The BJP shares the blame for recent attacks
TARGET: THE CHRISTIANS
By Ajay Singh
IT WAS 2 A.M. when the sound of the doorbell woke the four nuns at Preeti Sharan, a Catholic kindergarten and missionary center whose name means "Refuge of Love" in Hindi. When one of the nuns went to the building's entrance, barred by a metal grill, she found herself face to face with five men. The strangers said they were from a neighboring village and needed medicine for a sick child. Suddenly, they started banging down the gate with iron rods. Terrified, all the four nuns shut themselves in a chapel and began to pray. Within minutes, at least 22 men broke into the premises and started ransacking the rooms, grabbing whatever valuables they could find. The intruders then forced their way into the chapel, dragged the defenseless nuns to a field nearby and raped them.
The Sept. 23 assault in Nawapara Bhandaria, a sleepy village in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, has sent shock waves throughout the nation's Christian community. Three days later, miscreants attacked a Catholic mission near Nawapara. And on Sept. 27, yet another missionary center in the state capital of Bhopal was stormed. Said Indra Iyengar, president of the Madhya Pradesh Christians' Association: "Three attacks within a span of five days shows someone has a hidden agenda."
The finger of suspicion points at Hindu extremist groups allied to India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Christian groups claim scores of attacks, including the burning of churches, have taken place since the BJP formed a coalition government in March. Though there is no clear evidence linking the violence to the BJP or its Hindu nationalist allies, there is a general feeling that the assailants are protected by the authorities. Few culprits have been arrested. Those responsible for the outrage at Nawapara, for instance, are still at large.
At the very least, some top Hindu nationalist leaders have appeared to lend their moral support to the attacks on Christians, who make up less than 3% of India's 950 million people. It was several days before Home Minister Lal Krishna Advani condemned the rape of the nuns - and did so only after PM Atal Behari Vajpayee broke his own silence and exhorted Advani to take some action. B.L. Sharma, secretary of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), a religious organization allied to the BJP, went so far as to justify the violence. It was a reflection of the "anger of patriotic Hindu youth against anti-national forces," he said.
The distrust of Christian missionaries and their proselytizing activities in India dates back to British colonial times. More recently, the VHP has regularly called for the expulsion of missionaries from the country, arguing that they aggressively convert tribesfolk and low-caste people, or Dalits (meaning the oppressed). With the BJP in power, Hindu extremists are able to assert themselves more stridently than ever. Political motives also play a role in the violence against Christians. The BJP's well-known communal movement against Muslims, which helped catapult it to power, stopped paying off soon after the 1992 destruction of the Ayodhya mosque. Since then, the BJP has been in search of a new "enemy" to achieve its unrealized aim of uniting Hindu voters in one block. "The heat is off the Muslims," says historian Mushirul Hasan. "It is now on the Christians."
Missionaries working among tribal communities, such as the four nuns who were raped, are a specific target. Though considered beyond the pale of traditional Hindu society, tribespeople are seen by the BJP and its allies as part of the so-called Hindu nation; the groups strongly object to their religious conversion. That's not to say the Hindu nationalists are lacking in missionary zeal themselves. For years, the VHP has been organizing "reconversion" camps. That campaign has lately been stepped up in Madhya Pradesh, which has a large, partly Christian, tribal community. Another reason the VHP has intensified its activities is because the state, along with three others, will elect a new legislature next month. The BJP is hoping to replace the Congress party government in Madhya Pradesh. Thus do politics, religion and crime mix violently in India.