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September 30, 1999
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Indian Christians are victims of a 'concerted campaign'
By Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON - Christians have become a political scapegoat in the run-up to India's national elections and a major US human rights group says violence against Christians is being orchestrated by right-wing Hindu organizations linked to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) says attacks against Christians have risen sharply since the BJP took power in New Delhi in March 1998 and has escalated even more during campaigning for the elections, which the BJP is favored to win.

Attacks have included killing priests, raping nuns, and vandalizing Christian churches, schools, and cemeteries, according to HRW's new report "Politics by Other Means: Attacks Against Christians in India", released on Thursday.

Thousands of Christians have been forced to convert to Hinduism, the report says. ''Christians are the new scapegoat in India's political battles,'' says the report's author, Smita Narula. ''Without immediate and decisive action by the government, communal tensions will continue to be exploited for political and economic ends.''

The anti-Christian campaign is the latest in a series of attacks on minority groups by a number of militant Hindu organizations - collectively known as ''sangh parivar'' - to promote and exploit tensions to gain or retain power, according to the report. It alleges that the same groups spearheaded anti-Sikh violence in northern India in 1984 after the assassination of then prime mjinister Indira Gandhi and anti-Muslim violence in 1992 and 1993.

The groups, which operate with impunity at the local level, include the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Congress, or VHP), the Bajrang Dal (the militant youth wing of the VHP), and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteer Corps, RSS).

All of these organizations are linked to the BJP and the 37-page report quotes one former RSS member as saying: ''There is no difference between the BJP and the RSS. ''BJP is the body. RSS is the soul, and the Bajrang Dal is the hand for beating.''

Christians make up only about 2.3 percent of India's one billion people. The religion took root almost 2,000 years ago in India's south, where most of India's 23 million Christians live today. In recent years, missionaries also have converted large numbers of people in the northeastern part of the country.

The church's emphasis on social service and equality has attracted thousands of tribal people and Dalits, or ''untouchables''. In Christianity, members of these groups have found a means to escape poverty and abusive treatment under the Hindu caste system, according to HRW. Those aspirations lie behind much of the violence directed against them, says the report. Many local Hindu militants have a vested interest in keeping those communities in a state of economic dependency.

Most of the attacks on Christians have taken place in the country's 'tribal belt'' which stretches from the Pakistani border in the west to Burma and Bangladesh in the east. That area is home to some 81 million indigenous people whose forbears lived in India before the Aryan invasions some 4,000 years ago.

Dalits, who also live outside the Hindu mainstream, number some 150 million people nationwide and suffer severe discrimination - particularly in rural areas - as a result of being ranked at the bottom of the Hindu caste system. Until recently, Christians lived relatively peacefully alongside their majority Hindu neighbors, but, as ever-more lower-caste and tribal voters converted to Christianity, they have become targets for Hindu militants.

In 1996, two Catholic priests were killed in Bihar, and a third was decapitated the following year, apparently for his support of Dalits in the area. Yet another priest was forced to parade naked through one town in Bihar after being accused of sexual assault.

Between January 1998 and February 1999, the Indian Parliament reported a total of 116 attacks on Christians, including the gang-rape of four nuns in Madhya Pradesh in September 1998. The vast majority of attacks, however, have taken place in BJP-ruled Gujarat state.

The HRW report is based in part on a visit by researchers to the Dangs district in Gujarat. The area was the site of a ten-day spate of violent and premeditated attacks on Christian communities between Christmas Day, 1998, and January 3, 1999, which HRW says was typical of a pattern of attacks which have taken place elsewhere in India.

Both the sangh parivar organizations and the local media helped stir up anti-Christian sentiment in the area before the attacks. Then, on December 25, between 100 and 200 people converged on one Christian community and began to dismantle the local church and threatened to set it on fire.

Christians were then forcibly taken to a nearby hot springs where they were formally converted to Hinduism. Senior BJP officials have referred to this as a ''homecoming'' process.

The report charges local police with failing to provide adequate protection for Christian communities, despite early warnings of violence. Police also have refused to register complaints by Christians and, in some cases, have been identified as taking part in the attacks.

One notorious attack was carried out in January 1999 against an Australian missionary, Graham Staines, and his two sons. They were killed in Orissa state when they were trapped in a car which was set on fire. The mob responsible for their deaths was led by Bajrang Dal activist and BJP member Dara Singh, according to a government-appointed commission.

Despite a number television interviews given by Singh after the attack, local police insisted that they could not find him, and he remained at large. In August, he struck again, chopping off the arms of a local Muslim trader before setting him on fire before a crowd of 400 supporters. One week later, in the same area, another Christian clergyman was shot in the chest with an arrow and beaten to death by as-yet unidentified assailants.

For its part, the VHP has denied any involvement in attacks on Christians but has repeatedly claimed that Christian missionaries forcibly convert the poor, a charge echoed by senior BJP leaders. The BJP general secretary has says there is an ''international conspiracy'' to convert Asian populations to Christianity. Similarly, while Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee publicly dissassociated himself from the VHP and condemned the Staines's killing, he also used the occasion to call for a ''national debate on conversions''.

(Inter Press Service)

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