A saffron assault

Published : Apr 08, 2005 00:00 IST

The targeting of a convocation ceremony organised by a Christian missionary group in Kota shows the Sangh Parivar's increasing belligerence towards minorities in BJP-ruled Rajasthan.


ON February 19 morning, an unsuspecting group of passengers from Andhra Pradesh who alighted at the Kota railway station in Rajasthan were in for a rude shock. Representatives of the Kota district administration and members of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and the Bajrang Dal accosted them and prevailed upon them to return home.

The 270 visitors had arrived at Kota to partake in a graduation ceremony that was to be hosted by the Emmanuel Mission International (EMI). But the RSS activists alleged that the "graduation convention" was but a smokescreen and they were brought to Kota to be converted to Christianity.

The visitors, who could hardly understand Hindi, were told that "Hindus" among them should go back while Christians among them could stay back to attend the function. The EMI, which has its headquarters in Raipura on the outskirts of Kota town, had sent a bus to collect the passengers from the railway station. A scuffle ensued between the RSS activists and EMI members, and two members of the minority community, including one who had alighted from the train, were beaten up.

Mahendra Bharti, Vibhaag Pracharak of the RSS in Kota, said that the administration had been informed of the "bid" to convert. "One of our people travelling in the same train got to know about the programme and told us. We informed the administration and accompanied the police and other officials to the station to put a stop to the proposed conversion," he said. Asked how it was possible to ascertain who was Hindu and who was Christian, District Magistrate Tanmay Kumar said that some passengers had Hindu-sounding names. Besides, they could not explain what the graduation ceremony was all about. Neither had the EMI sought permission to hold the ceremony, said Tanmay Kumar. The administration was convinced that this was indeed a case of conversion using inducement, he said.

However, the matter did not end there. Three days later, hundreds of activists of Hindu organisations such as the Hindu Jagran Manch, the RSS, the Bajrang Dal and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), and local leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party, approached the EMI campus shouting slogans and wielding sharp-edged weapons. The police resorted to a lathi-charge to disperse the mob. The mob wanted an assurance from the EMI administration that no conversion was going to take place. The EMI officials were baffled as they had been holding annual convocation ceremonies in Biblical courses for the past 31 years. Those who graduated worked as pastors in their native places. The EMI at Kota also runs an orphanage, which has around 2,000 children.

Bishop Samuel Thomas, the president of the EMI, said that such attacks had been going on for some time. He said: "Till date, we have never sought permission to hold the convocation. But we have always informed the administration about any such mass event." He added: "We have around eight lakh votes in the entire country but we have never exhorted our people to vote for any particular party." He said that the police had refused to register a First Information Report (FIR) against those who had attacked the EMI members. Tanmay Kumar was vague when asked about the FIR. Following a complaint by Deputy Mayor of Kota Ravindra Nirbhay, a BJP leader, and Krishna Kumar Soni, a local BJP worker, cases were registered against the EMI under Sections 505, 505(2) and 511 of the Indian Penal Code.

The attacks continued. A contingent coming from Udaipur was stopped at a bus stop, and harassed by Sangh activists. Samuel Thomas alleged that 22 people, including a heavily pregnant woman called Christy Meena, were taken into custody. Mahendra Bharti said Christy Meena's husband was a tribal person and a non-Christian and that he was being brought to the Mission for forcible conversion. This correspondent met both Christy and her husband Valu Meena on the EMI campus and they did not speak of any coercion by the EMI authorities.

Bishop Thomas said: "The Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh is a Christian. Do you think I need to import Hindus from there for conversion? It would be much easier for me to do it there." He also rebutted the charge that the Mission was offering cycles as inducement. "The bicycles are given only to our local members for better mobility. We give Rs.250 to each outstation participant to cover his or her travel expenses. We don't deny that conversions take place. Yes, they do, but in the hearts," he said candidly.

A two-member delegation of the National Commission for Minorities (NCM), which visited Kota, has found nothing wrong in the EMI's activities. V.V. Augustine, member, NCM, told Frontline that a lot of rumours had been spread about conversions taking place at the EMI. It was, in his opinion, a case of "misunderstanding" by the public. "Conversion is not illegal. In any case, why should they have brought them to Kota for conversion?" Augustine asked. He appreciated the work of the Mission in the field of education and said that it was doing a "very good job". He added that the administration had not anticipated this kind of a trouble. "As of now, they have done a good job and provided security to the Mission," he said.

