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Intolerance in India

NCR Staff
Chhindia, India

A four-hour drive from the nearest town, this dirt-poor village in northwestern India is inhabited by “tribals” (indigenous people), mostly Christian -- and is occupied by police who sit in front of a small church, rifles at their sides, to make sure Christians do not enter to worship.

Police have been camped out on folding chairs here since last November. That was when a band of drunken men arrived in trucks to ransack the church. They came shouting Hindu slogans, including “Hail to God Ram!” as they entered the small white stucco church building, desecrated it and tried to convert it into a Hindu temple.

First, they took down a cross at the pinnacle of the roof and raised a Hindu flag in its place. Then they tore iron grills, each bearing a sign of the cross, from the windows. Inside, they desecrated the altar and placed pictures of Hindu gods throughout the church.

Bishop Ezra Sargunnam, spiritual leader of the Evangelical Churches of India to which the Chhindia church is affiliated, rushed the next day to the spot and immediately went on a hunger strike. A week later, his body deteriorating, he was taken to a nearby hospital.

Since November the police have remained in the village, living in tents next to the church. They spend their days cooking, eating, smoking, drinking and spitting on the church steps.

At first the villagers took their complaints about the police presence to local officials, but were turned away. They then took their pleas to a local court, but a judge, citing what the villagers call fabricated papers, ruled that the church had been closed at the request of one of the villagers who wanted to reclaim his land.

Without recourse, Christians, some 1,500 in all, have gathered Sundays in their homes to pray. The police show up there, too, the villagers say, playing loud music or hurling threats at the worshipers.

Halmoti village, some 20 miles away, is mostly Catholic. So it came as a shock to Halmoti’s tribals when, in 1998, Hindu nationalists decided to build a temple right next to their church. The Hindus laid their cornerstone with great fanfare, attracting hundreds of people on Christmas day, the date chosen for its potential to disrupt. Today, the temple sits immediately behind the church. Lacking local worshippers, the temple is empty except for caretakers. But ceremonies can be planned for any day, and villagers recognize the likelihood the Hindus will gather to pray on Christian feast days.

In many places in India, thousands of Hindu shrines are being placed across from Christian institutions. It is all part of what Christians see as a campaign to persecute them, a campaign fostered by Hindu nationalist politicians who have taken control of the national government.

These examples of harassment are minor compared with many others that have ended in bloodshed. A climate of persecution has existed in India since 1997 when Hindu nationalists gained political control. They have targeted Muslims and Christians, claiming they belong to “foreign” religions, blaming them for many of the ills that face the nation, then watched as mobs have taken matters into their own hands.

Of India’s 1 billion people, 85 percent are Hindus, 10 percent Muslims and 2.5 percent Christians. Seventy-five percent of Indian Christians come from tribal groups or dalit castes. (Dalit in Sanskrit means trampled upon and refers to low castes, officially called scheduled castes and once commonly called the Untouchables.) This becomes important because with Christianity comes education. The dalits’ inclusion represents a rejection of the caste system -- and a perceived threat to tradition and the Hindu nationalists.

The Christian minority, meanwhile, is virtually helpless to protect itself, given tacit approval for these acts of violence from top government officials.

“We now see at least one case of violence against a Christian every 36 hours somewhere in the country,” said John Dayal, a founder of a human rights group called the United Christian Forum for Human Rights. “There were 200 reported cases in the last year, and the real number is much higher.” Dayal said many violations go unreported because Christians fear reprisals.

Dayal blames the attacks on nationalist politicians who use religion as a tool for political gain.

Hindu nationalism upholds one religion, one culture and one nation. “It used to be that to be a nationalist one only had to be an Indian; now one needs to be a Hindu,” Dayal said, referring to the wave of Hindu fundamentalism unleashed in parts of India.

Christians as scapegoats

Said Fr. Gerard Valavan, a priest who works with poor children in the southern city of Bangalore: “It’s easier to blame Christians for India’s woes than to end poverty or provide people with adequate education. We are the scapegoats for their failures.”

