Friday, January 13, 2006

Christians Targeted in Dangs, Gujarat

By Sankar Ray from Kolkata

After the Muslims, now is the turn for the Christians below-the-poverty-line in India. Some 8000 "wretched-of-the earth" - Dangs - are targets of three rightwing Hindu militants in western India: Viswa Hindu Parishad ( World Hindu Council - VHP ). Hindu Jagran Manch (HJM - Hindu reawakening platform) and Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram (mission-home for welfare of forest -dwellers - VKA).

Very much at home in triggering communal riots, these storm-troopers, indoctrinated by the Hindu fascists, have planned a proselytization programme between 11-13 February this year among Dangs, one of the most backward aborigines (known as adivasis in India) in the state of Gujarat in India. The religious conversion programme has been okayed by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS,), also coined by the Indian media as Sangh which is the guiding centre of right wing Hindu nationalists.

The proselytization plan coincides with a Hindu religious festival, Shabri Kumbh, based on a myth. Rama, the hero in the Sanskrit epic, Ramayana , and his brother Lakshmana who stayed in Chamak hill in the Dang district, Rama met one of his devotees, Shabari Mata, there. Hence the Shabri Kumbh or holy dip.

However, the religious sanction to the Shabri Kumbh is questioned by orthodox and non-militant Hindu religious monks. A citizen's inquiry report, a summary of two fact-finding teams in Dang and adjoining districts, snaps fingers at this issue. Saying, "at best described as a pseudo- Kumbh, for which there is no religious sanction". Kumbh Mela or festival takes place by turns in four fixed locations of India, Nasik, Hardwar, Allahabad and Ujjain. The propaganda materials in CDs, prepared by the RSS, has nothing in common with the Kumbh mela (festival) traditions, built over many centuries, argues the report. The ultra-rightist Hindu propaganda portrays Christianity as a dangerous foreign faith, and calls for its destruction in the same way as Ram had killed the demon Ravana. The inflammatory slogan is Hindu Jago, Christi Bhagao (Arise, Oh Hindus and drive Christians out).

There is a forest habitation, almost wholly of Dangs. Devout and innocent Hindus believe that Rama was a real hero some 500,000 Hindu pilgrims are expected to attend the festival. The RSS-affiliates have "money power" to convert the Dangs, according to fact-finding teams that visited the region between 10 and 21 December last.

The VHP, HJM and VKA have set up a website that wages a provocative tirade against the Christian missionaries. For a long time, India, it states, "has been a special target of the Christian Church worldwide. To the Church, the Hindus represent the greatest stumbling block in their grand design to establish Christs kingdom on earth. The poor, illiterate, mild Vanvasi Hindu is an obvious target in this nefarious scheme. For years, under the garb of social service, the Church has been spreading its tentacles in far-flung, tribal regions of our country. These converted vanavasis become alienated from their customs and traditions. They get uprooted from their cultural milieu."

The Christian missionaries are accused of having fanned up, separatism and terrorism in north-east India by the Shabari Kumbhsponsors. "There are several areas in our country which have become hotbeds of Christian missionary activity", the Hindu militant propaganda states forcefully. The Dangs district is a distorted form of Dandakaranya, the Ramayana heroes stayed during their 14-year banishment. "The immortal devotee of Sri Rama met her Lord and lovingly offered him sweet berries which she had tasted herself", the organizers claim. There is indeed a temple, named after the mother Shabari.

The two teams presented a brief summary of their findings on 3 January. The first committee included Irfan Engineer, director Center for Study of Society and Secularism, Mumbai, Suresh Khairnar, convener Dharma Nirpeksh Nagrik Manch (secular citizen’s platform), Nagpur,Ram Puniyani, secretary, All India Secular Forum and Digant Oza, wellknown journalist social activist of Ahmedabad.

The second team, mostly representing NGOs, comprised Harsh Mander, formerly a top bureaucrat of Gujarat and now a senior functionary of an NGO, Anhad, Uttambhai Parmar and Rohit Prajapati, Peoples’ Union for Civil Liberties and Prasad Chacko of ActionAid . They went around places like Ahva, Subir, Unai, Saputara and met local people and activists. They also spoke to local government officials and Sangh leaders .
RSS constituents focus on tribal belts and states such as Madhya Pradesh, Chhatisgarh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Rajasthan, Orissa and Gujarat. "The efforts of the Sangh organisations is to see that adivasis lose their identity, culture and traditions of worshiping nature without being part of any mainstream religion, by asserting that they are Hindus", the fact-finding committees states.

In Gujarat, which witnessed a two-month long communal riot against Muslims in February and March 2002 and killing of over 2500 people by RSS affiliates such as the VHP, VKA and Bajrang Dal, moral and administrative backing is an added advantage for the proselytizers as the state is ruled by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), political arm of RSS. The chief minister of Gujarat is Narendra Mody whom Indian National Congress and other secular and Leftist parties described as the main backer of communal killings.

The fact-finding document describes the plight of Dangs. "With very small and uneconomic holdings, the majority of the cultivators barely manage to survive for few months of the year on the crops harvested. The agricultural laborers find some employment only during the agricultural season. The political economy of Dangs presents a typical case of utter neglect, dispossession and non-development. The Gujarat state administration in close collaboration with the RSS outfits, "is engaged in a systematic campaign to divide the Dangi adivasis on religious communal lines and pit them against each other", and the survey report added.

The proselytisation aims at "suppression of the basic religious rights of the adivasis practicing Christianity and thereby also curbing the rights of the Christian missionaries to carry on their activities", the two teams feel. The conversion is subtly aimed at diversion of what is perceived as a growing consciousness of the Dangi adivasis about their traditional rights and self-rule onto communal and anti-tribal and anti-people issues.

The Hindu militants, owing allegiance to the RSS, began anti- Christian propaganda among Dangs in 1995. The campaign got a fillip in 1997, especially after the arrival of Swami Aseemanand, a VHP functionary from West Bengal. A "vicious anti-Christian propaganda and started projecting the work of Christian missions as a threat to both Hinduism and the national security. He has been visiting village after village, doing propaganda against Christian missionaries and Islamic Jehadis. He has also been propagating so-called re-conversion, ghar-vapasi (or homecoming) to Hinduism amongst the adivasis."

The inquiry report wages a polemical battle against the RSS tentacles which the two communist parties - CP of India and CP of India (Marxist) - brands as replica of "Nazi storm-troopers of the 1930s. "The religion of the Dangi adivasis in animistic, with varied gods and goddesses like animals, plants, trees and hills, the forces of nature like rain, mountain, ghosts and spirits, including tigers, cows, serpents, the moon, and gods of corn, the rains, the wind, the hills and forests."

Christian missionaries have been working there for over a century. The RSS constituents launched violent attacks against them during the regime of BJP-led National Democratic Alliance in New Delhi between 1998 and 2004. "Throughout the year 1998, there were 38 recorded cases of anti Christian violence, especially attacks on places of worship. A number of leaflets were published and the Gujarati newspapers added fuel to the fire, supporting the propaganda against the tiny Christian population of Gujarat," the report noted.

The conversion programme synchronizes with the new turn in the BJP. It has serious rift over the issue of Hindu militancy, imposed by the RSS. The new president Rajnath Singh is an adherent of the new line in contrast to his predecessor L K Advani, former Union home minister, who tried in vain to reorient the Hindu nationalist party in tune with the traditional secularism.

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