Political power struggle behind attacks on minority Christians

PUBLISHED : Friday, 25 January, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 25 January, 2008, 12:00am

The violence began on Christmas Eve, when a rabble of hardline Hindus, some armed with guns, some knives, went on a rampage in Kandhamal, in the east Indian state of Orissa. They set fire to the mud-and-thatch churches and chased Christians out of their houses. By Boxing Day, they had destroyed 600 houses, 55 churches, five convents, three presbyteries, six hostels, two seminaries and a medical dispensary, according to the local Catholic archdiocese.

Weeks later, the rabble-rousing had spread to the neighbouring state of Chhattisgarh, according to media and the All India Council for Christians, an umbrella group of churches. The group said Hindu zealots invaded a health camp in Dhamtari organised by missionaries on January 18, setting vehicles ablaze and causing participants to flee.

Indian secularists described the attacks in Orissa as the worst case of anti-Christian violence seen in India since independence.

'This was the first systematic rioting aimed against India's Christians,' Asghar Ali Engineer, who heads the Centre for Study of Society and Secularism in Mumbai, said. 'It was done in a very organised manner.'

When the violence ebbed - leaving hundreds of homeless, frightened people in camps - Hindu extremists blamed Christians, saying a group had attacked a leader from the Hindu nationalist Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) group. The churches claimed the fighting was sparked by Hindu extremists' objections to a Christmas Eve show, believing it was designed to lure dalits - formerly known as untouchables - into the Christian fold.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch was unambiguous in its appraisal. 'For several years, extremist Hindu groups in Orissa have been conducting an anti-Christian campaign that has grown violent at times,' it said.

State authorities had failed to respond quickly, it added, 'leaving vulnerable groups at risk'.

Orissa has a turbulent history of anti-Christian violence. One of the worst incidents occurred in 1999, when Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two young sons were burned to death in their jeep after a Bible class.

But in recent years antipathy towards Christians has increased across the country, from violent attacks on individuals to disruptions of church services, Christian leaders say.

Hindu extremists justify their anti-Christian activities by claiming that a rapacious band of 'alleluia wallahs' is sweeping India, forcing poor Hindus to convert and threatening the country's Hindu identity. Earlier this month, the VHP blamed the attacks in Orissa on 'evil intention [sic] of foreign-funded organisations and church establishments to get more funds'. It called for a nationwide law against conversions to Christianity.

Anti-Christian violence in India has little do with theology and everything to do with prejudice and power politics. In overwhelmingly Hindu but officially secular India, Christians are said to constitute less than 3 per cent of the population. Hindus make up 82 per cent; Muslims 13 per cent.

There is little doubt that most Christians are dalits. Although 'untouchability' was abolished in 1950, it still persists throughout India. Dalits, who constitute more than 16 per cent of India's 1.1 billion-plus population, are routinely ill-treated and given the most degrading of jobs, from clearing human excrement to scavenging through rubbish.

Hindu nationalists have long used emotional tales of dalits being enticed away from Hinduism to mobilise support. The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party has campaigned for elections with this message, while the Congress party, which leads the central government, has traditionally been seen as a secular party.

'The violence is entirely political,' Ali Engineer said. 'Christians tend to vote for Congress and Hindu nationalists want to reappropriate those votes. So they create trouble.'

Now, Hindu hardliners have an additional rallying cry.

Under India's constitution, dalits are entitled to affirmative action benefits, known as reservations, including 15 per cent of admissions to universities and central government jobs. Any dalit who is found to have left Hinduism loses these rights. But there is a growing movement to restore them to converted dalits and a bill to allow this is pending in parliament.

Minority groups that benefit from the reservations system worry that dalit Christians may before long receive them too - meaning there will be less to go round.

Ironically, extremist Hindus cannot easily compete for conversions because their religion, unlike Christianity, does not have a proselytizing tradition. Hinduism, a tolerant and undogmatic faith, celebrates other paths to God.

But Hindu zealots can pass laws making it illegal or extremely difficult for Hindus to leave the religion of their birth. At least seven states have introduced some form of anti-conversion legislation - including Orissa and Chhattisgarh.

In these states, there are no records of numbers for arrests or convictions, but reports by non-governmental organisations and media suggest that they are few.

But anti-conversion laws shape attitudes in the states where they are enacted.

In 2006, the Chhattisgarh government bolstered an anti-conversion law by imposing a three-year-jail term and a 20,000 rupee (HK$3,960) fine for those found guilty of forced conversion.

In Orissa, Hindu extremists had no difficulty inciting local Hindus to attack Christians on Christmas Eve. The government, meanwhile, according to Human Rights Watch, 'looked the other way'.