One of the most publicized incidents of bloodshed against Christians occurred Jan. 23, 1999, when an Australian missionary named Graham Staines and his two young sons were murdered by a mob. The three were asleep in their car in the state of Orissa when a mob, shouting Hindu slogans, set fire to their car. Villagers were beaten for trying to help Staines and his sons.

Staines and his sons were in the village to attend an annual Bible camp. He had worked in India for many years, and ran a hospital and clinics for lepers. Police arrested 51 suspects in connection with the crime. Most of those arrested, however, were released for lack of evidence.

Dayal’s list of incidents grows almost daily: June 7, Br. George Kuzhikandam murdered near Mathura; June 8, Bomb blasts in two churches in Tadepalliguddem and Ongole; June 8, Crude bomb explodes in St. Andrew’s Church in Vasco, Gao; June 11, Ashish Prabash, a missionary, murdered in Jalundhar, Punjab; June 12, A 22-year-old Christian priest, Rajendra Masih, was beaten, his head shaved and was paraded through Vishrampuri village.

Incidents have included the murders of priests and missionaries, the gang raping of nuns and the desecration and destruction of countless churches and schools.

As the list has grown it has alarmed human rights organizations around the world. They express shock and outrage at the growing atmosphere of intolerance in many places in India, especially in tribal areas. Some of the incidents are reported in small Christian publications, but few ever make the Indian press and, almost none are reported outside India.

India’s Christians say they feel safer in cities where fewer attacks take place. Yet a women’s religious community that took my wife and me in for several days in Bangalore, a city of 6 million, lived in fear at night. They had purchased two large dogs that roamed their fenced-in property and alerted them when strangers approached.

“You feel safer in the cities than you do in the countryside,” said Sr. Rose Mary of Our Lady of the Mission. “At night you never know. It didn’t use to be like this.”

Christians here say their only recourse is to bring these incidents to the wider world. They say their government leaders, who want to develop stronger economic ties with the West, are influenced only by threats of cutting off economic aid.

Christians here also assert that top government officials have encouraged the atmosphere of fear and intolerance. Then when violence occurs these officials turn a deaf ear to Christian complaints. Christians offer the example of the Prime Minister Atal Vajpayee, who, in 1999, after touring the state of Gujarat, a state where gangs had destroyed some 30 churches, was expected to denounce the violence. Instead he called for a debate on the controversial issue of conversions.

Jesuit Fr. Vally de Souza, who lives in Gujurat, where much of the violence has erupted in recent years, recalls a time you could take complaints to the local authorities. “No longer. They don’t seem to care anymore. They don’t listen. There is an atmosphere that tolerates violence against the unprotected Christians, especially the tribals.”

Before his sudden death in an accident in Poland last year, the archbishop of New Delhi, Alan de Lastic, who headed the Indian Bishops’ Conference at the time, rebuked Vajpayee for not speaking out against the attacks. “Your silence kills, Mr. Prime Minister,” de Lastic was quoted as saying.

To some outsiders it still remains a mystery that Christians, a group as small as 2.4 percent of the Indian population, can plausibly be considered a threat to any group. Part of the answer to that question rests in the fact that while Christians represent a tiny minority, their social clout is much larger. Christians, for example, provide up to 25 percent of all of India’s schools and hospitals. These institutions serve all the people. Most often only a small fraction of the students in Catholic schools are Catholic.

“We have influence well beyond our numbers,” said Fr. Shenoy (he uses one name) who heads an ashram, or prayer center, in Bangalore, where people often gather for interreligious dialogue, discussing differences and sharing common concerns. He thinks reasonable people should be appreciative of the contributions Christians make in India. Many are appreciative, he notes, adding, “Intolerance is not reasonable. Education is the answer,” he said.

The aim of Sangh Parivar

Informed observers here make a distinction between Hinduism, the religion, and Hindutva, adherents of the political philosophy of the Sangh Parivar, which traces back to the 1930s and has been linked to fascism. The aim of Sangh Parivar is to awaken Hindus to a call for restoration of their lost glory. It has been this philosophy that most observers here agree is behind the recent wave of Christian persecution.

