THE devout mingled with the curious in the gathering on March 4 at the centrally located polo ground standing cheek by jowl with Baroda's busy Rajmahal road. The occasion: the Jesus festival organised by a body called the BLC (Breakthrough in Local Church). It was scheduled as a four-day affair, but this was not to be.
Trouble began after the inaugural formalities were over, and Rev Peter Yangren began his sermon. About 100 activists of the Vis-hwa Hindu Parishad barged in, went on a rampage, claiming the festival was a bid to proselytise and hoodwink people. The podium was broken, a Maruti Zen set afire and people in the gathering roughed up. The 15,000-strong gathering soon dispersed.
The police, though present at the spot, restricted their role to that of idle spectators, say eyewitnesses, and intervened only after the violence ran its course. The 15 who were detained were set free by evening. "We've registered an offence," was reportedly the laconic response a BLC representative got when he approached the police chief.
Lack of proportion was not all. The law seemed lopsided too. "We are taking action against the festival organisers for proclaiming miracle healing," additional commissioner of police M.K. Tandon told reporters the same night. And, soon after the incident targeting the Christian community gathering, the police rescinded the permission to hold the festival at the polo grounds. "The permission has been revoked after studying a video of the programme. Because the organisers had been expressly forbidden from making any miracle healing claims," a police source said.
However, the organisers were given an option. They were conceded permission to conduct the programme at the hill memorial school in Fatehgunj.
"The conduct of the police borders on complicity and needs to be probed in detail. It is ominous that the BJP's return to power in Gujarat should signal the beginning of such violent intervention in minority affairs. One hopes it is a coincidence, though the writing on the wall shows that it is not. The sequence of events fall into a pattern which is disturbing," says Simon Dabhi, Catholic youth leader and former member of the Gujarat minority board.
There certainly is a pattern. There were problems at a similar festival organised in the same city from the same lot of people at the same venue last October.
Taking advantage of the ads put out by the organisers in local papers claiming miracle cures, the VHP made people masquerade as deaf-mutes in the audience to term the proceedings as a sham aimed at duping people. The meeting was disrupted and the city, which has a large tribal population, was tense as VHP activists went round in open trucks shouting slogans, recollects Darshan Desai, chief reporter, Indian Express.
These isolated incidents are the surface indicators of a larger upheaval brewing in the entire tribal belt of Gujarat stretching from Ambaji bordering Abu of Rajasthan in the north to Ahwa Dangs bordering Maharashtra in the south.
The condition of the tribals in this belt is abysmal despite government welfare schemes. Christian missionaries have been doing commendable work here which has seen many people opting for Christianity. The best example is the election of Pratap Gamit, a tribal Christian, as legislator from Vyara in south Gujarat—last time around as an independent and this time on the Congress ticket.
In fact, the tribal district of Ahwa Dangs is witness to a queer phenomenon. On the one hand there is increasing incidence of tribals converting to Christianity. On the other, the People's War Group (PWG) is making steady inroads. It is in such a scenario that the BJP and its Sangh parivar cousins are seeking to move in. The VHP is seeking to make inroads in the Muslim areas of Broach district, at the same time it seeks to gain ground in the tribal belt. Its urban manifestation is witnessed in events like the recent one in Baroda.
With the BJP in power in Gujarat with a steamroller majority, there is likely to be more rumblings in the tribal belt in the days to come as the parivar takes on the PWG with official backing and, in the backswing, targets the Christian missionaries.