Indian Christians remain traumatised by violence

by
09 October 2008

by David Griffiths

L. K. Advani (centre of picture), a senior leader of the BJP, discusses the situation with religious leaders, including (far left) the Hindu Swami Chidanand Saraswati AP

L. K. Advani (centre of picture), a senior leader of the BJP, discusses the situation with religious leaders, including (far left) the Hindu Swami Chi...

HORROR — the sort that dulls the senses or excites over-stimulation — looms large in Bhubaneswar, the capital of Orissa state, now infamous for the anti-Christian violence that has ravaged its interior since 24 August (News, 29 August).

A fraction of those fleeing the violence have made their way to the state capital, and the gravity of what they suffered becomes apparent im­medi­ately on meeting them (News, 19 September).

At one of the relief camps I visited, without invitation or introductions, person after person stood up and re­counted their stories. The first set the tone, as she wept quietly: “They came and looted everything.”

Another told us breathlessly of a pastor of 25 years, who had refused to renounce his faith when a mob came to his house. They first cut off his lips, then cut him into pieces, then set his house on fire. His elderly mother, who was deaf and mute, was thrown on the fire when she tried to rescue him.

Another man described witnessing the death of his paralysed brother in a burning house. Still another told of a mob marching into his village, demanding that his father come and face them, “if he had ever drunk [his] mother’s milk”. They called for him because his own father had set up numerous churches in the area.

Still others told of fleeing for days from place to place through the jungle, trying to evade the rampaging mobs.

The toll of suffering, in so far as it can be measured, is horrifying. The Roman Catholic authorities say more than 50 have been killed, but it is difficult to measure with certainty because many have seemingly been burnt or buried alive.

At least 50,000 are thought to have fled. A spokesman for the Roman Catholic archdiocese told me that reports of house-burnings have abated only because there are now few houses left to burn.

At least 50,000 are thought to have fled. A spokesman for the Roman Catholic archdiocese told me that reports of house-burnings have abated only because there are now few houses left to burn.

Attempts have been made to interpret this violence in terms of Hindu-Christian clashes, ethnic ten­sions, and come-uppance for the economically dominant. Issues of ethnicity and economics have cer­tainly played their part in stoking the violence, but the truth is that the violence has been perpetrated by mobs espousing an extremist Hindu nationalist agenda and shouting anti-Christian slogans. The Christian vic­tims come from different ethnic com­mu­nities, and in­clude both wealthy and poor.

Academic studies of the processes by which India’s powerful extremist Hindu nationalists mobilise grass­roots support among tribal people have suggested that the most success­ful tactics include attaching local concerns to a national communal agenda, and portraying Muslims or Christians as the “threatening other”.

This groundwork had been going on for decades in the Kandhamal district of Orissa, so when an influen­tial local Hindu leader was assassin­ated on 23 August, mobs were mobilised on the roads, baying for the blood of Christians within hours.

Hindus committed to pluralism have railed against the violence. A Hindu fact-finding team visited the area in September, and strongly criticised the “hooligans” of Hindu nationalist organisations acting with the connivance of the administra­tion. Ordinary Hindus heroically braved the wrath of mobs to help the Christians where they could. Yet the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar, which covers Orissa, the Most Revd Raphael Cheenath, reflected sombrely on the “extermination of the Church”.

Kerala talks. In Kerala, south India, nine Christian leaders from various denominations joined 14 Hindu leaders for dialogue about the viol­ence on Wednesday of last week. Attacks on Christians have been reported in the region, as well as in Orissa, and in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and Madya Pradesh. The dele­gates included representatives from the World Hindu Council, which has been accused of playing a part in the violence.

In a joint statement, the religious leaders said: “Violence is not part of any religion. Acts that pave the way for religious hatred . . . have to be stopped.”

David Griffiths is Research and Advocacy Officer for Christian Solidarity Worldwide.

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