Mr. Satyapal Singh, the BJP MP, while speaking in Lok Sabha on amendments to FCRA, had gone on to support the forthcoming restrictions to the foreign contributions. While making his arguments, to buttress his point, he put forward the case of Pastor Graham Stewart Staines. In the process, he poured venom on the late pastor by saying that he had raped 30 Tribal women and was involved in the work of conversion to Christianity with the help of funds from abroad!
This blatant lie should have been countered in the Parliament. The brutal murder of Pastor Staines was described by the then President of India, Dr. K.R. Narayanan by saying “It belonged to the world’s inventory of black deeds”. The pastor, who came from Australia to work among Leprosy patients in Orissa, was sleeping in an open jeep in the village on the night of January 22-23, 1999. He was working in Keonjhar, Manoharpur, in Odisha. On that fateful night he was burnt alive with his two minor sons, Timothy and Philip. The whole country was aghast with the brutal nature of the crime. The brutality was committed by Rajendra Singh Pal aka Dara Singh, a worker of Bajrang Dal.
LK Advani was the home minister at that time. He stated that Bajrang Dal has nothing to do with this act; he knows this organisation well. As the immediate measure he sent a three-member ministerial team comprising Murli Manohar Joshi, Navin Patnayak and George Fernandez to Odisha. In a single day, the team concluded that this grave crime is an international conspiracy to destabilise the ruling NDA government. Then the Wadhwa Commission was appointed. The commission concluded that Dara Singh, who was working with Bajrang Dal with the help of organisations like Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, VHP etc. propagated that the pastor is doing the work of conversion and is a threat to Hinduism. He did mobilise people, poured Kerosene on the vehicle and set fire.
The Commission in its report further stated that Pastor had not been doing the work of conversion; he was involved in serving the leprosy patients. Dara Singh was awarded death penalty by Courts, which was later reduced to life imprisonment; currently he is undergoing the jail sentence. What is remarkable is that as per the report there was no substantial increase in the percentage of Christians in the area. The report states, “Keonjar district had a total population of 15.30 lakh. Out of them, 14.93 lakh were Hindus. Christians, mostly tribals, were 4,707. According to the 1991 census, there were already 4,112 Christians in the district. Thus, there was an increase of only 595 in the Christian population.” One can say that this is not due to conversion but is due to the natural biological process. Propaganda of Dara Singh and the organisations was purely guided by their political agenda.
The propaganda that Christian missionaries have been converting is the dominant social perception all around, and it is the ground for ‘Hatred against the Christians’, who have been facing the violence for over two decades. We witnessed violence against Christians, mainly in Adivasi areas, Dangs, Jhabua, and large parts of Odisha. After this gruesome murder, there was regular violence against Christian community, the peak of which was seen in the Kandhamal violence (August 2008) in which nearly hundred Christians were killed, close to four hundred women raped and many Churches attacked and destroyed.
That was not the end. The violence against this community is going on in a regular manner. It is mostly in remote areas, in a scattered manner and many-a-times below the radar. The prayer meetings are attacked and missionaries distributing religious literature are apprehended. The organisation ‘Persecution Relief’, in its recent report points out, “Hate crimes against Christians in India have risen by an alarming 40.87 percent. That increase came despite a complete nationwide lockdown that lasted three months to stem the spread of Covid-19 infections.”
While the attacks on Muslim minority have been glaring, those against Christians are scattered and low intensity, the murder of Pastor Staines and Kandhamal violence stand out. The core ideology behind this violence which has been spread is that Islam and Christianity are ‘foreign religions’ and are a threat to Hinduism. This is so much in contrast to what Indian nationalists like Gandhi and Nehru, who regarded that religion is no basis of nationality; Christianity is as much a religion of this land as any other.
As a matter of fact, as per one version Christianity entered this land in AD 52, With St Thomas setting up a Church in Malabar area. For the last nearly 19 centuries, many missionaries have been coming and working in the remote areas, setting up health and education facilities in particular. They have also set up the schools and colleges, and hospitals in urban areas, which are known for their good standards, and people in these areas do vie to avail of these facilities with gay abandon.
Today the percentage of Christians, as per census figures is 2.30 (2011 census), this is again a climb down from 1971 when it was 2.60 percent. In the last six decades it has shown a constant decline, 2.60 (1971), 2.44 (1981) 2.34 (1991), 2.30 (2001) and 2.30 again in 2011. The organisations like Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, VHP and Bajrang dal are active more in remote places to spread the misconception of the conversion. This is an assault on ‘Freedom of Religion’ and the repressive laws against freedom of religion have been coming up in state after state. While Indian Constitution stands for an individual’s right to practice and preach one’s religion, the anti-Christian violence on the pretext of religion is becoming endemic as sectarianism is growing in a frightening manner.
Recently on August 25, it was 12 years since Kandhamal violence had shaken the country. The need is to restore peace, amity and harmony. By speaking unsubstantiated charges Mr. Satyapal Singh has just gone on to add to the anti Christian propaganda, which dents our values of fraternity.
* The writer is a human rights defender and a former professor at the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay (IIT Bombay).
Other pieces by Dr. Puniyani: