The Catholic Secular Forum, a Mumbai-based NGO, has been in the forefront of protests against attacks against the Christian community in Orissa, Karnataka and other parts of the country.
CSF General Secretary Joseph Dias, was part of a citizens' delegation that called on the President and other politicians in New Delhi last moth, urging the Union government to use its powers to stop the attacks.
Dias, who says that he has travelled to almost all the places where Christians have been attacked and seen the horror of the attacks, spoke to rediff.com.
Are the Mangalore and Orissa incidents turf battles between right-wing Hindutva and Christian forces?
The attacks on the Christian community are not restricted only to Mangalore or Orissa, but have spread to other states like Madhya Pradesh, Kerala, Chhattisgarh and even the national capital. They are military-like operations, carried out with clinical precision and are brutal, with no discrimination -- sparing, neither clergy, women nor children. The objectives are manifold -- consolidation of the Hindu vote, polarisation of the majority and minorities, demonising the community, crippling Christians economically. These attacks, when they happen in Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled states, are nothing short of government-sponsored terrorism, while in other places it is sheer mobocracy, using brute force, with the authorities unable to act because of political compulsions of not getting on the wrong side of the majority.
Why do you feel Christians are being targeted now across India?
The vested political and economic interests are hitting back with vengeance. Christians are sitting ducks, where no or negligible retaliation expected. The Church works in areas, where even the government dares not to go because it is not profitable. The Church's education, healthcare and social services in these backward areas has empowered the weak, poor and deprived vested interests of vote banks and cheap labour. The emancipation through education, healthcare, awareness of alternatives and provision of opportunities have set the oppressed classes free from the clutches of the upper caste or rich Hindus and slavery of their political masters. These interests are therefore hitting back at the Christians to maintain their hold on those, whom they have been exploiting since ages.
What is your answer to criticism that the Church lures the poor by offering them money?
We condemn those indulging in conversion by force or inducement. Catholics do not accept a conversion, unless it comes from the heart. But the saffron brigade raises this bogey, since in believes in (Nazi propaganda chief Joseph) Geobbels's principle of repeating a lie umpteen times, so that it will stick. Another ploy is to divide us into Catholics and Protestants, so that they can divide and rule. This makes it easy for Hindutva radicals to take the remaining Christian population. Those who criticise groups that convert by inducement, must realise that an individual, who converts, will do so only if he finds his previous religion with limitations and Christianity a better faith.
Do Christian talk of the re-conversion or ghar wapsi programmes of the Hindu fundamentalists? Not so far. But I think we must now. There gifts and incentives are given to people to return to the Hindu fold.
Do you see a larger design behind the targeting of Christians?
The larger design is political domination and economic supremacy. The Hindutvawadis will stop at nothing -- murder, carnage, destruction, human rights abuse, subverting the rule of law and the Constitution of the country.
Politically, with the beginning of an era of coalitions and with Lok Sabha and assembly polls round the corner, it is do or die for the BJP and its allies. They want power at any cost and ideologies take a backseat. It is target either Christians or Muslims and this the BJP believes will take them to Parliament. The Gujarat model has become a showcase for replication in Hindutva laboratories all over the country. The BJP knows that secular parties like the Congress and to an extent even the Left and regional parties will not be able to take a stand against the majority (80 percent) and in favour of the minorities (20 percent), so the opportune time to strike is now.
Are conversions at the centre of the violence, or do you see a different ploy behind it?
Even the saffron brigade knows that there are no conversions worthy of mention happening. There are at least five states, which have anti-conversion laws, but not a single case of forceful or induced conversion has been proved. And many of these states are BJP ruled, but they have not been able to nail Christians on this count. In fact, in some states the police and administration are used to reconvert Christians to Hinduism and even tribals, who have a religion of their own.
Incentives, besides our health, education and social service institutions over the centuries could have converted millions of poor and downtrodden into Christianity. If that was the case, the Christian population would have shot up and not declined to around 2 percent. Further, why would even affluent non-Christians flock to our institutions (schools, hospitals) if they were convinced that they ran the risk of conversion? The saffron brigade is frustrated that even the Hindus are not buying their story of conversion, and has resorted to a vulgar public display of brute force.
Why now, you think? Is there an element of timing behind the violence?
The elections decided the timing of attacks on Christians. It never happened so far to Christians in India. Since Independence, it happened with Muslims in the run-up to various elections and stopped thereafter. The Hindutvawadis have managed to marginalise the Muslims, who now live on the periphery of the national mainstream. It is the saffron brigade's heart-felt desire to do the same with Christians. It is now or never for them.
Share with us the details of your fact-finding missions.
I have been to most districts affected by the anti-Christian violence in India and I can claim to be among the few to have done so. I have spoken to hundreds and listened to almost a thousand victims. The stories are horrifying. My feelings from ground zero have been so traumatic that I just could not sleep since then. Last week, it was the three priests with whom I stayed when I visited Orissa, who gave me sleepless nights, seeing them brutally injured. But what brought tears to my eyes were the helpless cloistered sisters in Mangalore, who were attacked. We met cardinals, bishops, pastors, priests and lay leaders in many places, across the country. Their plight moved me. It is not the government that rules the roost in most states - the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Bajrang Dal do. And this is only the beginning.
