Dog whistles, regional visas and wage theft – immigration policy is again an election issue


Jock Collins, University of Technology Sydney

This article is part of a series examining the Coalition government’s record on key issues while in power and what Labor is promising if it wins the 2019 federal election.


Immigration policy will be a major issue in the 2019 federal election. We know this because immigration has featured significantly at every Australian election since the 2001 “children overboard” election.

David Marr and Marian Wilkinson argued in their 2003 book, Dark Victory, that willingness to play the race card in relation to boat people was a decisive factor in John Howard’s election victory. For Tony Abbott, “Stop the boats” was a major campaign theme when the Coalition won back government in the 2013 election. The current prime minister, Scott Morrison, rose to prominence as Abbott’s unyielding immigration minister who stopped the boats.




Read more:
Australian politics explainer: the MV Tampa and the transformation of asylum-seeker policy


While the events of Christchurch may have cramped the opportunity for the Coalition to run hard on fear, promising to be tough on borders and tough on (Muslim) terrorism, the dog-whistle politics on the issue of refugees and asylum seekers will be there for those wanting to hear it.

For Labor these policy issues have been difficult. It was Kevin Rudd who as PM declared that those arriving by boat would never be settled in Australia, irrespective of the validity of their claims for protection under the UN Refugee Convention. Labor supported efforts to get children out of detention on Manus Island, but doesn’t want to give the conservatives too much space to convincingly advance a “Labor weak on border security” line.

Humanitarian intake is growing

The Coalition governments of Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison have in fact increased Australia’s annual humanitarian intake significantly. The number has risen from just over 13,750 to more than 18,000 – though the government has not loudly broadcast this fact.

In addition, Abbott in 2015 announced a one-off intake of 12,000 Syrian conflict refugees. Most of them arrived in 2017, effectively doubling the annual refugee intake in that year.

Australia – and the refugees – coped well, demonstrating the nation’s capacity to significantly increase refugee intakes. Our research with newly arrived Syrian, Iraqi and Afghan refugee families suggests they are settling well in Australia, receiving a warm welcome from locals in the cities and regional centres. Employment and family reunification are their key worries.




Read more:
Refugees are integrating just fine in regional Australia


Labor’s shadow immigration minister, Shayne Neumann, has flagged a new temporary sponsored visa for the parents of migrants. Unlike the current visa, it does not have a cap and it might assist refugees to get their parents to Australia.

Labor has announced it will increase the annual humanitarian intake of refugees to 27,000 by 2025. It will also abolish Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs). These visas provide boat arrivals who are found to be refugees the right to stay for only three years with work and study rights and access to Centrelink payments. As Labor argues, this places them “in a permanent state of limbo”.

The Coalition parties have not announced their policy intentions in relation to humanitarian intakes or the rights of asylum seekers, including those who arrived by boat.

At a time when Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton scans the horizon for new boat arrivals, record number of asylum seekers are arriving by plane under tourist visas. In 2013-14, there were 18,718 asylum applications, including 9,072 boat arrivals. This had increased to 27,931 asylum applications, with no boat arrivals, by 2017-18.


Department of Home Affairs

Each year the Australia government sets the permanent immigration targets. Until recently this was set at 190,00. In practice just 162,000 immigrants have been admitted over the past year or so.

A token cut and 2 new visas

In this context Prime Minister Morrison’s announcement that the permanent immigration target will be cut to 160,000 is really no change in immigration policy. There is nothing to see here if you dismiss the need to be loudly anti-immigration in the current populist political climate.




Read more:
Government’s population plan is more about maximising ‘win-wins’ than cutting numbers


The announcement is linked to congestion-busting in the major cities of Sydney and Melbourne. It is accompanied by the introduction of two new visa pathways – the Skilled Work Regional (Provisional) Visa and the Skilled Employer Sponsored Regional (Provisional) Visa – for skilled migrants to live and work in regional areas for five years.

