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Anti-Christian violence imperils India's secular image

Tunku Varadarajan

INDIA TODAY (North American Edition)
February 1, 1999

These have been trying times for the Indian Embassy in Washington. The
hardy men and women there -- led by their game Ambassador, Naresh
Chandra -- have received a number of bouncers and beamers from the
American press in the last few weeks. Our diplomats have had to duck and
weave. Their innings has been an unpleasant one.

I have to plead guilty to bowling one of those vicious deliveries
myself. On January 11, The New York Times published a short piece by me
on its Oped page in which I condemned the recent series of attacks on
Christians in Gujarat, perpetrated by Hindu loonies masquerading as
patriots. I lamented the growth in India of "a sort of Hindu Taliban
movement" and said that the anti-Christian violence had placed in clear
peril the country's tolerant, secular civilisation.

There was a backlash. I received abusive letters. One, from "An Angry
Hindu" in New Jersey, said that I was "probably a secret South Indian
Christian, a filthy cancer in the heart of the Motherland". (This
observation was made in spite of the fact that The New York Times had
identified me, on my request, as a Hindu.) Another letter from
Connecticut accused me of "making India bleed in public, and tarnishing
our Bharat Mata just to win cheap approval from the whities".

Of the e-mails I received, one asked: "Tell me, what was the real
purpose of writing this article?" The writer had earlier accused me of
presenting a distorted picture to Americans, and of having failed to
comment on the "forced" conversion of tribals to Christianity. Another
e-mailer described me as a "stoog" (sic) and a "commie", who was
probably receiving money from the CIA. (I did receive money for the
piece, but from The New York Times. It was $150, hardly the sum to make
a stooge of anyone.)

The Indian Embassy felt compelled to respond to my piece too, and the
newspaper published a letter some days later from Navtej Sarna, the
Press Counsellor. It was a spirited letter, written in the line of duty
and in defence of the indefensible. I did not agree with most of what he
said, of course, especially his complaint that I should have explained
"the economic and social context of the tribal area where the attacks
occurred". Why should I have done that? Does the "context" -- itself a
loaded term -- make the attacks more acceptable? Surely not.

I do not wish to criticise Sarna. His was a delicate task, and he was
probably not even the real author of the letter. It is likely to have
been drafted by a more senior officer, approved by the Ambassador, and
then signed by Sarna. The Indian mission, in any case, would have been
under tremendous pressure to respond in writing to my article, including
pressure from members of the Indian community in America. It is no
secret that a number of expatriate Indians here are supporters of the
Shiv Sena, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the RSS.

The majority of expats, however, abhor these extremists, and regard with
revulsion the violence against Christians in Gujarat. For them I have a
simple message: write to the newspapers. Keep up the clamour. Keep those
bouncers and beamers coming. Give the Embassy a hard time.

[] Varadarajan writes for The Times, London, from New York.

The New York Times
January 11, 1999

India Steps Up Anti-Christian Violence
Tunku Varadarajan, a Hindu, is a writer based in New York.

In Christmas Day a school run by Christians was burned down by arsonists.
Another school nearby was demolished by a mob. In a separate incident, a
church was stoned. Several women hiding inside were injured, as were the
nuns who sought to shield them.

This happened a month after a Roman Catholic priest was murdered and
religious fanatics vowed to turn an entire district into a "Christian-free
zone." In keeping with this promise, a chapel was set on fire. Elsewhere,
armed men broke into a Catholic convent and assaulted two nuns inside, and
another Catholic priest was shot dead.

This is only a partial list of crimes that all occurred in India, where
fanatics from the far right of the Hindu nationalist spectrum have formed
shadowy "armies" intent on ridding the country of its religious minorities
and of turning it into a Hindu state.

So consumed are they by hatred of "foreign" religions that one of their
leaders -- Ashok Singhal of the World Hindu Council -- said recently that
the award of the Nobel Prize for economics to Amartya Sen, the renowned
Indian economist, was evidence of a "Christian conspiracy to propagate
their religion and wipe out Hinduism from the country."

What was the basis for such a preposterous statement? Simply that Mr. Sen
(who happens to be Hindu) has written that India's development and
prosperity depend on mass literacy. Mr. Sen's true purpose, the Hindu
fanatics say, is to enable Christian missionaries to establish educational
institutions across the country, using schools as Trojan Horses from which
to unleash evangelist hordes.

What we are witnessing in India is the growth of a sort of Hindu Taliban
movement. Although it is difficult to gauge the numbers accurately, the
various extremist groups are believed to have tens of thousands of
supporters. In recent years, Muslims have been their principal victims.
Christians, who constitute 2.4 percent of the population -- 23 million
people -- had, on the whole, been left alone. But that has now changed.
Emboldened by the first ever Hindu nationalist Government in New Delhi,
extremist groups now feel they have friends in high places. In addition,
the Government, which has suffered a series of defeats in recent
provincial elections, is too concerned with its own survival to rein them

According to the United Christian Forum for Human Rights, an umbrella
group that brings together leaders from the various Christian
denominations in India, 90 separate acts of violence were committed
against Christians or Christian churches in 1998. There were only 53
attacks from 1964 to 1997.

Unlike Muslim, Christian or Jewish fundamentalists, who generally base
their radicalism in a sacred text, Hindu fundamentalists have no central
text to appeal to. As a result, they have resorted to conflating Hinduism
with "Indianness," giving their religious bigotry a nationalist and
temporal complexion.

They have constructed a Manichaean world in which Hindus are "true"
Indians and all others are "outsiders." The formulation is curious since
Islam came to India about 1,200 years ago, and Christianity arrived even
earlier. Some historians date India's Christian roots to the first century

But the current battle is not over the historical record. It is a battle
for India's soul.

The secular state is not about to crumble overnight. What is imperiled,
however, is India's tolerant, secular civilization.

Tunku Varadarajan, a Hindu, is a writer based in New York.

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Last updated: October 29, 2000 .