India’s Holy Wars (8/00)

India is in deep turmoil on a number of religious fronts. While the mainstream press focuses mainly on the conflict between predominantly Hindu India and predominantly Muslim Pakistan over the threatened separation of the Indian Jammu and Kashmir state, the death toll rises in other parts of the country as internecine war widens.

Muslim-Hindu Clashes

On Jun 25, a bomb exploded in a mosque in Guntur, Andhra Pradesh, injuring two people. An ensuing riot injured five more, including a TV crew. This led to a one-week curfew in Muslim-dominant areas of Guntur and the state capital, Hyderabad, where police guarded both mosques and churches. It was yet another sad chapter in the boiling conflict between Indian Muslims and Hindus.

The stabbing death of Kailish Mali on Jul 10 in Malpura, Rajasthan, led to 10 more murders. Mali, a Hindu, was a central defendant in the 1992 killings that followed the Hindu fundamentalist destruction of a local mosque. An indefinite police curfew was imposed to halt the violence.

Another source of intense, on-going conflict has been the 1992 demolition of a 16th-c. Uttar Pradesh mosque, which has led to 3,000 deaths. Last Dec, Indian Prime Minister (PM) Atal Behari Vajpayee tried to defuse the controversy caused by the efforts of his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to build a Hindu temple on the site. Speaking in the parliament’s lower house, he claimed his coalition government’s agenda didn’t include the divisive issues supported by his own party.

The BJP is the largest member of the National Democratic Alliance, which resumed power last Fall but rejected the BJP’s positions on the temple construction and loss of Jammu and Kashmir’s special rights. The BJP rose to prominence in the mid-1980s on a wave of militant Hinduism.

Hindus claim the site of the former mosque as the birthplace of the God Ram. The PM’s remarks followed the purported reassertion of the BJP position by Uttar Pradesh’s chief minister. But Vajpayee also rejected calls for the resignation of three BJP members for alleged participation in the mosque’s destruction. Dismissing the PM’s assurances, the opposition Congress party held a walkout.

Intra-Hindu Violence

The 2,500-year-old Hindu caste system is being violently assailed in Bihar state, which has become a "large battleground of caste senas [armies]," reports Indian Express. Dozens of people are killed every year in the conflict, and approximately 5,000 have died in the past decade. On Jun 15, the upper caste landlords’ militia shot 34 lower caste villagers. It was the eighth such mass murder in six months, but the first directed at the community of Bihar’s state chief minister Rabri Devi.

Eleven members of the Ranvir Sena (RS) were arrested for the massacre, an apparent retaliation for the murder of 12 upper caste Bhumihar members and the village’s alleged harboring of last year’s attackers on an RS-protected village. The sena called on Devi to resign, holding her responsible for the Bhumihar deaths, which may have been the work of the People’s War Group or the Maoist Communist Center (MCC). Both claim to represent the lower castes.

On Jun 19, the two groups declared that they would avenge the RS murders by targeting an upper-caste village. "This is a class war," proclaimed MCC spokesman Badal. In response, RS Area Commander Upendra Singh promised that his group would "kill 10 times the number they kill." Local police requested 400 soldiers from the federal government to tighten security.

Devi’s husband and former state chief minister Laloo Prasad Yadav, who is also president of the Bihar-ruling Rashtriya Janata Dal, called the murders an attempt "to defame and pull down" his government. Although caste violence isn’t a recent invention, it worsened after an amendment to India’s constitution gave political, property, schooling, and employment rights to the lower castes.

Analysts speculate that the latest developments will re-intensify the violence, partially because of the shift in the RS’ focus from the "untouchable" Dalits caste to the more influential Yadavs. "We are fighting a war of honor," asserts Singh. "We are fighting for our existence. We don’t know when this war will end."

Attacks on Christians

With Christians comprising 2.3% of India’s one billion people, allegations that missionaries unethically convert poor Hindus is at the heart of another battle. On Jun 3, for example, Christian activists held a demonstration in Calcutta protesting alleged misinformation about tribal Christians in Orissa state reconverting to Hinduism. Orissa officials had reported that about 72 conversions were performed by a Hindu holy man in Manoharpur, site of the murder of a missionary family last year, allegedly by fanatic Hindus. A member of Bajrang Dal, a hardline Hindu group, was arrested in that case.

A few days after the demonstration, Father George Kunjhikandam was beaten to death in Uttar Pradesh. Despite the official conclusion that the murder wasn’t religiously motivated, the All India Catholic Union saw it as part of a pattern, including the beating of missionaries in the same area in April. One of the witnesses to Kunjhikandam’s death committed suicide in police custody, prompting increased security for the second witness and the arrest of two police officers accused of torturing the first.

