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Exhuming Old Tensions

Communal distrust increases as the VHP steps up its campaign against the Church

Exhuming Old Tensions

SAMUEL Christian, RIP. It took three days before the "rest in peace" had any meaning for old Samuel, who'd died in his sleep at his home in Kapadvanj town, 100 km from Ahmedabad. Hours after burial, his body was exhumed by a VHP-led mob and shunted from place to place until the Harijans, moved to compassion, gave him a decent burial.

For the Christian community all over the state, Kapadvanj was just another example of the VHP's campaign to squeeze them out of Gujarat—from burning the New Testament in Rajkot to attacking a Christian convention in Baroda to forcing the closure of a mission school in Mangrola.

All Samuel's family wanted was a six-by-three plot in Kapadvanj's Methodist Christian graveyard, which had been encroached upon by the Vaghris, an OBC community. Too scared to protest when 50-odd Vaghri families put up their huts over the graves some five years ago, the Methodists, comprising just 25 households, sought police protection for the burial.

Samuel Lazarus, who'd buried his father in the same graveyard under heavy police escort in 1996, said: "Two constables were present when the coffin was buried. Later, after everybody left, the Vaghris dug it up and dumped it on the road, some distance from the Methodist church." Dayabhai Parmar, a Methodist, was brutally beaten when he protested. Later, the body was moved to the church as the police and local administration tried to figure out what to do with it. The next morning, it was buried in the Harijan graveyard. The Harijans made it clear, however, that this was a one-off. The Methodists would have to make arrangements elsewhere in future.

The VHP version: "The Christians are trying to grab the ancestral home of the Vaghris by turning it into a graveyard. The coffin was never buried, it was sent back to the church by peaceful protesters. The protests were spontaneous and did not involve the VHP." Pastor Godwin Gamaria points out that the land in question (survey no. 643) could hardly have been anyone's ancestral property, as revenue records show it as a "kabristan neem (graveyard)". The Vaghris themselves admit to exhuming the body. One of those named in the FIR is a BJP corporator and another a VHP sympathiser.

A fortnight later, violence erupted in the remote Zankhav village in the Mangrol taluka, when a farmer, assisted by the VHP, tried to force the closure of a mission school. The Shantiniketan School was taken over by the Loyala Trust at the request of its proprietor, Shantilal Shah, in 1984. The trust, however, was not aware that a previous tenant had tilled the land on which the school stood from 1974 to 1980. This man filed a suit, obtained a favourable order from the lower court and—with a gang of VHP workers in tow—ran a tractor over the school playground. The students and their parents took out a procession to protest against the closure of the school and violence erupted. The VHP version: "The priest exhorted a mob of students to attack the helpless shopkeepers of the town".

Three days later, VHP workers stormed into the premises of the IP Mission School in Rajkot and proceeded to burn copies of the New Testament. Published in Gujarati by Gideon, the Bible has been distributed free of cost in mission schools for years. But the VHP cadres took offence to the small form on the last page inviting believers to sign a statement accepting Jesus Christ as their saviour and acknowledging that he died for them.

The VHP workers asked the students to return the Bibles and sign affidavits saying they'd been forced to accept them in the first place. Some copies were burnt. The school authorities assured the VHP, in writing, that distribution of the Bible would cease. But the parishad declared it would be satisfied with nothing short of the principal's arrest. Even after the matter was raised in Parliament, the Gujarat assembly refused to discuss it, leading to strong protests from the Opposition. Last week, six persons—including VHP workers—were arrested.

Earlier in the year, a chapel—apparently unauthorised—was demolished at Naroda near Ahmedabad by a Bajrang Dal-led mob and Christian conventions were attacked in Baroda and Palanpur. Several complaints have come in from the tribal districts of Dang and Valsad, where mission hospitals and schools have brought medical care and education to the remotest areas, attracting the ire of the Sangh parivar's Vanvasi Kalyan Parishad (VKP). On April 5, VKP national secretary Krishna Prasad publicly declared that the state BJP government wasn't strong enough to check proselytisation and demanded that the Constitution, which gave too many rights to minorities, be amended.

