Terror in Jhabua

Published : Feb 27, 2004 00:00 IST

As the Christians of Jhabua, Madhya Pradesh, become the targets of a violent upsurge of communal attacks, the State administration remains a silent spectator.

in Jhabua

WHEN Uma Bharati took over the reins of Madhya Pradesh, little did the Christian community in Jhabua, a district whose population is predominantly tribal, know that it would be the beginning of a nightmare. In the second week of January, just a little over a month since the formation of a Bharatiya Janata Party government in the State, the ideological cohorts of the BJP decided to take law and order into their own hands. For a while now, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and its frontal organisations have been trying hard to "reconvert" the Christian tribal people of Jhabua to Hinduism.

From January 14 to 17, the minorities were systematically targeted - their homes were burnt, their property was looted and vandalised and their religious effects desecrated - with the primary objective of teaching the Christian community a lesson. As the looters ran amok, raising slogans of "Jai Shri Ram", the police, in most cases, just stood watching. There have been some suspensions and transfers of police and administrative officials but little action has been taken against BJP legislators - at least two of them - who led unruly mobs.

The immediate provocation was the rape and murder of a young girl, the daughter of a fruit-seller, in the premises of the Catholic church in Jhabua town on the night of January 11. The body was discovered in a bathroom, adjacent to the Catholic Mission School, which is within the church campus. This sparked off rumours that the main priest, Fr. John Sunny, was responsible for the deed. According to some local Sewa Bharati workers, police dogs sniffed on the door of the priest's house. But the police did not find any legitimate reason to book the priest and instead took the employee of an insurance company, located within the church premises, into custody. Even as the investigation into the incident was on, the rumour mills of the RSS worked overtime to establish that the arrested man was innocent, that in fact he was impotent, and that the police had been bribed into arresting him, suggesting that it was the priest who was responsible for the crimes.

On January 14, an armed mob shouting slogans against the church and the priests entered the compound, demanding that the actual culprit be arrested. "The police just let them in," said Fr. Joseph Thayil, the public relations officer of the diocese. The mob vandalised and ransacked the place - it smashed a jeep owned by the church, broke an image of Infant Jesus kept at the entrance of the main administrative building, tossed chairs around, pelted the church windows with stones and slapped Fr. John Sunny several times. "The police were just watching as it happened. They snatched my watch. I was running from one room to the other, and it was at this point that the police intervened," Fr. John Sunny said.

According to him, such an incident was happening for the first time in the 20 years that he had served in Jhabua, "I never thought this could happen to us. We feel very bad about what happened to the child. Nobody should do anything like this to any woman," the priest said. The police took the priests away saying that otherwise they might come to some harm. Nine members were kept in an 8 feet-by-12 feet lockup for two days without food or water.

The attack on the church, which is more than a 100 years old, is unprecedented. So is the kind of control that the BJP has come to hold over the tribal constituencies in recent times. The proximity to Gujarat, the campaigns by Chief Minister Narendra Modi during the recent Assembly elections (Modi focussed all his energies on Jhabua) and the continuous brainwashing of the tribal people by organisations such as the Sewa Bharati, the Hindu Jagran Manch, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), the Bajrang Dal and the Vanvasi Kalyan Parishad, have all contributed to creating fissures within the tribal community. Satish Maheswari, an RSS worker, said that their main work was to counter the educational and welfare activities of Christian missions. He said that the previous Congress(I) government had tried to ban the Sewa Bharati but it did not work and "in fact, we emerged stronger". Over the past five years, activities of the Sewa Bharati had been stepped up, he said. Its work included the installation of Ganesha idols and the construction of Hanuman temples in all tribal villages; several vanvasis or forest dwellers (the term used by the RSS for the Scheduled Tribes) were drafted for such work, he said. "You should not say that they are not Hindus. It can get you into trouble. We call them vanvasis as they live in the jungle," he cautioned.

The people of Jhabua have a different view, but are reluctant to express it openly for fear of reprisal. The owner of a local lodge pointed out that the Catholic Mission School was one of the best schools in Jhabua and that 85 per cent of the children studying in the school belonged to Hindu families. He said that the Sewa Bharati was active in the entire district and had conducted door-to-door campaigns during the elections. He alleged that the local MLA, the corporator and several Sangh activists were among those who entered the Catholic Mission's premises.

