India: Mob attacks church in a wave of anti-Christian violence
On January 2, a crowd wielding batons descended on a Catholic church in a village in central India. They destroyed the church and even struck police officers who tried to control the enraged mob. The incident was just one of the most recent examples of violence perpetrated against India’s minority Christian community. Several experts told the FRANCE 24 Observers team that attacks like these have increased thanks to Hindu nationalist rhetoric nationwide.
They smashed a statue of the Virgin Mary, beat police officers and chanted slogans: on January 2, a crowd gathered in the Narayanpur region of the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh to attack a Catholic church.
Hindutva extremists riot as they attack a Catholic Church in central India and even assault police officers. Watch them toss the cops. pic.twitter.com/kXwcmi58mO— Pieter Friedrich (@FriedrichPieter) January 4, 2023
This anti-Christian attack took place on Jan 2, 2023 in Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Naryanpur, Chhattisgarh, India.— akhivae (@akhivae) January 3, 2023
Catholic homes, farms, livestock have also been attacked. Local Archbishop Henry Thakur say initial response from police was muted leading to more violence. https://t.co/s4wrAeSZ9b
At least 11 people were arrested two days after the church attack, including the local district party leader for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – known for Hindu nationalist and right-wing ideology – as well as his predecessor.
The attack on the church came after a series of threats and acts of violence waged against the region’s Christian community – mainly belonging to the Adivasi tribal minority – leaving over 1,000 people from 40 villages displaced throughout the month of December 2022.
In the region, tensions have been rising between Adivasi tribals who have converted to Christianity and those who follow Hinduism or traditional religious practice. Locals say this tension was stoked and organised into violent attacks by members of the BJP and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a right-wing Hindu nationalist organisation.
‘This violence suddenly escalated from mid-December’
Irfan Engineer is the director of the Centre for Study of Society and Secularism. He went to Chhattisgarh in December to help with a fact-finding report about the violence against Christians in the state.
Christian indigenous people are a very tiny minority in the villages in that area. And therefore they are powerless. They do not retaliate when faced with threats of violence in order not to escalate and worsen the situation. They just leave the villages.
This violence suddenly escalated from mid-December. They were given three options. The first option was to convert to indigenous practices, customs and traditions. The second option was to leave the village. The third option was to face violence.
People went to the police station and complained to the police that they had been turned out of their villages. Nothing was done. They had no place to go.
The fact-finding team reported that at least three Christians were forcibly converted to Hinduism, while others who refused were beaten, had their homes raided, and were displaced from their villages.
These incidents make up a surge in violence and attacks on Christian minority groups, particularly in states run by BJP leaders. Another church in Karnataka was vandalised on December 27 and a man dressed as Santa Claus was assaulted in Gujarat on December 20.
The current wave of anger emerged from a suspicion that the Christian community in Narayanpur had been converting local Hindus.
Conversion has been a flashpoint topic for the BJP, particularly in tribal communities in Chhattisgarh.
At least 10 BJP-led states have passed anti-conversion laws since 2018, effectively making conversion to Christianity or Islam illegal. But critics like Engineer say this goes against India’s constitution which asserts that India is a secular state and promises freedom of religion.
It is the choice of every person to choose whatever religion they want to. Indian law, the Indian Constitution, gives this freedom to every citizen to convert and follow whichever religion they want to profess, practice and propagate.
BJP members and affiliates of other Hindu nationalist groups have also complained that some tribal communities are continuing to benefit from advantages meant for registered tribes despite converting to Christianity or Islam. Despite these complaints, there is no law that prevents tribal communities from keeping their status while practising other religious beliefs.
‘The political elites use religion to mobilize political support’
Experts say that attacks like these have been on the rise since 2014 when the BJP came to power in India. Crimes against the Christian community increased by 60% between 2016 and 2019, according to a report by Persecution Relief, which monitors violence against Christians in India.
Ashok Swain is a professor of Peace and Conflict Research at Uppsala University in Sweden:
There are many reasons for inter-religious violence in India: economic, historical, and linguistic. However, the primary one is political. The political elites use religion to mobilise political support, and hate and violence give this sort of mobilisation a faster and easier path.
Attacks against Christians occur throughout the year but increase during Easter and Christmas. The increasing number of attacks in the states of Chhattisgarh and Karnataka during this Christmas period also needs to be seen that these two states will go to election soon. The research shows the riots/attacks against minorities have helped the Hindu nationalist party BJP win more electoral support.