A hate campaign in Gujarat

Print edition : January 16, 1999

The orchestrated attacks on Christians and their places of worship in Dangs district mark a dangerous escalation in the Hindu right-wing's communal campaign.

THE foot soldiers of Hindutva are out there again. It is a familiar battle cry for them, each time inventing a new "enemy" who is demonised even as the generals justify this with canards.

Minority-bashing, one of the programmes of the Hindutva brigade, has attained serious proportions in Gujarat. The series of attacks on Christian places of worship and educational institutions in Dangs district in southern Gujarat by Hindu fundamentalists on and after Christmas day were severe in terms of scale and intensity.

In Mulchond village in Dangs district, a chapel which was set on fire by activists of the Hindu Dharma Jagran Manch on December 27.-JAYESH SONI

The attacks began on December 25 following a rally held in Ahwa, the district headquarters, by the Hindu Dharma Jagran Manch (HJM), an affiliate of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal (Frontline, January 15, 1999). The three organisations have in recent years carried on an aggressive campaign against Christian missionaries in the region, raising the bogey of "threats to the Hindu majority" owing to "forcible conversions" to Christianity by the missionaries.

Since January 1998, the South Gujarat Tribal Christian Welfare Council, Ahwa, had made several representations to the local authorities requesting them to restrain the VHP, the Bajrang Dal and the HJM from carrying on with their communal campaign. In December 1998, when the HJM made public its plan to organise a rally in Ahwa on Christmas day, the Council requested Dangs District Collector Bharat Joshi on four occasions not to give permission for the rally. But the rally was held.

On December 25, the rallyists, of whom there were about 4,000, raised slogans against Christians as the police watched. Later, at a meeting held at a school ground in a predominantly Christian neighbourhood, speeches abusive of Christian missionaries were made. According to sources, Joshi went on to the dais and was garlanded.

Following the meeting, the attacks began - on Christian places of worship, schools run by missionaries, and shops owned by Christians. Attacks were reported from several villages in Dangs district that night and over the next few days.

A victim of the violence in Jarson village, where a church was attacked.-K.G. VERGHESE

CHIEF MINISTER Keshubhai Patel, who heads the Bharatiya Janata Party Government in the State, however, told Frontline that trouble started on December 25 when "adivasi Christians" threw stones at the HJM meeting venue and later "broke down a Hanuman temple nearby". He said that the violence was the direct result of the proselytisation activities of Christian missionaries, which had "aggravated the atmosphere". Even so, Keshubhai Patel claimed, the incidents were "nothing big" but had been "presented in an exaggerated manner" by the English-language press. Many of the churches that had been attacked, he said, "are not in fact churches; they are huts".

Keshubhai Patel was dismissive of the violence, but the situation was very serious. On the night of December 25, churches, educational institutions and houses were attacked - and in some cases set on fire - in Ahwa, Subir, Jamlapada, Gadvi, Divan Temrun, Madagkhadi and Padalkhadi. The next day, Gujrat's Minister of State for Home Hiren Pandya visited Ahwa; that very night a church in Waki village was set on fire by armed men who allegedly used a jeep belonging to the Forest Department. Two other churches, in Karadiamba and Behdun, were damaged.

The house of Galkund sarpanch Dinkar Gawli, the only Christian to be a sarpanch in the 311 villages in Dangs district, was attacked. Gawli, who owns a licensed gun, fired in the air in self-defence but his aim wavered when he was hit by a stone. Gawli was arrested on the charge of firing at a group of tribal people, a charge that discounts the fact that his life was in peril and the "group of tribal people" was in fact a heavily armed mob that had made no secret of its hostile intentions. Out on bail, Gawli says:"Had I not fired, the mob would have lynched me."

Even after peace committees were constituted, attacks on churches were reported in several villages on December 27, 28 and 29 - at Mulchond, Lahankadmal, Barda, Baripada, Raochond, Karenjpada, Pipaldaghad and Gougen. At Pipalaymal and Dongiamba, some Christians were tied and beaten. Some persons who had filed complaints about attacks on churches were threatened. On December 29, a church at Mathalbari was damaged.

Sarpanch Dinkar Gawli, whose house came under attack and who was arrested on the charge of firing at a group of people.-JAYESH SONI

Incidents of violence were reported also from Surat and Bharuch districts. At Vyara in Surat district, two churches were set on fire and a VHP flag was hoisted at a third church.

