BHUBANESWAR, India (BP)–A fresh round of violence by Hindu militants in the northern Indian state of Orissa has put Christian residents in the grip of fear.
About a dozen members of the militant Hindu movement Bajrang Dal broke into a local church in the city of Deogarh in late November. They ransacked bookshelves in the church and took out hundreds of religious books and burned them, police reported. The Bajrang Dal is notorious for its role in the murder of Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two sons in January 1999.
Two cases have been registered against 12 suspects in connection with the latest attacks, but police have arrested no one. One of the attackers has been identified is Pranab Guru who worked as a reporter with a local Orissa daily newspaper. “We are taking steps to nab them,” an official said.
According to police, extremists opposed the recent conversion of four tribal families in Ambulpani village under the ministry of John Nayak, a Protestant preacher. They broke into the church/residence rented by Nayak and ransacked it while he was away.
Violent protesters later marched to the office of district governor B.P. Mishra but failed to meet him. There, the gang members wearing saffron-colored clothes — saffron being the symbol of Hindu ideology — burned an effigy of Jesus Christ along with a few copies of the Bible and shouted slogans against Christians.
By noon, the mob marched to Deogarh and attacked a small church. Police said there they assaulted a nun and broke the windowpanes of the church. Later they met another district magistrate and submitted a memorandum protesting the growing number of conversions in the area. However, police officials said Christians had done nothing illegal.
Newspaper offices received handwritten threatening statements if police fail to take action against those who are converting poor tribal members to Christianity, warning that “people may take the law into their own hands.”
The local church strongly condemned the violence and called for a police investigation. “We are often threatened by the motorbike gangs formed by these Hindu militants. They try to intimidate and corner us by all means,” a local Christian pastor said.
“Tension is mounting here,” Deogarh’s superintendent of police, Laxmidhar Nayak, admitted. “Police patrolling has been intensified.” He also said security arrangements have been made around the churches located in all sensitive areas.
The Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) protested the latest attacks against Christians in Orissa, calling for measures to protect minorities from attacks by Hindu militants.
“We’re very bothered about the safety of Christians in Orissa state,” Sajan George, GCIC chairman, said. “It seems they have learned from Gujarat how to terrorize religious minorities.”
Orissa state has a population of 36 million, mostly Hindu. It is ruled by Hindu nationalists who strongly oppose the conversion of Hindus to Christianity or Buddhism. Orissa and the states of Gujarat and Tamil Nadu have laws obliging those who want to change their religion to obtain written permission from the local magistrate. Religious minorities, including Christians, have opposed the laws.
Last October a court pronounced a death sentence on a prominent Hindu militant leader, Dara Singh, for the brutal murder of Graham Staines and his two minor sons, who were torched while sleeping in their vehicle in the state’s Keonjhar district in January 1999. Twelve of Singh’s accomplices were sentenced to life imprisonment for the crime that came amid a campaign against conversions.
Though India is a secular country that allows freedom to practice any religion, in recent years violence against Christians in India, who make up about 2 percent of the population, has been on the rise.
So far this year, there have been more than 150 incidents of violence against Christians in India and, by unofficial estimates, Hindu militants have murdered at least 16 Christian leaders and human rights activists.