Brahma Dutt, a Supreme Court advocate who is a member of the Central government's Programme Advisory Committee on Leprosy, is a regular visitor to the EMI as the Mission is also associated with work in colonies of leprosy patients. "This is the first time that I have seen the police and officials like the Additional District Magistrate (ADM) at the Mission," he said.

ARCHBISHOP M.A. Thomas, who started the EMI in 1960, does not feel secure despite the assurances of the administration and the NCM. That he was awarded the Padma Shri in 2001 during the tenure of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government does not make him feel less restless. "Even when I started my first church in a car shed, there was opposition. I was beaten up on the 14th day of my arrival in Kota by the then Member of Parliament from Kota, Daudayal. He later came for my wife's funeral," said the Archbishop. Today the Mission runs around 11,138 churches, 23 Bible institutes, 103 orphanages, one hospital, 140 schools and one college, among other institutions. He says he has nothing against the anti-conversion Bill being proposed by Home Minister Gulab Chand Kataria. "These are the same people who alleged in 2001 that I was selling the organs of young boys, running a prostitution racket and what not. There is no difference between then and now," he said.

When this correspondent visited the EMI campus on February 26, there was strong police presence. The Archbishop was told that a team of visiting foreign dignitaries would not be allowed to preach at the convocation. "If I have a church, I can preach. There is no law against anybody preaching. If I am preaching against anybody, yes, it is wrong," explained the Archbishop to the ADM and a police team.

Rakesh Pal Singh, the Station House Officer of Udyog Nagar, under whose jurisdiction the EMI campus falls, told the Archbishop in the presence of journalists and others that for the sake of peace in the city, he should refrain from preaching at the convocation. The Archbishop was informed that the administration had not given him permission to hold the convocation and that he would be held responsible for any untoward incident in case it was held. "On February 23, I was told to give in writing that no public meeting would be held. The Divisional Commissioner also said that I should specify that no conversion would take place at the meeting. I wrote clearly that no public baptism would take place. Then I was asked if I could allow 11 persons from religions other than Christianity to attend the meeting. I had no problems with that either," he said.

But despite these assurances, the administration appeared reluctant to give permission to hold the ceremony. "It is not a normal graduation ceremony. Usually parents are present with the students. We asked for the list of students, details of enrolment and graduation and so on but none was furnished," argued Tanmay Kumar, not understanding that these were not regular undergraduate courses but Biblical courses of a very specific nature.

As for the Kota station incident, he said the group expressed a desire to go back. Asked why a written assurance was sought from the EMI regarding conversion, he said all that the administration wanted was to defuse trouble. "It should explain to the people of Kota about its foreign funding and activities," he said. When it was pointed out that this rule applied to every organisation, Tanmay Kumar said it was all the more necessary in the case of the EMI given the "background of cases against it". The five-day function was finally held from February 23 to 27 amid high tension and police security. The Archbishop told Frontline that 4,300 students graduated.

THE attack on the EMI is not an isolated one. Last year, tribal people were incited to attack Muslims in Sarada tehsil of Udaipur. Homes and shops belonging to minorities were set on fire. Similarly, a group of tribal people going from Banswara to Ajmer were forcibly made to disembark at Chittorgarh by Bajrang Dal activists on the plea that they were being taken for conversion. Again, last year, the Udaipur-based Bharatiya Lok Kala Mandal director Bhanu Bharti and an artist were attacked by Bajrang Dal activists alleging that they had made vulgar depictions of the Hindu pantheon.

Kota is a Sangh Parivar stronghold. The Vasundra Raje Scindia government has taken a belligerent stand on conversions. While some of her Cabinet Ministers, such as Social Welfare Minister Madan Dilwar, have been regularly making provocative statements against minorities, the Chief Minister has remained silent. Rajasthan's BJP government has lifted the ban on trishul distribution, which was put in place by the previous Congress government.

Belligerency against minorities is not new here. Unless the State government takes serious cognisance of such attacks, there is every likelihood of it increasing in the future.

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