Church attacks: Christians anxious, govt must assuage the fears

  • Namita Bhandare
  • Updated: Mar 27, 2015 23:24 IST

A church is burnt in New Delhi. Electrical short-circuit.

Another church’s windows shatter when a stone is thrown. Kids playing outside.

In Haryana, the crucifix in a church under construction is replaced by a Hanuman idol. Land-grabbing.

A Christian missionary-run school receives a series of threatening letters. Some disgruntled person venting.

If you believe that nine separate attacks on churches and several others on Christian-run schools in the last six months are just random occurrences then you also probably believe in the tooth fairy.

The attacks have become so routine that Prime Minister Narendra Modi broke his silence to express ‘deep concern’, home minister Rajnath Singh declared he would ‘do everything to end the sense of insecurity among minorities’ and 19 Christian MPs across party lines met to take stock of the situation.

In January, the United Christian Forum set up a 24/7 helpline in the ‘case of any attack on a church, prayer meeting or convention’. Earlier this month, retired police chief Julio Ribeiro wrote in The Indian Express that he feels like a stranger in his own land. Critics who question his human rights record or wonder why he hasn’t written about attacks on temples in the US miss the point of his lament, which is to express a sense of alienation and hurt among a peaceful minority community. To understand where this feeling comes from, we need to see it within the narrative of growing religious intolerance that coincided with the formation of the BJP government in May.

Christmas Day, also the birthday of former PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee, becomes a day for good governance. The slaughter of cows is banned in two more states, both run by the BJP. Right-wing ideologues flex muscle in school curriculums. The new head of the Indian Council of Historical Research rubbishes the need for history since the Mahabharata is enough to understand the past. RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat claims that Mother Teresa was motivated by her desire to convert those she served to Christianity.

As a consecrated nun, Mother Teresa would have seen conversion as the salvation of a soul, but the Missionaries of Charity did not limit their work to any one faith. When they picked up lepers, abandoned children and the dying from the streets of Kolkata, they did so regardless of their religion. To imply otherwise is perverse.

Christians have made an inordinate contribution to education and healthcare institutions that admit all Indians regardless of their religious allegiance. Certainly the convent school I attended never made religion a pre-requisite to my education. If anything, my Christian classmates, despite quotas, were just a handful in class. Whatever my problems with the Catholic church — its stand on women priests, homosexuals, abortion — proselytising in schools in India is not one of its many flaws.

The larger Hindutva narrative sees conversion as a sinister, foreign-funded design to lure away Hindu believers. But if millions of dollars are being channelised into the country for fraudulent conversion, how does one explain why the Christian population has fallen from 2.44% in 1961 to 2.34% in 2001, according to Census figures?

Insecurity among Christians stems from the belief that the State — despite making the right noises — is in collusion with Right-wing groups that demonise missionaries as predators, vandalise churches and attack schools.

The contrast is Odisha, where in February chief minister Naveen Patnaik refused to allow VHP leader Praveen Togadia to visit Kandhamal — site of communal violence in 2007-08 when Patnaik’s government was in alliance with the BJP. With a Christian population of 2.44%, according to the 2001 Census, Odisha has remained free of attacks on churches.

Hopefully, it will continue. It is the job of states to ensure law and order and, in doing so, safeguard the rights of all citizens. The anxiety among Christians is real and based on actual attacks on their places of worship. It is now incumbent upon the government to address and assuage it.

Twitter:@namitabhandare The views expressed by the author are personal

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