RSS volunteers on parade earlier this year.Many Westerners believe that Hinduism is exemplified by Gandhi, the saintly man who led India to independence through toleration and ahimsa, or non-violence. But there is another strain of Hinduism which is far from tolerant and dreams of reviving the martial traditions of Aryan forebears. One leading Hindu monk, the Sankaracharya of Karvipith, criticised Gandhi in 1922: “Ahimsa undermines Hindu self-respect; passive and non-resisting sufferance is a Christian and not an Aryan principle.”

Organized anti-Christian animosity and violence in India goes back to the Hindu reformist movement, Arya Samaj, and its founder Dayananda Sarasvati (1824-1883). When an American Presbyterian mission in Punjab began to attack Hinduism and denounce its superstitions, Dayananda was infuriated. His Hindu social reform movement bore some resemblance to Luther’s slogans. His mottoes included, “back to Vedas” (like “back to the Scriptures”). He introduced the Sudhi rite for reconversion to counter Christian proselytism among the Chura community of outcasts.  

In 1923, a political extremist from the state of Maharashtra, V.D. Savarkar, after imprisonment for 12 years for terrorism, published his book Hindutva: Who is a Hindu? He argued that only those who are bound by the Hindu culture and uphold India as their pitrubhumi (fatherland) and punyabhumi, (holy land) should enjoy full rights. Muslims and Christians, whose holy lands are far off in Arabia and Palestine, are not children of the soil of the sub-continent. He popularized the slogan: “Hinduise all politics and militarize Hinduism”. The exclusivist Hindutva policy was radically opposed to the inclusive and secular policies of the founders of independent India.  

Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh, commonly known as the RSS, was founded by K.B. Hedgewar in Nagpur in 1925 to promote Savarkar’s militant nationalism. The RSS is a Hindu paramilitary group. It trained many Hindu extremists, including Mahatma Gandhi’s assassins, Nathuram Godse and his companions.  

The RSS declined to enter politics directly, but it needed a sympathetic political party. So in 1951, S.P. Mookherjee, a central minister disgruntled by Nehru’s soft approach to Pakistan, formed a new party, Jana Sangh, which won elections in strongly Hindi Belt popularly known as “cow belt” areas of northern India. After the publication of a report into Christian missionary activities in 1956, a few state governments like Orissa and Madhya Pradesh passed anti-conversion and cow protection laws.  

In 1977 Jana Sangh joined a coalition government dominated by the Janata Party, which was headed at the time by Morarji Desai. This led to some tensions and the Janata Party became the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, in 1980 under the leadership of A.B. Vajpayee. As the stranglehold of the Congress Party on Indian politics weakened, the BJP grew stronger. Vajpayee subsequently served as the national Prime Minister in coalition governments twice from 1998 to 2004. The BJP has also dominated politics in a few states as well. Hindu fundamentalism was finally gaining an upper hand.

Another significant development was the appearance of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), an offshoot of the RSS created to protect Hindu culture from alien ideologies like Islam and Christianity. It was formed soon after Pope Paul VI announced his plan to attend an International Eucharistic Congress in Bombay in 1964. It advocated re-conversion of Christians and struggle against Christian missionaries. What gave this plausibility for many Hindu voters was an insurgency in the underdeveloped Northeast where Naga tribals, many of them Christians, were agitating for a separate state. The area of Jharkand in the Chotanagpur region, which also had a sizable Christian population, was making similar demands. Radical Hindus saw this as a threat manufactured by foreign Christian missionaries.

Bajrang Dal (army of Hanuman), the youth wing of the VHP, was founded in 1984 “Might is the only law I understand. Nothing else matters to me. It is a warlike situation as between Ram and Ravana,” declared its founder Praveen Togadia. Bajrang Dal is the vanguard of anti-Christian vandalism in many backward areas. Their anti-Muslim and anti-Christian hatred is popularized with the slogan: Pehele Kasai, Phir Isai (Finish first the Muslims, then the Christians).

Growth of Hindutva in Orissa

How did violent persecution of Christians spring up in Orissa, the impoverished northeastern state where several people, including priests have died, and thousands remain homeless?  

With the majority of its population being tribals (52 percent) and dalits (25 percent) Kandhmal district is the poorest district in Orissa, which is the second poorest state in India. Though Christian missionaries arrived here before independence, notable conversions have taken place only in the last 40 years. From a negligible 2 percent in 1961 the number of Christians grew to 10 percent by 2001. However, on the national level the Christian population has considerably declined during the past 30 years, from 2.7 percent in 1971 to 2.3 percent in 2001. “There are laws at least in six states against forced conversion, but can you cite a single case of conviction?” Catholic Archbishop R. Cheenath of Bhubaneshwar — whose diocese includes the Kandhamal district — has asked politicians. The present law is so vague that no one is able to establish whether a conversion happens through force or fraud.

