An Unholy Crusade
The real conversion happening in Karnataka is that of the RSS-BJP, who are using aggression to consolidate their hold in a once secular state. SANJANA reports
THEY HAVE attacked our God... By destroying the holy Eucharist, they have destroyed the body and blood of Jesus. What else is left in the church now? If they had asked for it, I would have sacrificed my life readily.” Babu G., a local resident and worshipper at St James Church, Mariannanapalya, Bengaluru, is traumatised. Babu is surrounded by several others. Apart from the open safe, there is nothing to immediately suggest that the church had been vandalised a day earlier, on Sunday, September 21, 2008. Officially, the vandalisation of St James Church has been recorded as a case of theft. Chief Minister BS Yeddyurappa and Bengaluru Police Commissioner Shankar Bidari said this incident was unconnected to other attacks taking place on churches across Karnataka.
Sister Annie, who works at the church, disagrees. “Nothing was stolen. The sacred bowl was missing initially but we found it when we were cleaning things up. I kept arguing with the police commissioner, but he insisted that this was the work of professional thieves. Thieves apparently who wouldn’t wait for the collections generated from the Sunday mass,” she says.
The difference between Annie’s perception and that of the police commissioner is at the heart of the communal conflict that is spreading in Karnataka. Between August and September, attacks on churches and Christians have been reported from different parts of the state — in Davangere, Udupi, Mangalore, Chikmagalur, Shimoga, Tiptur, Kolar, Chikballapur, Kodagu, and Bengaluru. Officials estimate that 55 attacks have occurred in the last two months — close to an attack a day. The rise in the number of attacks has coincided with the coming to power of a BJP government, which is ideologically aligned with the RSS. Radical groups like the Bajrang Dal, who have claimed responsibility for the attacks on Christians, are also aligned with the RSS.
The 2001 Census pegged the percentage of Hindus in Karnataka at 83.86, and Christians at 1.91. In Orissa, where a similar campaign against Christians is on, the 2001 Census showed nearly 95 percent Hindus and 2.44 percent Christians. The BJP heads the government in Karnataka and is part of the government in Orissa. Analysts say that the campaign against Christians is an attempt to consolidate the rightwing hold in Karnataka.
For instance, Home Minister VS Acharya was the only Jana Sangh member of the Udupi Municipal Council in 1968. Today, he heads the crucial home ministry. In a sense, this is payback time for the BJP, which has built its success on the foundations of painstaking RSS work for over 40 years in Karnataka. Therefore, Yeddyurappa’s refusal to criticise the Bajrang Dal from the time the attacks began two months ago.
Thus emboldened, the Bajrang Dal is going all out. In a much publicised press conference in Mangalore, on September 14, Mahendra Kumar, the Karnataka president of the Bajrang Dal said that his organisation had been carrying out attacks on Christian prayer halls across Karnataka as ‘a last attempt’ to stop forceful conversions. On the same day, 14 churches across three districts, Mangalore, Dakshina Kannada and Chikmagalur, were attacked for allegedly carrying out conversions by coercion.
Kumar said the attacks would continue as long as Christians carried on with “conversion activity.” He also warned others from supporting the Christian community. “Christians should not feel hurt by the attacks. If they do, we will conclude that they support the kind of institutions that have been involved in conversion of Hindus to Christianity. Then, we will be left with no option but to take action.” Kumar said Bajrang Dal’s actions should be seen as “warnings for people to mend their ways” and that his organisation was acting on the basis of complaints they had received from Hindus in different places.
Yeddyurappa says the attacks are “aconspiracy against his government.” By the time Kumar was arrested around midnight on September 19, the Bajrang Dal had five days during which churches were attacked in Kolar, Chikmagalur, Belthangady, Manchenahalli and other places. The Central Government, headed by the Congress-led UPA, sent two delegations, one of the National Commission for Minorities and one from the National Commission for Women, to have its own understanding of the situation.
That the Congress is so distanced from the events in Karnataka is a measure of how the RSS changed things in the state. For instance, Chikmagalur, where some attacks have taken place, had voted for Indira Gandhi in 1978 when the rest of the nation was strongly against Indira Gandhi after the Emergency. Today, Chikmagalur has a strong BJP presence.
So, do the attacks signify that Karnataka is an Orissa, when it comes to the way Christians are attacked? Teesta Setalvad, editor of Communalism Combat, had pegged Karnataka as a communal hotspot way back in 2003. “The next Orissa or next Gujarat is a moot point, but the communalisation process in Karnataka is many years old. From 2003, we have seen ugly scenes of communal violence in the state targeting Muslims and Christians. The attacks on Christians fall very much into the core ideology of the Sangh — that of creating different levels of prejudice in the minds of the Hindus. With the BJP coming to power, there are greater possibilities in terms of political space that the Sangh can now capture.”
Part of this process is the BJP campaign on the Baba Budangiri, a Sufi shrine that the BJP says is actually the Dattatreya Swami peetha. The BJP mobilises people in thousands every year at the site, making it a high pitch issue for the rightwing bloc.
Also, several ministers, including the chief minister, the home minister, the law and parliamentary affairs minister, the transport minister, and the rural development and panchayati raj minister, are known to have strong RSS backgrounds. Key officials function on the directions of the Sangh Parivar organisations like the Bajrang Dal and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. In Davangere, following the attacks on August 17, the district administration issued notices seeking a survey of churches functioning without permission.
