Like many people in the eastern India state of Orissa, Nikhil Kumar Kanodia knew an attack on Christians was imminent. But unlike others, Kanodia was a police superintendent. When he declared that Hindu attacks on Christians in his district of Kandhamal would be prosecuted, he was immediately transferred. Soon afterward, Kandhamal became the epicenter of massive anti-Christian violence. Nationalist Hindus have killed, raped, and otherwise assaulted Christians, burned Christian schools, churches, and houses, and left tens of thousands homeless.
Nina Shea, vice chair for the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, said the attacks are essentially pogroms "to rid the state of the Christian minority." The World Christian Database says active Christians make up about 3.3 percent of the state's population.
Christians are often warned by fliers or friends when an attack is being staged, said Sam Paul, secretary of public affairs at All India Christian Council. Still, some are unable to get out of their homes or flee to the jungle for safety. Paul told CT he had the names of 36 people killed in the violence by mid-September. Since then, there have been several more fatalities throughout India. The Times of London called it "the worst anti-Christian violence in India since Independence [in 1947]."
Militant Hindus also attacked Christians in other states, particularly Karnataka, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, and Jharkhand.
Orissa made international headlines on Christmas Eve 2007 for a similar string of attacks on Christians, as well as 10 years ago, when Australian missionary Graham Staines and his children were burned to death in their car.
Anti-Christian violence "could happen anytime, anywhere" in India, said Stephen David of the Centre for Contemporary Issues in Bangalore. "There is increased opposition and increased hatred toward Christians because the messengers of hate with the Hindu community have become more articulate and better organized."
But in most areas of the country, the violence does not enjoy the level of support it has in Orissa. While mobs usually set up roadblocks to keep police and fire departments away, the local police and the state government are widely considered accomplices in the violence, said Paul Swarup, pastor of Christ Church in Noida, Delhi.
Shea said the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that governs Orissa and the militant Hindutva groups have "a symbiotic relationship," though "there's a separation between the terror and the political rule." Both the party and the groups say that India is for Hindus, even though the secular democracy has a millennia-long legacy of religious pluralism.
Many Christians are participating in protests against the ongoing violence across India. Some groups, such as All India Christian Council, are calling for the state government to be ousted under an article of the Indian Constitution.
The latest violence began after the murder of Hindu leader Swami Lakshanananda Saraswati, who advocated anti-conversion laws, and of several of his disciples. While a militant Communist group known as the Naxalites took credit for the murder, the BJP and affiliates blamed Christians.
That claim is ridiculous, said Swarup. "Christian militant groups just don't exist. [Christians in Orissa] are the poorest of the poor. They probably struggle to put their meals together. It's impossible for them to purchase grenades and AK-47s" (the weapons used to kill Saraswati).
But while they are not as well funded as the Naxalites, "some of the Christians are violent, too," said David. News reports said Christians retaliated against police in Karnataka state after several weeks of anti-Christian violence. Hindutva groups attacked police as well.
Orissa's population is mostly Dalit, the lowest rung in traditional Hindu society. Christianity represents relative security for a convert, since India has many reputable Christian schools, hospitals, and charities. "Conversion is basically equal to development," said Sam Paul. For that reason, many Hindus claim that converts to Christianity were bribed or tricked into it.
The majority of conversions are for spiritual reasons, Paul said. But some are more motivated by the possibility of increased social standing.
The violence may get worse in the run-up to India's general elections in spring 2009. The BJP wants to replace the Congress Party, and Swarup said one of its main tactics will be to show that the current government cannot maintain order. Meanwhile, the mobs stoke nationalist Hindu sentiment as they scapegoat the Christian minority.
Although Orissa has had anti-conversion laws since the mid-20th century, Swarup and other Christians cite the national constitution and their spiritual obligation to preach their faith.
"If we believe the gospel is life eternal for a person, if it is Good News to the poor, why should that Good News be stopped? It's their choice whether to accept or not, but it is their basic human right to hear that news."
Copyright © 2008 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
See also Christianity Today's editorial on the recent violence in India, "Terror in Orissa."
Christianity Today's previous coverage of India can be found here, including these articles:
India's Burning Issue | Conversions in Orissa—and the violent reaction against them—highlight tension in India's not-so-dead caste system. (January 1, 2008)
Caste Down | Commission's decision imperils benefits for Christian Dalits. (January 15, 2008)
Premeditated Mobs | Hindu extremists exploit economic fears to launch attacks on Christians. (February 15, 2008)
Several news outlets have written about the developments in India.
Bishop says the "worm has turned" after Indian Christians attack Hindu | Bishop Nazir-Ali appeals for Christian restraint in face of Hindu violence. (The Times of London)
Three arrested over India killing | Three people in the eastern Indian state of Orissa have been arrested in connection with the murder of a Hindu leader in August, police say. (BBC)
Fresh violence in Kandhamal, curfew reimposed-India | Curfew was reimposed in nine major locations in Kandhamal on Wednesday amid fresh attacks on Christian prayer halls in some parts of the riot-ravaged district. (The Times of India)
India struggles with Hindu attacks on Christians | Nearly a year of attacks on Christians have put India's leaders on edge, and the latest flare-up in violence drew an angry denunciation from the country's Sikh prime minister as 'acts of national shame.' (Associated Press)
More religious violence in Orissa | A Hindu woman has been killed as police have tried to control more violence between Christians and Hindus in the eastern Indian state of Orissa. (BBC)
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