Burned for Their Faith: Attacks on Indian Christians Before The Modi Era

By Pieter Friedrich for Hindutva Watch

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has ruled India since 2014, but this is not, however, the first time that the BJP has held national power.

The BJP’s first iteration as a national government, albeit a less powerful one, was in 1998. And it had a devastating impact on Indian Christians. Comprehending how, today, the hateful teaching of the Hindu nationalist movement that Christians are “traitors” to India is translated into violence on the streets — violence which could spiral out of control at any time — requires first examining ways in which that has already happened in yesteryear.

“Until recently, Christians enjoyed a relatively peaceful coexistence with their majority Hindu neighbors,” reported HRW in 1999. “In the past several years, however, Christians have become the target of a campaign of violence and propaganda orchestrated by Hindu nationalist groups attempting to stem the tide of defecting low-caste and tribal voters.”

The sea change began when the BJP first attained national power in 1998; one of the first major waves of violence occurred in the western state of Gujarat as the BJP also came to power there. Beginning on Christmas Day, 1998, Sangh organizations in the Dangs district of Gujarat spent ten days attacking Christian homes and churches, vandalizing or simply incinerating dozens. The violence, according to HRW, appeared “carefully organized by the leadership of extremist Hindu groups.” Police were of little use in preventing — or prosecuting — the attacks:

“Local police have not provided adequate protection to villagers in the affected areas, even though there have been early warnings of violence. In some cases, police have refused to register complaints by members of the Christian community, whereas they have registered complaints by others against Christians. Some Christians who have filed charges with the police have been pressured to withdraw their complaints. Officers who have taken action in response to anti-Christian attacks have been threatened with transfers.”

The embers of the arsonists in Gujarat were still warm when, in the eastern state of Odisha, another fire was kindled.

Australian missionary Graham Staines arrived in Odisha in the 1960s and soon dedicated his life to serving those afflicted by leprosy. While there, he met and married Gladys, fathered three children, and translated the Bible into a local tribal language. In January 1999, Staines and his two sons — aged nine and six — were traveling overnight when they pulled over to sleep in their station wagon during what would be their final night on earth.

“Over one hundred people reportedly poured petroleum on the station wagon and set it on fire,” reported HRW. “As the family tried to escape, the mob held them back while shouting pro-Bajrang Dal slogans and physically assaulted villagers who tried to come to their rescue.” Staines and his sons were burned alive.

The day of their death, police noted that the attack “was most likely perpetrated by the Bajrang Dal, an arm of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.” That was soon confirmed with the arrest — and ultimate conviction — of the ringleader, a Bajrang Dal member who was also known as a local BJP activist. Before his apprehension, the killer continued translating Hindu nationalist ideology into on-the-ground violence; that year, he led gangs which burned alive a Muslim man and killed a Catholic priest with an arrow shot.

The Staines murder drew international attention and outrage. However, as American professor of religion Dr. Chad Bauman notes, “Less recognized both by foreign politicians and in international press coverage was that Staines’s death came just after anti-Christian riots in the Dangs, Gujarat, and in the midst of a period of heightened violence against Odisha’s and India’s Christians more generally.” Within less than two months of the Staines murder, the Sangh was again setting fires. “After a visiting BJP politician inflamed inter-religious tensions in Odisha by encouraging local Hindus to paint a trishul over a cross the Christians had erected on a hill nearby, rioters there set 157 Christian homes ablaze and attacked twelve Christians, leaving three of them with gunshot wounds,” explains Bauman.

“Since the end of 1998, Christians in India have been subjected to a wave of violence — bibles burned, churches looted, priests killed and nuns raped,” reported The New York Times in November 1999. “The United Christian Forum for Human Rights says there were 38 recorded incidents between 1964 and 1996. In the last two years, there have been more than 150.”

The number of reported incidents continued to rise in 2000 and onwards, but when the BJP lost national power in 2004, the pattern of rapidly increasing attacks generally dropped off — with one extreme exception.

Anti-Christian sentiment in Odisha had been festering for years, and the state soon became a hotbed for the Sangh’s campaign of hate. According to HRW: “In March 2002, VHP and Bajrang Dal activists, ostensibly annoyed at criticism from some legislators, attacked the state’s Assembly; in February 2004, seven Christian women were beaten up and tonsured… to forcibly reconvert them to Hinduism; and in August 2004, Hindu extremists stormed a church in Raikia town, burnt Bibles, and destroyed church property. One group, claiming inspiration from the RSS, even claimed it was setting up Hindu suicide-bomb squads.”

Notably, since 2000, Odisha’s state government was controlled by a regional political party allied with the BJP.