These visas offer the carrot of permanent residency at the end of three years to attract new immigrants to regional Australia. In addition, the budget announced that scholarships to the tune of $94 million over four years would be available to domestic and international students who study there.




Read more:
Settling migrants in regional areas will need more than a visa to succeed


Temporary migrants exploited

Most immigration policy debates centre on permanent immigration intakes, particularly of humanitarian immigrants and asylum seekers. Yet annual temporary migrant intakes – international students, working holidaymakers and temporary skilled workers – are three times greater than the permanent intake. Over 800,000 temporary migrants were in Australia in June 2018.

One key policy issue is the exploitation of temporary migrant workers. The Turnbull government abolished the 457 temporary skilled migration visa because of increasing reports of abuse and exploitation by employers.

One recent survey of 4,332 temporary migrant workers found “increasing evidence of widespread exploitation of temporary migrant workers, including wage theft”. Half of all temporary migrant workers may be underpaid. About one in three international students and backpackers earned $12 an hour or less – about half the minimum wage.

This issue goes not just to the ethics of maintaining a temporary migration program largely premised on migrant worker exploitation. It also resonates with Labor’s campaign for a living wage and the restoration of penalty rates for workers in response to the low rate of real wage growth in Australia, which constrains consumer demand.




Read more:
Ultra low wage growth isn’t accidental. It is the intended outcome of government policies


The 2019-20 federal budget allocated extra funding to the Fair Work Ombudsman to bolster enforcement action against employers who exploit vulnerable workers and announced the National Labour Hire Registration Scheme to target rogue operators in the labour hire industry. However, the research suggests wage theft is widespread in the small business sector, a key target for tax relief in the budget. It is an area of immigration policy that requires considerably more resources and punch.The Conversation

Jock Collins, Professor of Social Economics, UTS Business School, University of Technology Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Advertisements

ALP urges Fair Work Commission to give “substantial” minimum wage increase


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

The Labor opposition has called for a “substantial” increase in the minimum wage, in a submission lodged with the Fair Work Commission’s annual wage review.

But the ALP has not put a figure on the amount it believes would be appropriate.

With Bill Shorten making wages one of the centrepieces of his election pitch, the submission flags that an ALP government would rewrite the guidelines used by the commission in its wage setting.

“The Opposition accepts that the panel is constrained by the current legislative provisions, but no longer has confidence that these provisions have the capacity to deliver the wages growth that the lowest paid workers, and our economy, require,” the submission says.

The national minimum wage at present is $18.93 an hour, which is
$719.20 for a 38-hour working week.

The ACTU wants rises brought in over two years amounting to an
increase of 11.5%, that would take the minimum wage to nearly $42,000 a year.

It proposes a “living wage” of 60% of the median wage.

Under its proposal to the commission the minimum hourly rate would rise this year to $20.07, with the subsequent increase taking it to $21.17.

Labor has not yet released its full wages policy but while Shorten has spoken of a living wage, the opposition is not embracing the ACTU position, preferring to leave the onus on the FWC, under changed guidelines that would see the minimum wage boosted.




Read more:
Explainer: what exactly is a living wage?


In its submission, the opposition says too many people are not getting a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. It points to years of wage stagnation, the collapse of bargaining, insecure work and
exploitation, and a minimum wage that traps people in poverty.

“A fair wage system is fundamental to a stronger economy too,” the
submission says. “Because the incomes of working people are what
drives confidence, demand and growth.

“The people most affected by this tribunal’s decision spend every
single dollar they earn. It’s their wages and their purchasing power that helps keep small businesses afloat”.

Labor says the FWC should recognise in its decision a number of
factors, including that “everything is going up except for wages”.

It points out that “since 2013 productivity has grown four times
faster than wages” and “since 2016 company profits have grown five
times faster than wages”.

The opposition argues that experience overseas shows significant
increases in the minimum wage can be made without costing jobs, and says persistent low wages growth is a “threat to consumer demand and the broader economy”.

The submission says that in the last five years the minimum wage
averaged 54.3% of median wages.