Hindu radicalism has grown rapidly in Orissa in recent years. In 1985 the BJP won only one seat in the Orissa Assembly. Currently it occupies 37 seats and heads 8 ministries in a coalition government.  

Organised hostility against Christians began with the arrival of Swami Laxmananda Saraswati, a member of the VHP, in the Kandhamal district in 1969. He opened an ashram, and imitating the Christian missionaries, organized around 250 schools for tribal children and other social services. Their education emphasizes study of the Vedas, the Hindu scriptures, and sanskritization. His sphere of aggressive activities included anti-missionary propaganda, reconversion of Christians to Hinduism by threats and an anti-cow slaughter drive.  

In 1969 Laxmananda also launched an aggressive campaign to convert the Kandha tribals and to achieve “forced reconversion” of Christians. He, in line with a few other Hindu scholars, argued that tribal people are backward Hindus. The tribals, who kill cows, eat meat and worship spirits were traditionally despised. Though they have little in common with the vegetarian Hindus, they have been manipulated by Hindu extremists to attack dalit Christians (an untouchable class). The landless dalit Christians are accused of occupying tribal land and getting employment with false certificates.

In the last decade, violence has become endemic. In 1998 around 5,000 Sangh activists attacked the Christian dominated Ramgiri-Udaygiri villages in Gajapati district, setting fire to 92 houses, a church and police station. A 58-year-old Australian missionary, Graham Staines and his two young sons, Philip and Timothy, aged 10 and 6, were burned to death in January 1999. Their crime was that Staines had served outcaste lepers for 25 years — and this was construed as inducement for conversion to Christianity. A young Catholic priest, Arul Doss, who had been working with the Ho tribe, was brutally murdered in September of the same year. A Catholic nun was raped in the following year.

The immediate provocation

On Christmas day 2007, instigated by Swami Laxmananda, extremists attacked Orissa Christians. In a month of violence, six people died and many houses, churches and prayer halls were destroyed. Thousands were made homeless. Bulky police files have provided ample proof that Laxmananda intended to wipe out Christianity in Orissa.

In August this year the 84-year-old guru and four of his followers were gunned down by 30 masked Maoist Liberation Guerrilla Army as a reprisal for “fascist” activities. The Maoists claimed responsibility but the VHP immediately blamed the local Christians. The day after 35 Christian centres were attacked simultaneously. Two Protestant pastors were murdered; a priest and nun were severely beaten and paraded semi-naked through the town as police looked on. The nun was later pack-raped. A 19-year-old Hindu girl, Rajni Manjhi, was burned alive because her attackers thought she was a nun. Other priests were severely beaten and burned and an indigenous Catholic priest, Fr Bernard Digal, succumbed to injuries two months later. Dozens more churches and prayer halls were torched, along with nearly 4,500 houses. Thousands of terrified Christians fled into forests. Currently over 15,000 Christians are living in refuge camps, mostly in 40 schools.  

The coalition state government did very little, as the BJP threatened to withdraw its support unless the extremists were left alone. Only after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was berated during his visit to the US and Europe at the end of September were steps were taken by the central government to douse the violence. The PM declared that Orissa was a “national shame”. Slowly the situation was brought under control. So far 575 culprits, including three alleged rapists of the nun, have been arrested. But demands to ban the VHP and the Bajrang Dal — even by a few central ministers and prominent political leaders — have been ignored.  

What is the real story behind allegations of forced conversions of Hindus to Christianity? The Indian constitution guarantees the right to practice and propagate one’s religion and conversion is a necessary corollary to this right. If poor and illiterate tribals and dalits are capable of voting and choosing governments, surely they must be capable of choosing their religion. Conversion is a legitimate act of social liberation from the Hindu oppressive caste culture.  

Hinduism is not essentially intolerant. There have been great sages like Swami Vivekananda who preached his exalted Advaita spirituality to the “brothers and sisters of America” in Chicago in 1893 during the World Parliament of Religions. Unfortunately there also exist many fanatics who are prepared to force Christians to tonsure their heads, drink holy cow urine mixed with cow dung (for purification) and to forcibly reconvert them to Hinduism. A minuscule minority of enlightened Hindus have been advocating religious freedom during these turbulent days, while a moderate silent majority enjoy the benefits of Christian services in various fields while ignoring appallingly violent persecution in remote areas of the country.  

India desperately needs the enlightenment for which the Hindu Bengali poet and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore prayed: “Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake”.  

Dr Augustine Kanjamala is a Catholic priest who is currently director of the Institute of Indian Culture affiliated to the University of Bombay. He worked in Orissa for four years.