Sunday, February 23, 2014

The secret 'crusade'

Religion and violence cross paths again in small-town Andhra Pradesh as right-wing fundamentalists target the local clergy, allegedly to arrest conversions
On January 10, at around 8:30pm in Vikarabad, 69km from Hyderabad, a group of men knocked on Pastor Sanjeevulu’s door. They said they had come to offer prayers. When Pramila, the pastor’s wife, opened the door, she was struck on the forehead with an iron rod. The assailants then marched into the house and stabbed the pastor, repeatedly. He was beaten with clubs and hit on the head with the iron rod. The attack barely lasted 10 minutes but Sanjeevulu sustained severe injuries to his liver, spleen and intestines. Three days later, he succumbed to his wounds at the Yashoda Hospital in Hyderabad.
By the end of January, State police had arrested seven of the eight accused. All of them have been linked to Hindu Vahini, a right-wing organisation described as an affiliate of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, with its State unit located in Hyderabad. G Sreenu, alias Rama Krishna, was identified as the leader of the group formed by youth from the Nalgonda district. He had been working at Hindu Vahini as a full-time pracharak for the last few years.
In December 2013, three other attacks on clergy members were reported in the same district. These four incidents have revealed a chilling pattern — the same modus operandi, the same right-wing outfit behind the attacks, conversions as the alleged motive. In what appears to be a series of planned attacks, churches in Andhra Pradesh are increasingly being targeted by right-wing assailants. In 2013 alone, the State witnessed 72 incidents of anti-Christian violence, with several more unreported, say local residents. According to a report released by Catholic Secular Forum last year, AP had the second highest incidence of cases of persecution against Christians after Karnataka. In total, around 4,000 Christians, were targeted, 400 clergy members among them. About 100 churches were also attacked. In Nalgonda district alone, more than 1,000 churches are now living in fear.
On December 29, at 11:45pm, four men came knocking at Pastor Nama Moses’s door in Narketpally town, Nalgonda. Suvartha, the pastor’s wife, opened the door, thinking it was an acquaintance. She was struck on the head with an iron rod and Pastor Moses was hit repeatedly and stabbed nine times — a chillingly similar sequence of events echoing the assault on Pastor Sanjeevulu. Nearly two months later in February, when BLink contacted Pastor Moses, he had survived the brutal attack but was in no condition to talk. “The pastor has been here for two decades now and I’ve never known such enmity. I don’t understand why we were attacked. He has never forced anyone to convert,” says Suvartha. Her daughters, she says, have been unable to go to school out of fear. And attendance at his church has dwindled. “A few of them were local youth,” says Suvartha, “and they had recently attacked another pastor as well.”
“People are afraid of persecution,” says Kavitha, a resident of Nalgonda town. “The pastor’s children were in the room when the attack happened. It was only the morning after when they got any help.” Four weeks ago, a meeting was held at the Church of South India — Kavitha’s church — to discuss the violence targeting the community. “There have been many attacks here,” Kavitha says, “but most of them don’t make news.” If aggressively campaigned conversions are being cited as the reason for the attacks, locals at least, dismiss the idea. “I was the first in my family to turn to Christianity 13 years ago,” says Kavitha. “Nobody forced me to. Nobody offered me anything in return. My mother was a staunch Hindu, she didn’t approve of it. But today my family has converted.”
“The attack on Pastor Moses might have been personally motivated,” says Nalgonda’s Deputy Superintendent Ram Mohan Rao. “G Raju, one of the group’s members, was known to have a personal grudge. Someone in his family had a bad experience two years ago and he had contacted Sreenu to do something about religious conversions.”
However, Pastor Talla Christopher was attacked on the same day as Pastor Moses in another village of the same district. And, in yet another incident in December, Pastor Neeladri Pal was also attacked. While the police have made some arrests, the accused have apparently revealed a larger, systematic plan of Hindu Vahini to eliminate members of the clergy all over AP. Pastors in other districts — Adilabad, Nizamabad, Medak — have also received death threats.
“There is no personal angle in these attacks,” says Father Sudhakar, pastor of Telugu Baptist Church in Warangal, who is involved in documenting anti-Christian atrocities in the State. “It is politically motivated and it is right-wing terror against minorities. Hindutva elements have been attacking in three ways — attacks on the clergy, implicating church officials in false cases of hate speech and demolishing churches and burning Bibles.” In 2013, he says, there was a 70 per cent increase in the attacks. This year has already seen four attacks. “We have also documented 22 false cases against pastors.”
In an election year, the threat to Christian minorities has acquired a serious political colour; various church associations have written to the CM seeking a ban on Hindu Vahini. MIM leader Akbaruddin Owaisi has also demanded immediate action against Hindutva elements in the legislative assembly.
“You know, it’s not only SCs, other communities have also started turning to Christianity,” says Kavitha, “and it has not gone down well.” The base is definitely growing, says Father Sudhakar. “We don’t call them conversions, 90 per cent of SCs in AP are Christians spiritually, if not on paper.”
Pastor Jayraj still doesn’t know why he was attacked. On August 9, 2011, in Narketpally, he was attacked by a 10-member mob at his home. He was hit on the head and left to die. “I’ve heard of Hindu Vahini but I don’t know what they do. I couldn’t identify them, they had masks on. The police never caught them.”
With the violence directed towards Christian minorities only growing, older, unsolved cases like that of Pastor Jayraj are being revisited to look for possible links to right-wing terrorism. “After Pastor Moses, other cases that were undetected have come to light,” says DSP Mohan Rao. “Cases from 2011, even 2009, are being reopened too.” Even as investigations are on, the fear of being attacked continues to haunt AP’s Christian community.

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