Christians march to protest harassment in eastern India

Pro-Hindu govt accused of concocting spurious charges and wanton discrimination
Christians march to protest harassment in eastern India

Jharkhand Chief Minister Raghubar Das, right, seen here speaking with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2015, is accused by Christians of overseeing a campaign of intimidation against them. (Photo by Strdel/AFP) reporter, Bhopal
September 4, 2019
Hundreds of young Christians have marched through the street of Ranchi city in eastern India, in protest at the pro-Hindu Jharkhand state government, which they accuse of violating their constitutional rights. 

The leaders addressed some 500 young people who converged in a public square in the state capital Aug. 31 and claimed that the government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was abusing its authority for harassment and intimidation.

“We are facing an unprecedented situation. The government agencies that are supposed to support us are out to harass us,” said Abin Lakra, a leader of the Jharkhand Christian Youth Association, which spearheaded the rally.

Christian leaders said the BJP-led government, which won a second term locally and nationally in 2019, had been conducting a series of searches and investigations targeting Christian tribal people ever since it came to power in 2014.

In July, state Chief Minister Raghubar Das publicly announced a plan to probe ownership of church properties in order, he said, to see if the Church was violating two state laws that prohibit non-tribal people buying tribal land.

Timeline of a witch hunt

That was just the latest in a series of probes, fake police cases and arrests, said Father Anand David Xalxo, the public relations officer for the Ranchi Archdiocese.

He recalled that Jesuit Father Alphonse Aind had been arrested and jailed for life in connection with a gang rape case in June 2018. He continues in jail as his appeal against conviction is pending in the state court.

A nun from the Missionaries of Charity, Sister Concelia Baxla, was arrested and jailed on charges of child trafficking in July 2018. She continues to languish in a prison cell because the courts have repeatedly refused her bail.

Leaders like Lakra said several state authorities and officials, including police, administration and constitutional institutions like the courts, had compromised their neutrality to harass Christians.

In July 2018, a probe was ordered to see if 88 Christian non-government organizations were involved in illegal proselytization.

In April this year, the government recommended a federal inquiry into 31 of these 88 organizations to see if they had used overseas funds for conversion activities.

Father Xalxo said the state was even using outside agencies, including the Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS), a special branch of the police, to probe the foreign donations received by church-run organizations, accusing them of diverting funds for religious conversions.

Protectors turn aggressors

Christian leaders like Father Xalxo believe the state move is a vendetta against the local tribal-dominated Christian community after it forced the government to withdraw some land law amendments in June 2018.

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“We have been under constant attacks from government agencies after we opposed acquisition of protected indigenous people’s land for industrial and other purposes change in the land use,” sad Father Xalxo.

Protests led by church groups forced the withdrawal of proposed legislative amendments, which tribal leaders say aimed to help state government snatch away land from tribal people and commercialize it.

Most of Jharkhand’s 1.5 million Christians are tribal people — the state has a population of 32 million, 26 percent of them from indigenous groups, and it has a relatively strong Christian presence at 4.3 percent of the population, almost double the national figure.

Lakra, an indigenous Christian leader, said the government was attacking “our basic rights” and added: “We have every right to follow any religion of our choice and live in our own land. But a government that should protect our rights is harassing us.”

Government agencies, he said, had also been let loose against Christians and their institutions despite “our community’s unblemished charitable work among the poor and the weaker sections in the society.”

Prabhakar Tirkey, a tribal and leader of Rashtriya Isai Mahasangh (an ecumenical Christian forum) said the state government was “on a motivated campaign to discredit and harass Christians.”

“The government and the party in power have been engaged in trial by media to defame Christians, accusing them of illegal religious conversions and land-grabbing, among many charges,” he added. “But the fact is that there no specific charges against any single individual according to the law.”

If the government was serious about checking violations it should order probe all religious institutions, including those of Hindus, said Tirkey. He said most Hindu-run organizations were not registered with the government but still received unwarranted funding.

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