Thursday, April 24, 2014

Tribals torn apart by religion

Two months before polling began in Jharkhand, Ajay Tirkey began dividing his day between campaigning for the Bharatiya Janata Party in Ranchi and attending to his real estate business. Mr. Tirkey, who heads the Central Sarna Committee(CSC), with lakhs of animistic Sarna tribals as members in urban parts of Ranchi, Gumla and Hazaribagh,believes that the BJP’s Narendra Modi will get the community what it has been demanding for decades: the distinction of being a minority religion with all attendant benefits. “We submitted a memorandum to Modi in December to introduce a Sarna code in the census, and [the] BJP’s State leaders agreed,” he says.

Mr. Tirkey — tall, stout, dressed in white shirt and trousers and wearing a golden watch on one wrist and a vermillion thread on the other — speaks softly and smiles often, even while narrating the violence that has broken out following his organisation’s attempt to stop religious conversions in the last decade. The office of his company, Deoshila Development Private Limited, is sparsely furnished, with only a poster of Hanuman for decoration. Mr. Tirkey owns the commercial complex we are sitting in. “This is a century-old fight. I have not let the Christians get away with conversions since I became the head in 2000,” he says. “We broke the walls of a church in Tape in Ormanjhi while it was being constructed. There was a case of conversion of five families in Ghagrajala village in Ranchi; we re-converted three. Then a few families in Gaitalsud, Angada, of whom only one member escaped because he worked somewhere else. He has not come back since; he fears us,” he recounts, beaming.

Mr. Tirkey, the BJP’s mayoral candidate from Ranchi in 2013, describes the “re-conversion” ceremonies as being similar to the ghar-waapsi (homecoming) ceremonies conducted by BJP leader Dilip Singh Judeo in Chhattisgarh, in the mid-2000s. Mr. Judeo used to wash the feet of the converted person with holy water and declare the person Hindu again. Sarnas, Mr. Tirkey says, besides washing feet, made the converted person taste a drop of blood of a freshly sacrificed rooster and sprinkled water on them. A member of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh’s Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram (VKA) or Dharam Jagran usually accompanied CSC members for this ceremony, he says. Sitting by Mr. Tirkey’s side, Manoj Kumar, a member of the BJP’s Jharkhand Kisan Morcha Pradesh Samiti, nods in agreement.

Conversion politics
In the last century, religious conversions in the Chotanagpur region have led to tensions. The first missionaries to arrive were the German Protestants in 1845, followed by the Catholics. The rift between Christian and non-Christian tribals was visible in 1947-48. Concerned with the growing influence of Christians, Sarna leaders formed a ‘Sudhar Sabha,’ notes academic Dr. Alex Ekka in an essay on the Jharkhand movement.

The former captain of the Indian hockey team, Jaipal Singh Munda, is credited with getting equal rights including reservations for Christian tribals, as a member of the Constituent Assembly. A few Sarna leaders opposed this move then. Congress MP Kartik Oraon introduced a bill in Parliament in 1968 to de-schedule Christian tribals, albeit unsuccessfully.

The Jan Sangh and the RSS began making inroads in the Chotanagpur region in the 1960s, initiating developmental activities in forest villages to counter the growing reach of Christian missionaries. While the VKA already has a strong presence in the Gumla and Latehar districts of West Jharkhand, more recently it has focused on increasing its influence in Sahebganj and Pakur along the State’s border with West Bengal, close to Bangladesh. Both districts feature in a map of areas from Uttar Pradesh to the north-east as “Areas of high Muslim and Christian influence” in a publication by Sankat Mochan Ashram, New Delhi.

“The church was trying to proselytize in Pakur but slowed down after we increased our presence. We recently performed ghar-waapsi for 50 families there. Sarna groups are doing re-conversions themselves now; we prefer it this way. We explain to them that 2000 years ago, we worshipped trees. Sarnas are Hindu too,” says Prakash Kamat, the Bihar-Jharkhand zonal secretary of the VKA.

Tribals constitute 26.3 per cent of Jharkhand’s population. According to the 2001 Census, of the State’s population of 3.29 crore, 68.5 per cent are Hindus and 13.8 per cent are Muslims. Only four per cent follow Christianity. Though Sarnas, who worship their ancestors and nature, are not counted separately, they make up most of the ‘Other’ category, estimated at 11 to 13 per cent of the population. Sarna groups claim that the actual numbers may be higher, given the absence of a separate category for them. A common perception is that despite their small numbers, Christian tribals have better access to higher education and jobs. Whether due to economic disparities or the stoking of enmities by different religious groups, the chasm between Sarna and Christian tribals has widened.

A deep divide
The most stark instance of this was in 2013 when a spate of protests erupted in Ranchi soon after the Cardinal Telesphore Toppo unveiled the statue of a “tribal” Mary — a dark-skinned Mother Mary wearing a white and red saree and bangles, holding an infant Jesus in a sling, as is common among tribal women. Sarna dharamguru Bandhan Tigga, considered more moderate than Ajay Tirkey’s group, gave the Church three months to remove the statue, describing it as a conversion tactic. In August, over 3,000 Sarna tribals marched to the site, a small Catholic church in Singpur on Ranchi’s outskirts, threatening to bring it down. The police imposed Section 144 of the Indian Penal Code in the area to stop the protesters. Three days later, a FIR was registered against members of Sarna groups after they threatened families in Ormanjhi, 50 km from Singpur, who had converted to Protestantism several years ago, to re-convert to Sarna religion within a week, even breaking the gate of the house of one of the families.

Sources close to the Cardinal claim he had not known that the statue was that of a “tribal” Mary before he reached the parish for the inauguration, but have chosen to stay silent, fearing that a step back now may only weaken the church’s position. Before this, in 2008, the church was on the back foot when Sarna groups questioned the ‘Nemha Bible’ published by a Lutheran church in the tribal language, Kuduk, which they said contained portions offensive to animistic worship.

In Singpur, the residents still recount last year’s protests cautiously. “Thousands marched from Dhurva to the parish. While the march had been called by Sarna groups, several Bajrang Dal members wearing saffron bands marched with them. Even tribals from neighbouring Odisha, Chhattisgarh districts reached here,” recalled a member of the community. It was done by evoking Sarnas’ pride, say Dharam Jagran members.


Click here for source

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Church leaders gun for ‘utter lie’ on Christian persecution

New Delhi, April 16: Christian leaders today condemned Narendra Modi’s statement in a television interview last week that he was unaware of any attacks on members of the community and their places of worship in India.

“What he said was an utter lie. The onslaught against Christians by Right-wing groups has always been cause for concern. The Bajrang Dal, the youth wing of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, has been attacking members of the Christian community and vandalising churches across India,” said Richard Howell, general secretary, Evangelical Fellowship of India, which represents about 45 thousand churches across the country.

Expressing shock and dismay at Modi’s statement, the community leaders said the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate cannot win their trust if he feigns ignorance about their sufferings.

“How can he forget the gruesome attacks on tribal Christians in Gujarat’s Dangs district in 1998 during the NDA regime when members of the Right-wing cadres burnt down churches? Atal Bihari Vajpayee, then Prime Minster, himself had visited the district to take stock of the situation,” Howell told a news conference in Delhi today.

He said 22 churches were burnt in 2002 in Gujarat and several members of the community were attacked by VHP cadres. The VHP is part of the Sangh parivar.

Replying to a question from a member of the audience who asked him what steps he would take to ensure no churches are broken down if he becomes Prime Minister, Modi said: “I have never heard of such incidents taking place.”

Vijayesh Lal, national director, Religious Liberty Commission, said Christians continue to be attacked and their places of worship are being vandalised over the past few years in states like Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka and Chhattisgarh.

“Surprisingly, Modi pretends to be ignorant and unaware about such attacks on Christians. If this is the case then why should we trust his promises of a secular India as mentioned in the BJP’s election manifesto,” he asked.

Click here for source

Indian Elections: What Could They Mean for Minority Christians?

India is gearing up for the largest show of democracy on earth. Ahead of the national elections, the silent Christian community in India has become restive and alert.

An electorate of 814 million, a number greater than the entire population of Europe, is eligible to cast the ballot in the staggered polls (scheduled in nine phases from April 7 to May 12) to choose India's 14th Parliament.
The national alliance of all the mainline churches, the National United Christian Forum, has come out with an appeal. The Catholic Church (which accounts for two thirds of the 28 million plus Christians) has issued a voter guideline, and regional ecumenical Christian bodies have recently come out with similar advisories.
Two major alliances-the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) led by the "secular Congress Party (that has ruled the nation for the past two terms) and the National Democratic Alliance, led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-are the main protagonists.
Apart from these two main alliances, 25 or so regional parties make the combat tougher for each of the 543 seats in "Lok Sabha ("House of the People-the lower House of the Indian parliament) that will decide who will rule India for the next five years.
With the opposition alliance led by the BJP (known for espousing a Hindu nationalist agenda) being projected by the pre-poll surveys as the front-runner in elections that many expect to produce a fractured verdict, the Christian community has grown increasingly uneasy.
The Catholic Church issued a call for prayer "for divine assistance for all the citizens of India so that we may elect the best persons... uphold the democratic and secular character of our great nation and selflessly work for the peace and prosperity of all the people of India.
BJP's intense campaign for the 2014 elections has been built around Narendra Modi, chief minister of the western state of Gujarat, who is expected to become the prime minister in waiting. While the Hindu nationalist lobby hails Modi as an able administrator who can accelerate India's sagging economy, secular parties claim he is a polarizing personality. He carries the stain of the 2002 slaughter of over 1,200 Muslims in Gujarat-the homeland of Mahatma Gandhi-when Hindu mobs targeted Muslims following the torching of a train carrying Hindu pilgrims.
The inaction and even collusion of the police under Modi's command, coupled with his persistent refusal to express regret for the deaths, has made Modi the target of many secular groups.
"There is (also) a fear in the minds of (Christians), admitted Rev. Roger Gaikwad, general secretary of the National Council of Churches in India (NCCI), a network of 30 Orthodox and Protestant churches. "Some fear that difficult are days ahead.
The BJP has campaigned to foster better relationships with the Christian community, trying desperately to shed its "anti-Christian image. Two Bishops of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church praised Modi and his Gujarat model of development, but most Christians were angered by their support of Modi. Despite conciliatory gestures by the BJP, many Christians remain skeptical. States under BJP rule have historically witnessed a rise in incidents of anti-Christian violence, and some BJP State governments have been eager to push through anti-conversion legislation. BJP leaders are also known to have defended the assailants in brutal attacks on Christians and the rape of nuns.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Christians in southern India urged to boycott Hindu nationalist party

