A heavy cross to bear
The attacks on Christians, unlike in Hindu-Muslim riots, very rarely involve mass clashes between people of Christian and non-Christian faiths. Instead, the intimidation takes mainly three other forms. The first is of violent assaults on Christian priests, rape of nuns of numerous denominations, destruction and desecration of churches and chapels, and burning of Bibles. These have recurred with growing frenzy since 1997-98, when a priest was paraded naked in Dumka, and nuns were raped in Jhabua and Mayurbhan. In the same district, a priest was murdered in 1999. Churches were destroyed in the Dangs in Gujarat in 1998. India’s then Home Minister LK Advani admitted in Parliament that there were 400 attacks on Christian priests, nuns and churches between 1998 and 2000.
These attacks have continued unabated in the new century and recently spread to cities. The intensity of these attacks may be gauged by the fact that in the month of May 2007 alone, physical attacks on priests were reported from locations in Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan, Kerala, Orissa, Maharashtra, Chhatisgarh, Andhra Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. There was a common pattern, of armed mobs of Hindutva activists thrashing the priests, often in front of their families, sometimes proudly before the cameras of invited television channels, accusing them of propagating a ‘foreign’ religion by fraud, insulting the Hindu faith and demanding that they are permanently expelled. The police, on occasion, accompanied the mobs, but rarely restrained or registered complaints against the attackers. Instead, at times, it arrested the priests.
A second form of intimidation is when converts themselves are attacked. A people’s tribunal convened by Angana Chatterji and Mihir Desai painstakingly tracks the frightening sequence of such recent attacks for the state of Orissa alone. Their long and chilling litany includes: in 1999, 157 Christian homes were set ablaze in Ranalai village, and three people suffered gunshot wounds; in 2003, seven women converts and a pastor were forcibly tonsured in Kilipal village, and a socio-economic boycott imposed on them; 15 homes were burnt in 2005 in Gandhavati village, and so on.
The third strategy for intimidation is of mobilising large masses for ‘re-conversion’ ghar wapsi ceremonies, mainly in tribal regions, in which thousands of alleged Christian converts are welcomed ‘home’ to Hinduism. Dilipsingh Judeo, BJP leader (caught receiving bribes in a television sting) who led the campaign with vicious speeches goading violence against converts, claimed in 1999 that by then 1,65,000 persons were reconverted. But all such claims are highly exaggerated, because independent investigations confirm that the majority of those who are bundled for these rallies are not converts to start with. Also most tribal people were not Hindus in the first place, but animists who worship the wind, forests, hills and animals that inhabit their world.
The Sangh propaganda is fuelling the attacks on Christians.These attacks are justified by the Sangh and its supporters as righteous expressions of mass popular resistance by an enraged Hindu majority against allegedly anti-national machinations of Christian missionaries. It is claimed that these missionaries coerce and bribe hapless dispossessed tribal people and Dalits with their foreign funded educational and health services, into the ‘foreign’ Christian faith. At its most extravagant, the missionaries are depicted as instruments of the CIA and the Pope with the mission to evangelise all of India and reduce Hindus to a minority. Sangh propaganda graphically depicts this alleged clash of patriots with traitors in pamphlets, posters and more recently CDs, through emotive images such as of the cross being triumphantly pierced by a trishul or trident and dripping with blood, or comparing the destruction of churches with Ram’s final assault on the demon Ravana.
These claims find a sympathetic echo among many middle-class people. Arun Shourie reacts with anguish to this sinister ‘'harvesting of souls’. And former Prime Minister Vajpayee sheds his masterly ambiguity in the wake of stunned international outrage followed the gruesome burning alive with his two small sons, in the interiors of Orissa in 1999, of Australian missionary Graham Staines who served highly- stigmatised leprosy patients. Vajpayee called for a national debate on conversions. Even Congress governments in states like Himachal Pradesh think it fit to bring in anti-conversion legislation. In this clouded climate, prejudice refuses to be illuminated or chastened by voices of reason. In the first place, as John Dayal, journalist and human rights worker, argues in his book ‘A Matter of Equity: Freedom of Faith in Secular India’, Christianity was not a British colonial import. This is another falsehood propagated by the Sangh. Indian soil was from the start uniquely welcoming of the world's diversity and persecuted, and Christianity struck deep roots in it one millennium before it gathered millions of followers in Europe. Although there is no evidence to confirm the folklore that Apostle Thomas, disciple of Jesus, himself preached the message of the Christian faith on Indian soil, it is historically confirmed that the Indian Christian community had established itself in India’s southern peninsular by the 200 AD. Dayal celebrates this as one more contribution to the diversity of this “wondrous and great” land of as many as 4,635 communities, only 3 per cent of which incidentally derive their names from their religious faith.
In many districts that I served, missionaries have reached love and hope to the most wretched of the Indian earth, its leprosy patients, orphans, disabled and infirm, rarely with conversions, in ways that few others have tried to achieve. But it is also true that missionary conversions of the past have tended to de-tribalise the proud tribal people, just as the Ramakrishna Mission has also done in their wake. There have no doubt also been problems with the missionaries that acted as an adjunct of colonial rule.
But Ram Punyani points out that even after nearly 2,000 years since it first came to India and 200 years of British colonial rule, and constitutional protection in free India of the right to pursue and propagate one’s religious faith, the percentage of Christians was reported in the 1971 census to be a tiny 2.6 per cent of the Indian population. Their share in the population fell further to 2.44 in 1981, and 2.3 percent in 2001. If numerous new souls were indeed being harvested to this faith, the ratios would obviously not have so dropped.
The orchestrated battery of assaults over the past decade mounted on Christians is actually calculated to reduce the entire diverse Indian people of Christian faith to fear and subjugation. There have been rich electoral harvests of this hate in all tribal regions of India. The focus of the campaign is now gradually shifting to cities. This new agenda of the Sangh was probably crafted because the objective of breaking the spirit of Muslims, to live in fear in ghettoes, has already been substantially achieved after the Babri demolition and Gujarat massacre. A new minority has now to be domesticated into living in fear. Brick by brick, the secular democracy of this land is being demolished as the dangerous and incendiary politics of hate besiege new frontiers.