Anti-Christian Violence in India Pegged to Elections

By Patrick Goodenough | September 18, 2008 | 6:21 AM EDT

( – India’s ruling Congress party has stepped up accusations that its Hindu nationalist rival and affiliated groups are stoking anti-Christian sentiment to garner votes ahead of elections due early next year.
Amid spreading violence against Christians, there are growing calls to ban extremist Hindu organizations that have long been associated with attacks on members of minority religions.
The groups have close links to the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), India’s second-largest party, which led governing coalitions for eight years until an unexpected election defeat in 2004. Most of the violence is occurring in states ruled by the BJP, either alone or in coalition with other parties.
Since August 24, violent attacks by Hindu mobs in Orissa state in eastern India have killed at least 45 people, left scores of churches and thousands of homes torched, and driven tens of thousands of Christians into hiding or makeshift emergency camps, according to figures released by the All India Christian Council (AICC).
Attacks also have occurred in central Madhya Pradesh state, Gujarat and Rajasthan in the west, and – most seriously – in Karnataka state in the south, where at least 10 churches were destroyed at the weekend.
Karnataka has been under BJP rule since May, and Christians there say the state government is failing to uphold order.
AICC secretary-general John Dayal said attacks on the churches in Karnataka had taken place with such “military precision” they were clearly orchestrated by the extremists.
The violence erupted when an elderly leader of an organization called the World Hindu Council (Vishwa Hindu Parishad or VHP), was killed by unidentified gunmen in Orissa last month.
Although Maoist rebels claimed responsibility for the attack that killed Laxmanananda Saraswati and four others, the VHP turned on Christians in the state, who had for decades been targeted by an anti-conversion drive spearheaded by Saraswati.
The VHP and its youth wing, Bajrang Dal, are committed to a philosophy known as Hindutva, loosely interpreted as Hindu nationalism, which also underpins the BJP.
According to the group Gospel for Asia, the VHP “is committed to the Hindutva principal that ‘to be Indian is to be Hindu.’ They promote the concept of India becoming a totally Hindu nation and driving out Christianity and Islam.”
Christians make up about 2.3 percent of India’s population of 1.1 billion.
The extremists accuse Christian missionaries of using material inducements to lure poor Hindus – especially those designated as Dalits or “untouchables” at the bottom of India’s caste system – to convert to Christianity. Christians deny this is happening.
Five Indian states, Orissa among them, have passed anti-conversion laws aimed at stamping out this alleged practice.
Rather than explicitly outlawing conversions, the laws ban the use of inducements, force or fraudulent means to persuade someone to change their religion
But, as the State Department reported in its most recent assessment of international religious freedom, many non-governmental organizations argue that the laws, in practice, “infringe upon the individual's right to convert, favor Hinduism over minority religions, and represent a significant challenge to Indian secularism.”
At a memorial meeting for Saraswati, other Hindu leaders announced that vigilance committees would be set up across Orissa to oppose conversions of Hindus to Christianity.
‘Divide and polarize’
Sonia Gandhi, president of the ruling Congress party, has slammed the BJP and its Hindutva partners, alleging a political motive behind the unrest.
“Every time their position is weakened, every time elections are around the corner the BJP and its sister organizations launch vicious communal campaign to divide and polarize society, with no regard to loss of lives and livelihoods,” she told a meeting in New Delhi at the weekend.
Congress spokesman Shakeel Ahmed said earlier that if Islamic radical groups were being banned, then the question should be asked why extremist Hindu groups responsible for terror should not suffer the same fate.
Calls to ban the groups have also come from smaller political parties and from Christian organizations.
After carrying out a fact-finding mission to the affected areas of Karnataka, a team led by the head of a major Catholic NGO and a leading film-maker reported Wednesday that at least 18 churches and prayer halls had been attacked, while church leaders had been threatened and congregants assaulted.
In a report it said would be handed to central government leaders, the team charged that the aim of the violence was “political profit, at the cost of innocent Christians, and consolidation of the Hindu vote to reap dividends at the general elections.”
In an editorial Wednesday, the mass-circulation daily newspaper The Hindu also picked up the theme of a political agenda behind the violence.
“Building up support among the people on the basis of good governance is a far more arduous task than carving out electoral bases on the basis of divisive politics,” it said. “With the [parliamentary] general election just months away, the BJP might be tempted to take recourse to the politics of hate in order to make short-term electoral gains in Karnataka.”
Such a strategy, the paper said, “undermines national unity and constitutes a grave affront to the values of India’s historical civilization.”
VHP president Ashok Singhal accused Gandhi of spreading “anti-Hindu propaganda,” telling a press conference that it is churches and Christian organizations that should be banned, for promoting conversion.
Singhal also demanded that the Orissa police drop the theory that Maoists killed Saraswati last month, and arrest the culprits.
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow