The month of December is not only about Christmas. It is a season of festivity, saying bye to the year that has passed and looking forward to the prospectively happy New Year. But the times are changing; the festivities have been replaced by an atmosphere of intimidation. Those celebrating Christmas or doing anything related to Christmas are coming under attack. In Maharashtra, the Chief Minister’s wife and a BJP MLA were trolled in social media for promoting an event with the theme of Christmas. The carol singers in Aligarh were detained on the complaint of them engaging in forced conversions, while Hindutva groups, the affiliates of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), said that Christmas celebrations in schools were a strict no-no! In Rajasthan, members of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) barged into a Christmas function, disrupted it and accused those in attendance of forced conversions. In Satna, Madhya Pradesh, Hindutva groups attacked carol singers and burnt a priest’s car. These are just few of the attacks on Christmas celebrations all over the country. The offenders in all these incidents have been found to belong to Hindutva right-wing groups.
While anti-Christian activities, many of them violent, have been an emerging trend over the past many years, 2017 marks a new low. Open Doors, the global charity which monitors the condition of Christians worldwide and publishes an annual World Watch List of the 50 most difficult countries for Christians to live in, points out that in 2016 India was at ranked the highest ever, at No 15; India looks set to move up the ranks in 2017, for by the first half of 2017 there had already been as many recorded incidents as there were in the whole of 2016.
Anti-Christian violence has picked up in the past two decades. One of the earliest incidents was the hacking-to-death of Rani Maria in Indore, Madhya Pradesh, in 1995. The killings became even more horrific. Graham Staines and his two young sons were burnt alive in 1999 in Odisha by a mob that was led by the Bajrang Dal’s Dara Singh. Again, in Odisha, in August 2008, violence erupted in Kandhamal. Over the years, it has been observed that anti-Christian violence picks up during the month of December. This year, incidents in Dangs, Phulbani, Jhabua and Phulbani have been a testament to this fact.
The violence has been concentrated in the Adivasi belt that extends from Dangs (Gujarat) in the west to Kandhamal in the east (Odisha). The tribal areas of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand fall in this area. Christian communities in the urban areas have been relatively free from these troubles. In the remote rural areas, though, swamis (ascetics) associated with the Hindutva organizations such as the VHP have set up their ashrams and have been active in spreading hate against Christians – like Swami Aseemanand in Dangs, followers of Asaram Bapu in Jhabua and Lakshmananand in Odisha. These are the areas where anti-Christian violence has been the norm and the slogan, “Hindu Jago Kristi bhago” (Wake up Hindus, go away Christians) has been popularized. The Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, along with the VHP, both RSS affiliates, have stepped up their activities and propaganda in these areas. While, on the one hand, anti-Christian violence picked up, other programmes like Shabri Kumbh (Dangs) and Hindu Sangam were held to mobilize Adivasis using the Hindu mythological figures, Shabri and Hanuman.
The murder of Swami Lakshmananand and aftermath in Kandhamal in 2008 showed how the violence takes place. While Maoists claimed that they had killed Swami, many Christian youths were arrested. The mortal remains of Swami were taken in a procession in the Adivasi areas, and precisely in those areas violence would follow. Incidentally, anti-Christian violence has been more common in Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-ruled states. When violence erupted in Kandhamal, BJP was the ally of the ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD) in Orissa.
This year, all of the violence has been observed in BJP-ruled states. Wherever the Hindu nationalist party, an RSS affiliate, is in power, the so-called Hindutva groups seem to feel emboldened. The police are generally hostile to the Christians; the propaganda about Christian missionaries engaging in conversion by force, fraud or allurement seems to have spread far and wide. Many a priest conducting prayer services have been arrested after being accused of proselytizing.
Violence is generally the result of hate built up around the propaganda against Christian missionaries. As such, Hindutva groups are known for taking the law into their own hands. What is important to note is that most of this violence is in the Adivasi areas. It is the areas where Christian missionaries have been working in the areas of education and health and empowering these downtrodden sections. While in the cities many of the Hindutva right-wing people have been sending their children to Christian mission schools as a matter of choice, their fellow travellers in Adivasi and Dalit areas are up in the arms against missionaries, accusing them of conversions.
According to the 2011 Census , the population of Christians has slightly declined during the past five decades: 1971 (2.60%), 1981 (2.44%), 1991 (2.34%), 2001 (2.30%), 2011 (2.30%). The first BJP-led NDA government set up a Commission under the chairmanship of Justice D.P. Wadhwa to inquire into the Staines’ murder. Lal Krishna Advani was the home minister at the time. The Wadhwa commission found that Graham Staines was not involved in the conversions and Keonjhar, Manoharpur, in Odisha, where Staines had been working did not show an increase in Christian population.
Currently, we seem to be witnessing a phase where the cultural aspect of festivals is being attacked, to eliminate the existing syncretism and intercommunity relations. More than Christmas carols and Christmas festivities, what is under attack is the pluralism of Indian society!
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