Shorten on Thursday said that apart from having a higher minimum wage, other initiative by a Labor government to improve wages would include restoring penalty rates, pressing for pay equity in feminised industries, and protecting labour hire workers and sub-contractors.

Scott Morrison said Shorten was either lying to people in saying he could do something about their wages – because he hadn’t explained how – or “if he’s telling the truth, then he is putting an enormous cost on small and family businesses that will force them to lay off staff. That is not good for the Australian economy.”The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Budget update shaves growth and wage forecasts but is brighter about the deficit


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

The 2017-18 budget update shows an improvement in the deficit forecast for this financial year but predicts lower economic growth and a smaller increase in wages than was expected in the May budget.

The deficit for 2017-18 is now expected to come in at A$23.6 billion, an improvement of A$5.8 billion from the May forecast, according to the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook released by Treasurer Scott Morrison and Finance Minister Mathias Cormann.

Growth for this financial year is forecast to be 2.5% compared with the budget’s 2.75%, reflecting recent lower-than-expected growth in household consumption.

Nevertheless Morrison and Cormann said Australia’s growth story “remains a compelling one, and although real GDP growth has been slightly tempered in 2017-18, the trajectory is upward”. Real GDP is forecast to grow at 3% in 2018-19, the same as the budget number.

Budget update on wages

The update notes that wage growth “remains low by historical standards in both the public and private sectors and has been more subdued than expected since budget”.

Wages are forecast to increase by 2.25% through the year to the June quarter 2018 and 2.75% through the year to the June quarter 2019.

This is 0.25 of a percentage point lower in both years compared with the budget – vindicating the scepticism that economists expressed about the budget forecast being too optimistic.

The flat wages situation reflects a serious political pressure point for the government, as many people struggle with high power prices and other squeezes on their cost of living.

“Wage growth is forecast to lift as the economy strengthens, inflation picks up and excess capacity in the labour market is reduced,” the update says.

Budget receipts have been revised upwards by about A$3.6 billion in 2017-18 and A$2.8 billion over the forward estimates compared with budget time – driven mainly by company tax and superannuation tax. The company tax forecasts reflect increased profitability and enforcement activity by the Australian Taxation Office.

But “over the forward estimates, lower forecasts for wages and unincorporated business income are expected to weigh on individuals’ income tax receipts,” the update says.

The half yearly revised numbers confirm that the budget is on track to have a surplus in 2020-21. The projected surplus of A$10.2 billion in that year is A$2.7 billion better than estimated in May.

Savings measures on education and welfare

The government has announced in the update a new welfare crackdown to save money and also an alternative higher education savings package after it could not pass its earlier proposals.

Savings of A$1.2 billion over four years will be reaped by broadening the criteria for waiting periods for new migrants before they can get various welfare benefits.

The changes will extend the present two-year waiting period for a range of payments, such as Newstart, to three years, and introduce a consistent new three-year waiting period to apply to a further number of benefits such as Family Tax Benefit and Paid Parental Leave.

Social Services Minister Christian Porter said the measures “will reinforce the foundational principle that Australians’ expectation of newly arrived migrants is that they contribute socially and economically for a reasonable period before having access to our nation’s generous welfare system”.

The higher education package includes a freeze on total Commonwealth Grant Scheme funding from January 1, set at 2017 levels, and a combined limit for all tuition fee assistance under all HELP and VET Student Loans.

The government will also pursue an alternative set of HELP repayment thresholds from July 1 next year, with a new minimum repayment threshold of A$45,000, higher than the A$42,000 in the original plan. At present the threshold is A$55,000.

Most of the new higher education package doesn’t have to be legislated, thus avoiding the Senate hurdle. The previous higher education package was set to save A$2.7 billion over the forward estimates; the new one saves A$2.1 billion.

Real growth in payments over the budget period is expected to be an annual average of 1.9%. Compared with the budget, nominal payments are lower in every year of the forward estimates.

The payment to GDP ratio is expected to fall to 24.9% of GDP by 2020, slightly above the 30 year historical average.

