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|December 31, 1998||
Peace will be long in returning to the Dangs
Syed Firdaus Ashraf in Ahwa. Photographs by Jewella C Mirinda
When a little-known organisation called the Hindu Jagran Manch decided to stage a rally at Ahwa, headquarters of the Dangs district in south Gujarat, on December 25 to protest against the mass conversion of Hindus to Christianity, nobody foresaw much trouble.
But according to the local police, at noon, some 100 tribal Christians pelted stones at the rally. Neo-Christians from surrounding villages joined in and started abusing the rallyists and throwing stones at them.
Soon, the place became a battlefield with some 2,000 Christians ranged against 3,000 Hindus and stones flying all over.
Finally, the police used their batons and tear-gas to disperse the warring groups. But by then several people were injured. And a spark had been lit.
They then allegedly ransacked the shop of Pradeep Sambhaji Patil, district president of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad.
"The tribals were drunk and shouting anti-Hindu slogans," alleges Sanjay D Vyavahare, whose house was attacked. "They were screaming, 'Hindu baahar niklo, Hinduonko maar do [Hindus come out. Kill the Hindus] and abusing our gods. We were lucky the door didn't open, otherwise they would have killed us."
Says Poonam Vyavahare, his sister-in-law, "We support neither the BJP nor the VHP, but still they attacked us. We have never experienced these things here. Our house was the only one they attacked."
The news spread like fire and soon Hindus started congregating and attacking Christian institutions in and around Ahwa. The four places they attacked were Deep Darshan School in Ahwa, the Gadhvi prayer hall, the Jamla Pada Church, and an educational trust at Subir village.
Says Rajan Gaikwad, deputy superintendent of police, "This is the first time such an incident has occurred in the Dangs. There always used to be minor complaints of Hindu-Christian rivalry, but this time it has taken an ugly turn. I think both communities are responsible."
The trouble between the communities began two years ago when the HJM was formed. The organisation's stated aim is to bring converted Christians back to the Hindu fold and prevent further conversions.
The VHP, Bajrang Dal and local leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party formed the HJM, whose volunteers visit remote villages in the district to persuade the tribals to convert to Hinduism.
Says Sunil Choudhary, local Bajrang Dal boss, "There were hardly any Christians in the district 20 years ago. But today almost every village has 10 per cent Christians. This is only because these missionaries convert poor Adivasis by force or greed."
Actually, the first sign of trouble in the district came on June 29 this year when the HJM took out a huge procession against Christianity. The next day, Christians took out a rally expressing solidarity with their religion. Both rallies were peaceful. But the peace did not last long.
There are 311 villages in the Dangs with a total population of 150,000. And almost every village has at least 10 Christian households, according to the police. And many of the churches in the region are actually wooden huts with just one picture of Jesus Christ and a cross.
While the police claim the riots began when Christians attacked the HJM rally, the missionaries deny this, insisting that their community will not resort to violence and the police are spreading a canard to save their own skins.
Says Father Francis Gonsalves, "There are hardly any Christians in Ahwa town. So how can we attack the Hindus? We have only priests and nuns staying in Ahwa. Do the police mean to say these nuns and priests attacked the Hindus?
"In fact, it is the Hindu Jagran Manch activists who are distributing pamphlets in the Dangs asking people to drive the missionaries out. If, as they say, Christians attacked their rally, why didn't they fight them there and then, instead of attacking our churches and schools?"
The Deep Darshan High School presents a pathetic picture now. All the windowpanes have been smashed and the roof is in tatters. A picture of Jesus Christ was saved only because the rioters were unable to enter the room.
Naturally, the missionaries are tense. Sister Carme Borges, the school's principal, admits, "We are scared to be here now. When the mob attacked our school the police did nothing to stop them. They just looked on."
Sr Carme says it was a lucky thing her students were not in school as it was a holiday. "The rioters were wearing saffron headbands and shouting slogans like 'Jai Shri Ram' and 'kill the Christians'. They were also abusing priests and nuns. In my 20 years as a nun I have travelled all over India, but I have never experienced such a situation."
The missionaries claim they are not involved in converting people by using force or greed as the HJM and its allies claim. "We have schools and health institutions. Moreover, we have more Hindu students in our schools. So how can anyone say we are converting the Adivasis? They do not have any proof and are just spreading falsehoods," says Sister Carme.
The tribals are not Hindus, say the missionaries
The missionaries have been in the Dangs for more than 25 years now. But trouble arose between the communities after the HJM's arrival on the scene.
Says Fr Gonsalves, "The tribals worship the woods, tiger, sun and the forces of nature. If they convert them to Hinduism, in which caste will they be accommodated? The Hindus do not even marry the tribals. So how can they call them Hindus?"
The missionaries feel the problem began with "outsiders" coming over to the Dangs and forming the HJM. "The people of Dangs are very peace-loving. The problem is being created by fundamentalists from outside who come and instigate them," says Fr Gonsalves.
"The Dangs was a remote place 25 years ago. The missionaries set up their institutions and have served the Adivasis selflessly for 25 years. We have developed this place so much, but the Hindu fundamentalists are accusing us of converting people. Where were they 25 years ago when nobody used to come to these jungles?" challenges Sister Carme.
"I am sure once you disband this HJM, peace will be automatically restored in the Dangs," she adds.
Meanwhile, BJP politicians from different parts of Gujarat are visiting the district to ensure the safety of Hindus. Says P Naik, president of the BJP's Surat unit, "Conversion is the root cause of the trouble. The Hindus cannot accept this."
To cool tempers, Gujarat Home Minister Haren Pandya visited the sites of the disturbances and promised both communities protection. He arranged meetings between representatives of both sides and stated that every person has the right to practice his own faith and nobody must interfere in another's religion.
"We have arrested 42 people from both communities for rioting and the situation is completely under control now," says DSP Gaikwad.
Though tempers have cooled for the moment, the HJM is hell-bent on fighting out the issue. "We will bring out another rally on Christmas next year to awaken Hindus to abandon Christianity and come back to Hinduism," says Choudhary.
"We hope the central and state governments take these incidents seriously and do something to protect the minority interests in the Dangs," Fr Gonsalves counters.
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