The Jhabua incident was used as an excuse to attack Christian homes and property elsewhere too. In Aamkhunt village of Jobat tehsil, January 16 should have been a normal day for the school and for the more-than-100-year-old Protestant church, tucked away in an enclave off the main village road. That day, followers of a religious seer called Aasaram Bapu held a meeting in the main village. Although the activities of the seer and his followers have been confined to Gujarat, of late the group has become active in Jhabua. The dominant version, which was systematically circulated in the media, was that the seer's followers led by Krishna Behn took out a peaceful rally, which was attacked by members of the Christian community. Incendiary pamphlets warning of a "Christian conspiracy" were distributed. Said an Aamkhunt resident: "What is the point of writing anything? Everyone in the media is against us. They call us terrorists when it is us who have been attacked. Our children and women ran into the jungle fearing for their lives."

The version of the victims is entirely different from the one reported widely. According to them, the rallyists approached the school, shouting provocative slogans and warning people not to send their children to an institution run by "rapists". It was around noon and examinations were on, said Roopesh Kumar, a teacher. "They pushed me and told the children to join the rally. They even assaulted a Class VII student who protested," he said. Another teacher, Angelina Duncan, who witnessed the entire episode, said that no help was forthcoming from the police, although they were stationed just 200 metres away. Narrating the day's incidents, she said: "I was writing on the board when Krishna Behn entered and began telling the students about the Jhabua incident. Then she began tearing up the copies and smashing the slates of the children. They tore up pictures of Jesus Christ and vandalised the office completely. We pleaded with her to leave."

The rallyists left with the warning that they would return to power after the Lok Sabha elections. In an attempt to embolden the rallyists, mostly consisting of women from Gujarat, the BJP legislator from Alirajpur tehsil, Nagar Singh Chauhan, came to Aamkhunt village with several armed people in tow. According to an eyewitness, who did not want to be named, the legislator allegedly fired in the air. According to the police, the rallyists raised objectionable slogans in front of the missionary school, vitiating the atmosphere and provoking retaliatory remarks. After two hours, the rallyists returned with more people and in the skirmish that followed, Arjun Pal, who came in support of the rallyists, was shot dead. The police arrested two persons - the manager of the school, Theophil Stephens, and the priest of the church, Fr. Immanuel - in connection with the incident and gave a clean chit to the BJP legislator. "Instead of arresting those who created this situation, they arrested our people," said a government teacher in Aamkhunt. According to Sanwli, a resident of Aamkhunt, for nearly four days people hid in the jungle with little children. "Yes, we are Christians. Our forefathers were Christians too. What they say about us is untrue," she said.

Aamkhunt never had a history of communal tension. "We used to see such things on the television or read about them. Now we know exactly how these people operate. Things will never be the same as before," said another teacher, who did not want to be named. But the State government is not interested in what the Christians of Aamkhunt have to say. "The CM came in a helicopter and did an aerial inspection of the event. She did not meet us," said a teacher.

The Aamkhunt events found an echo in nearby Alirajpur. The mob that had come from Alirajpur went back, mobilised local people and began targeting Christian homes and institutions. According to a local vendor, rumours were spread that Christians had attacked Hindus in Aamkhunt and "naturally" people in Alirajpur got enraged. A priest of the Don Bosco Academy was chased and beaten up and his vehicle was set afire. The home of Shobhana and Sudhir Onkar, owners of a gas distribution agency, was attacked. Their new car and a three-wheeler were set on fire. Shobhana, who was with her two children and old mother at the time of the incident, said that an armed mob gathered outside the house at around 5 p.m. on January 16, shouted slogans and then broke in. Shobhana, who managed to send away the children and her mother through the back door, was hit on the head with a rod. She showed the fresh stitches on her scalp. "The police were watching all this happen. I pleaded with the attackers. One of them yelled out, `shoot her, they are Congressi Christians', " she said. The couple said that they had not faced such a situation ever before. Shobhana emphasised that the attackers were all non-tribal people. "The police asked us to identify the attackers. I told them that they were right there, in the presence of the police. So they already know who are the people involved," she said. Although the Chief Minister visited some of the Christian homes in Alirajpur, it has not reassured the affected people because the perpetrators are still free.