On Jun 8, four churches in Goa, Karnataka, and Andhra Pradesh states were bombed, causing one injury. Exactly one month later, another bomb exploded outside a Karanataka church; yet another went off outside a southern India church the next night.

Christian leaders blame the Hindu nationalist-led government coalition for not controlling militant groups. "It is open season on Christians again," charges John Dayal, convenor of the United Christian Forum for Human Rights.

BJP member Venkaiah Naidu counters, "Since we came to power, there has been a campaign to denigrate us." BJP Gen. Sec. J.P. Mathur says the evidence suggests that the Inter-Services Intelligence of Pakistan was responsible for the Jun 8 bombings. Pakistan denies the charge.

Christians are seeking help from the UN and Amnesty International. They "have no faith in the Indian government," according to United Forum of Catholics and Protestants leader Herod Malik, organizer of the Culcutta protest. "The Indian government will not protect Christians from the destructive drive of fundamentalists," he asserts. As of early June, Christian leaders had documented 35 anti-Christian incidents this year.

A clear example emerged on Jun 23, when police reported damage to the crosses on 40 graves in Rajahmundry, Andhra Pradesh. The same day, in Phulwani, Orissa, a Hindu woman threw boiling oil at a mob of hardliners from the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), or World Hindu Council. They’d come to evict a Catholic priest from her house. Jhunu Pradhan was cooking dinner when the VHP radicals entered, threatening to kill her if she didn’t give up Brother Kuzur, whom they had been pressuring Jhunu and husband Gobardhan to expel for six months. When they began beating her with wooden clubs, Jhunu launched the pan of oil, seriously wounding group leader Paramananda Gir.

The following day, PM Vajpayee called on state governments to vigorously pursue every instance of such violence. "My government is committed to upholding the law of the land which guarantees equal rights to all our citizens without any discrimination, but no rights to anybody … to spread ill-will and hatred," he declared. During Vajpayee’s June visit to Rome, Pope John Paul II asked him for a guarantee of religious freedom. In response, the PM characterized the recent violence as "aberrations and exception to the general texture of peaceful and cordial relations between the various communities."

A Culprit Fingered

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS, or National Volunteer Corps) is considered the wellspring of Hindu ideology, including that of the BJP. Christian leaders directly accuse it of organizing religiously motivated attacks. But RSS denies prejudice against India’s Muslims and Christians. At the conclusion of a two-day RSS meeting in July, it also denied the involvement of any Hindu group in any anti-Christian attack.

"A major section of Church leaders backed by some of the media are painting the RSS and other Hindu organizations in the darkest colors by accusing them of atrocities on the Christian minority in the country," protested RSS Joint General Secretary Madan Dass. "A few stray incidents, some of which are outright fake and concocted, are being propagated as RSS machinations." He added his support to the vigorous prosecution of religious violence, noting that it "needs to be unreservedly condemned."

In February, proposed further constitutional revision by the government sparked an outcry among Christian leaders. Vajpayee asserted that unspecified revisions were imperative, while critics charged him with attempting to change India into a presidential government. A commission formed to review possible changes was denounced as undemocratic and unrepresentative of India’s diversity.

In a letter to the PM, Archbishop Alan de Lastic, chief of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference, charged that none of the "many representative bodies in our democratic republic has been consulted in the entire process." He noted that the country’s minority groups were "greatly surprised" by the review, and feared "no democratically acceptable result can come from a structure which is itself rooted in what the people perceive to be undemocratic decisions."

John Dayal, convenor of the United Christian Forum for Human Rights, argues that any such review should consider the increased violence against minorities who are living in "an atmosphere of hatred."

Continued Counter-Charges

Amidst intensified violence, the VHP has requested action by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) on the victimization of Christians. The VHP believes the attacks are part of a conspiracy against the BJP-led coalition. K.M. Khan, who headed a Congress party investigation of the attacks, also called for a CBI inquiry. He cited an increase in violence since Sonia Gandhi, a Roman Catholic, became the party’s president last year.

According to The Times of India, the country’s "antagonism at ground level has taken such an intense form that the conflict is unmanageable for political leaders of all hues." Nevertheless, the federal government is hopeful, and is considering both a new anti-terrorism law and an agency to deal with violence. In June, state officials and police chiefs met in New Delhi to discuss the problems, as well as other crimes against the state. While continuing to point a finger at Pakistan, Interior Minister Lal Krishna Advani told the gathering, "We must get into the depth of these cases and punish the guilty, whoever they are.

"The epicenter of religious fundamentalism has come to stay in our neighborhood," he added, "which seems to have become the headquarters for terrorists operating in a number of countries the world over. The government of Pakistan … is waging a proxy war, promoting, abetting, and sponsoring terrorism as a state policy," particularly in Kashmir.

Dian Mueller is the associate editor of Toward Freedom, and editor of Green Mountain Circle Works, a monthly Pagan publication.