On August 23 of this year, armed men stormed a Hindu school in the Kandhamal district in Orissa, a remote and destitute state in eastern India, and killed the Hindu leader Laxmanananda Saraswati and four of his followers. (Saraswati had belonged to a radical Hindu association opposed to the conversion of Hindus to Christianity.) Although the police suspected Maoist rebels were responsible (a letter was left behind by a local Maoist group claiming responsibility), local Hindus blamed Christians and in retaliation five hundred houses were burned.
Since that fateful evening, Hindu violence against Christians has spread throughout south and central parts of the country. Not two days later, at least sixteen people were killed in a nearby village, in a clearly premeditated attack. Reporters for the New York Times wrote:
Those who came to attack Christians here early last week set their trap well, residents say. First, they built makeshift barricades of trees and small boulders along the roads leading into this village, apparently to stop the police from intervening. Then, villagers say, the attackers went on a rampage. Chanting Kill these pigs and All Hindus are brothers, the mob began breaking into homes that displayed posters of Jesus, stealing valuables and eventually burning the buildings. When they found residents who had not fled to the nearby jungle, they beat them with sticks or maimed them with axes and left them to die. A local official said three people died as a result of the attack on August 25. The carefully placed roadblocks accomplished their purpose; residents say a full day passed before help arrived. One villager, Asha Lata Nayak, said, I saw the mob carrying sticks, axes, swords, knives, and small guns. They first demolished the village church and later Christian houses. Nobody came forward to help us.
The violence continues to this day and has spread far beyond Orissa. Given the large number of incidents involved, repeated over several weeks, one cannot help wondering why these events have received so little coverage in the rest of the media. (With one exception¯the Times story cited above¯I learned all I know about these events from Catholic websites.) Of course, there is an election going on, and Wall Street is under assault from a herd of wild bears. But still.
No doubt, part of the problem is that Hinduism is the most nation-specific religion on the planet, and no country is harder for the foreigner to understand than India. Among other implications, this means that Hindu violence¯whether against Muslims, Sikhs, or Christians¯remains confined to India, which, vast as it is, does not present the geopolitical challenge as does Muslim radicalism.
Another dimension to these woes comes from the fact that the modern, independent state of India was midwifed by the most remarkable orgy of communal violence in human history: More than one-and-a-half million Muslims, Sikhs, and Hindus (though not so many Christians) died in mutual massacres during the slow partition of Pakistan from India that culminated in full independence from Britain for both countries in August 1947. The embers of this violent birth have never died out, as the novelist and Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul noted in his usual sardonic way:
The liberation of spirit that has come to India [since 1947] could not come as release alone. In India, with its layer below layer of distress and cruelty, it had to come as disturbance. It had to come as rage and revolt. India was now a country of a million little mutinies.
Underneath all those little layered mutinies lurks what might be called the Greater Ongoing Mutiny: the demand for full political rights by the untouchable caste (often called by their Hindi name, dalits , and by the euphemism Scheduled Classes in government officialese). Even the Mahatma Gandhi opposed dalit political rights. (He once told an American interviewer, Untouchability for me is more insufferable than British rule; if Hinduism embraces [it], then Hinduism is dead and gone.) In his marvelous dual biography Gandhi and Churchill , historian Arthur Herman explains why Gandhi opposed dalit rights under Britains devolution plan:
Gandhi for one was going to have no part of it. Others shared his anger. What to the British was a matter of political gerrymandering to gratify political interests . . . was to Hindus a question of vital religious identity. Giving untouchables a separate status meant in effect splitting the Hindu nation across the bow. For better or worse, the existence of the dalit, the beggar, and other low castes served to remind other Hindus of the inexorable law of karma and their own benefit from its workings. Besides, granting the so-called Depressed Classes political rights opened the possibility that they might demand other rights in a new Dominion India as well, such as equal employment, education, and housing . . . . Moreover, it would probably shatter the Congresss alliance with the ultra-orthodox Hindu Mahasabha brotherhood, which had a history of supporting violent extremists . . . but was now headed by Gandhis friend Madan Mohan Malaviya.
Not that Gandhis refusal to countenance rights for untouchables did him any good with these radical groups or with his so-called friends, for he was assassinated by a Hindu extremist on the evening of January 30, 1948.