Christians in southern India have been urged to boycott the Hindu nationalist party, the BJP, in the country’s parliamentary elections in an unprecedented pastoral letter from church leaders including the Archbishop of Hyderabad, Thumma Bala.
The letter to Christians in southern state of Andhra Pradesh, India’s fifth most populous, was read in hundreds of churches on Palm Sunday and will be read out again before polling begins there on 30 April.
In the letter, the Andhra Pradesh Federation of Churches (APFC), an ecumenical council of bishops and church leaders, called on Christians to “elect leaders who are close to people and their needs, and only vote for those who uphold secular character and promote communal harmony”.
The letter was signed by Archbishop Thumma Bala and the moderator of the Church of South India, Anglican Bishop Govada Dyvasirvadam.
The BJP is the leading party in the opposition National Democratic Alliance (NDA), whose prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, chief minister of Gujarat state, sees India as a primarily Hindu nation.
The NDA is currently leading the election and is the major non-secular party. All Christian and Muslim parties are considered secular, and most Christians and Muslim voters support the incumbent Congress party led by Rahul Gandhi.

Click here for source

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Hindu American Foundation exposed as foe of human rights and religious freedom

Indian American coalition condemns HAF's sophistry "explaining" Hindu nationalist violence against minorities in India
Washington DC, Monday, April 7, 2014

The Coalition Against Genocide (CAG -, today condemned the Hindu American Foundation for opposing the Congressional hearings on the plight of religious minorities in India and for obfuscating the issues around violence against minorities. As CAG has established in its recent report titled "Affiliations of Faith (Parts I and II)," HAF is primarily a front for the Hindu nationalist movement (also known as Hindutva) led by the RSS in India. Contrary to its claims about being a human rights organization, HAF has consistently served as apologists for the violent politics of the Sangh Parivar (the broad family of RSS organizations that includes HAF and its US based affiliates such as the VHP-A).

HAF's position on the plight of religious minorities in India is diametrically opposite to that of USCIRF, Human Rights Watch, Advocates for Human Rights, and also notable human rights activists like John Dayal. On its website and in social media, HAF has attacked the integrity of prominent organizations like HRW and USCIRF. This fits a pattern followed by Hindutva organizations where concern for minorities in India is projected as "bias" against Hindus.

"While any situation involving millions of people professing diverse religions is necessarily complex, violations of human rights and religious freedom as a result of the increasingly hostile socio-political environment created by the Hindu nationalist movement deserve international condemnation," said Mr. Alex Koshy, a CAG spokesperson. "It is deplorable that an organization claiming to stand for pluralism and human rights stridently opposes any scrutiny of the situation of religious minorities in India," added Mr. Koshy. "While being vocal about the situation of Hindu minorities in other parts of the world, HAF appears to be considering Christian, Muslim and Sikh religious minorities in India as somehow less worthy of having their plight known to the American public," said Dr. Raja Swamy, also a CAG spokesperson.

HAF touts its mission statement as "Promoting Human Dignity, Mutual Respect and Pluralism." Yet HAF's concern about the effect the hearings may have on the upcoming elections betrays its real priorities. In echoing HAF's concern about the timing of the hearing, Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard appeared to be reading from an HAF script. At the very least, she could have sought a briefing from her staff on the evidence based data about the condition of religious minorities in India, and that H.Res. 417 is in fact a pro-India resolution that celebrates India's long-standing pluralistic ethos.

