Assault in Jaipur

Published : Jun 01, 2007 00:00 IST

The attack on a pastor by communal elements is yet another in a series of incidents against minorities in Rajasthan.


Around noon on April 29, Walter Masih and his family had concluded their morning prayers, as is the routine every Sunday at their house in the congested Nandpuri area of Jaipur, and the last of the 30-odd guests had left. About half an hour later, Masih, who is a self-ordained pastor belonging to one of the Protestant sects, received two visitors who were in their early twenties and claimed to be from the potter community at Bhojpura, a nearby slum. They wanted to know about Masih's work.

"I began telling them about it and then one of them asked the other in Hindi, `Shall I beat him up?' The other person replied, `Yes,'" Masih told Frontline. As if on cue, the questioner started pummelling him, Masih said. His terrified wife, Joyce, along with their seven-year-old daughter ran out to seek help, only to find armed and masked men outside. The men pushed their way in, smashed everything they could lay their hands on, and beat up Masih. Among them was Virendra Singh Ravana, a city functionary of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) who later on spoke on television justifying the attack.

None of the neighbours dared help the family even as the assault continued. Meanwhile, a reporter and a cameraperson of a prominent media channel arrived on the scene after being alerted about the incident and captured it "live". Masih's bloodied face was on national television for the most part of Sunday, so was a terrified Joyce running towards the door asking for help.

The police were nowhere to be seen, either on camera or off it. At around 2 p.m., Samuel Roberts, who is known to Masih, happened to be passing by and saw a strange sight. Masih, his face bloodied, stood at the doorway, muttering incoherently, as neighbours watched, some smiling, some serious. Roberts rushed to the Sodala police post located a kilometre away and informed the officer on duty. The police did not arrive until 3.30 p.m.

This is the first time a Christian family has been targeted openly in Jaipur. Masih's activities are not unknown; he has lived in Nandpuri for the past 17 years, having migrated from Ludhiana in Punjab.

A week after the attack on Masih, two masked men threatened another pastor, living on the outskirts of Jaipur. Than Singh John lived with his family at Paladi Meena, a resettled slum area, 10 km from the city. On May 6, before the Sunday prayers, two men arrived on a motorcycle, their faces covered. Than Singh, whom Frontline located with some difficulty, narrated the sequence of events.

"They began interrogating me about the prayer meetings without giving me a chance to speak. I invited them inside and asked them to remove their masks so that we could talk freely," Than Singh said. He added that they told him "Naatak band karo", implying that he should put an end to his preaching activities.

Than Singh, who had seen Masih on television, fled. He told his wife to seek refuge with neighbours and rushed to the city to consult senior pastors on what he should do. "I thought that if I ran away the matter would get settled," he said. The incident got highlighted and the police intervened. Today, Than Singh is under the protection of the State police. No one is allowed to meet him directly; the police screen his visitors thoroughly before allowing them to meet him.

Than Singh, who is affiliated to the Believers Church, said that every Sunday a handful of families came for prayers; there were some days when the family prayed alone. He said he received threats last year too and that he had lodged a complaint with the police. Until then, in the five years that he lived at Paladi Meena, no one had attacked or threatened him for his religion, he said. "If we are doing anything wrong, it is up to the administration to stop us. When we are in the clear, why this harassment?"

The Believers Church also runs a free tuition centre for children of the area. The school is popular, said Lokesh Sharma, the pastor's neighbour. Sharma, who runs a kiosk, said two youngsters on a bike came asking for the church. He told them there was no church in the area. Then they asked about a Christian preacher. "I thought they had come to Than Singh's house for Sunday prayers, so I gave them directions," he said. The Sharma family said Than Singh and his family were well liked in the area and nobody had any complaint against them.

Referring to the Masih case, Anil Paliwal, Superintendent of Police, Jaipur (South), said there was a perception that Masih had forcibly fed meat to poor people and insulted Hindu gods as well. Most of the accused were from the Bhojpura slum, which Masih and his followers frequented. The S.P. said the police had not received any complaint against Masih from any Hindu group, nor had Masih complained of any harassment.

Virendra Singh Ravana, who is under arrest along with another VHP functionary and two others, told the media soon after the attack that people like Masih were trying to make their presence felt in Hindu-dominated areas. He said the intention was not to kill but to explain things to him. In the media footage, Ravana is seen directing the assailants. Interestingly, the VHP and the Bajrang Dal now allege that the entire incident was stage-managed by Masih and the particular television channel.

Awadesh Parikh, the VHP media-in-charge for Jaipur, said the VHP had no role in the matter. He said the police were investigating Ravana's involvement and the organisation would get to know the truth only when he was released. Parikh, who met Frontline at Beaver in Ajmer, where he was attending a Trishul Deeksha ceremony in the presence of VHP leader Pravin Togadia, denied that the VHP was attacking minorities. "If anything, we are being attacked," he said.

According to him, Virendra Singh Ravana went to the Masih residence only after some Bhojpura slum-dwellers complained to him about the pastor. In his opinion, Masih's injuries were superficial. "We are concerned about the incident, especially the activity of the Dharma Parivartan. Our pramukh karyakarta is in jail," he added.

Even as public attention zeroed in on Masih and, to an extent, Than Singh, a school and vocational centre run by Jesuits closed for summer vacation four days ahead of schedule. Helping Hands, an organisation working in the Kotputli and Bhojpura slum areas of Jaipur, took the safe option after its staff reported to the board of directors that some activists of the VHP and the Bajrang Dal had been asking questions about the school, including whether it was involved in conversion-related activities.

Though there are other NGO-managed schools in these slums, apparently only the one that Helping Hands managed was singled out for questioning. One of the board members, requesting anonymity, said the attack on Masih and the intimidation of Than Singh needed to be taken seriously. "It is a clear misuse of majority strength," he said.

Under the Vasundhara Raje-led Bharatiya Janata Party government, incidents of attacks on minorities have been many. In March some 30 Muslim homes were torched at Begun village in Chittorgarh district. Similarly, Muslim homes were targeted at Arthuna in Banswara district and Keshav Rao Patan in Bundi district.

The Emmanuel Mission based in Kota has been a target of Hindu extremist elements since 2005. There were sporadic incidents against the mission throughout 2005, including attacks on its offices and schools in other parts of the State. Last year, the Bajrang Dal attacked the mission over the contents of a book, Haqeeqat.

It has been observed that most of the victims do not belong to the organised Catholic Church but are independent or self-ordained pastors and preachers owing allegiance to various Protestant sects.

State Minority Commission chairperson Jasbir Singh said the Commission endeavoured to take cognisance of every attack on a person belonging to a minority community, acted promptly in each case and got the district administration to set in motion the process of granting compensation if any were due. Significantly, the Minority Commission itself did not conduct an independent inquiry but relied on the police investigation.

The controversial Rajasthan Freedom of Religion Bill, passed on April 7 last year, has still not been signed by Governor Pratibha Patil, who returned it to the legislature. Even if some sections in the State believe that Vasundara Raje may not be communal, the lack of any serious attempt to rein in the communal elements perhaps points to silent complicity on part of the government.

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