“This is a dangerous and evil distortion of a general sense of nationalism,” said Dayal.

Hindu fundamentalism has already left an ugly mark in India. It was a Hindu nationalist who assassinated Mahatma Gandhi, father of modern India. Gandhi led a nonviolent resistance movement against the British colonialists. This movement eventually won India’s independence.

The Hindutva has largely been out of the mainstream of Indian politics since India’s independence from the British in 1947. Since then, the nation has been ruled almost entirely by one party, the Indian National Congress Party, a secular party that served as a powerful force in the drive for independence.

In recent years, as India, its Hindu religion, culture and social structures faced enormous new challenges, Hindu fundamentalism has grown. A major factor in that growth is anxiety over loss of the nation’s “glorious” past, meaning a time when its complicated caste system went unchallenged. Changes contributing to the threat include growth of cities and creation of jobs outside the traditional caste system. They also include education of women, deemed within the caste system to be inferior. Further, education of the lower castes, often by Christians who believe it is their mission to reach out to the poorest in India, threatens the system. Christians have learned that it is within the lower castes that the most successful evangelization work is likely to occur.

When India gained its independence, Gandhi and other national leaders aspired to democratic principles, rooted in a system of “one man, one vote.” The founders of modern India, hoping to move to a more egalitarian order, wrote laws that reserved portions of government jobs and educational slots to tribal peoples and members of the lower castes. These “reservations” attempted to mirror the population, giving these marginalized groups up to two-thirds of the reserved posts.

The new practices opened doors to upward mobility. Today few dispute that affirmative action policies have benefited people in the lower castes. However, giving the same voting clout to high caste Brahmans and low caste dalits worked against the Bhramans and others in higher castes.

The caste system, while greatly weakened in the cities, is very much alive in the rural areas. In many parts of India, a lower caste person cannot allow his or her shadow to fall on a member of the upper caste.

Eventually some politicians from the higher castes sought new ways to mobilize lower caste support for their political purposes. Hindu nationalist politicians did this by playing “the religious card,” observers say.

On one hand, these politicians tried to homogenize differences within Hinduism. On the other hand, they declared war against Muslims and Christians, accusing them of being dupes of foreigners and unpatriotic. These charges are especially painful to Indian Catholics, many of whom trace their religious heritage to St. Thomas, the apostle. It is believed Thomas brought the faith to India in the year 52. His remains are believed to be buried in a crypt in the small church of St. Thomas in Chennai (formerly Madras) on the southwestern coast of India.

The intolerance found in parts of India today runs counter to the atmosphere of religious and ethnic tolerance that has characterized India since independence. India is a regionally and ethnically diverse nation with some 20 official regional languages. An estimated 1,000 languages are spoken in all. Indians take pride in their tolerance. This makes the recent wave of persecution all the more remarkable and unsettling.

The Hindutva trace their current course to seeds of violence planted more than 500 years ago. It was in 1528, the Hindu nationalists say, that Babar, the founder of the Moghul empire, built a mosque, reportedly on the site of a temple marking the birthplace of Lord Rama, an important Hindu god. Others question this fact, saying it is a myth propagated by the Sangh Parivar. Fact or fiction, that outrage was not forgotten.

Hindu nationalists got their revenge on Dec. 6, 1992. That is when a cadre of about 100,000 Hindu fanatics, working with leaders of the current national ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) -- which at the time controlled the state where the mosque was situated -- destroyed Babar’s Mosque in the small town of Ayodhya. At the same time, armed Hindu groups launched anti-Muslim riots in about a dozen of India’s largest cities. The worst was the anti-Muslim pogrom in Bombay where about 4,000 Muslims were hunted and massacred by anti-Muslim activists.

Hindu nationalists had made their point and got the attention they wanted. By 1997 they had taken control of the state of Gujarat and had put together a political alliance that brought them to national power.