THE SURVEY, significantly, did not include other places of worship. In Shimoga, a showcause notice was issued on August 29, from the Deputy Director’s office of the Public Instruction Department to Sacred Heart High School and Mary Immaculate High School. The notice mentions that the deputy director was acting on behalf of a representation received from the Bajrang Dal against the schools on account of their closure on August 29. On that day, the two schools, along with over 2,000 schools and educational institutions across Karnataka, had closed down in protest against the attacks on Christians in Orissa — a day of silent protest observed by Christian institutions across the country.
Says Dr Geneieve, Secretary of the Karnataka Regional Commission for Education, “We were well within our rights to declare a holiday on August 29. We don’t need prior permission from the state government. Chapter IV (19) of the Karnataka Educational Manual states that ‘the discretion is reserved to the competent authority to grant leave… in the interest of the institution. The showcause notice is hence unwarranted.” Unmindful of the rule book, across Karnataka, on the instructions issued by the Primary and Secondary School Minister, Vishweshwar Hegde Kageri (another RSS loyalist) showcause notices were issued to all Christian schools and colleges.
Rajeev Gowda, professor of Economics and Social Sciences at the Indian Institute of Management, Bengaluru (IIM-B), and also a Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee member, believes that the issuing of showcause notices to respected institutions on the basis of complaints received by ‘fringe elements’ proved to be the turning point. “Despite the huge outcry, despite knowing that the rulebook said something else, the fact that the government took action on the basis of their complaints was perhaps an important indicator. They thought that the government was indeed entirely on their side,” says Gowda. “It was however a miscalculated venture if the political embarrassment is anything to go by.”
ANOTHER SPACE occupied by the Sangh Parivar with the BJP government in place is that of law enforcement. Since the BJP came to power, over a thousand police officials have been transferred – a move seen as unprecedented. Says a top police official, recently transferred to Bengaluru, on the condition that he wouldn’t be named, “Apart from the large numbers, what is most surprising is that even inspectors and sub-inspectors have been transferred. As far as I know, 416 police inspectors and 171 sub-inspectors have been transferred.”
Within two months of Yeddyurappa taking charge, 90 IAS officers and 52 IPS officers were transferred. Though Yeddyurappa defended the transfers as a way to find the right job for the right man, not everybody was convinced. The coastal belt, Udupi, Dakshina Kannada, Mangalore, the seat of communal violence against Christians now (and Muslims earlier) has seen the maximum number of transfers.
The transfers, says Professor Ravivarma Kumar, Senior Advocate at the Karnataka High Court, are “an attempt to grant political immunity to the Sangh forces by ensuring that cases are not booked in case of violence.” Kumar has copies of a communication from the office of the Principal Secretary to the Government, in August 2007, asking that cases be dropped against 51 Bajrang Dal activists in Haveri, Shimoga, Belgaum, Gadag, Bijapur, Bagalokote, Mandya, Kodagu, Dharwad, Uttara and Dakshin Kannad districts.
At that time, the BJP was a partner in the government headed by the Janata Dal (Secular) with Yeddyurappa as the deputy chief minister. Among those let off was ex-MLA of Surathkal constituency, Kumble Sundara Rao. In November 2003, Rao’s provocative speech delivered at Thokkutu had led to communal clashes in the area.
Central to the attacks that took place over the last two months was the allegation that the Christian community was forcibly converting Hindus into their fold. At times, it was argued that money sourced from abroad was offered as an inducement to convert. Yeddyurappa also said to the attacks are “a reaction to the hostile climate created by conversions into the Christian fold.” Vinay Shetty, the Bajrang Dal Mangalore unit president, claimed that the missionaries were converting hundreds and thousands of Hindus into Christianity.
The Archbishop of Bengaluru, Reverend Dr Bernard Moras, who publicly told Yeddyurappa that he was deeply upset, offered another perspective on the conversion debate. “The Christian community has been running schools and educational institutions for hundreds of years. Have we converted all those who arrive at our doorsteps seeking education and medical attention? Why are so many people flocking to our schools and colleges?”
Said KL Ashok, Secretary of the Karnataka Communal Harmony Forum, “The conversion debate and all questions of forceful conversion are unsustainable arguments. The Constitution gives everyone the right to practice, profess and propagate religion. Besides, why doesn’t the law of the land apply? Why not register police complaints against those who do indulge in ‘forceful’ conversions? They have no evidence, nothing to hold against the Christian community.”
THE AGENDA of communalisation apart, a more visible indicator of the communal cauldron that the state has become since the BJP came to power has been the clampdown on people condemning the violence. Following an increase in the attacks on the Christians, there have been several protests in different parts of the state — Mandya, Shimoga, Bengaluru, Davangere, Mangalore, etc., condemning the violence and demanding action against the accused.
In retaliation, the government booked 16 cases against the Karnataka Forum for Dignity, a statewide Muslim organisation, for pasting posters referring to Pastor Martin Niemoller’s World War II poem, ‘First they came...’ Yeddyurappa claimed that the posters, attempting to drive a connection between the Sangh Parivar attacks on Muslims and Christians and other minorities, were “provocative and were trying to destroy the harmony in society.” The cases filed against the Forum were for promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, and doing acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony.
What was the response to the cases? A meeting for communal harmony in Davangere was inaugurated with a reading of the same poem that was banned. Just one attempt to reclaim the secular space in Karnataka.