Monday, February 23, 2004

Jhabua Victimized by Dirty Politics

By Vijayesh Lal

More than a month after the unfortunate incident of a nine-year-old girl being raped and murdered in a Christian school in Jhabua and the subsequent planned attacks on Christians all over the district, the situation continues to remain tense in the area.

After the body of the girl, Sujata, was found in the Christian school, on January 11th Christians in the area faced an upsurge of violence aimed primarily to teach them a lesson. The situation for Christians in Madhya Pradesh has been deteriorating ever since Uma Bharati, an extremist herself, came into power as chief minister of the state. For Christians in Jhabua however the nightmare had just started on the 14th January 2004. Since then Christians have been systematically targeted, their Churches and homes burnt, property looted and Religious effects desecrated. It was as if the Gujarat carnage was being repeated in Jhabua as looters and troublemakers made life miserable for the Christian community, shouting slogans of, “Jai Shri Ram!” (Victory is to Ram!). The police, mostly, stood as a silent spectator.

Chronology of Events:

January 11th 2004: Nine-year-old Sujata’s body was found in the school toilet after she had been raped sparking off rumors that the main priest, Fr. John Sunny, was responsible for the deed.

January 12th 2004: The VHP, ABVP, Bajrang Dal and some other organizations belonging to the RSS gave a call for a bandh (close down of the city) and a dharna (protest) for 13.01.04 in front of the mission compound.

January 13th 2004: Three people including two priests were taken to the police station but were allowed to come back only after mid night.

January 14th 2004: An armed mob shouting slogans against the church and the priests entered the compound, demanding that the actual culprit be arrested. The police just let them in and the mob vandalized and ransacked the place. They smashed a jeep owned by the church, broke an image of Infant Jesus, tossed chairs around, pelted the church windows with stones and slapped Fr. John Sunny several times.

The police took the priests away saying that otherwise they might come to some harm. Nine members were kept in an 8 feet-by-12 feet lockup for two days without food or water.

January 15th 2004: Manoj Yadav working as a sweeper at the National Insurance Company was detained, questioned and arrested. He confessed to the crime, but an identification parade is not arranged as the Superintendent of Police and the District Magistrate were waiting for the DNA report. Failure to have the identification parade gave rise to many rumors. The rumor mills of the RSS worked overtime to establish that the arrested man was innocent, that in fact he was impotent, and that the police had been bribed into arresting him, suggesting that it was the priest who was responsible for the crimes. Sujata’s parents were told that the police and the priests are conniving to protect the real culprit. A virulent attack was mounted on the missionaries and the Christians by the fundamentalist organizations. They urged the people to drive the missionaries out. The distribution of inflammatory literature gained momentum.

January 16th 2004: A Mob led by Krishna Behn descended at Amkhut village, they distributed anti Christian pamphlets, made provocative speeches and attacked the Christian school, vandalizing it in the process. The mob was shouting provocative slogans and warning people not to send their children to an institution run by "rapists". Several students were attacked and school property broken; pictures of Jesus Christ were torn down. The mob left with the warning that they would return to power after the Lok Sabha (general) elections.

More violence followed as the BJP legislator from Alirajpur tehsil, Nagar Singh Chauhan, came to Amkhut village with several armed people in tow and attacked the Church premises with firearms. After two hours, the mob returned with more people and in the skirmish that followed, Arjun Pal, a Seva Bharati member was shot dead.

The Amkhut violence sparked off violence in Alirajpur too, as the mob went back, mobilized locals and started targeting Christian homes and institutions. A priest of the Don Bosco school was beaten up and the school and his vehicle was set afire. The Church was attacked and the furniture and musical instruments burnt. Shobhana and Sudhir Onkar, a Christian couple were also attacked by about 200 – 300 strong mob. Their five vehicles were damaged and about twenty men got inside the house and broke their furniture, television and other household goods. The mob was led by the local BJP MLA (Member of Legislative Assembly) while the T.I (Thana in-charge or the Police Station In Charge) with four policemen stood and watched. They have lodged an FIR but no arrests have been made so far.

The Aftermath:

Following this Chief minister of the state, Uma Bharati sent two of her ministers to Jhabua to investigate the matter. The two ministers visited Jhabua and gave a clean chit to the Sangh organizations without meeting a single Christian victim. Wrong information was given to the media at a press conference addressed by Uma Bharati claiming that there was firing from within the church.

The chief minister herself visited Jhabua, mostly by helicopter, met some of the victims, ordered a CID (Central Investigating Department) probe but virtually rendered it useless by stating that the Hindus had displayed patience and tolerance despite provocation. The State government was least interested in providing relief to the minorities and this was evident in an aggressive meeting organized by the RSS on January 20 in Bhopal. At the meeting, several persons were brought from Jhabua and the Chief Minister drew a link between the violent incidents and the alleged activities of conversion.

Soon the opposition picked up the issue and accused the government of shielding the Jhabua culprits. The whole issue was politicized to take an advantage of it. Meanwhile the Christians in Jhabua urged the National Human Rights Commission to ensure that adequate security is provided for them. Several fact-finding teams were dispatched to Jhabua and here is what they have found:

1. As per the list of cases registered and arrests made given by the SP, on 22.1.04 whereever the attacks occurred on Christian institutions, the only arrests have been those of either priests or Christians.

2. No steps have been taken to prevent the publication and distribution of inflammatory literature. It is still going on strong.

3. The VHP and its sister organizations are freely holding dharnas and demonstration despite promulgation of section 144 (curfew)

4. The worst attacks that occurred had taken place on 16.01.04, and three of the five BJP MLA’s (Member of Legislative Assembly) led the mobs. But no cases have been registered against them.

5. No steps have been taken to instill confidence in the Christina community that their rights guaranteed by the constitution of India will be safe guarded. There is widespread fear that attempts are afoot to create another Gujarat.

There are reports coming in that Christians are increasingly being targeted in the area. There have been instances of Churches being burnt and Christian homes burnt and looted by unruly mobs. One Pastor has reported that nearly every night He and others are staying outside of their village on a hilltop watching over their village. Their fear: that their houses will be burnt down. Their wives and children are spending the nights under the bushes in this cold winter season. Police harassment too is increasing.

With the coming of the Lok Sabha (General Elections) things are likely to get worse for the Christians in Jhabua. What we see here has been brewing for a long time. Christianity is more than a century old in Jhabua, the Church and the institutions testify to it. Yet in their zeal to lure the tribal voter the Sangh Parivar has created an enemy in the minds of the people. Preparations for attacking Christian institutions have been on for the past one-year as Hindu sangams' or meetings were organized all through out in the Jhabua District over the past two years. The sole motive of these meetings was to whip up communal passion against the Christians.

In an attempt to Hinduise the Tribals (whom the Sangh Parivar addresses by the derogatory term Vanvasis meaning Jungle Dwellers) thousands of idols of Hanuman and Ganesh (Hindu Gods) were installed and the tribals were encouraged and mobilized to be a part of it. This is alien to the tribal culture nevertheless they complied because of the economic benefits given to them because of this. But the Hinduization of the tribals and the stirring up of hatred against the Christians is only a deliberate attempt to consolidate tribal votes in what is otherwise considered as the Congress land and sending the right message to the Congressi Christian.