In 2005, this series of attacks inspired a coalition of human rights activists, attorneys, professors, and retired judges to form a people’s tribunal to investigate the rise of sectarian violence. Seeking open dialogue with the RSS and affiliated groups, they invited them to join. A few activists agreed; leadership from some of the Sangh groups, however, denounced the tribunal, showed up to intimidate participants with threats of rape and other violence, forced the tribunal to destroy its recordings of depositions of Sangh activists, accused them of “attempting to destabilize the country,” and compelled them to vacate the venue. Such an outcome led HRW to — prophetically — warn that year that “there is no time to wait” as the environment of hate being cultivated in Odisha meant that it only needed “a spark” to “lead to waves of violence that engulf whole communities.”

That spark was struck in December 2007, igniting a flame that then became a conflagration in August 2008.

On Christmas Eve, 2007, a group of Hindu nationalist activists allegedly directed by a local RSS leader began to “rough up” Christians at a market in Odisha’s Kandhamal district. Conflict between the two groups ensued. The Hindu nationalist mob swelled into hundreds and began attacking Christians and their shops. Shortly after, the convoy of a prominent VHP leader — a swami known for “openly campaigning against missionaries and working to reconvert Dalits and Adivasis who had adopted Christianity” — was stopped en route to the market, his bodyguards allegedly “roughed up some Christians,” and a group of Christians responded by briefly surrounding and attacking his vehicle. By that afternoon and over the next several days, mobs of hundreds and even thousands of Hindu nationalists began rampaging throughout the district, burning Christian homes and churches, chanting: “Kill the Christians, destroy the church.”

By the end of it all, around 95 churches and over 600 Christian homes were razed. “In addition, rioters destroyed or looted several convents, mission schools, and parish houses in the district and vandalized or desecrated a great deal of Christian property,” reports Bauman. At least four Christians were murdered, thousands were left homeless, and the seeds of terror were sown.

That set the stage for the 2008 Kandhamal Pogrom.

“The 2007 Hindu-Christian riots in Odisha were, at the time, the most damaging and widespread in India’s independent history, but they pale in comparison to the violence unleashed on the same region just eight months later,” writes Bauman. It began on 23 August 2008 when the VHP leader who figured in the 2007 violence was assassinated. Local communist insurgents claimed credit, and the police also blamed them, but Hindu nationalist outfits seized on the opportunity to — without evidence — blame the Christian community as an excuse to launch an all out assault.

Odisha’s VHP state secretary immediately announced, “Christians have killed Swamiji. We will give a befitting reply.” Various Sangh groups called for a state-wide shutdown to protest. They planned a public funeral procession of the murdered swami’s body — “a meandering, slow-moving, circuitous, 170-kilometer route that was twice as long as necessary and required two days of travel… over undeveloped roads and through many small villages that were still tense from the December violence.”

The national VHP chief, Praveen Togadia, traveled to Odisha to join the procession. In his first public remarks upon arriving in the state, he reportedly declared: “A conspiracy has been hatched since long to kill… and the entire Christian community has a hand in it.” As Bauman notes, Togadia was “so well known in Odisha” for his “fiery anti-minority rhetoric” that he

“had been banned from entering the state during at least one previous period of communal tension and would be banned again later.” Nevertheless, Indian human rights activist Harsh Mander reports that the VHP leader “had a free passage across the state in the build-up to the protracted violence,” which he used to proclaim: “There is no place for Christians. If Christians don’t become Hindus, they have to go. We don’t care where they go. They must leave.”

“Not surprisingly, as the procession passed slowly through village after village, mourners vented their anger by attacking Christian homes and institutions, sometimes in the presence of police and state government officials,” writes Bauman. Indian journalist Prafulla Das reported, “The policemen on duty at various police stations made no attempt to prevent the protesters from attacking Christians and their property. The fact that the police did not open fire anywhere in Kandhamal district to stop the dance of death gave rise to the suspicion that they were acting on the instructions of their political bosses.” In at least one case, a local BJP state legislator led the murderous mobs.

The impunity enjoyed by the attackers and the level of police complicity was nowhere more obvious than in the account of a Catholic nun who survived the pogrom. She describes the ordeal which began when she and a priest were discovered after seeking refuge in a Hindu man’s home:

“The mob entered the room where I was staying in that house. One of them slapped me on my face, caught my hair and pulled me out of the house. Two of them were holding my neck to cut off my head with axe. Others told them to take me out to the road. I saw Father Chellan also being taken out and being beaten.

“The mob, consisting of 40-50 men, was armed with lathis, axes, spades, crowbars, iron rods, sickles, etc. They took both of us to the main road. Then they led us to the burnt down… building, saying that they were going to throw us into the smoldering fire.

“When we reached the… building, they threw me to the verandah, on the way to the dining room, which was full of ashes and broken glass pieces. One of them tore my blouse and others my undergarments. Father Chellan protested and they beat him and pulled him out from there. They pulled out my sari and one of them stepped on my right hand and another on my left hand and then a third person raped me on the verandah…. Then another young man caught me and took me to a room near the staircase. He opened his pants and was attempting to rape me….

“I hid myself under the staircase. The crowd was shouting, ‘Where is that sister? Come, let us rape her. At least 100 people should rape.’ They found me under the staircase and took me out to the road. There I saw Father Chellan was kneeling down and the crowd was beating him. They were searching for a rope to tie us both together to burn us in the fire. Someone suggested to make us parade naked. They made us to walk on the road….

