespanga area under Phiringia police jurisdiction in Kandhamal. Another house was burned in the Sujeli village of G. Udayagiri Block the same day.

The Hindu also said the more than 16,000 Christians living in various relief camps were not returning to their villages, fearing attacks on them if they refused to convert to Hinduism.

Fr. Singh from the Bhubaneswar Archdiocese told Compass that over 12,000 Christians from various relief camps had moved out of Kandhamal to other districts and states, as they feared more attacks.


Supporting Violence

The president of the VHP, Ashok Singhal, told Zee News channel on Sunday (Oct. 5), “What Hindu organizations including the VHP, the Bajrang Dal and the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, India’s chief Hindu nationalist group] are doing in Orissa is all legal and is the reaction of the murder of VHP leader Saraswati, who was like Jesus Christ to us.”

In an interview with The Week magazine (Oct. 5), Singhal said that Hindu youth are “ready to die and, if necessary, to kill. [Their] patience is ebbing.”

Singhal added that a “Hindu uprising” had begun, “and the political parties will have to rethink and reinvent themselves, for their own existence. If there is no arrangement for Hindus’ security, they’ll do it on their own. The Hindus will not die. If that self-defence is militancy, so be it … the Hindu never went around the world for suzerainty or to convert … now they are here, undermining us. That causes anger. In fact many want to fight back this harvesting of Hindus.”

In addition, a leader of the Bajrang Dal in the southern state of Karnataka admitted to supporting recent attacks on churches while speaking to The Week magazine. “We supported those who attacked the churches, as it is a justified fight,” Bajrang Dal convenor Mahendra Kumar said.

The violence in Orissa spread to several other states, including Karnataka, where around 20 churches were destroyed and 20 Christians were attacked in the recent weeks.

As many political parties and rights groups have demanded a ban on the Bajrang Dal for attacking Christians and churches in Orissa and other states, the federal government ruled by the United Progressive Alliance has mandated the National Integration Council to give its recommendations, reported the Times of India today.

The Bajrang Dal, however, warned that any such move would have “grave consequences” for the government politically, saying there was “no legal ground” for such an action.

There are 897,861 Christians in Orissa, which has a population of 36.8 million.  

Report from Compass Direct News


More attacks launched in Orissa and Karnataka; Orissa archbishop threatened with death.

NEW DELHI, September 19 (Compass Direct News) – After three weeks of widespread attacks on Christians and their property in Orissa state and other parts of the country, the federal government finally warned two states that their failure to prevent violence could lead to the imposition of “President’s Rule.”

As more incidents of violence were reported from Orissa and the southern state of Karnataka yesterday, the federal government ruled by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) issued an official warning to the two states under Article 355 of the Indian Constitution, Indo-Asian News Service (IANS) reported. The article requires state governments to function with due respect to constitutional provisions, setting up a potential showdown between the federal UPA, led by the Congress Party (Indian National Congress), and Orissa and Karnataka states ruled by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The BJP is the largest opposition party at the federal level. The UPA also said it was keeping a close watch on the activities of Hindu extremist groups, including the Bajrang Dal, youth wing of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP), which is allegedly behind the ongoing violence, reported Press Trust of India.

The governments of the two states under the scanner suspected political motives behind the federal government’s move. The BJP today dared the federal government to impose President’s Rule in Karnataka.

“We dare the Centre to go a step ahead and implement Article 356 [empowering the federal government to impose emergency rule],” BJP spokesperson Ravi Shankar Prasad told IANS. “They will have to bear the consequences and the people of the country would give them a fitting reply.”

The Christian community, however, saw a ray of hope in the federal government’s move. Father Dominic Emmanuel of the Delhi Catholic Archdiocese told Compass that the federal government’s warning has brought “at least some consolation” to the country’s Christian community, which forms 2.3 percent of the total population.

The violence began following the assassination of a VHP leader and icon of Hindu nationalism, Laxmanananda Saraswati, and four of his disciples in Orissa’s Kandhamal district 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.

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.


New Attacks in Orissa

Incidents of violence continued in Orissa’s Kandhamal district. Mobs burned down two prayer houses on Wednesday night (Sept. 17) in Mundigarh and Lankagarh areas under Tumudibandh police station in Kandhamal, reported The Indian Express daily.

“The district administration foiled another attempt by the troublemakers to set afire the Phiringia police station last night,” the newspaper reported. “Both roads to the town, Phulbani-Phiringia and Gochhapada-Phiringia, were blocked by felling of trees.”

The administration, however, learned of the plan, cleared the blockade and moved security forces to the town.

Archbishop of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar Raphael Cheenath received a death threat.

“Just last week I received a chilling letter from Hindu groups which said ‘blood for blood, life for life.’ What can I do?” Cheenath said yesterday while at the Catholic Bishop Conference of India office in Delhi, according to IANS.

The letter stated that the archbishop, who has been staying in Bhubaneswar for three decades and whose house was stoned a few days ago, would be killed if he returned to Orissa. “They [Hindu groups] threatened to kill me,” he said. “Is this how civilized society behaves?”

Archbishop Cheenath, Delhi’s Archbishop Vincent Concessao and Father Babu Joseph, spokesman for the Catholic Church in India, met Prime Minister Manmohan Singh yesterday to apprise him of unabated violence in Orissa.

“Despite your consoling words and assurances, the violence still continues in some parts of Kandhamal,” they said in a memorandum, which carried a list of violent incidents that took place in Kandhamal after Sept. 11, when the Orissa state government told the Supreme Court of India that normalcy was returning in the district.

“Looting, arson and vandalism continue,” said the memorandum. “Security forces are mainly in the towns, main roads and are not moving to the interior parts of Kandhamal. Crimes are being freely committed by the culprits with impunity.”

Forced conversions from Christianity to Hinduism are continuing in the villages of Orissa, the memo said. “Christians are forced under threat of death, burning of their houses, or death of their relatives. After conversion, they have to burn their Bibles, religious articles and their own house, to prove that they are genuine Hindus. All other Hindu ceremonies are imposed on them.”


More Assaults in Karnataka

Attacks continued also in Karnataka. According to New Delhi-based Asian News International news agency, unidentified people launched attacks in three districts of the state on Wednesday (Sept. 17).

While a mob destroyed Bibles and other Christian literature and vandalized furniture the St. George Church in Ujire area of the Dakshina Kannada district, another group of people pelted a statue of the Virgin Mary with stones outside the St. Mary’s Church in Kolar district. Yet another group of people damaged furniture at a church in Chikamagalur district.

Hindu extremists in Karnataka began targeting Christians 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.

Attacks on churches were reported from several parts of the state on consecutive Sundays following Aug. 29. The Bajrang Dal claimed responsibility for most of the attacks, which were mostly aimed at churches of the New Life Fellowship ministry.

The Karnataka state government today announced a probe by a retired judge of the high court into anti-Christian attacks, reported IANS.

Earlier this week, there were incidents of violent attacks on Christians and their institutions also in the southern states of Kerala, the north-central states of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, and Jharkhand state in the east.


Tensions in National Capital

On Wednesday (Sept. 17), a group of unidentified people believed to be Hindu extremists sought to create tensions in the national capital Delhi.

A mob forcibly took possession of a lawn in front of a Catholic church, God’s Light Church, in Trilokpuri area in East Delhi, reported the Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI).

“The mob broke open an outside gate to the lawn as well as the inside gate leading from the church and threatened to construct a temple there,” EFI reported. “They have also locked the outside gate to the lawn/garden as well as the inside gate leading from the church to the lawn.”

The church building has been in the area since 1991.

“It is a well planned move to create a confrontation with the church in Delhi too after the incidents in the states of Orissa, Karnataka and Kerala,” EFI reported. “The miscreants have resorted to this step to gauge the reaction of the church before doing anything further.”

Supporters of the VHP also tried to harass a Christian institution in the neighboring state of Haryana.

The Rev. Madhu Chandra of the AICC said some VHP extremists filed a complaint with Hisar district authorities against a school run by the North India Christian Mission for closing the school “illegally” on Aug. 29, the day all Christian schools remained closed to protest violence in Orissa. The complaint, filed in Barwala town, also accused school personnel of “converting” students and people of the area, as if conversion were illegal in India.

The AICC will hold a rally in Vijayawada in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh tomorrow (Sept. 20) to urge the governments of affected states to arrest those responsible for the anti-Christian violence.

Dr. John Dayal, AICC secretary general, returned from Orissa yesterday and warned that the situation in the country was getting “out of hand.”

Report from Compass Direct News


At least 20 houses burned and 70 Christian families forced to become Hindus in one day.

NEW DELHI, September 9 (Compass Direct News) – The spate of anti-Christian violence that began following the killing of a Hindu leader on Aug. 23 in Orissa’s Kandhamal district continued yesterday despite a stream of meetings by Christian and rights groups with high government officials.

