An assault on Christians

Print edition : June 24, 2000

Emboldened by the weak response of governments to attacks against Christian places of worship, the affiliates of the Sangh Parivar unleash a new wave of terror against the community.

EVER since the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance government assumed power at the Centre, there has been a low-intensity war against Christians in India, especially nuns and priests, by groups and organisations loyal to the Sangh Par ivar. A wave of attacks against Christian evangelists and places of worship through 1998 culminated in the murder of the Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two sons on January 23, 1999. Dara Singh, a Hindutva fanatic with links to the Sangh Par ivar, has been arrested in that connection. A second wave of terror against Christian missionaries, that extends now to the States of Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Punjab and Andhra Pradesh, has culminated this June in a series of bomb blasts in churches in Ka rnataka, Goa and Andhra Pradesh.

During a peace march in Mumbai on June 17, Christian priests carry a portrait of Brother George Kuzhikandam, who was bludgeoned to death in Mathura.-SHERWIN CRASTO/AP

The bombs that went off in churches in the towns of Vasco in Goa, Wadi in Karnataka, and Ongole and Tadepalligudem in Andhra Pradesh, point to a qualitatively new phase in the campaign of organised violence against Christians in the country. Although the identity of the forces behind the blasts is yet to be established, the nature of the attacks, their target and timing, point the finger of suspicion at the Sangh Parivar. In fact, the month of May alone saw two bomb attacks in Andhra Pradesh; the first in Machlipatnam where 30 persons were injured in a bomb blast at a prayer meeting on May 21, and another in Vikarabad where an explosive device planted in a church was fortunately defused in time. The simultaneous bomb blasts in the four towns suggest th at the perpetrators have been emboldened by what has been seen as a weak and non-serious state response to the terror campaign so far.

At 6 a.m. on June 8, a bomb exploded on the precincts of the St. Ann Catholic Church in the industrial town of Wadi in Gulbarga, shattering glass panes. A second blast occurred at 9 a.m. after the police had reached the spot, surveyed the area and recove red residual material of the earlier blast. When a car parked in the church precincts was moved, a tin box was found protruding from the ground. But it exploded before the bomb disposal squad could defuse it. One person was injured in the blast. Wadi has a Christian population of about 80 families.

Around the same time a blast at the St. Andrews Church in Vasco in south Goa shattered windowpanes and twisted grills out of shape. At 8-15 a.m. that day, the Gewett Memorial Baptist Church in Ongole was the scene of a bomb blast which because it took pl ace after the morning service, only injured three persons. A bomb went off at the Mother Vannini Catholic Church at Tadepalligudem in West Godavari district, around the same time.

The police have already established certain significant facts with regard to the blasts. "We are now certain that the same group of conspirators were behind all the three blasts," C. Dinakaran, Director-General of Police, Karnataka, told Frontline . In all the cases, he said, the timing device and the detonators used were of the same type. While in Andhra Pradesh the explosive had a plastic casing, in Goa and Karnataka the explosives were encased in tin. The bombs were placed, in all the cases, ne ar the gates or windows of the church. Gelatine, an explosive commonly used for blasting in the stone quarries and cement factories of Gulbarga in Karnataka, and Andhra Pradesh was the raw material used. "The other significant fact is that all the towns have railway stations and we suspect that this may have determined the choice of place. The conspirators possibly took trains from one place to another," said Dinakaran.

Inside the Mother Vannini Catholic Church at Tadepalligudem in West Godavari district of Andhra Pradesh which was damaged in a bomb blast on June 8.-K. RAMESH BABU

THE serial blast mark a new phase in the continuing two-year-long violence against the Christian community in the country. The fact of a conspiracy is now clearly established. This points not only to careful and coordinated planning, but also to new leve ls and strategies of planned violence suggestive of a deadly seriousness of purpose. No longer need mobs be mobilised in the destruction of places of Christian worship as in the past. The terrorism of the bomb gives the criminal a degree of invisibility, and widens the range of attack. The serial bombs were in the nature of a message of intimidation, not just to those who work for Christian organisations but to Church congregations, from prayer meetings to Sunday school gatherings. With the perpetrators of the crime distanced from the scene of the crime, it is much easier for a compliant state machinery to give them protection. The fear of indiscriminate strikes anywhere and at any time has already created a sense of panic amongst Christians. After all , ifa bomb can be planted in a town as innocuous as Wadi, it could happen anywhere in the country.

"I read in all this a pattern of violence. These were similar explosive devices that were used, " Fr. Dr.H.R. Donald De Souza, deputy secretary-general of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India told Frontline. "We suspect an organised movement b y fundamentalist groups who have been emboldened by the inaction of the government," he added.

