Hindu radicals wreak havoc in India. A look at the causes and consequences of their anti-Christian campaign.
The eastern Indian state of Orissa, largely unknown to Catholics in the West before August, is a rural area with significant mineral resources. India’s latest national census paints a picture of a state whose citizens, in the midst of poverty, are generously open to life: the typical Orissa home has a mud floor, two rooms, six to eight inhabitants, and no latrine.
The state tourism web site boasts that “Orissa, also known as ‘The Soul of India,’ is a mystical land…filled with awe-inspiring monuments, thousands of master craftsmen and artists, numerous wildlife sanctuaries, [and] stunning natural landscapes.” Medieval temples of great architectural significance dot the landscape and attest to Hinduism’s particularly strong influence. While 81 percent of India’s population is Hindu13 percent are Muslim, and 2 percent are
On the evening of August 23, 80-year-old Swami Lakshmanananda
Saraswati, the leader of the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP, or World Hindu Council) in Orissa who had spoken out against Hindu conversions to Christianity, was assassinated, along with four other men. Within two hours of the killing, the Times of India, the nation’s leading English-language newspaper, reported that about 30 armed men, “suspected to be Maoists,” had entered the girls’ religious school where the men lived and opened fire. On August 29, a Maoist leader told an Orissa newspaper, “We killed Swami Laksmanananda Saraswati.” On October 5, Orissa’s top-ranking Maoist, speaking with a towel over his head in an unidentified forest, again claimed that Maoists were responsible for the killing.
In the two months following the murder of Lakshmananandawho, according to obituaries, left behind his wife and two children decades ago to pursue the monastic lifeviolence in Orissa claimed at least 58 lives and left 50,000 Christians homeless. One hundred Catholic and Protestant church buildings and 4,500 Christian homes were destroyed, the Asian Catholic news agency UCA News reported.
A POWDER KEG
The violence touched off by Lakshmanananda’s murder was not the first incident of the persecution of Christians in the region. In 1999, an Australian evangelical missionary, Graham Staines, and his two sons were burned alive while they were sleeping in their station wagon following a meeting of Christians in the jungle. Later that year, Father Arul Doss, a 35-year-old priest, was shot to death with arrows as he fled his burning parish church. Anti-Christian violence is not limited to Orissa: Church officials estimate there were 400 attacks on Christian buildings and ministers in India between 1998 and 2000 alone. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom has documented numerous instances of persecution this decade.
Two factors, however, helped make Orissa a powder keg waiting to explode: the conversions of many Dalits, or “untouchables,” to Christianity; and a previous attack on Lakshmanananda, a polarizing figure revered as a saint by some and denounced as a fascist by others. Two priests interviewed by CWR (see sidebar) say the governance of the state by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a Hindu nationalist party, helped create a climate in which the violence took place.
In the Kandhamal district of Orissa where Lakshmanananda lived, the number of Christians increased from 6 percent of the population in 1971 to 27 percent in 2001, principally through the conversion of Dalits, reported The Indian Express, a mainstream Indian newspaper. The life of Dalits is a life of “ social exclusion, dehumanisation, degradation, exploitation, and oppression,” Indira Athawale, an official with the All India Confederation of Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribes Organizations, testified in British Parliament in 2007. Millions of Dalit women “are pushed into prostitution the worst form being the religiously sanctioned practice of devadasis, or temple prostitutes, dedicated to temples from puberty, where they serve as concubines to the priests and other ‘high’ caste men.”
Over the decades, Lakshmanananda sought to maintain and increase the Hindu character of his district and state; according to the Express, “ he set up hostels for tribal girls, hospitals, and organized massive yagnas [acts of public sacrificial worship].” He also campaigned vocally against conversions from Hinduism, particularly “forced conversions,” which under Orissa law consists in “using force, allurement, through inducements like gifts or gratification and grant of any benefit, either pecuniary or otherwise, or by fraudulent means.” Converts in Orissa must appear before a magistrate and state they are converting freely.