At least 20 houses were burned last night and 70 Christian families were forcibly ‘reconverted’ to Hinduism yesterday in separate incidents in the eastern state.

According to the Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI), more than 20 houses belonging to Christians from the Orissa Follow-Up ministry (OFU) in Khajuripada village in Kandhamal were set on fire last night. The Rev. Dr. D.B. Hrudaya of the OFU told EFI that the whereabouts of the 20 families whose houses were destroyed were unknown and that he was “deeply concerned.”

Earlier in the day, around 70 families in four villages – Bogapada, Boriguda, Kuttiguda and Danniguda – in Kandhamal were forcibly ‘reconverted’ to Hinduism by Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP) extremists.

On Sunday (September 7), a mob of around 2,000 people attacked a church during the morning worship service in Bhudainjal village in another district, Kalahandi, reported EFI. While the church members were able to flee, the attackers caught hold of two church workers and assaulted them.

“When the three-months pregnant wife of one of the men tried to rescue her husband, one person in the mob kicked her in the stomach,” EFI reported. “She was admitted to the Kathiguda Government Hospital.”

In the afternoon, the mob burned a daycare center in nearby Bamnichatra village. The crowd also stole items worth around 10,000 rupees (US$225) from the center before setting it on fire.


Poisoned Water

There were also reports of Hindu extremists poisoning the water at relief camps in Kandhamal.

“An attempt to poison the drinking water source of the relief camp in Habaq High School in G. Udayagiri village, Kandhamal was foiled by an alert security guard at 9 p.m. on September 2,” EFI said in a statement.

The water of another relief camp in Vijay High School in Raikia, Kandhamal was reportedly poisoned last Wednesday (September 3). Six Christians fell ill from the toxicity and were taken to hospitals, according to EFI.

The violence in Orissa began following the killing of a VHP leader, Laxmanananda Saraswati, and four of his disciples on August 23 in his ashram (religious center) in the Jalespeta area of Kandhamal district. A Maoist group claimed responsibility for the killings, but the VHP continues to blame Christians.

The Global Council of India Christians has recorded at least 56 deaths thus far, and the rights group believes the toll could cross 100. Hundreds of houses and churches have also been burned or destroyed in the violence, forcing thousands to hide in jungles or take shelter in relief camps set up by the state government.

The Catholic Bishops Conference of India said in a statement yesterday (September 8) that relief camps needed more facilities and protection for the people who were “still in the grip of fear and loss.”

“In some villages people continue to live under threat,” the conference said in a statement. “They think they could be attacked any time.”

Representatives of the Christian community in India have met with the president, the federal interior minister, the leader of the ruling United Progressive Alliance Sonia Gandhi, Orissa Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, and several other political leaders to urge them to ensure protection of Christians in Orissa.

At the same time, the VHP defied a government ban to organize a gathering at Saraswati’s ashram in Jalespeta to pay homage to its slain leader over the weekend, reported The Telegraph newspaper.

The VHP was planning to take the ashes of Saraswati in public procession from village to village in the whole of Orissa on Sunday (September 7), but the state government banned it after the Supreme Court on Friday (September 5) ordered it to take all measures to protect the lives and property of Christians.

Yesterday the state government banned all rallies and processions in connection with Saraswati’s killing, as it has to inform the Supreme Court about the security measures taken to end the violence on Thursday (September 11), reported the Press Trust of India agency.

Saraswati allegedly incited the attacks on Christians and their property in Kandhamal last Christmas season. The violence lasted for more than a week beginning December 24, and killed at least four Christians and burned 730 houses and 95 churches.

The 2007 attacks were allegedly carried out by VHP extremists under the pretext of avenging an attack on Saraswati allegedly by local Christians. Hundreds of Christians were displaced by the violence in Kandhamal, and many are still in various relief camps set up by the state government.

Orissa is ruled by a coalition of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party and the Biju Janata Dal party.

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

Report from Compass Direct News


Orissa government leaks assessment pointing toward Maoists; protests nationwide

NEW DELHI, August 29 (Compass Direct News) – Sources in the government of Orissa said in an India media report today that they believe that Christians were not behind the killing of Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP) leader Laxmanananda Saraswati and four of his disciples on Saturday (August 23).

The death toll in “retributive” attacks against Christians today stood at 36, according to the Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC).

A private news channel, NDTV 24X7, reported unnamed government sources as saying that their assessment was that Christians had no role in the killing, and that the probe was leading to Maoist (extreme Marxist) culprits.

Inspector General of Police (Intelligence) Manmohan Praharaj had on Wednesday told The Indian Express newspaper that evidence available to police was “consistent with the Maoist stamp in the kind of operation they undertake.”