HAF's posturing against the hearings is reflected in its written testimony, graciously added to the record by Rep. Joe Pitts. A monumental exercise in apologetics for majoritarian violence in India, HAF claims for instance that the massacre of Christians in Odisha by Hindutva organizations, is to be blamed on the murder of a prominent Hindutva leader Swami Lakshmananda (who was killed by Maoists). Furthermore HAF blames anti-Christian violence perpetrated by the Hindutva movement as a response to "aggressive proselytizing by Christian missionary groups." When it comes to anti-minority violence conducted by the Hindutva movement, HAF consistently blames minority victims and tacitly defends the perpetrators.

HAF's alacrity in protecting Hindutva organizations from any kind of international censure for violence against minorities in India stands in stark contrast to its vigorous efforts to highlight the plight of Hindu minorities in countries around the world. Far from being an organization committed to promoting human dignity and pluralism, HAF stands exposed as a foe of human rights, working to defend the Hindutva movement from much needed public scrutiny in the US.

The Coalition Against Genocide is composed of a diverse group of organizations and individuals in the United States and Canada that have come together in response to the Gujarat genocide to demand accountability and justice.

  1. Dr. Shaik Ubaid
    Phone: 516-567-0783

  2. Dr. Raja Swamy
    Phone: 864-804-0216

Coalition Against Genocide
Phone/Fax: (443) 927-9039

  1. TLHRC Hearing: The Plight of Religious Minorities in India

  2. Affiliations of Faith: Hindu American Foundation and the Global Sangh (Part 1)

  3. Affiliations of Faith: Hindu nationalism and HAF - Joined at the hip (Part 2)

  4. Hindu American Foundation reveals its supremacist ideology through smear campaign against CAG and Indian Muslims

  5. Hindu nationalism set to take over the world's biggest democracy, The Independent, UK, April 4th 2014

  6. H.Res 417 -- Praising India's rich religious diversity and commitment to tolerance and equality, and reaffirming the need to protect the rights and freedoms of religious minorities.

  7. BJP-led government to be detrimental to religious minorities: Experts

  8. MN Rights Group Testifies at Congressional Hearing on the Plight of Minorities in India

Monday, April 07, 2014

US expresses concern for minorities under Narendra Modi as PM

Washington: Several US lawmakers voiced concern Friday for the future of religious minorities in India in a hearing critics denounced as an attempt to influence upcoming elections.

With polls starting Monday in the world's largest democracy, several activists testifying before the US Congress' human rights commission expressed fear for the treatment of Muslims and Christians if Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi becomes the next prime minister, as surveys predict.

Representative Joe Pitts, a Republican and conservative Christian, said India had a "climate of impunity" for perpetrators of violence against minorities and criticized laws against religious conversion.

"Clearly all of Indian society is being affected by an indisputable rise in religious intolerance at the very least and religious violence at the very worst," Pitts said.

Representative Keith Ellison, a left-leaning Democrat who is Muslim, said that he supported strong US relations with India and did not believe that the US record was faultless.

But he voiced alarm over what he said was continued polarization in the western state of Gujarat, which is led by Modi, since 2002 riots in which more than 1,000 people -- mostly Muslims -- were hacked, burned or shot to death.

Critics say Modi turned a blind eye or worse to attacks on Muslims, although he denies wrongdoing and investigations have cleared him of personal responsibility.

Representative Tulsi Gabbard, a Democrat who is the first Hindu elected to the US Congress, criticized the timing of the hearing and said it could be used either to foment sectarian strife or to provide campaign ammunition for Modi's opponents.

"I feel that the goal of this hearing ultimately is to influence the outcome of this election, which is something that I don't feel is appropriate for us here in the United States Congress to do," Gabbard said.India is majority Hindu but secular and has historically been a safe haven for religious groups including Tibetan Buddhists, Jews and Zoroastrians.

The Indian government often expresses indignation at perceived foreign interference in its domestic affairs, although the Indian embassy did not return a message Friday seeking comment.

The United States has been seeking a warmer relationship with India and has generally avoided criticism on sensitive religious issues, but in 2005 it denied a visa to Modi on human rights grounds.

In February, however, US ambassador to India Nancy Powell met Modi, a sign the US stance was softening towards the controversial politician. President Barack Obama's administration did not send a representative to Friday's hearing, which was sparsely attended.

John Dayal, an Indian Christian writer and activist, charged that a Hindu nationalist Indian government would target minorities by scrapping affirmative action plans and encouraging forcible conversions of Christians.

Dayal, who said he has received threats accusing him of treason for testifying before the commission, called for the United States to include human rights and religious freedom in talks with India, much as Washington does with China.

Katrina Lantos Swett, the vice chair of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom which has long been critical of Modi, voiced concern that his Bharatiya Janata Party would promote policies that portray non-Hindus as foreigners.

"Many religious minority communities fear religious freedom will be jeopardized if the BJP wins and... Modi becomes prime minister. We hope that is not the case," she said.

Click Here for source