The assassination is still remembered among educated Westerners, but rarely do they note the rage of radical Hindus that provoked it. The point is directly relevant to the recent pogroms against Christians: Not only is their apostolic work mostly among the lower castes, so too, not surprisingly, are their converts. To continue the story cited above in the Times :
Christian missionaries in India have focused on indigenous and lower-caste groups, including untouchables, or Dalits. Despite laws dating almost from Indian independence, Dalits are often discriminated against or worse. They are sometimes denied basic amenities, such as clean water; relegated to hazardous jobs; and raped or killed because of their social status. Conversion to Islam or Christianity does not erase caste identity, but Christianity and other non-Hindu religions offer a possible escape by providing schooling for anyone who wants to attend, including Dalits. Christian education often includes classes in English, which are crucial for anyone who wants to join Indias service businesses or to break into even the lowest levels of the information technology industry fueling much of Indias growth. Across India today, the disenfranchised and repressed peoples, the tribes and the low castes are exiting the caste system that is entrenched in the Hindu religion, said Joseph DSouza, the president of the All Indian Christian Council and an advocate for Dalit rights. They are converting not only to Christianity, he said, but to Buddhism, Islam and Marxist atheism.
And no wonder either. Even to this day members of the lower castes revere the Abraham Lincoln of the Untouchables, Bhimrao Ambedkar, a dalit who in his youth found Christian patrons who paid his tuition at a nondenominational Christian college in India and then at Columbia University, where he became an expert on Indian finance. While in America he avidly studied its Civil War and saw strong parallels between untouchability and slavery and wanted for his caste its own Emancipation Proclamation, for which the formation of a separate electorate would be a crucial first step. Yet Gandhi not only opposed that proposal but went on one of his periodic protesting fasts to prevent untouchables from gaining their rights, prompting this mordant observation from Herman: Fasting in order to stop people from killing one another, as in 1922, was one thing. Fasting to keep them beholden to a system that denied their very personhood was another. He continues:
Gandhis position seemed to Ambedkar delusional at best, and self-serving hypocrisy at worst. The notion that somehow untouchables would lose out by being cut off from other Hindu castes made him choke. He could remember how, when he was a child, people had recoiled from him in horror and stepped five paces back when they learned his caste, and how at school he had been forced to sit on the floor so that he did not pollute the chairs. His teachers and fellow students refused to give him a drink of water unless they could pour it into his mouth without his lips touching the glass. Ambedkar was determined to force on Hindus a robust series of protections for those they had abused for centuries.
It never happened. And because the indignities suffered by the untouchables still continues, and are nearly required as an aspect of Hindu eschatology, Christians have proved successful in winning converts from the lower castes while simultaneously and for that reason exposing themselves to persecution. The Times article again:
“The conflict is increasing because we are trying to educate the people and enlighten them, said Pastor Thomas Varghese, 56, in an interview in Raikia, where he has lived for ten years. He said he ran almost two miles and spent a night in the jungle to save his life last week, after a mob that included nine people he recognized tried to kill him. Pramod Pradhan, a young Hindu farmer in Tiangia village, views the conversions differently, and echoed the feelings of many of the states Hindus. Christian missionaries lured Hindus to convert to Christianity. They bring a lot of money to do that. The recent violence has reignited debate about a long-standing Orissa state law that bans some religious conversions. The law makes it illegal to use force, allurement, or benefits to induce people to convert. Hindu activists say Christians often break the law, but Christians say conversions are voluntary. In Tiangia, Mr. Nayaks motorcycle lay burned outside his badly damaged home. Mr. Nayak, 30, a government kerosene salesman, died from head wounds after being severely beaten by the mob, his wife said. Ms. Nayak said her faith remained unshaken. My husband died for God Christ, she said. I was born as a Christian and I will die as a Christian.”
Edward T. Oakes, S.J. teaches theology at the University of St. Mary of the Lake, the seminary for the Archdiocese of Chicago.
Gandhi and Churchill by Arthur Herman
India: A Million Mutinies Now by V. S. Naipaul
Violence in India is Fueled by Religious and Economic Divide , by Hari Kumar and Heather Timmons