“The assailants had left a note written on the letterhead of Vamsadhara Zonal Committee, signed by one Azad, and it is consistent with the Maoist methods,” he added.

After the attack on Saraswati’s ashram (religious center) in Kandhamal district, the VHP and the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), partner of the ruling coalition with the Biju Janata Dal party, claimed that Christians had killed Saraswati because he was fighting “forced” conversions. Saraswati was allegedly behind a spate of anti-Christian attacks in Kandhamal last Christmas season. The violence lasted for more than a week beginning December 24, and killed at least four Christians and burned 730 houses and 95 churches.

With Hindu extremist leaders having urged followers to “Kill Christians and destroy their institutions,” mobs allegedly led by the VHP today carried on attacks on Christians in Orissa’s Kandhamal district for the sixth consecutive day, though there were reportedly fewer incidents than in the previous five days.

To express solidarity with the victims of the violence, Christians from various denominations and across the country registered their protests. Around 45,000 Christian schools and colleges throughout the country remained closed today to demand protection of Christians in Orissa.

“Survival is more important than education,” the Rev. Dr. Babu Joseph, spokesman of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI), told Indo-Asian News Service (IANS), refering to the CBCI’s call for a nationwide closure of Christian schools.

A Hindu extremist group in Gwalior city in the northern state of Madhya Pradesh, however, pelted stones at some schools and churches.

“While all Christian schools and colleges in Madhya Pradesh remained closed on Friday in protest, a group of people pelted stones at Carmel Convent School, St. Theresa School and Church and St. Paul’s Church in Gwalior,” V.K. Suryavanshi, superintendent of police, told IANS. Madhya Pradesh is ruled by the BJP.


‘Ethnic Cleansing’

Raising cries against “ethnic cleansing” of Christians in Orissa, thousands of Christians today staged a rally in the national capital to protest violence that has claimed at least 30 lives, destroyed hundreds of houses and churches and forced thousands of Christians to flee to jungles.

Among other protests across the country, at the Orissa House in New Delhi Christians from almost 30 churches and numerous organizations gathered to protest the violence. Addressing the throng was Archbishop Raphael Cheenath from Orissa, Archbishop Vincent Concessao of Delhi, Dr. John Dayal of the All India Christian Council (AICC) and the Rev. Dr. Richard Howell of the Evangelical Fellowship of India.

Member of Parliament P.C. Thomas, retired high court judge Kulse Patil, attorneys from the Christian Legal Association, human rights activists Shabnam Hashmi and Teesta Setalvad, and Dalit leader Udit Raj were also part of the protest.

Christians submitted a memorandum to Orissa Gov. Murlidhar Chandrakant Bhandare after the rally.

“In deep anguish and pain, we, the Christian community of the Delhi and National Capital Region, submit this memorandum to you, and not to the Chief Minister of Orissa, because we believe that by not stopping the ethnic cleansing of Christians in Orissa in the last six days, he has abdicated his Constitutional duties to the Sangh Parivar [family of Hindu extremist groups] and thereby has forfeited his right to be in government,” it said.

The memorandum also demanded declaration of President’s Rule in Orissa under Article 356 of the Indian Constitution, saying the constitutional machinery of the state had failed.

“Nuns have been raped, pastors, priests, religious workers injured in their hundreds,” it reads. “Over forty churches have been destroyed, many for the second time, apart from once again hundreds upon hundreds of houses burnt in towns, villages and forest settlements. Christians have been chased and hunted like animals.”

The GCIC will stage a day-long sit-in protest in front of the Orissa state assembly in state capital Bhubaneswar tomorrow.

Organizations in the United States and United Kingdom also have condemned the violence, demanding action against the attackers. Christian Solidarity Worldwide, the Dalit Freedom Network, the Federation of Indian American Christian Organizations in North American, the Indian National Overseas Congress, and the Indian Muslim Council of the USA are among them.


‘National Shame’

A Christian delegation from across various denominations yesterday met with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who called the Orissa violence a “national shame.” Singh assured the church leaders of compensation of 300,000 rupees (US$7,500) to the families of those killed, reported The Hindu newspaper.

Singh also reportedly promised funds from the Prime Ministers’ Relief Fund for providing relief and rehabilitation to all those affected by the violence.

The federal government also seeks a probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) into the violence against Christians.

