June 06, 2020
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Soft Target In Cross-Wires

A spate of attacks against Christian institutions, allegedly VHP-led, instil fear within the community

Soft Target In Cross-Wires

IS the 20 million strong Christian community in India becoming the latest target of the Sangh parivar? Its leaders certainly seem to think so, given the spate of violent attacks on church-backed institutions and personnel.

Says National Minorities Commission member Dr habil James Massey: "In the past year, we've got many more complaints regarding attacks on the Christian community and encroachment on church properties. There is a definite trend." What he finds particularly disturbing is that the attacks have taken place not only in the conflict-prone states of Bihar and Madhya Pradesh but in hitherto peaceful states like Maharashtra, Punjab and Gujarat. "In Punjab, which has three lakh Christians, I would never have imagined such a problem but recently there have been several incidents in Jalandhar, Chandigarh and Ludhiana."

 In Gujarat and Maharashtra, there have been at least six and three incidents respectively in 1998. Mumbai-based advocate Colin Gonsalves will be filing a case against the RSS in the third week of June for its systematic campaign against Christian missionaries in Latur. "They think they can get away with anything. Let them answer for their actions in court," he says. Shiv Sainiks, too, have targeted mission schools and church personnel, say community leaders.

"It's difficult to prove all attacks are planned by one party," says Archbishop Alan de Lastic, president of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India and member of the National Integration Council, "but it would appear to be so. They're too systematic for it to be chance." Former BJP national executive member George Menezes, now lay member of the Pope's Advisory Council, feels violence against Christians is growing because they are a soft minority which, unlike the Muslims, does not hit back.

The incidents of violence are coupled with hardline rhetoric from the Sangh pari-var. Ashok Singhal of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad openly describes Christian missionaries as anti-national, CIA-sponsored agents out to divide India by encouraging Naxalites and converting Hindus. The VHP's Rajasthan unit has vowed—in print—to "make Banswara district Christian-free" within three years. Last month, Shiv Sainik Anand Dighe declared war on Christian churches indulging in "anti-Hindu talk".

The website of the Hindu Swayamsewak Sangh—the VHP's international wing—is no less virulent. The VHP's Delhi unit even filed a lawsuit against a prayer group in Delhi on the grounds that it was making false claims about healing the sick. In Assam, a controversy erupted in March when an inflammatory letter, allegedly written by senior BJP leader B.P. Acharya to Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee, surfaced in the press: "We have achieved our avowed objective of piercing Trishul in the chest of the so called 'Lord' Christ." Massey sees an attempt to create a fear psychosis. "Politicised, vested interests project Christians as foreigners and use that to build their own image."

Father Allwyn d'Silva, head of the Justice and Peace Commission of the Mumbai archdiocese, feels the attacks are part of a systematic RSS campaign: "Three years ago there was a plan to target the Christian community, institutions, missionaries and women. The professed aim was to stop conversions; the real reason is that Church personnel are working for poorer sections and empowering them. The whole social system is being questioned. The upper-caste RSS/VHP feel threatened."

 The rash of anti-Christian assaults in Gujarat prompted the Minorities Commission to write a stern letter to the state government saying it was "taking a serious view of what's happening in your state against minority Christians". It referred to a series of assaults in March and April, starting with the manhandling of foreign missionaries at Padra. The demolition of an allegedly unauthorised chapel at Naroda in Ahmedabad by a mob outraged Christians all over the country, prompting a flood of letters to politicians and church headquarters of all denominations. On Christmas Eve last year, the Commission got wind of a plot to attack churches in three districts. The district magistrates were warned and the raids averted.

Isolated groups are particularly vulnerable, says Archbishop de Lastic. In Banswara, the Wagd Christian Association has been sending desperate pleas for aid against constant harassment "by VHP and related organisations... fake literature is being published to misguide general public against Christians." Indeed, the number of attacks on minority community members, including one against a priest inside a school, over the last year prompted a letter from MP Tara Chand Bhagoria to the President protesting "religious disharmony".

From the tribal-dominated Ahwa-Dang area in Gujarat comes a plea to "protect the interests of the Christian community to avoid further communal consequences", as one Swami Asi-manand and his Vanvasi Kalyan Parishad have stepped up their anti-Christian activities. In Hansi in Haryana, the Christian community found their 200-year-old cemetery taken over by a sadhu who claimed it was the tomb of Anjana Pir. One of the tombs damaged was of Col James Skinner, founder of the Skinner's Horse cavalry regiment.

The increase in violence apart, Archbishop de Lastic is disturbed by finance minister Yashwant Sinha's remarks regarding income tax returns of minority-run educational and medical institutions. "We can't help but be apprehensive, we suspect this is one more way to attack minorities. It compromises our attempts to reach out to the poor...the BJP policy appears to be against minorities." State governments have attempted to establish control over minority institutions in the past, but with little success.

The CBCI chief suggests a dialogue with the RSS to thrash out various issues, the main one being the tendency to view primarily service-oriented Christian institutions as engaged in evangelistic activity. Another is the Sangh parivar's readiness to benefit from Christian institutions while targeting them. "If the RSS is so anti-Christian, why is it taking Christian money (aid from the West)? It's tainted money."

In the Northeast, where the Sangh parivar's political fortunes have brightened of late, a conflict with the well-entrenched Christian missionaries is seen as a real possibility. When 31,000 Reang tribals fled Christian-dominated Mizoram, the RSS' 1997-98 annual report charged Christian missionaries with abetting a "terrible spree of looting, burning, killing and raping". It accuses them of fuelling the insurgencies in the region. "We have lost four of our members to extremist violence across the region. How can anyone say we abet insurgencies?" asks a Catholic priest. Referring to the murder of a priest in Maram, the secretary of the Peace and Justice Commission wrote to the CBCI: "This is the second murder of a priest in Manipur...there has been a sharp increase in the attacks on religious personnel."

Massey feels the minority community's lack of a political voice is a serious problem. "Christians have historically stayed away from politics and supported the ruling party, whichever one it may be. That political neutrality is a liability and in general, the media has not been sympathetic because it's controlled by the majority community." The Association of Christian MPs, currently headed by Congressman P.A. Sangma, is all but defunct. Party president Sonia Gandhi has yet to find time to meet church heads, despite AICC general secretary Oscar Fernandes' attempts to organise a meeting.

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