Friday, February 20, 2004

India: Liberty, persecution, and conspiracy theories.

Date: Friday 20 February 2004
Subj: India: Liberty, persecution, and conspiracy theories.
To: World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty News & Analysis
From: WEA RLC Principal Researcher and Writer, Elizabeth Kendal


The Hindu nationalist movement in India is collectively known as the "Sangh Parivar". This movement, which advocates for the establishment of a Hindu state, consists of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council, VHP), an organization to promote the Hindu religion; the VHP's militant youth wing, the Bajrang Dal; the militant Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteer Corps, RSS), possibly the world's largest paramilitary organization, combining Hindu ideology and martial arts; and a political wing, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The BJP rode to power in the 1998 elections on a radical platform of Hindutva (Indian "Hinduness" and the promotion of a Hindu state) and the promise to develop nuclear arms. They campaigned with the slogan, "One nation, one people, one culture." India has not been
the same since.

Religious tensions have escalated, communities are polarizing along religious lines, and persecution of non-Hindus has escalated across the nation. Religious freedom, which is guaranteed by the constitution, is now being defined to exclude the right to convert. Textbooks have been re-written ("Saffronised") and culture is being Hinduised according to Hindutva ideology. (The BJP wants to ban the eating of beef.)

The approaching elections (probably April 2004) are a matter for all Christians and advocates of peace and liberty to be greatly concerned about. Mr. Vajpayee's ruling BJP is going to the polls
early expecting to capitalise on state election successes, a strong economy, the prospect of good harvests, and improved Pakistan ties. The BJP is also excited by the fact that they now have a Gandhi in their fold. Varun Gandhi, the nephew of Congress Party leader Sonia Gandi, has elected to throw his weight behind the BJP and assist Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee in the BJP's campaign for re-election. (South China Morning Post, 20 Feb 2004).

India is home to more than one billion people: 79.8% (792 million) are Hindus, 12.5% (126.7 million) are Muslims, and only 2.4% (25 million) are Christian. Should not God be concerned about that great nation? (Jonah 4:11) Advocates must advocate and intercessors must pray.

DEMOCRACY AND LIBERTY

India is the world's largest democracy. However, as Bhushan Raj, Chairman of the Coalition for Safe Democracy points out, democracy is one thing, liberty is another.

Bhushan Raj believes the Indian elections will be free and fair. He is concerned however, that "those elected can be castesist, racist, fascist or religious nationalists". Raj continues, "For people in India, democracy still means liberal democracy. This refers to a political system marked not only by free and fair elections but also rule of law, a separation of powers, and the protection of basic liberties of speech, assembly, religion and property. This bundle of freedom, what might be termed as 'constitutional liberalism', has nothing to do with democracy and the two need not always go together. This is the challenge facing India. What is at stake is not democracy but constitutional freedoms.

"The BJP has appealed to the electorate to elect them by a two-thirds majority so that it can change the constitution. If a BJP-NDA alliance comes to power in the coming national elections, democracy will flourish but liberty will not. Democracy is one public virtue but not the only one. Constitutional liberalism has to be safeguarded. Without this, democracy will become an empty shell."

Paul Marshall of Freedom House writes, "To expand its support and hold its political coalition together, the national BJP moderates its stance, but then it courts extremists to appeal to its base. Meanwhile, it is Hinduizing the school curriculum, undercutting minority rights and supporting laws forbidding lower castes to change their religion to escape their low status under Hinduism.

"India continues to have proud democratic institutions, but the growth of often-violent Hindu nationalism threatens its tolerant traditions and pluralistic democracy. If religious extremism
continues to grow, it will, as we have learned elsewhere, drag India's democracy, economy and foreign policy down with it. We cannot afford to be silent against that threat, even when the
country is an important partner and ally of the United States in the war against terrorism." (Link 1)

COMMUNAL TENSIONS AND SECTARIAN VIOLENCE

The Sangh Parivar's propagation of Hindutva through all its VHP, RSS and BJP "wings" leads inevitably to attacks against Christians.