For days the attacks continued unhindered. Worse, Hindutva spokespersons defended the indefensible: they justified the violence as the "manifestation of the pent-up anger of Hindus against forcible conversions by Christian missionaries."

THE violence set off a storm of protests and led to calls for the dismissal of the Keshubhai Patel Government for its failure to protect religious minorities. Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee, under pressure from partners in the shaky coalition he heads at the Centre, criticised the anti-Christian campaign by the VHP and directed the State Government to take action to end the violence. He stated his intention to visit the affected areas, but the VHP and the Bajrang Dal, which were keen to play down the gravity of the attacks, were less than pleased with the prospect of a high-profile visit.In the event, their apprehensions proved needless. During his visit to Dangs district on January 10, Vajpayee dismissed as "baseless" the charge that the State Government had failed to take effective action against the attackers, and rejected demands for the dismissal of the Government. "There is no breakdown of the constitutional machinery in the State," he said. Vajpayee then echoed the strident Hindutva line on alleged conversions, and told representatives of the Church of North India who complained of the "reconversion" programme by Sangh Parivar constitutients that "reconversions"could not be stopped so long as conversions did not end in the first place.

Earlier, Union Home Minister L.K. Advani warned that "anyone belonging to any religion or any organisation, if found involved in such... attacks, will be dealt with in accordance with the law." Attacks on churches, he said, were "against our tradition and culture". Such assaults were "un-Hindu" acts, he added. The irony of such a statement from a leader who has been charge-sheeted in the case relating to the demolition of the Babri Masjid was not lost on observers.

The political compulsions of heading a coalition Government at the Centre appear to have forced the BJP, which has in the past derived political mileage from similar "hate campaigns", to criticise the VHP-inspired violence. At least four coalition partners - the Samata Party, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the Lok Shakti and the Trinamul Congress - condemned the Gujarat Government's failure to protect religious minorities. Some of them hinted that the State's interests would be better served by an invocation of Article 356 of the Constitution to dismiss the Government.

Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee, on a tour of Dangs district on January 10, looks at a jeep that was set on fire when a school run by missionaries in the Subir area was attacked.-AP

On December 31, a delegation of leaders of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Communist Party of India met President K.R. Narayanan and urged him to direct the Centre to take necessary steps, including deployment of paramilitary forces, to protect the minorities in Gujarat. The State Government should be directed under the provisions of the Constitution to take action, the leaders said in a memorandum submitted to the President. They demanded that special courts be set up to prosecute the key persons behind the communal incidents. The memorandum alleged that the VHP, the Bajrang Dal and other outfits controlled by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) were behind the planned attacks.

As part of an independent initiative, the National Commission for Minorities decided to constitute a special bench and hold emergency sittings in Gandhinagar and Ahmedabad on January 8 to hear and receive evidence from representatives of various communities. The bench was to report on its findings to the full Commission at a meeting on January 11.

The attacks also prompted expressions of concern from abroad. The Pakistan National Assembly adopted a resolution deploring the attacks and calling on the Indian Government "to stop excesses against minority groups." In New Delhi, the United States Ambassador to India, Richard F. Celeste, said that the attacks had received wide publicity in the U.S. and had raised concerns.

STUNG by the widespread condemnation of the attacks, the Union Home Ministry despatched a two-member team comprising Special Secretary M.B. Kaushal and Joint Secretary Sandeep Bagchi to Gandhinagar. After interacting with State Government officials, the team concluded that the decision to allow the HJM rally in Ahwa was inappropriate. However, the Central team failed to visit the affected areas in Dangs district and left the local people disappointed. Union Home Secretary B.P. Singh, however, suggested that the team had not visited Dangs since law and order was a State subject. However, the Left parties described the team's report as an eyewash since it had been based entirely on briefings by State officials.

Over the next few days, the Union Home Ministry appeared to be pressing the State Government to deal firmly with those who failed to prevent the violence. On January 7, the State Government transferred Collector Bharat Joshi to Gandhinagar where he was posted as a Deputy Secretary, although it is said to have come under pressure from the VHP and the Bajrang Dal against transferring him.

