Attacks in Punjab, India, Similar to Orissa Mayhem, Report Says

by | Mar 4, 2010 | Charisma Archive

Attacks on Christians last month in India’s Punjab state following protests
against banners depicting Jesus drinking and smoking were eerily similar to the
anti-Christian violence in Orissa state in 2007 and 2008, according to a
fact-finding mission.

“I was struck by
the similarities between the attacks in northern Punjab state and the violence
in eastern Orissa state in 2007 and 2008,” said John Dayal, a member of the
All India Christian Council (AICC) fact-finding mission, which released the
report yesterday.

Dayal pointed
out that factors such as the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party
(BJP) being part of the ruling coalition, police inaction, coordination of
attacks and support of the local merchant community for Hindu nationalist groups
in the anti-Christian attacks in Punjab reminded him of mayhem in Orissa’s
Kandhamal district.

“I have been in
Orissa almost a week a month since December 2007 and have become quite familiar
with the range of right-wing groups’ violence techniques,” Dayal, a member of
government’s National Integration Council, told Compass. “The strategy of the
assailants in Punjab was eerily reminiscent of what was practiced and perfected
against churches in Orissa.”

Violence erupted
in Orissa state’s Kandhamal district during Christmas week of 2007, killing at
least four Christians and burning 730 houses and 95 churches. The attacks came
in retaliation for an alleged attack on a Hindu extremist Vishwa Hindu
Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP) leader, Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati.

More blood was shed there in August-September 2008, after the assassination of
Saraswati by a Maoist group, as Christians were falsely blamed for it. The
attacks killed more than 100 people and burned 4,640 houses, 252 churches and 13
educational institutions.

Following the
Feb. 20 attacks, the AICC fact-finding team visited the affected region from
Feb. 22 to Feb. 25. In its report, it gave an account of the attacks in Batala
town near Amritsar city in Gurdaspur district in west Punjab, where most
Christians are from Dalit (formerly “untouchable” according to Hinduism’s caste
hierarchy) backgrounds.

It reported that
supporters of the Hindu extremist Sangh Parivar burned the 1865-built
Church of the Epiphany belonging to the Church of North India (CNI) denomination
on Feb. 20. They also tried to destroy a nearby Salvation Army church, built in
1958, and attacked its pastor, Gurnam Singh, leaving him seriously
injured.

The Sangh
Parivar is referred to the family of outfits under the umbrella of India’s
chief Hindu nationalist organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh
(RSS), seen also as the parent body of the BJP.

“Even as the
larger group of attackers focused on burning the CNI church, a group of men
armed with sticks and rods came to the house of the CNI deacon,” the report
notes. “The deacon, Victor Gill, and his wife Parveen, hid themselves under the
bed. The assailants damaged the doors, tried to enter the room forcibly, and
told the couple they would be burnt alive if they did not come
out.”

At the same
time, the report notes, Hindu nationalists at a second CNI house overturned a
scooter, took gas from it and doused teacher Christopher Morris and his daughter
Daisy with the fuel while her mother, Usha, cringed in their home.

“They tried to
set the two on fire, but the matchbox had also been soaked in the petrol, and
despite three attempts to strike a match, the matchsticks would not ignite,
saving the family from being burnt alive,” the report
states.

Provoked and
Attacked

Christians were
attacked while they were trying to enforce an area-wide closure of markets to
protest a picture of Jesus Christ holding a can of beer in one hand a lit
cigarette in another. It appeared on roadside banners in preparation for a Hindu
festival, Ram Navami (the birthday of Rama), which falls on March 24 this
year.

“The banners
were sponsored by a coalition of local political, media and business leaders,
together with the trading community, which is almost entirely Hindu,” said the
report without identifying the sponsors.

“The Sangh
Parivar reacted to the Christian protest by mobilizing shopkeepers and youth
‘to teach a lesson to Christians,'” the report states. “Otherwise, local
shopkeepers routinely enforce closures.

The Rev. Madhu
Chandra, AICC’s regional secretary, also a fact-finding team member, told
Compass that the banners were apparently put up to provoke Christians and then
launch attacks on them. The fact-finding team included attorney M. Adeeb of the
Human Rights Law Network and Marang Hansda of the AICC.

The offensive
picture of Jesus was taken from a cursive writing exercise book for Class I of a
private school in Shillong, the capital of the northeastern state of Meghalaya,
reported the Press Trust of India on Feb. 18. Published by Skyline Publication,
the book used the picture to illustrate the alphabet “I” for the word
“Idol.”

When some
parents of the students noticed the picture, they reported it to the school
authorities, which reported it to police. Christians, who constitute 80 percent
of Meghalaya’s population, protested. On Feb. 18, police registered a case
against the Delhi-based publisher and confiscated the
books.

In Batala town
in Punjab more than 1,500 miles away, however, the same picture was appeared on
banners, causing tensions.

The
Tribune
, a regional
newspaper, reported on Feb. 20 that Christian youth tried to forcibly implement
the market shut-down, or “closure,” and looted shops. But Chandra of the AICC
said the district officials the fact-finding team met were not sure if the
allegation was true.

“The officials
asked us if the newspaper reports were true,” he said. “But we also read it in
newspapers only.”

Dayal said that
Hindu nationalists used the market shut-down to attack
Christians.

“Instead of
sympathizing and cooperating with the protest – as merchants do when the
Sangh Parivar or the ruling Shironami Akali Dal party calls for
closures on routine intervals – they sought to teach the Christians a lesson,”
said Dayal.

He added that in
Orissa state’s Kandhamal district, Hindu nationalist groups likewise befriended
merchants, mostly tribal or aboriginal people, and turned them against Dalit
Christians.

Police
Inaction

The fact-finding
report deplored police inaction. When the mob tried to burn Morris and his
daughter Daisy, said the report, “police were watching” but did nothing to help.

It quoted Pastor
Gurnam Singh as saying, “We pleaded with the police to help, but they did
not.”

Police were
outnumbered by rioters, as happened in Kandhamal in Orissa, remarked
Dayal.

Despite
intelligence reports of Christian anger and the Hindu nationalist groups’ plans
to counterattack, authorities said they “could not enforce a quick curfew until
late on Feb. 20 because most of the police were sent to the Pakistani border
nearby, where Home Minister P. Chidambaram inaugurated a defence outpost.”

By the time the
police returned and a curfew was imposed, “violence had already occurred,” the
report states.

“No police
report has been filed on the attempted murders, even as the top police and
administrative officers enforced a one sided ‘peace accord’ on the local
Christian leadership,” the report notes. “Christians were instructed not to
press for charges immediately so that a number of Christian youth who were
arrested – together with a few Hindu men – could be released. Police forcibly
cleaned up the Church of the Epiphany. They removed burnt furniture and made the
presbyter whitewash the walls to remove traces of fuel oil used in the blaze.
This was done before a formal enquiry could be conducted by the
government.”

Referring to the
police inaction, Dayal pointed out that “the BJP, as in Orissa during 2007 and
2008, is in power in Punjab as member of the coalition government with the
regional Shironami Akali Dal party.

Punjab Chief
Minister Sardar Prakash Singh Badal has asked his officials to unravel the
“entire conspiracy,” the report states.

There are around
300,000 Christians in Punjab, or roughly 1.2 percent of the total
population.

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