The Hindu Press of India reported on 10 February, "Seven women and a man were forcibly tonsured [heads shaved] in an Orissa village for embracing Christianity. Some 20 Christians, including the women victims and two infants, fled the village fearing more attacks on them." The Christians said that they became Christian seven years and had never had any trouble until now. (Link 2)

Abhijeet Prabhuof of Compass Direct News (CD) reported on this incident from Bangalore India. The CD report (17 Feb) notes that two of the women were 15-year-old girls and that when the women refused to return to Hinduism, the extremists beat them, stripped them, and forced them to walk naked through their village before shaving their heads. CD also reported that those who fled took shelter in an evangelical church in the capital city of Bhubaneshwar where they are now receiving pastoral care and support.

Abhijeet Prabhuof spoke to local Christian workers from Bhubaneshwar who "told Compass that Hindu extremists are actively working in the area to 'create awareness about the evils of Christianity' among the villagers. Representatives of Hindu organizations such as the Bajrang Dal and Vishwa Hindu Parishad have been appointed in each village to report any signs of missionary or evangelistic activity."

A January report by CD also reveals this practise of Hindu organisations actively propagating anti-Christian sentiment and fomenting sectarian conflict. CD reported on the case of Sujata, the 9-year-old daughter of a fruit-seller in Jhabua, Madhya Pradesh, who was raped, murdered and then dumped in a Catholic mission school compound.

The following day, a 500-strong mob, mobilised by militant Hindu groups such as the Hindu Jagran Manch (HJM) and the VHP, gathered outside the school grounds "chanting anti-Christian slogans, and pelting stones at staff and vehicles in the compound" and "demanding the arrest of mission school staff". Seven staff members, including the principal, Father John Sunni, were arrested to placate the crowd.

Vijayesh Lal, writing for CD, reported that Manoj Jadhav, arrested a few days later, confessed to the heinous crime. Despite this, Khumsing Maharaj, the local leader of the VHP, claimed Jadhav was not responsible for the crime and threatened to take drastic steps if the "real culprits" were not caught. Hindu militants were then imported to exacerbate the situation which escalated to riot levels. Homes were burnt and churches ransacked. The police failed to intervene.

CD reports, "Arjun Pal, a member of the Hindu organization Seva Bharati, was killed in the clashes that day. Chief Minister Uma Bharati, a Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) hardliner, later paid tribute to Arjun Pal and said the sum of Rs.100,000 ($2,200) had been paid to his family as compensation.

"On January 21, the situation remained tense. Anti-Christian pamphlets were distributed openly in bus terminals, at marketplaces and at the funeral of Arjun Pal -- now described as a martyr for the Hindu cause.

"The pamphlets warned against conversion drives sponsored by 'anti-nationalist forces and missionaries,' urging Hindus to band together and defend India as a Hindu nation.

"Throughout Jhabua, banners and pamphlets continue to accuse Christians of the murder. Many still believe the accusations, even though an investigative team led by minister of state Kailash Vijayvargiya returned from Jhabua convinced that school personnel are innocent.

"Local government minister Kailash Vijayvargiya believes the violent clashes in Jhabua were the result of a 'well-planned' conspiracy against the school. He has called for a judicial inquiry into the incident."

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CONSPIRACY THEORIES GO WILD
TEHELKA CLAIMS - evangelicals, missions, NGOs, "spies", the CIA, USAID, and the US government are conspiring together to convert, in order to subjugate, India.
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Tehelka is an Indian news website that rose to fame two years ago when it exposed corruption in defence deals involving India's top political leaders. The then leader of the BJP, Bangaru Laxman, and several other significant leaders were subsequently forced to resign and BJP forced Tehelka to close.

Tehelka was relaunched on 30 January 2004, and its debut edition devoted eleven pages to the cover story, "Preparing the Harvest", by V. K. Shashikumar. The main thrust of this article is the claim that "religious expansionism" on a never-before-witnessed scale, is taking place in India thanks to intimate links between evangelical Christian missions and NGO's (Indian and foreign), the CIA, USAID, and the American government of G.W. Bush.

The writer talks about the "enormous, well-coordinated and strategised religious conversion plan" of American evangelicals. He alleges that research done by evangelical missions such as AD2000, Joshua project, Operation World, Southern Baptists etc, is used by U.S. government intelligence organisations. Shashikumar writes, "When AD2000 was conceived for India, the plan was based on a military model with the intent to invade, occupy, control, or subjugate its population."