Several other independent fact-finding missions went to Dangs district. A team comprising leaders of Left parties - Suresh Kurup and Sukomol Sen of the CPI(M) and Shameem Faizee and V.V. Raghavan of the CPI - was one. The team described as mischievous the decision of the district authorities to allow the HJM rally on December 25, when the Manch had issued "highly provocative and vicious" leaflets calling upon Hindus to "wipe out" Christians from Dangs. The team's report accused Joshi of "legitimising" the rally by appearing on the dais and allowing himself to be garlanded. The report noted that Joshi, who was present when the provocative speeches were made and abusive slogans were raised against Christians, had failed to take any action. The report said that the pattern of attacks on December 25 and after suggested that the attacks were planned.

On January 8, Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi visited the affected areas and said that her party, which had stopped short of demanding the dismissal of the Keshubhai Patel Government, would press for imposition of President's Rule if the State administration failed to stop the attacks. She said that she had reason to believe that the attackers had the blessings of the BJP Government. She refuted the allegation that tribal people were being forcibly converted to Christianity.

Local leaders of the Sangh Parivar criticised Sonia Gandhi for having met only Christian delegations during her visit. VHP leader Praveen Togadia said that Sonia Gandhi "is behaving like a Christian leader, not as the president of a national party."

Earlier, the Congress(I) had sent a team comprising Meira Kumar and V. Narayanaswamy, MPs, to the district, and presented a memorandum to President Narayanan urging him to advise the Centre to warn the Gujarat Government that the violence and attacks on minority communities should be ended. Congress(I) Parliamentary Party leader in the Lok Sabha, Sharad Pawar, said that he was in favour of the dismissal of the State Government.

Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi with Christian leaders on a visit to Dangs district on January 8.-AP

ACCORDING to some political analysts, the roots of the current onslaught lie in the BJP's inability to come to terms with the loss of its support base in the areas in southern Gujarat that are inhabited by tribal communities, where missionaries wield considerable influence.

The analysts further reason that the BJP and the rest of the Sangh Parivar felt that with the ascendance of Sonia Gandhi in the national political scene, particularly following the Congress(I)'s good showing in the Assembly elections in November 1998, there was a possibility of an erosion in the BJP's support base in south Gujarat. It is argued, therefore, that the Parivar decided that dividing the tribal communities, which traditionally support the Congress(I), would serve BJP's interests.

According to Sangh Parivar sources, the attacks were intended to "teach a lesson" to those Christian missionaries who had of late been encouraged by the possibility that a Congress(I) government headed by Sonia Gandhi would soon be in power at the Centre. It was clear that with the Ayodhya campaign no longer proving emotive, the Sangh Parivar was in search of another Hindutva issue to raise the political temperature. It has now raised the bogey of threats to a Hindu majority by the missionaries' efforts.

LITTLE is known about the origins of the HJM or its ascendance, but its affiliations with the VHP and the Bajrang Dal are well known. Some observers said that the HJM was formed two years ago, ostensibly to protect Gujarat's interests in the disputes relating to the Sardar Sarovar Project on the Narmada river. It has since admitted in its ranks activists who are members of some Sangh Parivar constituents, including the BJP, the VHP and the Bajrang Dal, besides some Hindu religious leaders. A rather more tenuous relationship exists with some other activists from these organisations who subscribe to the HJM's prescriptions for "protecting Hindu dharma" but have not formally joined the fringe group. Such a nebulous relationship serves a devious purpose of the Parivar: the HJM is used as a platform to voice outright communal slogans and launch violent attacks against minorities, and when the going gets too hot a discreet distance is sought to be maintained with it.

Thus, for instance, Togadia denied that the VHP was involved in the violence and dismissed the HJM as a front organisation that represented local Hindus belonging to tribal communities. He said that he found it difficult to condemn the attacks, which, in his view, were triggered by "pent-up resentment" against Christian missionaries' "efforts to proselytise people belonging to tribal communities".

DANGS district has a hilly and forested terrain - the Western Ghats begin from this region, and 98 per cent of the land area in the district is under forest cover. The region is rich in forest and mineral wealth.

