India's national shame

China and India may be keeping the world economy ticking over with their phenomenal growth rates, but their human rights records lag far behind. China’s treatment of Tibet, its cruel one-child policy and its persecution of independent religious groups is well-known. But India has its own problems with human rights and savage religious persecution which are being ignored by the world media. In the latest eruption of religious violence in the poor northeastern state of Orissa, impoverished Christians have been the target of horrific violence.

The respected newspaper The Times of India says that "many believe Orissa has brought religious hatred in India to a new low". It quotes Asit Mohanty, of the Global Council of Indian Christians, who describes recent incidents as "the worst-ever attack on the Christian community in the history of independent India." They have been described as a "national shame" by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

The violence began on August 23. Eighty-five-year-old Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati and four of his followers were gunned down at a school in the Kandhamal district of Orissa. Guruji, as he was known, was a fanatical Hindu nationalist. One of his objectives was to wipe out Christians and Christianity from Kandhamal and its environs, because their numbers had increased over the past 30 years. He attributed this to force and fraud by Christian missionaries. "The sooner Christians return to the Hindu fold the better it would be for the country," was his feeling.

A local TV channel reported that the murderers had left a note declaring that this was a revenge killing for attacks on Christians last Christmas. Who really killed him? Guruji had many enemies. The most likely suspects, say local police, are the Maoist guerillas who still infest the jungles of Orissa. But it was Christians who were blamed by local Hindus.

On the following day, a meeting of leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of Orissa, the Hindu nationalist party, Rastriya Swayam Sevak (RSS), a Hindu militant organisation, and other groups, decided on immediate retaliation.

In the violent aftermath at least 25 people have died and about 50 churches and 4,000 Christian houses have been destroyed. The violence is spreading to the nearby states of Chattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh.

On August 25, FatherThomas Chellan was dragged out of a house in Kandhmal where he and a nun had taken shelter. A mob of about 50 men armed with clubs, axes, spades, crowbars, iron roads, sickles mercilessly thrashed him and kerosene was poured over him to burn him. They were paraded half-naked for half a kilometer.

Another priest, Father Edward Sequera, who was running an orphanage in Kandhamal was beaten with spades, sickles and iron bars for more than an hour. After that his room was set on fire. Fortunately he escaped death by locking himself into the bathroom. But his attackers scaled the roof of the orphanage where Rajani Majhi, the 19-year-old caretaker, had locked herself in along with the 20 children. They entered the room, dragged her outside, tied her hands together and burnt her alive. Rajani was a Hindu.

More than 400 churches, 500 houses and many Christian institutions have been gutted. Many Christians have fled to the jungle for safety. Similar incidents have happened throughout Orissa. Even in its capital Bhuvaneswar, Christian schools have been ransacked. Raphael Cheenath, the Catholic archbishop of Cuttack-Bhubaneshwar, says that it is clear that "the fanatical forces of Hindutva want to eliminate Christians from Orissa".

Hindu fanatics are even invading the camps set up for the 50,000 Christians in relief camps in Kandhamal. There are credible reports of groups going to the relief camp and threatening people to reconvert to Hinduism. In one relief camp, two extremists were caught by a security guard trying to poison the drinking water.

Sadly, none of this comes as a surprise. On Christmas Eve 2007, more than 40 churches, convents and 700 Christian houses were burnt down. Christian villagers hid in the jungles for weeks. In 1999, an Australian evangelical missionary and his two sons were burnt to death by a mob.

What is the truth of Hindu accusations of forced conversions to Christianity? Nearly all of them are absurd. An anti-conversion law recently came into force in the state of Gujarat, on the western coast of the sub-continent. Missionaries convicted of "forcibly converting" someone could face up to three years in prison. However, there have been only three complaints of "forcible" conversions in Gujarat in the last 10 years, and only two of those concerned Christians.

In fact, the Christian population of India appears to be declining slightly. From 2.61 percent of the population in 1981, it fell to 2.53 percent and 2.3 percent in the census for 1991 and 2001. According to the latest census, conducted in 2001, 80.5 percent of India's inhabitants are Hindu, while 13.4 percent are Muslim.

The fundamental rights of freedom of conscience and freedom of religion are enshrined in Article 25 of the Indian Constitution. Officially, India is secular. However, outside of the capital, New Delhi, the state ideology of secularism quickly runs out of steam. In fact, the BJP has managed to pass anti-conversions laws in five of India’s 28 states. In 1967 Orissa became the first state to legislate against religious conversion -- with an act bizarrely named the Orissa Freedom of Religion Act.

The upshot of this is that in some of the BJP-ruled states, this fundamental right to practice and propagate one’s religion now almost ceases to exist -- especially among the poor dalits, or untouchables, and aboriginal tribal peoples.

The violence against the Christians in Kandhamal is linked to the empowerment of the dalits and tribals. Through education dalits and tribals have been achieving dignity freedom from oppressive traditions of caste-based discrimination and slavery. This has sometimes been violently opposed by dominant castes, who could no longer rely upon them for cheap farm labour or bonded labour.

As Telesphore Toppo, the Cardinal of Ranchi -- India’s first tribal cardinal – has said, "Suppressing and restricting the freedom of religion and conscience is the worst kind of slavery. The dalits and the tribals have suffered as they are deprived of freedom by opportunists who are raising the issue of conversion for their own political mileage".

The Guruji’s followers remain adamant, claiming they will "do everything possible to protect the Hindu faith in Orissa." Kabi Chandra Nath, his successor, says ominously, "We are not converting anyone. We are simply bringing misguided followers back to the fold."

Catholic authorities have asked the Supreme Court and the National Human Rights Commission to investigate the violence against Christians in Orissa. But it is unrealistic to expect much support. After the December riots, government compensation for damage to Christian property was meagre. "This paltry amount given by way of compensation is also the reflective of the will to secure justice for the Christians, more seriously", said Archbishop Cheenath. "No serious action was taken against the perpetrators of the December violence and the culprits are emboldened by their freedom."

Like China, the Indian government will not accept any interference in its internal affairs. But without pressure from overseas, it is unrealistic to expect the central government to take firm steps to quench the violence. There is not much sign of that at the moment. A spokesman for the British High Commission in Delhi, almost yawned. ‘‘India is viewed as a diverse place and the country has made a success of diversity,’’ he said. "A few incidents cannot mar the image of the country." What is needed is a world action, like the "Free Tibet" campaign which has galvanised people around the world. Otherwise, it is absolutely certain that more impoverished Christians will die for their faith.

Anjalee Lewis is a freelance journalist writing from Mumbai.


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