V. K. Shashikumar alleges that G.W. Bush's faith-based initiative is a strategy to fund the advance of Christianity with US taxpayer's money. He claims the conversion plot is advancing due to the "unique collaboration between the US government and US-based evangelical mission agencies".

Under a section entitled "Holistic development tactics", Shashikumar alleges that Christian NGOs (specifically targeting World Vision) claim to be doing humanitarian work when they really have a conversion agenda and government funds for that purpose. He claims Christian ministries are "exploiting" those with HIV/AIDS, using them as a means to employ their conversion conspiracy. He claims it is the Bush government's alleged desire to advance conversions that drives American foreign policy and foreign aid budget (rather than a desire promote justice and freedom, or to do good and bring relief to those in need following the model of the Good Samaritan as taught by Jesus Christ).

This is a highly inflammatory article, with "imaginings" presented as fact. It is full of rubbish, but that will not prevent it from being used to incite fear, loathing and even violence.

Another Tehelka writer, Mayabhushan Nagvenkar, also wrote about the spread of Christianity in India, claiming once again that it was "a sinister and subversive strategy, hatched in the US, backed by the Bush administration over the years". Nagvenkar interviewed Indian mission directors and evangelists (all named) who were please to tell him about Church growth, conversions and baptisms.

Information was freely given because Nagvenkar and Shashikumar lied about their identity and purpose. The two Tehelka journalists created new identities for themselves - new names, email addresses and business cards, and posed as Christian journalists for a fictitious Christian newspaper.

Vishal Arora writes for the Evangelical Fellowship of India (which Tehelka names as a proponent of conversions) that, while Tehelka claimed to be publishing something "Top Secret", all it did was publish "what has been openly accepted by Christians for ages, that they have a biblical mandate to propagate the gospel of Jesus Christ and to serve the poor and needy". (Link 3)

Vishal Arora's response is brilliant. After refuting a list of contentious accusations, he points out that the Tehelka reports simply demonstrate "the transparency of the Christian mission work.

"The so called expose reads like another one-sided thesis projecting Christian conversion in India as a social menace, neglecting the undeniable contribution by Christians in our country in the field of education, health care and social development."

Rev. Dr. J. B. Singha, the Managing Editor of Voice of Asia responded to Tehelka editor Tarun Tejpal pointing out how ridiculous it is to "equate a Sikh being baptized to a crime being hatched". Dr. Singha challenges Tejpal: "Christians in India have been systematically tortured by your community. In fact, you have proved to be a total coward by not raising a conscientious voice against: the rapes of Christian nuns, the heinous crimes against the 9 and 10-year-old children of Missionary Staines when they were burnt alive, against the violation of young tribal girls, the murder and killing of innocent priests and Christian workers. Is this not a Tejpal conspiracy?"

The whole thing leaves one wondering if the Tehelka editor Tarun Tejpal may have been "bought" and Tehelka revived by the RSS/VHP/BJP in a quid pro quo deal.

Vishal Arora (EFI) concludes, "This is disturbing indeed, as it comes at a time when one of the social evils our nation needs to fight is the harvest of communal hate, as also recently witnessed in Jhabua district in Madhya Pradesh."

The BJP is unlikely to raise a voice in support of Christian missions and NGOs. The Tehelka report was merely following in the footsteps of BJP cabinet minister Arun Shouri, who, in his book "Harvesting Our Souls" (2000) has already called for state intervention to protect the social fabric of India from "missionaries, their design, their claims".

Elizabeth Kendal

Links

1) Make the Tough Decisions. By Paul Marshall
The Washington Times, 14 January 2004
http://www.freedomhouse.org/religion/country/india/Make%20the%20Toug
h%20Decisions.htm

2) Seven Christian women, one man assaulted in Orissa village
Press Trust of India, Kendrapara, 15 Feb 2004
http://www.hindustantimes.com/news/181_573555,000900030010.htm

3) Tehelka investigation: "Top Secret" or another anti-Christian
thesis? By Vishal Arora. February 2004 Issue I - The Bi Monthly
Edition of EFI NEWS Magazine. http://www.efionline.org/