Bajrang Dal activists during a demonstration in Surat on December 28 to protest against the activities of Christian missionaries.-SHERWIN CRASTO

Tribal communities make up 97 per cent of the population in the district, which has the highest tribal population in the State. The literacy rate among the tribal communities in Dangs is 47 per cent, as against 61.29 per cent for the whole of Gujarat. The literacy rate among the Scheduled Tribes in the whole of Gujarat in 1981 was 21.14 per cent. In 1991 it improved to 36.45 per cent. The dramatic improvement in the literacy levels among the tribal communities in the region can be attributed largely to the efforts of Christian missionaries.

According to the 1991 Census, the population of Dangs district was 1,44,091. Of this, 7,824 persons, or about 5 per cent, were Christians. The Sangh Parivar, however, has little use for authenticated and authoritative data. In much the same way that it spread canards in the late 1980s about the "threat to the Hindu majority" from exceedingly high rates of growth among Muslims (Frontline, October 12-25, 1991), the Parivar today claims that "forcible conversions" by Christian missionaries are altering the demographic profile, particularly in areas inhabited by tribal communities. Parivar sources claim that the Christian population in Dangs district is around 25,000.

Between 1981 and 1991, the Christian population in the district grew by 416 per cent, quite a high growth rate when compared to other districts with a sizable tribal population. At least some of this rise can be traced to the prevailing socio-economic situation. The tribal people experience acute income deprivation and social discrimination, and employment opportunities are scarce in the region. About 60,000 persons belonging to tribal communities periodically migrate from Dangs to neighbouring districts in search of seasonal agricultural employment. When there are no jobs to be had, they are forced into debt.

In such a situation, the work done by Christian missionaries in the areas of education, health services and economic empowerment marks a significant intervention. For at least some among the tribal communities whose sense of religious identity is not strong owing to the blatant discrimination they face within the Hindu social hierarchy and who have been untouched by the development initiatives of the State for decades, the Church is seen to provide a support structure.

The Sangh Parivar, however, claims that the missionaries are forcing the tribal people to convert; it has even begun a programme of "reconverting" them to Hinduism. However, Deputy Inspector-General of Police, Surat, O.P. Mathur, told an all-India delegation of Christian organisations in Ahwa on January 3 that no complaints of conversions under duress had been received by the police.

EVEN as the flames spread in Gujarat, the VHP kept up its shrill communal rhetoric and, shockingly, sought to blame Christians themselves for the violence. VHP working president Ashok Singhal, who is given to seeing "Christian conspiracies" even in the award of Nobel Prizes to Amartya Sen and Mother Teresa, alleged that the trouble in Gujarat had been fomented by Christian groups in order to unify various Churches. On December 29 a meeting in Jaipur of the board of trustees of the VHP decided to launch a countrywide campaign to "counteract the programme of Christian Churches for the evangelisation of India". The meeting, which was attended by Singhal and general secretary Acharya Giriraj Kishore, alleged that funds brought to India for the propagation of Christianity were being used to purchase arms and equipment for secessionist campaigns, particularly in the northeastern region.

Leaders of Left parties, (from left) CPI general secretary A.B. Bardhan and CPI(M) Polit Bureau members Sitaram Yechury and Prakash Karat, after presenting a memorandum to President K.R. Narayanan on December 31 seeking his intervention to get the Central Government to end the attacks on Christians in Gujarat.-SHANKER CHAKRAVARTY

The VHP further demanded that the Constitution, which provides for the right to freedom of religion, be amended to ban conversions. Major Christian organisations have dismissed the VHP's allegations of forcible conversions and expressed themselves in favour of a dialogue with the VHP on this matter.

John Dayal, convener of the United Christian Forum for Human Rights who led a fact-finding mission to the affected areas, denied the charge that missionaries forcibly converted tribal people to Christianity.

The attacks on Christians in Gujarat are only the latest in a series of incidences of hate crimes against minorities unleashed by constituents of the Sangh Parivar. They conform to a disturbing pattern of lawless conduct, often in complicity with instruments of the state. The Gujarat Government's failure to prevent the orchestrated attacks even though there were adequate indications that mischief was afoot, its failure to put down the violence quickly once it began, its failure to bring to book the perpetrators of communal atrocities on such a large scale, and its attempts to play down the gravity of the offences and provide the political opportunity for their perpetrators to"justify" the attacks together constitute a serious threat to civil society. They are another blot on an administration whose record in the matter of protecting minorities from systematic brutalisation has been abysmal.

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