“We would have liked ideally that this matter be handed over to the CBI, because those responsible should get justice immediately as judicial probe takes longer time,” Science and Technology Minister Kapil Sibal (from the Congress Party) told the Press Trust of India news agency. Sibal, however, clarified that it was for the state government to recommend a probe by the federal investigating agency, as the federal government could not do this on its own.

The opposition Congress Party in the Orissa state assembly House moved a no-confidence motion against the ruling coalition late today. It posed little threat to the government, which had the required majority to defeat it in a voice vote.


Tensions, Mob Attacks Continue as Violence Ebbs

NEW DELHI, August 29 (Compass Direct News) – As a week of violence drew to a close following the killing of senior Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) leader Laxmananada Saraswati, some angry Hindu mobs were still attacking Christians in spite of orders by the Orissa state administration to shoot agitators on sight.

The “shoot-at-sight” orders are in place in eight of the most sensitive areas as the number of deaths climbed to at least 36, according to the Global Council of Indian Christians. By nightfall in Orissa state, authorities had discovered the body of Abhimanyu Naik of Kandhamal district near Raikia village; they said he was the apparent victim of a mob attack.

The government maintains a figure of 19 dead, while Christian and human rights agencies calculate higher tolls. The Asian Centre for Human Rights asserts that more than 50 persons, mainly Christians, have been killed. Dr. John Dayal, secretary general of the All India Christian Council, reported in a letter to United Progressive Alliance Chairperson Sonia Gandhi that 30 persons have been killed.

Orissa police have reportedly put about 165 people behind bars for the violence, but Vijay Simha, senior editor of independent weekly news magazine Tehelka, told Compass from Kandhamal district that there is no evidence against them.

“These arrests are based purely on suspicion,” he said. “There is terror all over. Those who are hiding in the forest and those in the homes – no one feels safe. The areas are totally deserted.”

Orissa officials report that in Kandhamal district alone 20 churches have been burned, 19 people killed, 10 people seriously injured, 28 vehicles burned and more than 500 houses burned down or destroyed. But lawyer Bibhu Dutta Das told Compass that the number of houses burned or destroyed in Kandhamal could be “a lot more than what was quoted in the government report – the number can be over 1,000.”

Sources said churches were attacked today in Tharnamal, Phatara, and Panbarani. Churches were burned throughout the district of Bolangir and the areas of Ganjam and Kalumunda in the past few days. In Bolangir, four churches were burned yesterday in Dhandhamal, Monihira, Phatkorra, and Bilaikani.

The assault on churches continued in Bolangir district. Sources said that in Tharnamal, Bolangir a mob of around 60 people attacked a church building where Christians were present inside. The attackers included at least four minors. The Christians were able to flee as the assailants destroyed the structure.

Additionally, one church was burned in Kalumunda, and one in Ganjam.


Appeals for Help

Deputy Inspector General of Police R.P. Koche told Compass that tensions remain while security is gradually increasing.

“Curfew is relaxed in Phulbani town, and the situation is quite under control,” he said. “Though tension prevails in Kandhamal, the situation is improving gradually in some areas. Security forces have been able to enter inaccessible areas by removing obstacles placed by miscreants.”

Koche said that a number of Special Forces were deployed in Kandhamal district, including the Central Reserve Police Force and the Rapid Action Force, while Orissa state armed police had deployed 24 platoons in the area.

Local sources in Baliguda said the curfew there was relaxed today, and markets were re-opened.

Christian and human rights agencies have appealed for the government to do more to bring the violence under control. After the New Delhi-based Human Rights Law Network filed a petition in Cuttack High Court, the Orissa High Court yesterday directed the state government to immediately deploy more forces to protect the rights and properties of the people.

Another petition was filed by the Utkal Christian Council. The High Court of Orissa heard the case today and issued show-cause notices to the state of Orissa and the Union of India to file replies.

“It has been directed that the state shall requisition required number of security forces, and the central government shall provide the same,” Attorney B.D. Das told Compass. “Further, it was directed that the state shall furnish the details of how much security forces it has applied for with the Central Government and how many has the Central government so far provided for the maintenance of law and order situation in the state.”

In addition, the National Human Rights Commission today asked the Orissa government to file a detailed report on violence in the state within two weeks.


Relief Camps

Suresh Mohapatra, a government administrator, told media that the state government had opened seven relief camps along the affected areas that could accommodate nearly 5,000 people.

“People are still coming to camps,” he said, adding that he expected the flow to end soon as “the riots have stopped.”

Local sources told Compass that more than 1,000 people are at a relief camp at G. Udaygiri, with the government providing makeshift shelter and basic foods.  

Report from Compass Direct News