//Living in fear

Living in fear

PURNIMA S. TRIPATHI, in Bhopal, Front Line Magazine, Volume 23 – Issue 12 :: Jun. 17-30, 2006

Attacks on the Christian community have registered a sharp increase in BJP-ruled Madhya Pradesh in recent times.

 FEAR has gripped the Christian community in Madhya Pradesh as right-wing Hindu organisations have stepped up their attacks in the name of preventing religious conversion. Christians, who comprise 0.3 per cent of the State's population, are afraid to organise prayer meetings even at their homes or hold religious functions in the open as these could attract the ire of Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh affiliates.

This was the experience of a group of Christians in Bhopal in April. Bajrang Dal activists stormed into the house of Rev. San Francis where a prayer meeting was on and beat up those present for "perpetuating conversion to Christianity". Eighteen of them were dragged to the police station. Although it became clear that no conversion had taken place, the authorities did not take immediate action against the assailants.

More recently, on June 5, when Indira Iyengar, who represents the Christian community on the State Minority Commission, addressed a press conference in Bhopal to highlight the plight of two tribal women from Khargone who were allegedly raped by some right-wing activists on May 28 for converting to Christianity three years ago, she was heckled. Bajrang Dal activists, led by district convener Devendra Rawat, warned her of dire consequences if she did not stop "maligning the RSS and other Hindu organisations".

If such blatant attacks, that too in full media glare, are possible in the State capital, the situation in the interior areas can only be imagined.

"The situation is bad in Jabalpur, Indore, Dhar, Jhabua and Ratlam. Attacks on Christians have gone up sharply in the past three years," says the Archbishop of Bhopal, Dr. Pascal Topno. Indira Iyengar says in Jabalpur more than 20 cases have been slapped on the Christians in the past two months for alleged conversion. "I have been writing to the government, highlighting the plight of the Christians, but nothing happens," she says. She said the press conference was organised to draw public attention to the plight of the two abused tribal women as no FIR had been registered.

What, however, is disconcerting, is that the Bharatiya Janata Party government does not appear to be taking the complaints seriously. How else can one explain the attitude of the Chief Minister or even senior government officials who dismiss the allegations?

"Things are being blown out of proportion by Indira Iyengar because she wants to project herself as the messiah of Indian Christians in order to be nominated to the National Commission for Minorities [NCM]," says Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan, echoing what Devendra Rawat told this correspondent.

Even if the incident involving Indira Iyengar is set aside, how can the Jhabua riots of January 2004 be ignored? Not a single right-wing activist has been booked until now for rioting against Christians. Instead, 16 Christians were arrested. They were released only recently after the High Court declared them "not guilty". Not a single person has been booked for the assault on Fr. Stan Fareira, principal of Don Bosco School in Jhabua. Fr. Fareira's life has been saved but he is in no condition to continue as the principal of the school. The NCM had, in a letter dated March 12, 2004, to the Chief Secretary of Madhya Pradesh, demanded "immediate action" against those responsible for the riots and against the officials concerned for dereliction of duty, an independent inquiry into the riots, and full security to members of the Christian community, missionaries and institutions including churches. The government is yet to act on it. "We had instituted an inquiry into the riots and its report has come only now. We are still studying the report. The report holds conversions responsible for those incidents," said the Chief Minister. The government's plan of action on the basis of this report is predictable.

The State government, he said, was greatly concerned about conversions, which he claimed were going on. "Even though we have a law in place to prevent this, conversions are happening in large numbers. We are determined to stop this and since the present law has not proved to be effective, we are considering either making suitable changes in the law or introducing a fresh law," he told Frontline. However, the Chief Minister's claims that his government is committed to providing freedom of religion to all, ensuring that no physical harm comes to anyone and preventing individuals from taking the law into his own hands, sound hollow.

"The Chief Minister may be a man of noble intentions, but his officials certainly lack in sympathy for Christians," said Archbishop Topno. According to him, Christians in far-flung areas feel insecure. "I keep getting reports from here and there. The number of complaints has certainly gone up," he says. According to him, if it is true that somebody resorts to forceful conversion, through either threats or allurements, there are provisions in the law to prevent this. But instead of "letting the law take its course, individuals are taking the law into their own hands and this is what we are protesting against," he says.

Surprisingly, the State Minority Commission, which is supposed to safeguard the rights of the minorities, speaks the same language as the Bajrang Dal or the Chief Minister. Instead of expressing concern at the attacks on Christians, Commission Chairman Anwar Mohammad Khan denied that the Christian community had come under any calamitous attack in the State. Also, instead of expressing solidarity with Indira Iyengar, he said he was planning action against her for "trespassing the propriety of her post as Commission member by addressing a press conference without bringing the matter to his notice first".

No wonder then that Hindu fundamentalist organisations feel emboldened to declare that "we will now run the campaign against conversions on our own, and will give and even take any sacrifice required for this". Rawat told Frontline that since the government had proved to be "ineffective" in stopping religious conversions, "the Bajrang Dal has decided to initiate direct action". Direct action, he said, would mean awareness campaigns and also action similar to the one witnessed at the recent Bhopal press conference. "We will not allow so-called intellectuals to continue indulging in unsubstantiated propaganda against Hindu organisations any more. We are committed to stopping religious conversions and the malicious campaign against us," he maintained.

Declarations such as this with a patronising government at the helm, make the Christian community tremble. "We can only protest peacefully and hope that the Chief Minister will ensure that we continue to get the rights enshrined in the Constitution."We only demand that the law should take its own course. Is that asking for too much?" wonders Bishop Topno.