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


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