Morrison told a joint news conference with Cormann: “As we push into the new year, there is still more work to be done but we are on the right track.

“Jobs and growth will continue to be our mission and our focus. Helping the lives of the thousands of Australians, millions of Australians, and their families and returning the budget back to balance.”

Cormann said: “This is a good set of numbers in all of the circumstances.”

Shadow treasurer Chris Bowen said the government remained committed to increasing the tax paid by working Australians. He said there was no mention of personal tax cuts – which Malcolm Turnbull has foreshadowed – in the update. People only got a tax rise.

He condemned the revised higher education package, saying it would particularly hit those from a lower socioeconomic background.

The ConversationThe chair of Universities Australia, Professor Margaret Gardner, said the package would leave university funding “frozen in time”. She said the blow would be hardest in areas where university attainment was lowest, such as regional areas.

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Uzbekistan: jail terms, large fines, literature destruction follow raid


Uzbekistan has continued short-term jailings of religious minorities, with three Protestant Christians from a registered church being given 15 day jail terms,Forum 18 News Service has learnt.

Three other Protestants – arrested after a raid on the Tashkent church – were each fined 80 times the minimum monthly wage, and two other Protestants were fined five times the minimum monthly wage.

Six computers seized during the raid were ordered to be given to the state, and seized Christian literature ordered destroyed.

"Everyone was shocked at the verdict because the defendants proved in court that they were innocent and there were so many violations of legal procedure," one Protestant told Forum 18.

Unusually the court sat into the evening and the sentences were given at about 10.30 pm local time. Among other recent punishments for "illegal" religious literature, one Baptist has been fined 20 times the monthly minimum wage and his religious literature – including the New Testament – was ordered to be destroyed.

The trial followed a massive 16 May raid on the centrally-located Tashkent church. The court ordered that Christian books confiscated during the raid be destroyed. The church building is sealed.

Report from the Christian Telegraph 

Kazakhstan threatens to deport Christian missionaries


Kazakhstan has left threats to deport Viktor Leven "hanging in the air", he has told Forum 18 News Service. The now-stateless Baptist, who is Kazakh-born, was convicted of missionary activity without state permission, and because he and his wife do not have passports they cannot either obtain paid work or travel by train. He and his family live on what they can grow themselves.

Another Baptist, Zhanna-Tereza Raudovich, who was fined 100 times the minimum monthly wage for hosting worship in her home, has had an appeal against the fine rejected and has appealed to the Supreme Court.

Akmola Regional Police held a seminar on ways of struggling against religious extremism, during which Baptists were associated with terrorism. Asked why this association was made, police told Forum 18 that Baptists were not extremists but they "do violate the law often" as they continue religious activity without official registration. Attendees at the seminar included members of President Nursultan Nazarbaev’s Nur Otan political party.

Report from the Christian Telegraph 

Attacks on Christians in Karnataka Frequent, Furious


Southern state has become epicenter of religious assaults, Christians say.

NEW DELHI, February 4 (CDN) — Karnataka state recorded the highest number of anti-Christian attacks in India last year, and it is keeping pace this year.

Christians in Karnataka are being attacked “at rapid regularity” and “with near impunity,” and it is “a serious matter of concern for the Christian community,” said Dr. Babu Joseph, spokesperson of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI).

Much of the violence occurs under the vigilante pretext of rounding up Christians supposedly involved in “forcible” or “fraudulent” conversion efforts. On Monday (Feb. 1) in Thagadur village, Kodagu district, Hindu extremists dragged 11 Christians – including four women – from their homes and colluded with police to arrest them on such false charges.

The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that all of the Christians, members of the Beraka Gospel Church in Suntikupa village, were tortured at the Siddapur police station to pressure them to admit to the charges. Most of the jailed Christians are tribal, daily wage laborers who work on coffee plantations.

Police denied torturing the Christians, but like many people in India easily confused by Hindu extremist propaganda, Inspector Ratan Singh of the Siddapur police station seemed to erroneously believe that laws against fraudulent conversion apply to any kind of proclamation of faith.