Violence erupted in Orissa between December 24 and 27, 2007. Archbishop Raphael Cheenath of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar the state’s leading prelate wrote in a January 7 Indian Catholic article:
The trouble began on 24th December at 8:00 a.m. at Bamunigam village, close to the police station under Daringibadi Block of Kandhamal District. Some Hindu Fundamentalists forcefully removed [a] Christmas decoration, which the Ambedkar Baniko Sangho comprising the local Christian entrepreneurs had put up as a preparation for Christmas, with due permission of the administration. This was followed by an exchange of words between two groups, as the fundamentalists insisted that the people stop Christmas celebrations. Within a few minutes a group of people, who were stationed close by, pounced on the members of Ambedkar Baniko Sangho with sticks, knives, other lethal weapons, and guns and other firearms.
Seeing this armed gang coming to attack them, the people dispersed out of fear. The fundamentalists shot at the people with their guns, critically injuring two of them. They also destroyed about fifteen shops belonging to the Christians after looting the shops and houses. Six or seven members of Ambedkar Baniko Sangho were beaten up by the mob.
Swami Lakshmanananda, according to the Express, immediately traveled to Bamunigam, where Dalit Christians threw stones at his car. But Lakshmanananda, interviewed in a hospital bed days after the attack, had a different account. He told the Organiseran English-language weekly published in New Delhithat 200 armed Christians attacked his car in a different village (Daringibadi) and that his driver and bodyguard were beaten up.
Violence spread rapidly throughout Orissa. At 2:00 on the afternoon of December 24, a crowd of 400 to 500 destroyed several church buildings in Balliguda. While Archbishop Cheenath was celebrating Midnight Mass nearly 200 miles from Bamunigam, someone threw a bomb into his home. By December 27, five parish churches, 48 village churches, six convents, three sacristies, a minor seminary, a Capuchin formation house, a leprosy center, a vocational training center, three hostels, and 400 Christian homes had been destroyed throughout Orissa. Five Christians had been killed.
“I had told my priests and religious that they should save themselves and don’t worry about the property,” said Archbishop Cheenath. “So I advised them to escape to anywhere as soon as they hear about an impending attack…. We could not rely on the police force either because they were too few or they were indifferent for reasons I do not know. Destruction took place even in the presence of the police force (20 of them) in Bamunigam, who just watched.”
NOT RANDOM ACTS OF VIOLENCE
Several factors led Archbishop Cheenath to believe that the December attacks were not random acts of violence. The perpetrators typically had weapons such as guns and iron-cutting swords, and had enough food with them to prepare their meals in the area of attack. The perpetrators “were as a rule from other villages to avoid recognition,” and crowds of non-villagers would appear out of nowhere just before attacking. In addition, according to the archbishop, Lakshmanananda arrived very quickly in Bamunigam. Archbishop Cheenath concluded that the attacks were pre-planned. “The Swami,” wrote the archbishop, “is considered to be the mastermind behind all the attacks.”
Denying any involvement with the attack on the parish in Bamunigam, Lakshmanananda nonetheless told the Organiser that
I can well understand the wounded psyche of Hindus against the Church…. There was no problem when Christians were not here…. With their numbers increasing, they forcefully took away Hindu girls and forced the neo-converts to eat beef. They set several temples on fire….
This is the modus operandi of churches and Christians of all denominationsput up a small prayer house in the middle of a Hindu locality, close to a temple, and after a few years of missionary activity, transform the prayer house into a big church [with] insolent symbols…towering Jesus Christ statues obstructing the skyline, towering steeples with a cross atop, which is visible from a long distance, new and big churches close to old and popular temples….
Christians in India must understand and understand fast that they cannot be protected by the US…Christians can be protected only by the good will of the majority Hindus in whose midst they have to live. It is time for the country and Hindu organizations in particular to consider that religious freedom enshrined in the constitution has to be matched by a constitutional provision that unequivocally bans religious conversion of Hindus to Abrahamic faiths. Christians have to earn the good will of the Hindus.
When Lakshmanananda was assassinated eight months later, anti-Christian violence spread like wildfire in Orissa amid widespread rejection of Maoists’ claims of responsibility. Within two days, according to the Indian Catholic, 10 Church buildings were destroyed, and a Hindu cook in a missionary-run orphanage was burned alive as she protected orphans from a violent mob. Christians began to flee their homes for the jungle. A month later, some 40,000 Christians were living in makeshift relief camps.