In fact, after targeting houses in the heart of the town, the mob moved on to Semal Paati, a new colony on the outskirts of Alirajpur, where five homes and one Pentacostal church were looted and set on fire. However, there was no loss of life as the residents managed to flee Alirajpur and seek refuge in nearby Jobat. At least two of the five homes had been newly constructed and at least three of the destroyed dwellings were women-headed households. The contractor said that he had completed polishing the floor in one of them in the first week of January. He requested that his name be kept anonymous as "they would get me", he said, running his finger over his throat. There were broken tiles and glass everywhere, taps and other fittings had been stolen, window-panes were missing, and the walls were covered with vulgar graffiti and communal slogans. "Jai Shri Ram", "Theek Hua" (well done) and vulgar comments on the female owner of the house were scribbled in chalk. The Pentacostal church was looted and its walls were covered with abusive graffiti and slogans of "Jai Shri Ram".

The spokesperson of the BJP in Indore, Govind Malou, said that the incidents were related to the incidents of conversions. "This will lead to terrorism as Christianity is a foreign religion," he explained. He said that the Aamkhunt rally was stoned upon and therefore people were mobilised to counter it. "Our nationalist organisations like the Sewa Bharati are trying to keep our culture alive. They are not doing anything wrong," he said.

A State-level delegation of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which was among the first teams to reach Aamkhunt and Alirajpur, felt that the attacks were part of a well-planned strategy to terrorise the minorities. The delegation stated that confidence among the victims could be restored only through an impartial judicial inquiry by either a sitting High Court Judge or the National Human Rights Commission. It has demanded that the police book the real culprits and the communal outfits responsible for the attacks and release the innocent persons. Leader of the Opposition in the Assembly, Jamuna Devi, agreed that the attack seemed to be a pre-planned one. That the State government was least interested in providing relief to the minorities was evident in an aggressive meeting organised by the RSS on January 20 in Bhopal. At the meeting, several persons were brought from Jhabua and the Chief Minister drew a link between the violent incidents and the alleged activities of conversion.

It was reliably learnt that preparations for attacking Christian institutions have been on for the past one year. `Hindu sangams' or meetings were organised in Jhabua town as well as Alirajpur over the past two years. The leit motif of these has been to whip up communal passion against Christians. The meeting in Alirajpur, held a year ago, was presided over by RSS chief K.S. Sudarshan. Regular `path sanchalan' programmes are held by the Sewa Bharati, in which rallies raising anti-conversion slogans are taken out. The festival of Ganesha Chaturthi is another occasion on which tribal people are mobilised and cajoled to be part of the Hindu fold. A government employee in Alirajpur said that participation of tribal people in the Ganesha sthapana programmes (installation of Ganesha idols) was unheard of earlier.

The rich black soil of the Malwa region offers little to the Bhils and the Bilanas of Jhabua. Even if they own land, a good crop of wheat or maize is contingent on plentiful rainfall. A common feature of the region is that the tribal people migrate to neighbouring Gujarat to look for work. They are known to go as far as Kota in Rajasthan. Entirely dependent on the trader class, the tribal people are steeped in debt most of the time. Said a member of the Bilana tribe in Jhabua: "It is surprising that they call us Hindus. It is the same people who drive us away from their doorstep or direct us to keep a distance most of the time. They are the ones who also charge high interest rates from us." There is extreme poverty in the region, so much so that some sections have become highway robbers. In some parts of the road from Indore to Jhabua, vehicles have to move in convoys accompanied by armed personnel.

Many see the anti-conversion activities as well as the Hinduisation of the tribal people as deliberate attempts at making political inroads into a traditional stronghold of the Congress(I). But having won the majority of the tribal seats, the attempt is to consolidate this vote bank. Of the five legislators in the Jhabua parliamentary constituency, two are from the BJP while the others are from front organisations of the RSS. The economic insecurity of the tribal people provides the necessary fodder for these divisive forces. The incidents in Jhabua were about sending the "right" message to the minorities.

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