The National Minorities Commission has information—and the press has reported—on incidents of tribals intimidated, women molested and houses burnt but the minister of state for home, Haren Pandya, claims he has not received a single complaint. "Instead of conducting proper investigations, government of ficials are causing communal unrest," says T.V. Gaikwad of the Church of North India, who works with the Dang adivasis.

VHP chief Vishnu Hari Dalmia maintains that the activities of the Church in South Gujarat are not benign: "They should limit themselves to education institutions and medical services. Instead, both Christian missionaries and Muslim organisations, aided and abetted by foreigners, are using these basic needs and facilities to convert the Hindus into their religious fold." The VHP's fear, he says, is "if these conversions continue, the Hindu population will be wiped out, as in Kashmir".

Nor does Pandya appear to have taken note of widely publicised complaints of harassment by the VHP from the Muslim community. Communal tension between Hindus and Muslims in Sanjeli was sparked off on June 23, when two Hindu girls, Kanta and Nanda (already married), eloped with their Muslim boyfriends, Arif and Tiniyo. The girls were from Randhikpur, the boys from Sanjeli. On June 24, the girls' families lodged a complaint with the police and communal violence erupted, forcing Muslims to flee the area. "Apparently, two Muslim men with knives were spotted in Randhikpur and that started the trouble and some houses were burnt," explained the home minister.

The government has taken the complaints regarding forced marriages of Hindu girls to Muslim men so seriously that a special cell has been set up to deal with such cases. "It's appalling," says Congress leader Ershad Mirza. "Why do you need a wing to rescue Hindu girls from Muslim men? Does the law not provide protection to abducted women, regardless of which community they spring from?" Justifying the move, Pandya says: "There are many kinds of such marriages. Where the girl is willing, we have no role to play. But there are cases where underage girls are married in this manner, where married women elope with married Muslim men, or where the woman is simply abducted."

THE lynching of a Muslim bus driver in Ahmedabad last fortnight, the alleged takeover of the Satpanthi shrine at Pirana and the continuing harassment of autorickshaw drivers in Surat, most of whom are Muslim, has heightened feelings of insecurity. Hindu autorickshaw drivers were asked to print "Om" on their vehicles so that they could be easily distinguished. Even in remote Kapadvanj, Muslim auto-drivers complain the local VHP is threatening them to move out of the town. The police proved unresponsive, but they found a willing ear in the AICC's Vyalar Ravi, who conducted an investigation on communal incidents in Gujarat last week.

The Gujarat government, currently dominated by hardliners, has made it pretty clear which side of the fence it prefers. The IP Mission school incident figured in Parliament before the Gujarat assembly took it up. And when the VHP complained of Christians fuelling PWG activity in South Gujarat, the home minister said, "The matter is pending investigation." He claims there have been only nine incidents of communal violence, dismissing the 21 listed by the Gujarat Pradesh Congress Committee. He also denies that the government has been ineffective in protecting minorities: "Most of the incidents have been local in nature and were prevented from spreading any further. In some cases, the reports were highly exaggerated. No life was lost in any of the incidents. Action has been quick and effective." Dalmia feels that "the role of Pakistan's ISI needs to be examined, as they are reported to be behind such incidents".

All this has left many befuddled. Says Ahmedabad's Bishop S Fernandes: "We just don't know where we stand." He received a fax from the chief minister's principal secretary saying, "the state government has given instructions to all DMs and police that all citizens should be able to enjoy their rights and therefore they should keep the law and order situation," just minutes after Keshubhai Patel had met with VHP general secretary Praveen Togadia.

"We pray for Keshubhai and Atal Behari Vajpayee in our churches every Sunday. Keshubhai is as much my chief minister as anyone else's. So why is this happening?" asks Father Nicholas Parmar of the Bible Society. Says a young priest, Father J. Prakash: "A cassock commands respect elsewhere, but in Gujarat it's a risk factor." Bishop Fernandes says the increased insecurity will not stop the Church's charitable work: "It will go against our conscience if we stop our activities out of fear".

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