Within two days of the killing, a mob associated with the BJP, shouting, “ Kill Christians and destroy their institutions,” destroyed an archdiocesan pastoral center. A priest there was doused in kerosene and beaten with iron rods, and Sister Meena Lalita Barwa, who was working there at the time, was gang-raped and paraded through the streets as police, she recounted, spoke in a very friendly manner with her attackers. “We resisted as much as we could,” Father Thomas Chellen told Catholic News Service. “This is like being tortured for Christ.”
The Indian bishops’ conference immediately condemned Lakshmanananda’s murder and added in a statement that they were “extremely sorry to find that some organizations have pointed a finger at the Christian community in Orissa for the murder of the Swami and his associates…. The extremists are attacking and vandalizing our institutions without any reason.”
The death toll reached four by August 26, 10 by August 27, 14 by August 28, 22 by August 29, and 26 by September 1, according to the Indian Catholic News Service and UCA News.
At the conclusion of his August 27 weekly general audience, Pope Benedict issued an extraordinary appeal on behalf of Indian Catholics:
I learned with deep sorrow of the acts of violence perpetrated against the Christian communities in the Indian state of Orissa, subsequent to the deplorable assassination of Swami Lakshmananda Saraswati, a Hindu leader. So far several people have been killed and various others have been injured. Centers of worship that belong to the Church have also been destroyed, as well as private homes. While I firmly condemn every attack against human life, whose sacredness demands the respect of all, I express my spiritual closeness and solidarity to the brothers and sisters in the faith who have been so harshly tried. I implore the Lord to accompany and sustain them at this time of suffering and to give them the strength to continue in the service of love on behalf of all. I ask religious leaders and civil authorities to work together to re-establish among the members of the various communities the peaceful coexistence and harmony that have always been a hallmark of Indian society.
The following day, a delegation of Indian Catholic leaders, including Archbishop Cheenath, met with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who deplored the attacks and promised he would speak to Orissa’s state leaders about controlling the violence. The delegation called for a federal probe into Lakshmananda’s murder.
On August 29, India’s 45,000 Christian schools closed their doors to protest anti-Christian violence. The following week, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India issued a statement saying that Catholics were “forced to become Hindus and attack their own churches, in which they have been worshiping so long.” On September 7, the Church in India observed a day of prayer and fasting.
THE VIOLENCE SPREADS BEYOND ORISSA
As attacks on Christians in Orissa became less pronounced, violence spread beyond its borders:
- On September 5, four Missionaries of Charity nuns were attacked at a train station in Chhattisgarh, a state that borders Orissa, and accused of kidnapping and converting orphans
- On September 7, a Protestant church was burned down in the central Indian state Madhya Pradesh.
- On September 18, fire was set to the altar of the cathedral in the central Indian city of Jabalpur.
- On September 20, two churches were attacked in the southwestern Catholic stronghold of Kerala; Church officials emphasized the attacks were unrelated to other violence.
- On September 22, thieves ransacked a church in the eastern Indian city of Jamshedpur, and a priest in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand was found strangled to death.
Apart from Orissa, violence was most widespread in the southwestern state of Karnataka. On September 14, 14 Catholic and Pentecostal churches there were attacked, and on September 21, three more churches were vandalized. The following day, Archbishop Bernard Moras of Bangalore said, “I am prepared to shed my blood and give my life for the protection of churches.” In response, city police, saying they could not protect all of the city’s churches, told church leaders to install metal detectors and video cameras. On September 29, another Bangalore parish was vandalized.
Violence became more pronounced again in Orissa’s Kandhamal district on September 22 with the vandalism of a church and the burning of 40 homes. Nighttime became the favored time of attack on Christian homes, and Christian homes were targeted on September 25, 28, 29, and 30. On October 1, at least 250 more homes were burned. With the axing of a woman on September 30, the death toll reached 49.
On September 29, The Hindua leading national newspaperpublished an interview with a “tired and anguished” Archbishop Cheenath, who lamented the inaction of the federal and state governments and comments made by the state’s leading official, Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik.
There was not one word in his statement about the 40,000 persons displaced and in relief camps, not one word about the 4,200 homes destroyed, and not one word about the 45 personsincluding a [Protestant] pastor who was cut to pieces just a few days ago in front of his wifewho have been murdered.… We know that in cases of attack and even rape the police just stood by and took no action. What is left to destroy now?
