Hindu zealots campaign to expel India's Christian missionaries

  • @arifa_akbar
IF DR Surendra Jain had been around at the time, Mother Teresa would never have got started in India.

Dr Jain, national convenor of the Bajrang Dal, an extreme organization of Hindu nationalists, has called for all foreign missionaries to be expelled from the country. This includes people such as the late Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity, however good the social work they perform. "Excellent work we can do ourselves," he said. "We don't need foreign help."

Dr Jain, a teacher of commerce in a college 50 miles outside Delhi, is making his demand against a background of steadily-rising violence towards India's Christian minority. Echoing Mahatma Gandhi's anti-Raj slogan - "Quit India" - he declared that his fellow activists had begun identifying Christian missions in order to launch a "second 'Quit India' movement" against them. "We will compel them to leave India," he said. "It is a serious proposal. It is going to be implemented, but the timetable and modus operandi must remain secret."

Christians, who constitute just 2.6 per cent of the Indian population, about 23 million people, have in the past largely been overlooked in India's endless inter-communal feuds. Hindu-Muslim violence has been far more frequent and bloody, but the past two or three years have seen a disturbing increase in anti-Christian rhetoric and violent incidents. Since the spring election of a coalition government dominated by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the campaign has reached new heights of menace and criminality.

A year ago, a Jesuit priest, Father Christudas, vice-principal of a school in southern Bihar state, was dragged out of the school, stripped naked, beaten and forced to parade through the town. The following month, a Belgian Jesuit, Father A T Thomas, was kidnapped in the same state. Six days later, his decapitated body was recovered. No one has been tried for either crime.

The attacks might have been written off as peculiar to Bihar, the poorest and most lawless state in India. But in the past six months, a new flurry of incidents across the nation suggests that the arrival in power of the BJP has given the party's extremist fringe licence to pursue its anti-Christian campaign in defiance of the law.

The main focus of recent incidents has not been Bihar, but Gujarat, in the north-west, where the BJP has recently taken power. Newly-built churches have been demolished, Christian schools vandalised, numerous prayer halls broken into, burned or looted, and prayer meetings broken up. In July, Bajrang Dal activists burned bibles at a mission school, claiming that the teachers were trying forcibly to convert their pupils.

The Bajrang Dal, the organisation behind many attacks on Christians, was spawned by the controversial movement to demolish the Babri Masjid mosque at Ayodhya, and replace it with a temple dedicated to Ram, the Hindu warrior god most revered by nationalists. Ayodhya, near Lucknow in northern India, is Ram's purported birthplace. Created in 1983, the Bajrang Dal claimed to have branches in every state within five years.

"The Bajrang Dal are fanatical street-action people," said one prominent Indian Catholic. "The RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a better-known nationalist organisation with close links to the government] is more respectable, more like Hitler's Brownshirts, with a semblance of discipline. The Bajrang Dal are like Mussolini's street gangs. Most of them are poorly-educated young people, who are unemployed or regard their jobs as unsatisfactory."

Christophe Jaffrelot, a scholar of Hindu nationalism, said of the Bajrang Dal's members: "Frustration is their common denominator." Another authority said some "long to be the hero of a Bombay film in which violence leads to justice".

Dr Jain said suggestions the group's members were uneducated were "a myth". "Our organisation is very disciplined. We have a training programme where members receive intellectual and physical training, including the use of arms," he said.

"We have about 500,000 members. But it is true that the Bajrang Dal is more aggressive for the Hindu cause than the RSS. Many times we go beyond the limits of the RSS."

Asked whether the Bajrang Dal accepted limits, such as those dictated by law, he replied: "Our limits depend on our situation. We generally try to discourage people from taking the law into their own hands, but some enthusiastic characters do things beyond the law. And when they are justified in such activities we defend them."

John Layal, national secretary for public affairs in the All-India Catholic Union, said the "quantum jump" in violence against Christians was "because there is no rule of law in India today".

"When you have senior people in government declaring that if the Supreme Court refuses permission for a Ram temple to be built in Ayodhya they will go ahead and build it anyway," he said. "When the state connives in crime and looks the other way, organisations like Bajrang Dal are emboldened to break the law."

Dr Jain denies that the Bajrang Dal is intrinsically hostile to other faiths. "We are tolerant about Christianity and all other religions. Many of my friends are Christians. But we cannot tolerate their anti-national activity. That's why we want to throw out all foreign missionaries."

Nor is he swayed by the suggestion that foreign missionaries have worked in India legally and legitimately. "Christianity is dying in the West, so they are diverting millions of dollars to India for conversion activities," he said. "In every society, people are throwing off the signs of slavery. We, who were oppressed by Muslims and Britishers, should do the same."