November  1999
Special Report

Attacks on minorities unrelenting

The past few months have witnessed sporadic attacks on minorities in Orissa, Gujarat, Bihar and the south. Immunity to this growing trend has meant that these have gone more or less uncondemned by our political leadership

Election–related discourse is not often remembered for great depth or insight. But even by these
poor standards, the 1999 elections were a watershed.

The words ‘secularism’ and ‘communalism’, were reduced to mere banalities throughout the long drawn out election campaign and, despite the fact that electioneering was marred by gruesome murders and other attacks on the country’s minorities, by self–professed followers of Hindutva, the media and opposition political parties failed to portray these as crude manifestations of communalism that, in themselves, exposed the ‘liberal’, ‘secular’ mantle that the BJP and the NDA have tried to don.

The whole question of ‘how secular is the BJP or the sangh parivar’ was reduced by the mainstream media, to whether or not the BJP was still interested, or committed to, the building of a Ram Temple at Ayodhya, the abrogation of section 370 of the Indian Constitution and the implementation of a Uniform Civil Code throughout the country.

That constituted the sum total of the secularism versus communalism paradigm. The print media and television channels continued to indulge in this superficiality even as blatant and humiliating attacks on persons because of their religious identity, took place and have, since, continued.

These blatant cases included the assault and molestation of a nun in Bihar, the double murders of a Muslim trader and Father Arul Doss allegedly by Dara Singh in Orissa, the spate of attacks on Muslims in Ahmedabad by VHP supporters (see accompanying CPDR report), and the continued attacks on Christians in Gujarat.

Ø On August 26, at the height of electioneering, Rehman, a Muslim trader, was burnt alive allegedly by Dara Singh, murderer of Graham Staines and his two minor sons on January 23 this year. Dara Singh a member of the Bajrang Dal was also known to have campaigned for the BJP during the 1998 elections (see CC, October 1999). The incident took place at Padiabeda village in Orissa.

Ø On September 2, Father Arul Doss, a Roman Catholic priest, was fatally attacked by a gang of persons, allegedly led by Dara Singh at the Jambani village in Orissa’s Mayurbhanj district. A church in the village was also set ablaze. Neither incident received serious attention from the ruling Congress government in the state. While the prime minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee and the RSS were swift to condemn them, the home minister, L.K. Advani was markedly silent at these increasing attacks on the countries minorities.

Ø On September 20, sister Ruby, a sister from Tamil Nadu working at the St. Joseph’s Health Centre, in Jalalpur, near Chapra in Bihar, was taken to an isolated mangrove, tied up, stripped, molested and thereafter forced to drink urine by the criminals. The report of the Bishop of Bettiah on the incident states clearly, "The convent of the Pondicherry sisters had been repeatedly threatened in the last two years and it was only at the intervention of the local priest and civil authorities that major incidents had been averted. The assailants of the young nun had repeatedly asked her why the religious persons had not fled despite the violence against Christians in other parts of India. They had also threatened her that after the elections, they would put an ‘end to the work of the convent.’"

Ø On October 4, a Syrian Catholic church was arsoned, near Kanya Kumari compelling chief minister, M. Karunanidhi to order a CID probe. The chief minister, urging the local population not to succumb to communal behaviour.

In the western state of Gujarat, the BJP has been in power since early 1998, enjoying a huge, two-thirds majority. The BJP rule in the state has been synonymous with violent crimes against the state’s minorities. The year 1998 was marked by near 100 attacks against Christians and their institutions in that state (see CC, April 1998, October 1998 and January 1999). After a few months of lull broken only by the vicious, anti–Muslim sloganeering during the Kargil conflict in Ahmedabad, Hindu fanatic groups have now unleashed fresh attacks on Christians and have started circulating scurrilous and vicious propaganda against them.

Ø On October 8, a prayer meeting for peace, to which only Christians were invited, was attacked by anti-social elements. The assailants beat the participants and leaders of the prayer meeting at Dahod in Panchmahal district. The organisers have stated on record before the police that the attack was organised by two right–wing fundamentalist Hindu organisations. The local police, it is alleged, showed no signs of controlling the anti–social elements compelling the organisers to abandon the meeting. Instead of providing protection, the police kept the organisers in custody for nine hours and they were released only under court instructions, it has been alleged by the victims.

Ø On October 9, close to Jhalod, also in the Panchmahal district, Father Jose Vayalil was attacked by unidentified miscreants and his jeep was damaged.

Ø On October 10 a group of tribal children from the Adivasi hostel at Jhalod who were taken to Dahod for a circus by their school authorities, were attacked near the bus stand. The whole group was forcibly taken to the police station for questioning. Later on, the children were sent back alone without the school authorities, in a mini–bus. On reaching Jhalod it was discovered that one of the boys had been beaten up by anti–social elements and, as of October 11, another boy of Class VI is still missing.

Ø For the last 29 years a novena has been organised by the Catholic Church from October 10 to 18, in Kadi, Mehsana district, in honour of "Umteshwari Mata" (Our Lady, patroness of camel drivers). This year, from October 8 onwards, thousands of pamphlets against this prayer festival and against the priest, Father S. Girish, S.J. were circulated by the VHP in several towns and villages in the Kalol–Kadi–Mehsana belt of the state. An anti–Christian meeting was organised by the VHP on October 10 in Kalol warning the people not to participate in the novena.

Ø On November 6, young students of the St. Joseph’s Evening College at Bangalore, who had gone to attend a social service camp at a village in the Anekal taluka were attacked by 50–odd supporters of the local BJP MLA, A. Narayanswamy. Five men surrounded each girl to intimidate her. When the injured students approached him for redressal, the BJP MLA is alleged to have admitted that the assailants were his supporters. He is also alleged to have told the students, "I am least bothered about your problems."

All these, happening as they did at election time, failed to penetrate the nation–wide debate. Most of these incidents that took place were widely reported. Yet there were no questions raised on whether or not such recurrent incidents were living symbols of the fact that some Indian citizens, solely because of their religious identity, are today more insecure and prone to physical threat, abuse and attack than others, thanks to the social writ and political power being enjoyed by Hindu communalist groups. There was neither any introspection on whether this continuing state of affairs violated the fundamental principle of a secular democracy and the rights of citizens living within it.

No questions were raised either about the conduct of the law and order machinery in dealing with these cases. The conduct of the police, has revealed disturbing trends of bias and complacency in bringing those guilty of communal crimes to book over the past two decades.

In short, the violent crimes and attacks on minorities were not portrayed by the media, or by political parties as the most dire and bleak evidence that secularism and democracy could never be the shared project or objective to those who silently or covertly supported these kinds of crimes. In each of these instances, the BJP–RSS–VHP–Bajrang Dal unity was evidenced by the presence of their common cadres that lent both moral might and phsyical strength to these attacks. The attacks in all cases over the past two years have been preceded by systematic hate–mongering based on half–truths that has succeeded in rendering other sections of the population to become silent accomplices. The rumours systematically spread in Gujarat are about "the international conspiracy of Christians and Muslims to convert Hindus to their faiths, the former through their institutions, the latter through seducing Hindu girls through marriage."

The critical question of the protection of life and property of each citizen, the primary responsibility of a democratic, secular, state was so plainly side–lined that even while elections were on and rabid Hindu communalists killed or attacked Christians or Muslims in Orissa, Bihar or Gujarat, neither the media nor opposition secular parties, saw this as the biggest blight against any organisation that wishes to don a secular mantle. A hollow definition of lived secularism indeed. n

Teesta Setalvad



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