(Photo: Reuters/Ahmad Masood)
Hindu extremist attacks on Christians in Maharashtra state could expand even as violence elsewhere in India grows in areas where extremist groups had not been so active, Christian leaders said.
Ram Puniyani of the All India Secular Forum said at press conference in Mumbai this month that Maharashtra is vulnerable to increased attacks on Christians after "a decade of heightened Hindutva [Hindu nationalism], especially targeting tribal and Adivasi [indigenous] communities, as they are easy targets, with little fear of retaliation."
The Catholic Secular Forum (CSF) released preliminary results of a study on Feb. 1, with Christian leaders saying that persecution is not increasing in comparison with previous years but is appearing in new areas. While the perennially troublesome Karnataka state last year saw the most attacks on Christians with 67, followed by Madhya Pradesh with 28, four new states entered the top 20: More attacks from Hindu extremists took place in Tamil Nadu, Assam, Mizoram and Goa than in previous years.
Moreover, CSF noted persecution against Christians from Islamic extremists in Jammu and Kashmir, Kerala and West Bengal.
Joseph Dias, general secretary of CSF, said the study chronicled 250 of the worst cases of persecution, but that the actual number of incidents nationwide was much higher. While there were no pogroms such as occurred in Orissa state in 2008, persecution has become more widespread, with an increase in Hindu nationalist attacks even where the "Hindu brigade" is not traditionally strong, he said.
Parliamentary and state assembly elections in the next year portend an increase in attacks as Hindu extremists try to divide voters along religious lines, he said.
Michael Saldanha, former justice of the Bombay High Court, told Morning Star News that he has urged federal Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde to ban Hindutva groups such as the Sanathan Sanstha and Abhinav Bharat, which come under the "Saffron umbrella" with an agenda of a Hindu religious state.
Overall, the states with the highest number of incidents after Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh were Tamil Nadu with 25; Orissa – where the most serious crimes took place, including rapes of minors – with 20; and Andhra Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, both also with 20. Maharashtra, with nine incidents, was seventh on the list.
The Maharashtra-based Christian leaders emphasized violations in their state, including not just abuses by Hindu nationalists but by family members of converts to Christianity. Two young women in Padmavati Nagar, Pune, 20-year-old Lakshmi Rathod and Vimla Rathod, 19, fled their home on Aug. 12, 2012, after their parents had forced them to drink cow urine daily. They were assaulted, threatened with "honor killing," labelled unholy and locked in a room for several days after they were found reading the Bible.
The report included an account of an attack last month in Maharashtra by Hindu nationalists suspected to belong to Sanathan Sanstha. On Jan. 11 a Hindu extremist mob stormed into New Life Grace Ministry Church in the Sawantwadi area, Sindhudurg District, and severely beat members of the 600-strong congregation, including many women, children and elderly Christians. They threatened to stop any Christian services in the district, according to CFS.
In Malwan, Hindu extremists under the banner of the Hindu Dharma Jagaran Samiti attacked a prayer meeting on Oct. 26, and 11 Christians were then arrested on false charges of forced conversion, according to CFS. The assailants were also detained, and upon their release on bail villagers congratulated them and encouraged them to continue attacking Christians. Meantime, villagers organized a boycott – refusing to buy fish from Christians, or even sell it to them.
Abraham Mathai, ex vice-chairman of the State Minorities Commission, told Morning Star News that police often look the other way.
"Such police apathy encourages the perpetrators of the crimes to continue their unprovoked violence against Christians with impunity," he said. "If the police do not reign in the perpetrators, violence against the minority Christian community would increase in the run-up to the forthcoming general elections scheduled for 2014."
India's population is 74.3 percent Hindu, 14.2 percent Muslim, 1.9 percent Sikh, 0.82 percent Buddhist, and 5.8 percent Christian, according to Operation World.