Why India is witnessing spike in attacks on Christians, churches

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Rights groups have recorded more than 300 attacks on Christians and their shrines in the first nine months of this year.

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New Delhi/Roorkee, India – In late October, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi met Pope Francis and invited him to India, a country with the second largest Christian population in Asia.

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However, in a speech nearly two weeks ago, the far-right Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) chief Mohan Bhagwat, the ideological mentor of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), warned Hindus about conversions and alleged “demographic changes”. The northeastern states of India, which have a large Christian population.

In his annual speech on 14 October to mark the Hindu festival of Dussehra (also known as Durga Puja), Bhagwat said: “There is a need to address the growing population and demographic imbalance and rethink the population policy. to be designed from. And that policy should be applicable to all irrespective of caste and creed. Illegal immigration and conversion in border districts [the] The Northeast has further changed the demographics.”

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The aim of the RSS is to create an ethnic Hindu state out of India. As head of the Sangh Parivar, the umbrella group of Hindu nationalist organizations including the BJP, Bhagwat’s Dussehra speech is considered the agenda-setter for the year.

Increase in attacks on Christians across India

As things unfolded later, Bhagwat’s speech was supplemented with violent attacks on Christians and churches in various parts of India, with mobs calling him “beheading” and openly calling on Hindus to stop the alleged conversions.

Three days after the speech, BJP MLA in Madhya Pradesh, Rameshwar Sharma, addressed a crowd, calling for a “chadar mukt, pita mukt Bharat” (an India free of Muslims and Christian priests).

On Sunday, in southern Karnataka’s Belur town, alleged members of the Bajrang Dal, a right-wing Hindu group behind several attacks on minorities, disrupted a Christian prayer meeting, accusing the community of converting.

On the same day in New Delhi, a warehouse was turned into a church and mass was disrupted on Sunday by the same group, whose members were seen shouting “shoot the traitors” in a video accessed by Al Jazeera had gone.

On October 3, a mob of around 250 Hindu protestors armed with iron rods ransacked a church in Roorkee in the northern state of Uttarakhand, which is ruled by the BJP. Witnesses told Al Jazeera that there were only about a dozen people in the church when the attack happened.

Pearl Lance, the daughter of a church pastor, was allegedly molested by men, abused and assaulted by women, and her phone was snatched. Church staff member Rajat Kumar was hit several times on the head with an iron rod, injuring him seriously.

“They dragged me by my neck and took me to the ground floor, raining blows on my face and back. I fainted after the rod hit my head,” Kumar told Al Jazeera, adding that his right eye was badly bruised and swollen.

Signboard removed by right wing Hindu mob who vandalized a church in Roorkee [Alishan Jafri/Al Jazeera]

The pastor’s elder daughter, Eva Lance, said the family had reported suspicious activity to police at least four times before the attack. “We received hateful anti-Christian threats from unknown people who followed us before the attack. They accused us of converting to religion and threatened violence. I sent an email, visited the police station and filed a formal complaint on October 2,” she told Al Jazeera.

He also alleged that there was a belated response by the police to the attack. “We were assured security by the police but no help came. Even on the day of the attack, we kept calling the police, but they came only an hour after the mob caused damage,” she said.

The police also filed a report against the priest’s family, alleging forced conversions, promoting religious enmity, criminal conspiracy and even robbery.

Instruments destroyed after a church was vandalized by a Hindu mob in Roorkee [Alishan Jafri/Al Jazeera]

Chhattisgarh ‘new laboratory’ for anti-Christian hatred

According to a report by human rights groups in October, there were over 300 attacks on Christians in the first nine months of this year, of which at least 32 were in Karnataka.

The report found that out of a total of 305 incidents of anti-Christian violence, four north Indian states recorded 169: 66 in BJP-ruled Uttar Pradesh, 47 in Congress-ruled Chhattisgarh, 30 in tribal-dominated Jharkhand, and 30 in BJP-ruled Madhya Pradesh.

At least nine Indian states, including Chhattisgarh, have planned anti-conversion laws that, activists say, have emerged as a “new laboratory” for anti-Christian hatred in India.

On October 1, more than 1,000 people gathered in Chhattisgarh’s Surguja district for a “Band Karo Dharmataran” (Stop Religious Conversion) rally – one of a series of events organized under the guise of anti-conversion protests in the central Indian state.

Addressing the gathering, Parmanand Maharaj, a far-right Hindu leader, urged people to “arm themselves with axes to teach a lesson to the Christians involved in conversion”.

“Why do you keep an axe? Cut off their heads,” he said, asking the crowd to follow “stop, toko, thokko” (stop, warn and kill) against the Christians.

Among his audience were BJP Parliamentarian Ramvichar Netam, former BJP Parliamentarian Ramvichar Netam, and Chhattisgarh state BJP Nand Anurag Singh Deo.

Sushil Shukla, who heads the communications department of the Congress party that governs the state, accused the BJP of “running out of issues” and “inciting religious hatred”. He said that the government would take action against the organizers of the Surguja rally after investigation.

Surguja Superintendent of Police TR Koshima told Al Jazeera that they are investigating the matter, but no First Information Report (FIR) – a document prepared by police when they learn of a cognizable offense – related to the rally has yet. has not been recorded.

“Though investigation is on, how much of the speech can be considered inciting as there was no violence in the district after that, it remains to be seen,” he said.

However, this was not the only incident in Chhattisgarh in recent months.

Following complaints from right-wing organizations in the state capital, Raipur, the police had called a Christian priest on September 5 for questioning. After reaching the police station, the same groups also beat him up.

In the same month, a video clip of a woman in Bhilai district – who runs a Hindu right-wing organization – beating up a priest in the presence of police constables went viral.

Jyoti Sharma, the woman accused of attacking the priest, told Al Jazeera that she had done nothing wrong. Though she admitted that an FIR has been lodged against her, she called it an “intimidation tactic” and said it would not stop her from doing “kutai” and “thukai” (assault and assault).

In July this year, Chhattisgarh’s Sukma district superintendent of police Sunil Sharma issued a circular asking his subordinates to increase surveillance on the “activities” of Christian missionaries.

A vandalism hall inside a church in Roorkee, Uttarakhand state, which is ruled by the BJP [Alishan Jafri/Al Jazeera]

Even in Karnataka, a BJP-ruled state, attacks on Christians have increased in recent years, according to United Christian Front president William Michaels.

The government recently ordered a “survey” of churches in the state to investigate “forced conversions” and deployed intelligence officers to gather more information on them.

In October, a right-wing mob stormed a makeshift church in Hubli and sang “bhajans” (Hindu prayer songs), which they said in protest against alleged conversions.

Several priests and Christians in Belagavi said they have been given a “friendly warning” by the police against going to church for prayers until the state assembly session begins in mid-December. The anti-conversion bill is likely to be introduced by the BJP in the session.

‘After Muslims there are Christians’

BJP legislator and Leader of the Opposition in the Chhattisgarh Legislative Assembly Dharamlal Kaushik told Al Jazeera that his party is “not against any community, but the Congress should stop vote bank politics” – a reference to minority communities possibly as captive voters. working as.

Asked about the increasing attacks and hate speech against Christians, Kaushik instead questioned the “silence of the Congress on the issue of conversions” and blamed the opposition party for the alleged increase in “conversions of Hindus to Christianity”. .

“In recent days, right-wing Hindu nationalist forces have intensified their attacks against Christians,” a Christian rights activist who documents hate crimes against the community told Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity.

“We cannot see the massive mobilization in Chhattisgarh, the attack on the church in Roorkee, the police order in Sukma, the ‘survey’ of churches in Karnataka and the Mohan Bhagwat talk of conversion as separate incidents. Simply put, it is the Christians after the Muslims. It’s not that these attacks are new, but they wish they were more publicly visible.”

Apoorvanand, who teaches Hindi literature at Delhi University and regularly writes against religious violence in India, said “the generalization of anti-Christian violence is very disturbing”.

“It’s not reported as much as it should be,” he said.

“By choosing a different target (besides Muslims) for a different crime, the Hindutva project in India is adding diversity and fairness to anti-minority hate. For followers, it makes anti-minority hatred and vigilant justice rational and more natural. “

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