“When I reached the marketplace, about a dozen of [Odisha] State Armed Police policemen were there. I went to them, asking to protect me, and I sat between two policemen, but they did not move…. The mob said they will come back after eating and one of them who attacked me remained at the police outpost. Policemen then came to the police outpost. They were talking very friendly with the man who had attacked me and stayed back. In police outpost we remained until the inspector in-charge… with his police team came and took us to the station…. The inspector in-charge and other government officers took me privately and asked whatever happened to me. I narrated everything in detail to the police, how I was attacked, raped, taken away from policemen, paraded half-naked, and how the policemen did not help me when I asked for help while weeping bitterly.”

When police finally took her away from her attackers, Sister Meena reports that they pressured her not to file charges. When she insisted on doing so, and began writing out her statement, she was urged to “hurry up” and “make it short.” She concluded: “State Police failed to stop the crimes, failed to protect me from the attackers, they were friendly with the attackers, they tried their best that I did not register [charges], not make complaints against police, the police did not take down my statement as I narrated in detail, and they abandoned me half of the way.”

For at least a week, mobs burned, massacred, and spread unchecked carnage against Christians — and, in some cases, even Hindus accused of associating with them — throughout the district. “The beatings, rapes, killings, dismemberments, and vandalism often, according to victims’ testimonies, occurred in an atmosphere of carnival and revelry,” writes Bauman. “Attacks on houses were often patient and plodding in the same way, suggesting that many of the perpetrators did not fear getting caught.”

Echoing the ideology of the RSS, the attacking mobs (as reported many survivors) frequently chanted slogans like: “Get rid of the foreign religion; create a Hindu nation.”

Violence continued well into September 2008 and, at lower intensity, for months thereafter. By the end of it all, the violence had spread to 600 villages. It was so widespread that accounts of the total damage vary, but perhaps 6,000 homes were burned and looted, 300 to 400 churches were vandalized or totally destroyed, schools and even an orphanage were torched; over 50,000 were left homeless and tens of thousands were relegated to relief camps; nearly 20,000 were injured, and possibly dozens of women gang-raped; and nearly 40 (according to official statistics) lay dead, while some sources estimate that 100 or more were killed.

Meanwhile, thousands of Christians were forced to “re-convert” to Hinduism under threat of death. One victim recounted how her attackers told her: “If you go on being Christians, we will burn your houses and your children in front of you, so make up your minds quickly.” Another victim, a pastor who was forced to convert, told a similar story. “If you don’t become Hindu, we’ll burn your houses too and start killing you,” his attackers threatened him.

Everyone knew that the Sangh was responsible for provoking the violence to such heights that it became a pogrom. The National Commission for Minorities, an Indian government entity, primarily blamed the Bajrang Dal. Soon after the violence subsided, Odisha’s ruling party severed its alliance with the BJP. The state’s chief minister, in 2009, admitted, “Members of RSS, VHP and Bajrang Dal were involved in the violence that took place last year.” Out of over 3,000 complaints filed, over 500 of those accused were members of either the RSS, the VHP, or the Bajrang Dal. Yet little justice was ever dealt.

Charges were filed in less than 25 percent of complaints. Many charges were dropped. By the 10th anniversary of the pogrom, in 2018, only 78 people had been convicted. According to one Indian human rights coalition, in 2020, the conviction rate for those charged was barely five percent while, if taken according to the number of complaints filed, it was only one percent.

The 2008 Kandhamal Pogrom was the last major attack on Christians by the RSS-BJP and its supporters prior to the rise of the Modi era in 2014 and that regime’s efforts to build a “New India” along the lines of the xenophobic rhetoric of Savarkar, Hedgewar, Golwalkar, and others who developed the ideology of Hindu nationalism which undergirds today’s assaults on the rights of Indian citizens to freely and and unapologetically follow the religion of their choice.

Clearly, persecution of Indian Christians is not an entirely new phenomenon. Neither is impunity for their attackers. Neither is police complicity.

“What is different is the intensity, the level, the gravity, the depth of State impunity,” says Dayal. What is different is that persecution has become systemic and also systematic. What is different is the geographical extent of the attacks, which are no longer generally isolated to a single region but occur across wide swathes of the country either within short spans of time or simultaneously. What is different is that, while large mobs attack Christians on the streets, BJP officials boldly and openly sit and applaud Hindu nationalist demagogues who calmly call for their slaughter.

“I will not say that Christians are being massacred seven days a week,” explains Dayal. “But they can be at a moment’s notice.”

(Pieter Friedrich is a freelance journalist specializing in the analysis of South Asian affairs. He is the author of “Saffron Fascists: Indias Hindu Nationalist Rulers” and co-author of “Captivating the Simple-Hearted: A Struggle for Human Dignity in the Indian Subcontinent.”)

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