The Karnataka government initially announced a Corps of Detectives level inquiry. Are you happy with it?
It is a big sham. The role of the Karnataka government is implicit -- as in the case of Orissa. It has blood on its hands -- innocent blood. The conclusions of the inquiry can be easily predicted and the Christian community is not foolish to fall for it and expect something. The police atrocities on women and Christians are well documented and presented to the national commissions for women, minorities and human rights. There is no need for any other inquiry, which will have no credibility and whitewash the sins of the government. Christians will boycott it.
What do you expect from the government, both at the state level and at the Centre?
The Union government should intervene instead of mouthing platitudes. I met the President and a number of VIPs in the national capital, who all beyond condemning the attacks did nothing else.
We would now expect that:
1. Communalism is treated as a crime against the state, like terrorism and made a non-bailable offence. Mob terror is equal, if not worse than bomb terror.
2. Government compensation and relief for all victims, including reconstructing churches and Christian institutions, which are presently not sanctioned.
3. Enactment of legislation on the lines of the Prevention of Atrocities on SC/ST Act, to protect minorities from the brute force of the majority.
4. Moving law and order from the state list to the concurrent list so that the Union government can intervene.
5. Permit an independent inquiry by international human rights organisations into the anti-Christian attacks and foreign funding.
6. A CBI probe into the source of foreign and Indian contributions to the RSS-VHP-Bajrang Dal troika and related organisations.
What do you have to say about the official response to the violence?
The official response was pathetic, to say the least, especially from the United Progressive Alliance. The governments in at least five states behaved as expected -- either participating in the act or turning a Nelson's eye, when push came to shove. Innocents have been arrested and persecuted, while relief or compensation will never come through. In fact, some states have not allowed even Christians to provided succour to their own and instead are conducting an inquiry into the foreign contributions to Christian NGOs.
There is a lot of talk that the Maoists and the Church share a common cause, which is at the root of the violence in Orissa. What do you have to say about it?
The only thing common between Maoists/Naxalites and the Church seem to be their concern for the backward and exploited classes. However, the means differ drastically and there is no meeting ground. In Orissa and places where Maoists/Naxalites have struck a chord among tribals or exploited classes, it is because the government has failed in its duties towards the citizens. The Maoists/Naxalites are also known not to allow religion to divide people, besides believing in equitable distribution of resources. Hence, attacks on communalists and the dominating classes/castes are justified and the only way out.
New Life has been blamed for the conversions in Mangalore. Is it part of the church?
The New Life movement is part of the Christian Church, not Catholic, which is tremendously popular for its evangelical approach. Faith healings, non-ritualistic approach to religion and involving believers in prayer and worship, which are popular have ensured a huge following for New Life and other such groups. These have been falsely blamed in the conflict.
Have the Hindutva elements been emboldened by the BJP government in Karnataka?
Of course. In fact, until the BJP formed the government in Karnataka or Orissa, there was no report of religious violence. In order to remain in power and pander to its supporters the BJP has had to play the Hindu card. It also has to pay back the Hindutva troika for getting it into power and so these elements thrive in BJP ruled states. It is a case of one feeding off the other -- a symbiotic relationship.
Has the government response to the violence against churches been adequate? Do Christians feel threatened in Karnataka or Orissa?
The governments, at the Centre nor in the states, have not responded at all. Christians are relying on the Lord to protect them, as he always has, besides looking up to fellow Christians to stand by them. We believe and history is witness that whenever Christians were persecuted, the Church has emerged stronger and triumphed.
Is there any reason for the Catholic Church to express solidarity in situations where it is not involved? New Life or the Southern Baptists have no connection with the Catholic Church? And they are organisations whose activities the Catholic Church may not have knowledge of?
There are many reasons for the Catholic Church to express solidarity with Christian churches -- we don't call them Protestants. It is also a lie to say that the Catholic and mainline Protestant churches do not believe in proselytising today. In fact, in keeping with the Great Commission as urged for by Jesus himself in the Bible (Go forth into the world and preach the Good News to all creation - Mark 16:15) that every Christian -- Catholic or Protestant -- is duty bound to do so. The Catholic church has a special 'Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples', dedicated solely to this task. Pope Benedict XVI himself appointed Cardinal Ivan Dias, earlier Archbishop of Mumbai to be 'Prefect' of this world body, signifying the importance attached to conversion by the Holy Father. Can the mainline Protestant churches, who believe in the same Jesus and his word, Bible be any different?
It is ridiculous to imagine that there could be any debate on a matter of faith, as basic as this. Catholics and Protestants of all hues, if they are Christians stand united on the issue of conversion, also guaranteed by the Indian constitutional right to preach, propagate and practice the religion of one's choice. Catholics have the best of relations with other Christian groups -- be they New Life or Southern Baptists -- for Jesus' prayer to God, the Father was -- that they may all be one.