As a Hindu radical group told Dalit Christians to return to their villages and reconvert to Hinduism or face death, Archbishop Cheenath urged Catholics “not to worry and to be firm. No conversion is valid unless it is free. A document signed under duress is not valid under law.”
International attention to the persecution in India grew during the last week in September, when Prime Minister Singh visited President Bush and EU leaders. At a press conference with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Singh called the violence “acts of national shame” and assured world leaders India was a secular state. Sarkozy, in turn, said, “We are pleased to reaffirm our friendship with the Indian prime minister. He is a very courageous man.” Upon returning, Singh’s office in a statement “advised the state government of Orissa to maintain utmost vigilance and ensure law and order and protection to life and property of all citizens.”
On October 2, an interreligious group of 15,000 rallied in New Delhi to protest the ongoing violence. The following day, during a special meeting of the Indian cabinet, Prime Minister Singh reportedly said, “There were a lot of complaints [from American and European leaders] about Christians being targeted in parts of the country, including Karnataka and Orissa. I had no answers, and had to hang my head in shame.”
Amid mounting calls for federal rule of Orissa to stem the violence, the Orissa state government took action:
- On October 3, Orissa police arrested four suspects in the August 25 rape of Sister Meena.
- On October 6, police arrested three Maoists in connection with the assassination of Swami Lakshmananda.
- On October 6, police arrested 40 in connection with anti-Christian violence, bringing the total arrested since August to 1,000. The “situation is under control,” said a Kandhamal police official. “No violence has been reported from any part of the district in the past three days.”
- On October 7, Sister Nirmala Mother Teresa’s successor as superior of the Missionaries of Charity met with Patnaik.
On October 6, a Hindu organization accused Archbishop Cheenath’s associates of hiring the Maoists to assassinate Lakshmananda and released to the media the purported minutes of a May 25 parish council meeting in Bethikala, Kandhamal. Participants, according to the minutes, agreed to “offer sacrifices” in connection with “Satanic activities that stand opposed to the expansion” of the parish. The sacrifices would take place on August 23the day of Lakshmananda’s assassinationupon which the dioceses of Orissa would celebrate “Victory Day.” Christian leaders denounced the document as a hoax; the parish priest said that his signature was forged and that he would file a defamation case in court. On the evening of October 7-8, mobs attacked three villages, destroying 60 Christian homes.
On October 17, Orissa police announced that the Maoists who assassinated Lakshmananda had been hired to do so by a “mastermind” who had fled Orissa. Police refused to release the mastermind’s name or religious affiliation.
The following day, Prime Minister Singh told the head of the World Council of Churches that the Indian government would help rebuild churches destroyed in Orissa, but the Orissa state government, invoking the principle of secularism, said it could not help.
As the two-month anniversary of Lakshmananda’s assassination approached, two priests of Archbishop Cheenath’s Archdiocese of Cuttack-Bhubaneshwar painted a bleak picture of the life of Christians remaining in Orissa despite government assurances of normalcy. Father Manoj Digal told AsiaNews:
Every night, defying the curfew imposed from 10 o’clock until 5 in the morning, extremist Hindu groups roam around the villages in these remote areas with flashlights, bringing destruction everywhere they go.… After the physical destruction and human casualties, now it is the turn of the animals. Hens, goats, buffalo, and oxen are being stolen. In various villages, after the destruction of the homes belonging to Christians, the extremists are killing the goats and hens, and celebrating amid the ruins.
The situation for the tens of thousands of homeless Christians in the refugee camps is also bleak. Father Ajay Singh told AsiaNews:
Our people are being treated like animals. They have been given just one blanket per family and sanitation and hygiene are simply non-existent. But what is even more tragic is the fact that they are not even allowed to pray, and are instead closely monitored by security forces.
An estimated 12,000 Orissa Christians have left the refugee camps and Orissa in an attempt to start new lives in other Indian states.
On October 20, the bishops of Orissa said in a statement, “The Christians of Kandhamal have lost faith in the state government, and they feel that their fundamental right to live has been totally taken away by the constitutionally elected government.”
Jeff Ziegler writes from North Carolina.