Attacks led to counterattacks

The Hindu fundamentalist attacks led to counterattacks and bomb throwing by Muslims seeking revenge. Many more died before a cease-fire could be reached. Observers say that in that mayhem it became apparent that Muslims -- a sizable 10 percent of the Indian population -- had significant social and political clout. They could not be easy scapegoats. Christians provided an easier target. So the target shifted.

According to a Jesuit Fr. Lancy Lobo, an Indian sociologist who has studied these religious conflicts, Hindu nationalists have accused Christian missionaries of converting tribals and lower castes by force or fraud, although no specific cases are offered to substantiate the allegations. In recent years, Lobo said, attacks on Christians have escalated in Gujarat, where he teaches. It has become common for Hindu nationalists to disrupt Christmas midnight Masses by holding rallies outside churches.

Most acts of violence against Christians take place in rural tribal areas, where people are susceptible to political manipulation, Lobo said. The strategy, he said, is to use differences among the Christian and non-Christian tribals to divide them and pit one against the other.

Shenoy, the ashram leader in Bangalore, blames Hindu intolerance on illiteracy and ignorance. Attacks on Christians are far less common in major cities where literacy is higher and information spreads more freely, he said. (Indian illiteracy runs close to 50 percent and in rural areas around 70 percent or more.)

One of the most controversial subjects in India today deals with the issue of conversion. Hindu nationalists are convinced that Christians, with money coming from foreign sources, force conversions to weaken traditional Indian social structures. It is a charge Christians vigorously deny.

Hindus claim that up to 10,000 foreign missionaries work in India, although more accurate figures get placed at just over 1,000. Numbers have fallen as the government has denied most visas and visa renewals.

The right to convert is guaranteed by the Indian constitution. Yet any tribal or dalit who converts to Christianity loses all of his or her rights to the educational and financial assistance reserved for these minority groups. An early amendment in the Indian constitution took away the rights of dalits who do not profess the Hindu faith. The Presidential Order of 1950 gives the protection and strength of affirmative action only to Hindus.

Critics argue that religious affiliation should not affect one’s social or economic status and religious affiliation. They see this as discrimination. The result, though, has been a slowdown in conversions among the lower castes. The percentage of Christians in India has fallen from 2.7 to 2.4 percent in the past several decades.

Among Catholics, the charge of forced conversions appears well off the mark. Most Catholic missionaries in India today work primarily to provide much needed social and educational services. They have taken their lead from the Second Vatican Council (1963-65) and post-conciliar evangelical documents that have placed greater emphasis on social ministry and living as examples of the Christian faith and less on outright conversion.

These Catholic missionaries view their work as a dialogue with culture and religion. Indian theologians, meanwhile, speak of witnessing to the Kingdom of God and link this witness to their social ministries. Some Indian theologians go beyond that, maintaining that religious pluralism is part of God’s plan.

The same attitude is not always found among some fundamentalist Indian Christians. Some of these evangelists see as their aim saving India from its “heathen” religions, such as the traditional Hindu faith. They preach an intolerance of their own. The problem is, Shenoy said, most Indians do not distinguish among the various Christian groups. Christian fundamentalists give all Christians a bad image, in his view.

“There is little evidence there is going to be any change for the better soon,” said Dayal. Not as long as the Hindu nationalists have scapegoats they can blame for India’s many social problems, he adds. Meanwhile, the hope is that new elections in India will eventually sweep the nationalists out of power. But those elections are still more than two years away.

Republic of India
Population: 1 billion
Official languages: Hindi, English (14 official regional languages)
Capital: New Delhi
States: 25
Largest cities: Mumbia (Bombay) 18 million; Kolkata (Calcutta) 13 million; New Delhi 11 million
Head of Government: Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee (An alliance led by Vajpayee won a majority in 1999 legislative elections.)

Religious affiliations in India
Hindu: 80.3%
Muslim: 11%
Christian: 2.4%
Other: 3.09%
Sikh: 2%
Buddist: 0.7%
Jain: 0.5%
Zoroastrian: 0.01%

Tom Fox’s e-mail is tfox@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, May 4, 2001