“According to the complaint we received, the accused were inviting local Hindus for prayer meetings to convert them,” Singh told Compass, as if such activity were illegal in India. “We did not beat them. When they were produced before the judicial magistrate, they said they were not mistreated by the police.”

The GCIC recorded 72 attacks on Christians in Karnataka in 2009. That represents a decline from the 112 attacks the previous year, when three months of anti-Christian violence in Orissa state’s Kandhamal district in 2008 led Hindu extremists in Karnataka to lash out as well, according to Christian leaders.

Justice Michael F. Saldanha, a retired judge of the Karnataka High Court and president of the Catholic Association of South Kanara (a district in Karnataka also known as Dakshina Kannada), told Compass that attacks on Christians in the state increased after the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) began to rule.

In May 2008 the BJP came to power in Karnataka, thus making it the first southern state with a stand-alone BJP government in the history of India. The party’s rule was preceded by a 20-month rule in alliance with a local party, the Janata Dal (Secular).

Although Karnataka has had a dominant presence of the Hindu extremist Sangh Parivar since 1950, its cadres obtained free rein only after the BJP’s electoral victory, Saldanha explained.

“The real headquarters of the Sangh Parivar is not in Maharashtra [official headquarters of the Hindu extremist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS, in Nagpur), it’s in Karnataka,” said Saldanha, who conducted a private inquiry into a series of attacks that rocked Karnataka in September 2008 following the unprecedented anti-Christian bloodbath in Orissa state’s Kandhamal district.

Between Aug. 17 and Sept. 21, 2008, more than 28 attacks on churches, led mainly by the Hindu extremist Bajrang Dal, a Sangh Parivar offshoot, were reported from various parts of Karnataka.

Saldanha pointed out that Brahmins, the highest or priestly class in the caste hierarchy in Hinduism, from Udupi district and Mangalore city in neighboring Dakshina Kannada district played a special role in leading the Hindu right-wing movement. The retired judge also accused the BJP government of supporting Sangh Parivar outfits with public money.

“The Karnataka government gives money to right-wing groups for festivals in the name of celebrations, and also through donations to certain temples,” he said.

Agreeing with Saldanha, the CBCI’s Joseph said the violence in Karnataka points to a “decline in civility and collapse of administration.”

“It is indeed sad that Karnataka, which enjoyed communal harmony and social amity for so long, has recently been pushed into the cycle of hate crimes perpetrated by the extreme elements in society that do not believe in mutual tolerance or acceptance,” Joseph said.

Karnataka Gov. H.R. Bhardwaj reportedly said earlier this week that protection of people’s lives and liberties, including the right to propagate their religion, was “the essence of Indian democracy.”

The governor said it was the responsibility of the state government “to see that nobody is allowed to flout the democratic norms and laws of the land,” acknowledging a rise in the incidence of attacks against churches, reported Daijiworld.

His comments came a day after an attack on a glass painting of the Virgin Mary at the entrance arch of the Canara Organisation for Development and Peace building in Nantoor area on Saturday (Jan. 30).

On that day Christians held a silent protest in Mysore, and on Monday (Feb. 1) Christians in Mangalore protested in like fashion against increasing attacks on them.

On Jan. 28, unidentified people burned down a church in Raipura area in Molakalmuru town in Chitradurga district. The Jesus Loves Holy Temple Church turned into ashes, reported GCIC.

Two Catholic churches were attacked in Mysore and Uttara Kannada districts on Jan. 25. Unidentified people reportedly broke a statue of Mary on the compound wall of the Holy Family Church in Hinkal village in the wee hours in Mysore district. In the other incident, glass panes covering the statue of Mary were broken at St. Anthony Church in the Pernamakki area in Uttara Kannada district.

At 2:30 a.m. this morning, unidentified people broke into a Catholic church and vandalized it in the Malavalli area of Mandya district, reported the Karnataka-based GCIC. The cross, statues and musical instruments in the St. Mathias Church were destroyed, it said, adding that the parish priest filed a complaint at the Malavalli police station.

