THE blackened shell of a burnt car lies in the yard of Radha Bai's farm in this bucolic village of whitewashed houses and unhurried bullock carts in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh. On January 16th, as she prayed with a large group of Christians, a mob of Hindu extremists arrived. They chased worshippers away, set fire to a car and ten motorcycles and, says Mrs Bai, threatened to cut her “into pieces”.
In recent weeks Hindu extremists in India's “tribal belt”—where missionaries have long sought to convert traditionally animist forest-dwellers—have stepped up a vicious anti-Christian campaign. Over Christmas in neighbouring Orissa mobs set fire to 55 churches and 600 houses. Asghar Ali Engineer, of the Centre for Study of Society and Secularism, a Mumbai think-tank, calls it the worst anti-Christian violence independent India has seen.
Ramesh Modi, Chhattisgarh state president of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, or World Hindu Council, which propagates “Hindutva”, or “Hinduness”, says that Christians are “responsible for the violence themselves”. Missionaries in the area, he says, are converting Hindus illegally. Chhattisgarh and Orissa are among several Indian states to have laws banning forced conversions.
It is true that an expansionist evangelist movement is in full swing in India's tribal belt. Its targets are tribal people, Hindus, even Christians, many of whom say they have switched churches to join independent Pentecostal groups. Officially, fewer than 3% of Indians are Christian. But Arun Pannalal, of the Chhattisgarh Christian Forum, reckons the true proportion may be twice that. Christian converts often claim to be Hindus to keep access to government jobs and college places “reserved” for Hinduism's lower castes. Most Indian Christians are dalits, at the bottom of the caste system, once known as “untouchables”.
Mr Pannalal, whose own church belongs to the Anglican Communion, regrets the proselytising style of some pastors, and their habit of ripping into Hindu gods from the pulpit. They lay themselves open to accusations of illegal conversion. More than 230 people have been arrested on conversion charges in the state in the past two years. But Mr Pannalal says very few cases go to court “because the conversions are not forced and there is no case”.
As in other religious conflicts in India, the trouble between Christians and Hindus in the tribal belt has more to do with politics than theology. In Orissa, the Christmas violence was mostly directed at Catholics, who tend not to proselytise. But identifying religious minorities as a common enemy has proved an effective rallying cry for right-wing Hindu groups.
In December the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won elections in the western state of Gujarat, where it has had a well-documented hand in the persecution of Muslims. Christians in the tribal belt believe Hindu extremists have been emboldened by its success. Later this year, Chhattisgarh itself goes to the polls. Christians fear more violence.
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