The serial blasts give the lie to the theory of 'secular violence' that the BJP and the government it heads have put out regarding the recent attacks on minorities in different parts of the country. Despite evidence to the contrary, the government held t hat the innumerable acts of violence against members of the Christian community, in Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and elsewhere, was not communally motivated but were incidents of "dacoity and loot" by "criminal gangs".

According to the United Christian Forum for Human Rights (UCFHR), there have been 35 recorded anti-Christian crimes between January and June this year. The most recent of these was the murder of Brother George Kuzhikandam, who was bludgeoned to death in the Paulus Memorial School in Navada, Mathura, in U.P. on June 7. Within days of this incident, a group of nuns were attacked in Mathura by a couple of scooter-borne assailants. In the case of George Kuzhikandam, U.P. Chief Minister Ram Prakash Gupta ins isted that money was the motive behind the murder. "The BJP and the State government reach conclusions even before the police start investigation," John Dayal, national convener of the UCFHR said. "Why would a gang of thugs choose to kill a poor priest i n his school during the holidays ? Or attack nuns who run a convent school that charges the lowest fees in the area?" Dayal said that the U.P. Police had promised to post police units at Christian institutions but these were soon withdrawn. "A police out post was stationed at the nuns' ashram in Agra. They proved more of a nuisance as they insisted on being fed and looked after, and were in any case taken off duty a few days later!" The U.P. government's stand on the attacks received support from an unexpected quarter. The National Minorities Commission (NMC) sent an investigative team to the Agra-Mathura region and its report upheld the official view that the cases of physical viol ence and murder were committed by anti-social elements. "The NMC report was prepared by nominees of the present government. So it is not surprising that they arrived at the conclusion they did,"said Fr. Donald De Souza. "A group of Christian parliamentar ians led by P.C. Thomas conducted another enquiry and on the basis of the same evidence wholly disagreed with the NMC report," he added.

THE BJP responded to the serial blasts even before the government did. While the Home Ministry "waited for reports from the States," the BJP announced that the blasts were the handiwork of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), which, it said, is bent on fomenting hatred between Hindus and Christians in the country. Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee had no information to give as to what action the State governments had taken when a delegation from the UCFHR called on him three days after the bl ast. By then police investigations could not establish any ISI involvement.

The facade of the church.-K. RAMESH BABU

Preliminary investigations into the blasts appear to discount the theory of ISI involvement. "We cannot rule out anything," said DGP Dinakaran. "But if an organisation as well-funded as the ISI is involved, we expect they would use more sophisticated bom bs. Why must they depend on gelatine and not the more expensive and deadly RDX (research department explosive)?"

Christian leaders attach importance to the proliferation of hate-literature that has provided the fuel for the attacks, and which also provides evidence, for a law enforcing agency that wishes to use such evidence, of who is behind the violence. Hate-lit erature is freely printed and distributed in States where the Sangh Parivar is active, and in States where the BJP is in government or is an ally of the government, as in Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh. Most hate-pamphlets do not carry the name of an organis ation that has an address. For example, there are pamphlets signed by the 'Hindu Jagaran Manch, Kashi', or by 'Supporters of Dara Singh, the God Who Descended from Heaven'. While some of the books are directly incendiary, others come in the garb of work s of historical 'research', and yet others are books/pamphlets on how to harass Christian missionaries in order to prevent them from proselytising. For example, a booklet published in Gujarat suggests that one way to prevent missionaries from working is to foist false cases on them so that they are always tied up in the courts.

These are faceless, addressless, front organisations of the Sangh Parivar. If the law enforcing mechanism is slow in apprehending the culprits in an attack of communally motivated violence, it is even slower in tracing and taking action against the print ers and peddlers of hate-literature. The environment in all the three States where the serial blasts occurred has been vitiated by the activities of the Sangh Parivar. "We are alarmed at the statements of important people in the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamseva k Sangh) and the BJP, such as B.K. Modi and Ashok Singhal, who have been talking of the need to build a pan Buddhist-Hindu alliance against Christianity and Islam in South Asia," said Dayal. "The RSS chief speaks of an "Epochal War". What does all this m ean?" he asked. The NDA government has already swept the uncomfortable issue of the serial blasts, which they were briefly confronted with, under the carpet. A passing worry presented itself when Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N.Chandrababu Naidu was reported to have tol d a delegation of Christian leaders that he would even consider withdrawing support to the BJP-led government if the rights of the minorities were not protected. But that concern too was dispelled when the Telugu Desam Party leader denied that he had sai d anything of the sort.

To the Christians in the country, the targets of a sustained two-year-long cycle of violence, there is little room for comfort. And for assurances there are few positive measures that have been taken for their protection.

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