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Analysis: Why Christmas was peaceful in Orissa, India?

ICC Note: This is an insightful analysis of anti-Christian violence in India and an explanation of why radical Hindus chose not to attack Christians in Orissa – the issue may be more politicized than we think.

By: Vishal Arora
12/29/08 India (Religious Intelligence) – New Delhi: Christians and rights groups across the world feared re-eruption of violence around Christmas in the east Indian state of Orissa, which witnessed a macabre spate of attacks on Christians in August and September in 2008. But thanks to changing political atmosphere in the country, the festival season passed off largely peaceful in the region.

The ebb and flow of the targeting of the Christian minority in India in the last 10 years can put in context both the wave of anti-Christian violence in Orissa’s Kandhamal district in August 2008 and the absence of more attacks in December 2008 despite a call for a state-wide shutdown by Hindu extremist groups on Christmas Day.

The decade of organised Christian persecution, which began in 1998 and climaxed in 2008, can be divided into four episodes, the ongoing being a period of restraint.

I. The Genesis and Rise of Christian Persecution (mid-1998 to mid-2004): Until 1998, Hindu nationalist groups targeted only the Muslim community, which accounts for around 14 per cent of India’s population, which is more than one billion. But due to two developments, the targeting of Christians began in 1998.

The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came into power at the federal level for the first time in 1998 – though through a coalition, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). The BJP, but its admission, was started under the leadership of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or the RSS, India’s chief Hindu nationalist organization that acts as an umbrella for a plethora of smaller groups. The BJP original agenda is to make India a Hindu nation; not a theocracy like in Saudi Arabia, but a national state in the European sense of the word. The party wants to create a nation that will be recognized as a land belonging to the Hindus, who account for more than 80 per cent of the population, and where Christians (who comprise 2.3 per cent of the population) and Muslims will be seen as outsiders and in subordination to the majority community. It will also be a nation where minorities will not be allowed to preach their religion and religious conversions will be banned.

In March 1998, Sonia Gandhi, the wife of late prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, became the president of the Indian National Congress, India’s grand old party and the biggest threat to the BJP’s rule at the time. Given that Mrs Gandhi is an Italian-born Roman Catholic, the BJP launched a campaign, including violent attacks, against Christians to provoke her to defend the minority community, whereby she could be branded as a minority leader as opposed to BJP’s leadership to the majority community. By launching attacks, the BJP also hoped to suggest that Christians were using money and force to convert Hindus under the protection provided by Mrs Gandhi.

Following the two developments, the Independent India witnessed its first large-scale, indiscriminate attack on Christians in the Dangs district of the western state of Gujarat in December 1998. The violence led to a mass destruction of property belonging to local Christians and Christian organizations in Dangs, a tribal (aboriginal people) majority district (with 93% tribal population). The violence began after an alleged attack on a Hindu nationalist rally -— an allegation that had no evidence.

In January 1999, an Australian missionary, Graham Staines, and his two underage sons were burned alive in the western state of Orissa’s Keonjhar district, another tribal district.

In March 2004, India’s second massive spate of anti-Christian attacks took place in the Jhabua district of the central state of Madhya Pradesh. The violence erupted after a nine-year-old Hindu girl was found murdered in a Christian school — a Hindu man was later arrested for the murder. Over 85 per cent of the people in Jhabua are tribal.

From 2000 to 2004, around 200 anti-Christian attacks were reported each year from various parts of the nations, but mainly from the states situated in the tribal belt of central India (including some eastern and western states), where 75 per cent of India’s tribal population lives.

II. The Period of Sustenance (mid-2004 to 2006-end): In the general elections of 2004 –after the NDA federal government completed its five-year term, the BJP-led coalition lost to the Congress party-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA). The RSS blamed the BJP’s defeat on the party’s reluctance to whole-heartedly implement its Hindu nationalist agenda (Most political analysts, however, said it was a vote against the BJP’s non-inclusive economic policies, and that people’s interest in emotive, identity-based issues was gradually fading away.).

However, Christians continued to face attacks, as the BJP was a ruling party in various states (India is a federation, and law and order is a state subject). According to the Christian Legal Association (of India), at least 165 anti-Christian attacks were reported in 2005, and over 130 in 2006.

III. The Period of Revival and the Climax (Early 2007 to September 2008): After a politically dry period of around three years, when no election took place in a key state, the BJP and Hindu nationalist groups began to see a ray of hope, the hope to gain relevance at a time when economic interests of the people, mainly the middleclass, were overtaking their sense of religious identity.

In February 2007, the BJP won the elections in the northern state of Uttarakhand. In December 2007, the party retained power in the elections in Gujarat state for the third consecutive time. Gujarat is infamously known as the ‘Laboratory of Hindutva (Hindu nationalism)’, as more than 2,000 Muslims were killed in 2002 under the leadership of the BJP chief minister, Narendra Modi, who was denied visa to the US in 2005 under 214 (b) of Immigration and Nationality Act for human rights violations. There was an atmosphere of jubilation among Hindu nationalists after the BJP’s victory in Gujarat, which was seen as a popular stamp on their ideology.

The day Narendra Modi was sworn in as the chief minister of Gujarat on December 24, 2007, a series of brutal anti-Christian attacks began in the Kandhamal district of Orissa. …

Even as the Hindu nationalist sentiments were running high among sections of the people, Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati was killed in Orissa’s Kandhamal district on the night of August 23. Maoist (extreme Marxists) claimed responsibility for the assassination, but Hindu nationalist groups, mainly the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP) blamed local Christians for it. This led to a massive spate of attacks on Christians in Kandhamal. At least 100 Christians were killed, 4,600 houses and churches burned, and over 50,000 people were rendered homeless in the attacks.

IV. Period of Restraint (October 2008 onwards): In October 2008, the Anti-Terrorist Squad of the western state of Maharashtra arrested several Hindu nationalist supporters, including some serving army officials, in connection with the September 29 bomb blasts in the Malegaon town in Maharashtra and Modasa area in neighbouring Gujarat state. …

Given that reinforcement of Hindu nationalist groups’ militant image can now be politically harmful besides facing the danger of being banned by the ruling federal government, the BJP and groups associated with it are likely to practise restraint in the near future. However, there is growing resentment among extreme Hindu nationalists against the BJP for compromising with its core ideology to please its allies, and it will not be surprising if groups like the VHP and its youth wing Bajrang Dal try to create tensions once again. … [Go To Full Story]