Conversions and Anti-Christian Violence in India — Prof Ram Puniyani

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Christians take to the streets of Delhi to protest against government inaction following a spate of attacks on churches. — File photo

The Commission in its report stated that the Pastor had not been doing the work of conversion; he was involved in serving the leprosy patients

PROF RAM PUNIYANI | Clarion India

BHARATIYA JANATA PARTY parliamentarian Satyapal Singh, while speaking in the Lok Sabha on amendments to the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA), went on to support the forthcoming restrictions on the foreign contributions.

While making his arguments, to buttress his point, he put forward the case of Australian missionary Pastor Graham Staines. In the process, he poured venom on the late Pastor by saying that the latter had raped 30 tribal women and was involved in the work of conversion to Christianity with the help of funds from abroad!

This blatant lie should have been countered in Parliament. The brutal murder of Pastor Staines was described by the then President of India, Dr. K.R. Narayanan, by saying “it belonged to the world’s inventory of black deeds”.

The Pastor, who came from Australia to work among the leprosy patients in Orissa, was sleeping in an open jeep in a village on the night of 22-23 January 1999. He was working in Keonjhar, Manoharpur, in Orissa. On that fateful night, he was burnt alive with his two minor sons, Timothy and Philip. The whole country was aghast with the brutal nature of the crime. The brutality was committed by Rajendra Singh Pal aka Dara Singh, a worker of the Bajrang Dal, the militant youth wing of the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP).

L K Advani was the Home Minister that time. He stated that the Bajrang Dal had nothing to do with this act; he knows this organisation too well. As an immediate measure, he sent a three-member ministerial team–Murli Manohar Joshi, Navin Patnayak and George Fernandes–to Orissa. In a single day, the team concluded that this grave crime is an international conspiracy to destabilise the ruling NDA government.

Then the Wadhava Commission was appointed. The commission concluded that Dara Singh, who was working with the Bajrang Dal with the help of organisations like the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, VHP, etc., propagated that the Pastor was doing the work of conversion and is a threat to Hinduism. Dara Singh did mobilise people, poured kerosene on the vehicle and put it on fire.

The Commission in its report further stated that the Pastor had not been doing the work of conversion; he was involved in serving the leprosy patients. Dara Singh was awarded a death penalty by courts, which was later reduced to life imprisonment; currently he is undergoing the jail sentence.

What is remarkable is that as per the report, there was no substantial increase in the percentage of Christian population in the area. The report states, “Keonjar district had a total population of 15.30 lakh. Out of them, 14.93 lakh were Hindus. Christians, mostly tribals, were 4,707. According to the 1991 census, there were already 4,112 Christians in the district. Thus, there was an increase of only 595 in the Christian population.”

One can say that this is not due to conversion but due to the natural biological process. The anti-Staines propaganda of Dara Singh and the organisations was purely guided by their political agenda.

The propaganda that Christian missionaries have been converting is the dominant social perception all around, and it is the ground for ‘Hatred against the Christians’, who have been facing the violence for more than two decades. We witnessed violence against Christians, mainly in Adivasi areas, Dangs, Jhabua, and large parts of Orissa.

After this gruesome murder, there was regular violence against the Christian community, the peak of which was seen in the Kandhamal (Orissa) violence (August 2008) in which nearly a hundred Christians were killed, close to 400 women raped and many Churches attacked and destroyed.

That has not been the end. The violence against this community is going on in a regular manner. It is mostly in remote areas, in a scattered manner and many a time below radar. The prayer meetings are attacked and missionaries distributing religious literature are apprehended.

The organisation ‘Persecution Relief’, in its recent report, points out, “Hate crimes against Christians in India have risen by an alarming 40.87 percent…That increase came despite a complete nationwide lockdown that lasted three months to stem the spread of covid-19 infections.”

While the attacks on the Muslim minority have been glaring, those against Christians are scattered and of low intensity but the murder of Pastor Staines and the Kandhamal violence stand out. The core ideology behind this violence–which has been spread–is that Islam and Christianity are ‘foreign religions’ and are a threat to Hinduism.

This is so much in contrast to what Indian Nationalists like Gandhi and Nehru who regarded that religion was no basis of Nationality and felt that Christianity was as much a religion of this land as any other.

As a matter of fact, as per one version, Christianity entered this land in AD 52, with St Thomas setting up a church in Malabar area. Since the last over 19 centuries, many missionaries have been coming and working in remote areas, setting up health and education facilities in particular. They have also set up schools and colleges as well as hospitals in the urban areas, which are known for their good standards, and people in these areas do vie for availing of these facilities with gay abandon.

Today, the percentage of the Christian population, as per census figures, is 2.30 (2011 census). This is again a climb-down from 1971 when it was 2.60 %. For the past six decades, it has been showing a constant decline, 2.60 (1971), 2.44 (1981) 2.34 (1991), 2.30 (2001) and 2.30 again in 2011.

Organisations like the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, VHP and the Bajrang dal are active more in remote places to spread the misconception of the conversion. This is an assault on ‘Freedom of Religion’ and the repressive laws against freedom of religion have been coming up in state after state. While the Indian Constitution stands for an individual’s right to practise and preach one’s religion, the anti-1Christian violence on the pretext of religion is becoming endemic as sectarianism is growing in a frightening manner.

Recently, August 25 marked 12 years since the Kandhamal violence had shaken the country. The need is to restore peace, amity and harmony. By hurling unsubstantiated charges, Satyapal Singh has just gone on to add to the anti-Christian propaganda, which dents our values of fraternity.

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Ram Puniyani is an eminent author, activist and former professor of IIT Mumbai. The views are personal and Clarion India does not necessarily share or subscribe to them.

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