India’s Christians: politics of violence in Orissa

Jacob Ignatius
1 September 2008

A catastrophic flood across the northeast Indian state of Bihar has displaced tens of thousands of people and caused untold damage to the meagre property and livelihoods of some of India's poorest citizens. The challenges of delivering aid and protecting the health of those affected by this emergency - which is spreading to the state of Assam and across the border to Bangladesh - are immense. But alongside this natural and humanitarian disaster, another less visible crisis has been unfolding: attacks on India's Christians in parts of the impoverished eastern state of Orissa.

Jacob Ignatius is an Indian who works in Britain as a software engineer.

On 29 August 2008, 45,000 Christian schools were closed across India to protest against the anti-Christian violence that had affected (mainly) the Kandhamal district of Orissa in the previous week. This was unprecedented in the history of independent India, for never before have Christians felt so compelled to stand publicly and unitedly against the forces of communalism in India. Moreover, the impact of this response is heightened by the fact that Christian schools - which provide education to both Christian and non-Christian children - form a significant part of India's education system.

The unrest in the state of Orissa started on 23 August 2008 after the murder of a 90-year-old rightwing Hindu nationalist leader called Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati; four of his associates were also killed in the attack. Although the police suspected Maoist guerrillas for the murder, members of the radical Hindu group Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) blamed Christians and went on the rampage - killing several people, and destroying a Christian missionary-school, house-churches and other buildings. The Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHR) estimates that fifty people (most of them Christians) have been killed. Thousands of Christians have fled their homes to seek shelter in the forests or government camps. The murder of the Hindu leader is clearly reprehensible, but this is a matter for the judicial authorities and - even were the culprit found to be a Christian - would not justify what effectively became an assault against an entire local Christian community.

Among openDemocracy's articles on Indian politics and democracy:

Rajeev Bhargava, "Words save lives: India, the BJP and the constitution" (2 October 2002)

Rajeev Bhargava, "The political psychology of Hindu nationalism" (5 November 2003)

Antara Dev Sen, "India's benign earthquake" (20 May 2004)

Rajeev Bhargava, "India's model: faith, secularism and democracy" (3 November 2004)

Meenakshi Ganguly, "India's Dalits: between atrocity and protest" (9 January 2007)

Ajai Sahni, "India and its Maoists: failure and success" (20 March 2007)

Sumantra Bose, "Uttar Pradesh: India's democratic landslip" (29 May 2007)

John Elkington, "India's third liberation" (21 August 2007)

Kanchan Lakshman, "India in Afghanistan: a presence under pressure" (11 July 2008)

Ajai Sahni, "India after Ahmedabad's bombs" (29 July 2008)

Paul Rogers, "China and India: heartlands of global protest" (7 August 2008)

Antara Dev Sen, " India at 61: here's looking at you, kid!" (19 August 2008)

An area of tension

The latest trauma is part of a history of Hindu-Christian clashes in Orissa over the last decade. In January 1999, the Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two sons were burned alive while sleeping in their jeep. Around Christmas 2007 there were Hindu-Christian clashes that have some parallels with the latest events. The main conflict then was between two communities: Kandh tribals (who are mainly, though not exclusively, Hindus) and Dalit Panas (many of whom have converted to Christianity over the years). Christian missionaries have been active in the area for many years; with the entrance of radical Hindu groups, vehemently opposed to the conversion of Hindus to Christianity and cow slaughter, the potential for communal tension has deepened.

Muslims have traditionally borne the brunt of attacks by Hindu extremist groups but since the late 1990s there has been a marked increase in the number of attacks on Christians. Between 1950 and 1998, only fifty anti-Christian attacks were recorded. In 2000, the figure shot up to 100, and then rose further to at least 200 incidents annually in 2001-05; perhaps it was no coincidence that this came after after the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power at the federal level (until their defeat by the Congress-led coalition in May 2004). In 2007, the number of attacks on Christians exceeded 1,000 for the first time.

Hindu radicals often make the allegation - in part-excuse for the actions of extremists - that Christians are forcibly or fraudulently converting Hindus to Christianity. There probably are some erring missionaries who are attracting converts by false inducements, but to imply that all do so is inaccurate and unfair (see Subhasis Mohanty, "Fire in Kalinga", The Pioneer, 2 September 2008). Many missionaries do great charitable work, often providing a helping hand in areas deeply affected by poverty.

In several Indian states governed by the BJP, anti-conversion laws are now in place. These laws are largely intended to prevent the flow of people from Hinduism to other faiths. Many low-caste Hindus have converted to Christianity willingly to escape the rigid and repressive caste system; the Dalit Panas of Orissa are an example. In this context the anti-conversion laws - which sanction interference in a person's right freely to choose a faith - have become a weapon used by radical Hindus to beat Christians. In areas like Orissa, the tensions that result are intermingled with disputes over land, legal status and local power (see Ravik Bhattacharya, "Down the Dark Road", Indian Express, 31 August 2008).

Christians officially constitute only 2.3% of the Indian population. Christianity is believed to have been brought to India by St Thomas, Christ's own apostle, to the shores of Kerala in 52 CE (common era). Much later, colonial powers such as the British, Portuguese, Dutch and French made strenuous efforts to convert the population. These were usually without success; Christianity has never grown to be a dominant religion in India and it is unlikely it ever will. Yet Hindu extremist groups like the VHP are fixated on the issue of conversions to Christianity - in part from dogmatic opposition to people leaving their religious fold, in part from insecurity about members of the lower castes trying to break free from the caste system. Hence, the majority of attacks on Christians are directed against the formerly low-caste converts such as the Dalit Panas of Orissa (see Biswamoy Pati, "In a crucified state", Hindustan Times, 2 September 2008).

A strategy of fear

India is a deeply religious place where the boundaries of religion and politics are somewhat porous. The country is not today blessed with philanthropic politicians of the stature of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru who always strove for communal harmony. There is a disturbing tendency among some of their successors to exaggerate the religious divide between communities in order to polarise voters along religious lines and win the votes of the majority community. This can both encourage and justify attacks on members of minority faiths, many of which are orchestrated in advance and carried out with the connivance of the authorities. In their aftermath, very few people are prosecuted (see Rajeev Bhargava, "The political psychology of Hindu nationalism", 5 November 2003).

The next Indian general election is looming - it must be held by May 2009, and could even be sooner. The BJP seems to have returned to its policy of hard-line Hindutva (Hindu nationalism) to capture votes. The ruling Congress Party professes commitment to India's famed secularism, but it often fails to match action with rhetoric (see Rajeev Bhargava, "Words save lives: India, the BJP and the constitution", 2 October 2002). This is disappointing because to break the cycle of communal violence more needs to be done than just issuing statements and pointing the finger of blame at the BJP. A good start would be consistently to bring the perpetrators of communal violence to justice.

Hindus are in their vast majority tolerant and peaceful - as are members of other faiths in India. It is political manipulation and fear-mongering that turns peaceful coexistence into terrible violence, as in Orissa. The political instigation of of anti-Christian sentiment by the Hindu rightwing for electoral gain is another danger to Indian democracy. In the interests of a peaceful, progressive and just India, it must be opposed.

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