‘Lip Service’

Echoing claims of the Hindu nationalist BJP, Karnataka State Minorities Commission member Anthony Fernandez said he does not believe there is any reason for concern.

“Some elements are simply trying to tarnish the image of the state government,” he said.

Fernandez acknowledged, however, that the Hindu nationalist Sri Ram Sene (Army of God Rama) was involved in some attacks. The Sri Ram Sene is believed to be a splinter group from the Sangh Parivar family of organizations under the RSS.

Karnataka Chief Minister B.S. Yeddyurappa on Jan. 28 warned those who vandalize religious places, saying he would have their hands “chopped off.”

“I, the chief minister of Karnataka, am saying I will chop off their hands,” Yeddyurappa was quoted as saying by Headlines Today news channel.

The CBCI’s Joseph said “lip service” by the government was “no longer enough.”

“It has to show results on the ground that it means business in tackling the menace of communal elements,” he said. “Unprovoked violence against fellow citizens in the name of religion is pernicious, and it must stop forthwith, or else the impression may gain ground that the administration of the day is colluding with criminal and extreme elements in vitiating the social harmony for short term political gains – something this country can ill afford in the long run.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

NEPAL: CHRISTIANS LITTLE CONSOLED BY ARREST IN CHURCH BOMBING


Militant group threatens more attacks unless non-Hindus leave country within month. 

KATHMANDU, Nepal, June 2 (Compass Direct News) – Vikash and Deepa Patrick had been married for nearly four months before the young couple living in Patna in eastern India managed to go on their honeymoon here. The decision to come to Nepal for four days of fun and sight-seeing would be a choice the groom will rue the rest of his life.

Vikash Patrick’s 19-year-old bride died while praying at the Assumption Church in Kathmandu valley’s Lalitpur district, the largest Catholic church in Nepal, in an anti-Christian bombing on May 23, the day they were to return home. Claiming responsibility for the violence was the Nepal Defense Army (NDA), a group wishing to restore Hinduism as the official religion of Nepal.

Patrick and two of his cousins also were injured in the explosion that ripped through the church, where nearly 400 people had turned up for a morning service.

A dazed Sun Bahadur Tamang, a 51-year-old Nepali Christian who had also gone to the church that day with his wife and daughter, pieced together the incident while awaiting treatment in a private hospital.

“We were in the prayer hall when a woman who looked to be in her 30s came and sat down next to my wife,” Tamang told Compass. “Then she got up and asked us where the toilet was. We said it was near the entrance, and she left, leaving her blue handbag behind. A little later, there was a stunning bang, and I fell on my daughter. People screamed, there was a stampede, and I couldn’t find my wife. I also realized I had lost my hearing.”

Deepa Patrick and a 15-year-old schoolgirl, Celeste Joseph, died in the explosion while 14 others, mostly women and teenagers, were injured. Another woman, Celeste’s mother Buddha Laxmi Joseph, died of a hemorrhage yesterday.

In the church hall, police found remains of the handbag as well as a pressure cooker. From 1996 to 2006, when Nepal’s underground Maoist party fought a guerrilla war against the state to overthrow monarchy and transform the world’s only Hindu kingdom into a secular republic, pressure cookers became deadly weapons in guerrilla hands. Packed with batteries, a detonator, explosives and iron nails, pressure cookers became lethal home-made bombs.

Also found scattered in the hall and outside the church were hundreds of green leaflets by an organization that until two years ago no one knew existed. Signed in the name of Ram Prasad Mainali, a 38-year-old Hindu extremist from eastern Nepal, the leaflets claimed the attack to be the handiwork of the NDA.

“A day after the explosion, a man called me up, saying he was the vice-president of the NDA,” said Bishop Narayan Sharma of the Protestant Believers’ Church in Nepal. “Though he was polite and expressed regret for the death of innocent people, he said his organization wanted the restoration of Hinduism as the state religion.”

Soon after the phone call, the NDA sent a fresh statement to Nepal’s media organizations with a distinctly militant tone. In the statement, the NDA gave “Nepal’s 1 million Christians a month’s time to stop their activities and leave the country” or else it would plant a million bombs in churches across the country.

“There is fear in the Christian community,” said Chirendra Satyal, spokesman for the Assumption Church. “Now we have police guarding our church, and its gates are closed. People coming in are asked to open their bags for security checks. It’s unheard of in the house of God.”

Suspect Arrested

An unexpected development occurred today as last rites were performed at the church on Joseph, the mother of the 15-year-old girl who also died in the explosion.

“At around 3 a.m. Tuesday, we arrested the woman who planted the bomb in the church,” Deputy Inspector-General of Police Kuber Rana told Compass.

Rana, who was part of a three-member police team formed to investigate the attack, identified the woman as a 27-year-old Nepalese, Sita Shrestha nee Thapa. Thapa allegedly confessed to police that she was a member of an obscure group, Hindu Rashtra Bachao Samiti (The Society to Save the Hindu Nation), and had planted the bomb inspired by the NDA.

The NDA made a small splash in 2007, a year after Nepal’s last king, Gyanendra Bir Bikram Shah, who had tried to seize absolute power with the help of the army, was forced to step down after nationwide protests. The cornered king had to reinstate a parliament that had been dissolved several years ago, and the resurrected house promptly decided to end his pretensions as the incarnation of a Hindu god by declaring Nepal to be a secular country.

Soon after that, a man walked into the office of a Nepalese weekly in Kathmandu and claimed to have formed the NDA, a group of former army soldiers, policemen and victims of the Maoists. Its aim was to build up an underground army that would wage a Hindu “jihad.” The man, who called himself Parivartan – meaning change – also claimed the NDA was nurturing suicide bombers.

According to police, Parivartan is the name assumed by a 38-year-old man from Morang district in eastern Nepal – Ram Prasad Mainali. The NDA began to acquire a reputation after it set off a bomb in 2007 at the Kathmandu office of the Maoists, who had laid down arms and returned to mainstream politics. In 2008, it stepped up its pro-Hindu war, bombing two mosques in southern Nepal and killing two Muslims at prayer.

It also targeted a church in the east, a newspaper office and the interim Parliament on the day the latter officially announced Nepal a secular republic.

Though police began a half-hearted hunt for Mainali, the NDA struck again last July, killing a 62-year-old Catholic priest, the Rev. John Prakash, who was also the principal of the Don Bosco School run in Sirsiya town in southern Nepal by the Salesian fathers.

“Extortion and intimidation are the two prime motives of the NDA,” said a Catholic church official who requested anonymity for security reasons. “Father Prakash had withdrawn a large sum of money to pay salaries as well as for some ongoing construction. Someone in the bank must have informed the NDA. It has good contacts, it knows who we are and our phone numbers.”

Small churches in southern and eastern Nepal, which are often congregations of 40-50 people who worship in rented rooms, have been terrified by threats and demands for money, said representatives of the Christian community. Some congregations have reportedly paid extortion sums to avert attacks from the NDA.

“Though the NDA does not seem to have a well chalked-out strategy, its activities indicate it receives support from militant Hindu outfits in India,” said Bishop Sharma of the Protestant Believers’ Church. “It has been mostly active in the south and east, in areas close to the Indian border. Bellicose Hindu groups from north India are likely to support their quest for a Hindu Nepal.”

While Thapa has been charged with murder, Rana said police are also hunting for NDA chief Mainali. And the arrest of Thapa has not lightened the gloom of the Christian community nor lessened its fears.

“There have been instances galore of police arresting innocent people and forcing them to confess,” said Bishop Sharma. “Look at the case of Manja Tamang.”

Tamang, a Believers’ Church pastor, was released this week after serving nine years in prison for murder that his co-religionists say he did not commit. Tamang staunchly protests his innocence with his church standing solidly behind him, saying he was framed.

Report from Compass Direct News