NEW DELHI (Compass Direct News) – After unprecedented large-scale attacks on Christians in the previous two years, 2009 brought hardly any respite as the minority faith faced an average of more than three violent attacks a week.
There were at least 152 attacks on Christians in 2009, according to the "Partial List of Major Incidents of Anti-Christian Violence in India" released by the Evangelical Fellowship of India.
"The trend of attacks on the Christian community by rightwing Hindu groups goes unabated," said Dr. Dominic Emmanuel, the spokesperson of the Delhi Catholic Archdiocese. "Overall, the Christian community still feels insecure."
Emmanuel also noted that none of the states that have "anti-conversion" laws have repealed them. The north-central states of Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, Orissa in the east, Gujarat in the west and Himachal Pradesh in the north have anti-conversion laws, which Hindu hardliners routinely use to arrest Christians on spurious accusations of "forcible conversion."
"If 2007 and 2008 went down in history as the most blood-soaked ones in the history of modern Christianity in India, 2009 surely rates as the year of frustrating confrontations with the law and tardy governance and on justice for the victims of communal violence," said Dr. John Dayal, a Christian and human rights activist and member of the government's National Integration Council.
Dayal referred to violence that erupted in Orissa's Kandhamal district during the Christmas week in 2007, killing at least four Christians and burning 730 houses and 95 churches. The attacks were carried out to avenge an alleged attack on a Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP) leader, Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati.
Violence re-erupted in Kandhamal in August 2008 after the assassination of Saraswati by a Maoist group, as rightwing Hindu groups falsely blamed Christians for it. This time, the violence killed more than 100 people and resulted in the incineration of 4,640 houses, 252 churches and 13 educational institutions.
No Longer a Haven
A disturbing new trend emerged this year as southern India, which had long been considered a haven for Christians, recorded the highest incidence of anti-Christian violence. Of the total 152 incidents, 86 were reported from southern states, mainly Karnataka with 48, Andhra Pradesh with 29, Tamil Nadu with five and Kerala with four.
Northern and central states, seen as the stronghold of rightwing Hindu extremists, recorded 42 incidents of violence, half the number in the south.
There were 15 attacks in Madhya Pradesh state, 14 in neighboring Chhattisgarh, three each in Uttar Pradesh and the Himalayan states of Himachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir, and one each in the national capital Delhi and neighboring Haryana state.
In the west, seven attacks were reported: six in Maharashtra and one in Gujarat.
In the northeast, four attacks were reported: three in Assam and one in Manipur.
Karnataka recorded the highest number of violent incidents as the first-ever victory of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the state elections in 2007 emboldened rightwing Hindu extremist groups. Karnataka became the first southern state with a stand-alone BJP government in the history of India.
Anti-Christian violence in Andhra Pradesh rose to new heights after a Christian, Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy, became the chief minister of the state in May 2004. To target him politically, rightwing Hindu groups attacked Christians while accusing them of converting Hindus to Christianity. This year Reddy died on Sept. 2 in a chopper crash.
The incidence of Christian persecution in the north and the central states declined apparently due to the BJP's defeat in the April-May general elections and a growing realization among a section of the BJP leadership that violent incidents no longer please voters. But the hard-line section of the BJP and groups linked to the party, such as the VHP and its youth wing Bajrang Dal, carried on with their hardcore anti-Christian stand.
Impunity in Orissa
Orissa state in the east, which witnessed two massive spates of attacks on Christians in 2007 and 2008, saw only two recorded violent incidents this year.
The morale of Christians in Orissa, however, remained low as few assailants in the 2008 rampage were brought to justice.
"The courts in Kandhamal make a mockery of the judicial process, and the murderers lord it over the witnesses and victims while judges and law look on," Dayal said. "The church remains helpless, its puny effort at giving strength to the witnesses falling far too short."
Of 787 cases registered by Orissa police, 100 are being handled by two-fast track courts in Kandhamal. Around 35 cases have been heard, resulting in around 50 convictions and more than 190 acquittals. Manoj Pradhan, a legislator for the BJP, has been exonerated "for lack of evidence" in six cases, most of them involving murder charges.
Dr. Sajan K. George, national president of the Global Council of Indian Christians, said the growing number of acquittals was producing a culture of impunity, "where those who commit crimes against Christian minority do not fear punishment by law."
"As the elected representative of the Orissa state assembly [Pradhan] has been let off in murder cases," George said. "People want to know what has happened to the long arms of justice."
Dayal, who was in Kandhamal recently, said that of the more than 4,640 houses burned in 2008 violence, only 200 have a roof over the rebuilt walls as 2009 ends.
"And perhaps at the end of the next year, another 2,500, God willing, will have been rebuilt," he said. "But around 2,000 houses will even then remain unfinished."
Dayal added that more than 20,000 men, women and children of Kandhamal continue to live as refugees or homeless people in various cities, working at odd jobs and sometimes begging.
"Some girls have already been pushed into the evil of human trafficking," he said.
Most people in Kandhamal remain without jobs, and the rehabilitation process, in which the church is participating, still is a long distance from covering all victims, Dayal said, adding, "The state government seems to have called it a day with the barest minimum done in this sector."
Emmanuel of the Delhi Archdiocese said that since the BJP is not in power at the federal level, some of their front organizations such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sang, the VHP and the Bajrang Dal will harass Christians in order to remain in the news.
"Christianity teaches us to hope in God," Emmanuel said. "We can only hope that 2010 will be a better year for Christians, but in practical terms it really does not appear that things would be any better as the ranks of rightwing Hindu fundamentalists keep their pressure."
There are around 24 million Christians in India, or roughly 2.3 percent of the over 1.1 billion people.