Features

Crisis averted

India | Form of religious violence in India is changing, but not content

Issue: "Supreme Court fight," July 23, 2005

When armed attackers breached Ayodhya's disputed shrine complex on July 5-a holy site claimed by both Hindus and Muslims-India held its breath. The site has attracted widespread violence before: In 1992 it was home to a 16th-century mosque that a Hindu mob tore down, sparking riots that killed more than 2,000.

But one week later, little violence was triggered. That most Hindus did not respond to extremists' calls for retaliation is an indication, pundits said, that Indians now are more interested in creating prosperity than stoking old grievances.

Authorities beefed up security at sensitive Hindu holy sites across the nation after the attack on Ayodhya. Leaders of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-the once-ruling Hindu nationalist party ousted from power in elections last year-quickly blamed the government for lax security and called for nationwide protests. Guards on site killed the six attackers after a 90-minute gun battle.

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But even as Muslim-Hindu violence shows signs of abating, Indian Christians have received no break from Hindu extremists. When the Congress Party resumed power last year, religious minorities-including some Christians-expected persecution from Hindus to dip. That has not happened. Church burnings and village beatings of Christians are still rampant, leading some Christian leaders to question whether the BJP was the leading source of the threat, as reported by Indian advocacy groups for the persecuted.

Attacks are taking place in several states, not just BJP strongholds. Last month Compass News reported the deaths of two pastors in Congress-controlled Andhra Pradesh who went missing in late May. The body of one, Isaac Raju, was covered in a jute bag and dumped behind some bushes near the state capital, Hyderabad. The body of the other pastor, K. Daniel, bore marks indicating a possible acid attack. A 25-year-old man, Kokala Govardhan, confessed to killing the two, saying his inspiration was the Hindu extremist who burned alive Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two sons in 1999.

In Maharashtra state, Hindus beat members of 11 Christian families from Jamanya village in Jalgaon district on May 16, after they rebuffed a community court order to recant their faith.

Most Hindu-on-Christian attacks are prevalent in states such as Chattisgarh and Orissa, which are beginning to see more Christian converts. But the problem is less the BJP, says Christian thinker Vishal Mangalwadi, than that Christianity is spreading widely.

"Persecution is not because of the BJP," Mr. Mangalwadi said. "There is phenomenal church growth happening in India and Hindus are threatened by that. . . . Christians have become bolder and more aggressive in evangelism and church growth."

The major culprits are extremist Hindu groups connected to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), founded in 1925 with the aim of creating a Hindu state. The BJP later developed as its political wing. Nonetheless, the RSS's role in religious attacks is not easy to define. Its leaders likely give marching orders to other groups, such as the Bajrang Dal and Vishwa Hindu Parishad, explained Mumbai pastor Viju Abraham. Those organizations are directly responsible for violence-the "brownshirts" of the Hindu nationalist movement.

"It's the other groups, not the BJP itself, who are responsible for persecution," Mr. Abraham said. "It's not like the previous government was organizing orchestrated pogroms against Christians."

The BJP failed more in securing speedy prosecutions against instigators of religious violence, dragging its feet, for example, in convicting the Staines' killers for almost four years, then commuting the death sentence of the ringleader in May of this year. One of its officials, chief minister of Gujarat state Narendra Modi, is accused of complicity in Muslim-Hindu state riots in 2002 that killed about 2,000; he was finally barred from entering the United States in March.

Even with political change, persecution against Christians will not disappear overnight. "The Congress being in the center does not mean Congress is able to protect people all over the country," Mr. Abraham said. "The state government is really the power in each state."

Christians are easy targets because they are less inclined to retaliate against violence and pursue conversion-a prick to both Muslims and Hindus. "We have to create a national intellectual climate which depends on the individual right to conversion," Mr. Mangalwadi said. "That doesn't reflect the mentality of the average personality on the street."

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