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As Elections Near, Persecution Intensifies In Madhya Pradesh

4/11/07 India (Compass Direct News) – Although elections in Madhya Pradesh are more than 18 months away, two Christian leaders there link the state’s ruling Hindu nationalist party to rising persecution ahead of the upcoming vote.

Since July 2006 the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Madhya Pradesh has received reports of more than 55 attacks in this Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-ruled central “Heart of India” state noted for violence against its tiny Christian minority.

Madhya Pradesh Christians have suffered a spate of recent attacks. On March 16, police of Chenapur police station in Khargone district arrested two independent pastors after local residents filed a complaint alleging the pastors had hurt their religious feelings. (See Compass Direct News, “ India Briefs,” March 21). On March 6, extremists of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and Bajrang Dal beat Pastor Binoy Kuriakose of the Indian Gospel Church and two other believers as they were distributing Christian literature in Sailana village, about 20 km (12 miles) from Ratlam. (See Compass Direct News, “ India Briefs,” March 21).

On March 2, some 15 extremists attacked a Christian meeting in the Patakhera area of Betul district, vandalizing and looting the facility. The extremists stormed the meeting of the independent church led by the Rev. Avinash Kanchan and started beating the believers, 25 women and five men. (See Compass Direct News, “ India Briefs,” March 6)

To protest the rising violence, a Madhya Pradesh Christian leader declared a fast on April 5, Maundy Thursday. Indira Iyengar, a former member of the State Minorities Commission, told Compass that she broke her fast only after Madhya Pradesh’s director general of police assured her that the Christian community would be protected against Hindu extremist attacks on Good Friday and Easter. “I had to take this step because the atrocities on Christians have increased manifold, and there is no end to the government’s encouragement to Hindu extremist groups,” Iyengar said.

Iyengar, president of the Madhya Pradesh Christian Association, said many Muslim lawmakers and leaders joined the fast for religious harmony. “Members of the Muslim minority community, too, are having a hard time in the state,” she said.

In Madhya Pradesh Hindu extremists often slander Christians to incite violence. The BJP and Hindu extremist groups claim that Christians convert tribal people and Hindus by force or allurement, a charge Christians deny.

Iyengar said that Snehlata Kedia, a woman claiming to be a saint from Hinduism’s Nirala Peeth sect, on March 31 lectured on women and the Christian concept of confession of sins at the Bharat Bhawan government building before an audience that included high government officials. “Kedia told the audience that Christian priests ask too many strange questions to force young Hindu girls to confess their sins, which leaves a very unhealthy impact on their tender minds,” Iyengar said. Media reports quoted Kedia as claiming that Christian priests often have sex with these girls, as once they become Christians they have low status in Christian society.

“Kedia also had CDs on what she taught, and I suspect that these CDs will now be distributed everywhere in the state,” Iyengar said.

Election strategy

Fr. Anand Muttungal, public relations officer of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Madhya Pradesh, told Compass that the Church has documented at least 55 attacks against Christians since July 2006. Both he and Iyengar link the surge in violence to upcoming December 2008 state assembly elections.

“It seems the BJP has already started its election campaign,” Iyengar said.

According to India ’s 2001 census, Christians number a mere .03 percent of Madhya Pradesh’s 60 million people – about 18,000. The Hindu nationalist BJP came into power in the state after defeating the Congress party in December 2003. Hindu nationalists assert that voters should elect a “Hindu” party to power, rather than a party that is pro-religious minorities, such as the Congress Party. To foster public outrage and present itself as protector of the Hindu faith, the BJP claims Christian missionaries are “converting” Hindus with foreign money and attributes this trend to Congress Party chief Sonia Gandhi, who was raised Roman Catholic in Italy . Demonizing Christians thus serves a vital purpose for Hindu nationalists, who need an enemy to survive.

Fr. Muttungal said former Madhya Pradesh chief minister and senior BJP leader Uma Bharti’s November 2004 ouster from the party for criticizing her colleagues factors into the rising violence. In May 2005, however, she was inducted in the BJP national executive committee due to the alleged pressure from the RSS, the ideological mentor of the BJP, before the BJP expelled her in December 2005. In April 2006, she and fellow BJP dissidents launched the new Bharatiya Janashakti Party (Indian People-Power).

Fr. Muttungal said that Bharti and BJP leaders in Madhya Pradesh blame each other for rising violence against Christians and Muslims, “but none ensures the protection of the minority communities.” Both parties seem to be giving free rein to Hindu extremists before the 2008 elections. Meanwhile, the BJP, a “cadre-based” or grassroots party, seems to be losing support.

Iyengar and Muttungal agreed that Jabalpur was Madhya Pradesh’s district with the highest incidence of anti-Christian violence. Of the 55 incidents reported since July 2006, 34 occurred in Jabalpur alone. To date in 2007 at least seven attacks have been reported in Jabalpur , Fr. Muttungal said. Iyengar said beyond Jabalpur , of Madhya Pradesh’s 45 districts, those with the highest incidence of anti-Christian violence are Mandla, Dindori, Betul, Ujjain , Jhabua and Khargone. Fr. Muttungal said violence also occurs in Balaghat and Barwani.

Iyengar said Hindu extremist groups active in Madhya Pradesh include the Dharma Sena, Seva Bharat (Service India), Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram (Tribal People Welfare Home or VKA), Bajrang Dal and RSS. Dharma Sena, believed behind much of the attacks on Christians, is backed by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP). The Bajrang Dal is VHP’s youth wing. The Seva Bharat and VKA are registered as “social” organizations that carry out “development” projects, mainly in areas with tribal populations, and are believed to spread hate against Christians under that guise. The RSS, established in 1925, is the parent organization of several Hindu extremist organizations, including the VHP, Seva Bharat and Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram.

Growth of Persecution during BJP-Rule

Madhya Pradesh’s history of religious violence dates before Indian independence in 1947. Religious persecution has occurred during the rules of both the Congress Party and BJP. In 1968 state lawmakers passed an anti-conversion law with Congress Party support, Fr. Muttungal said.

Persecution intensified, however, after the BJP came to power in December 2003, he said. Anti-Christian violence erupted in Jhabua district after a young girl was found dead January 11, 2004, in a Catholic school compound. Although a non-Christian confessed to the crime, Hindu extremists held the church responsible and carried out many attacks on Christians and their institutions.

Congress’ Chief Minister Digvijay Singh told reporters on April 9 that at least 110 attacks, mainly against Muslims, had occurred in Rajgarh district alone in the BJP’s last three years of rule.

The Madhya Pradesh State Minorities Commission (MPSMC) recently contradicted a report released by the National Commission for Minorities (NCM) in June 2006. The NCM fact-finding team found that Hindu extremists had frequently invoked the state’s anti-conversion law as a means to incite mobs against Christians and have Christians arrested without evidence. “The life of Christians has become miserable at the hands of miscreants in connivance with the police,” the NCM noted in its report. “There are allegations that when atrocities were committed on Christians, police remained mere spectators, and in certain cases they did not even register complaints.”

According to a 2006 India Report on Human Rights Practices released by the U.S. State Department, at least 28 people were arrested under the state anti-conversion law between July 2005 and June 2006. In contrast, Anwar Mohammed Khan, MPSMC chairman, said there had been complaints about attacks against members of the Christian community, but that extremists have not targeted Christians. (See Compass Direct News, “Panel Denies Christian Persecution in Indian State,” February 13, 2007)