Police question young Hindus outside St. Mary's College in Madhya Pradesh state on Jan. 4 after they tried to stage a nationalistic ritual inside the Catholic college. (Photo provided)
Hindu hardliners have stepped up intimidation of Christian educational institutions in India, not least Catholic colleges.
In one recent case, sheer numbers were used to break through a security cordon with the aim of performing a nationalistic ritual.
Braving wintry early January winds, armed police guarded St. Mary's College in Vidisha of Madhya Pradesh state in central India.
Some 800 young Hindu men entered the campus, some by scaling walls, but police managed to stop them performing a purportedly patriotic ritual in front of students.
The Bharat Mata Aarti ritual can entail a personification of Mother India represented by the Hindu goddess Durga.
However, Archbishop Leo Cornelio, head of the Catholic Church in the troubled state, said the attempt really had nothing to do with patriotism.
Attempts to discredit church institutions were aimed at gaining control over them, he warned.
The archbishop noted that Catholic schools and colleges run on secular lines are allowed under the nation's constitution.
"No one can take that right from us," Archbishop Cornelio said.
Hindu militants were trying to impose their own distorted version of nationalism on others in order to create social rifts for political gain, he told ucanews.com.
On Jan. 16, nearly 200 police stood guard at St. Joseph Convent School in Ratlam district of Madhya Pradesh in the face of threatened protest action.
Hindu activists had accused the school of suspending students for chanting the patriotic slogan "Bharat Mata Ki Jai" (Hail Mother India).
The school maintained that the students were only asked not to chant slogans in an inappropriate manner and had not been barred from attending classes.
In recent months there have been a series of attacks on Christian schools across northern India as well as those in the central region.
Christian leaders see the trend as part of a Hindu strategy to portray Christians as lawbreakers who do not respect Indian traditions.
Militants have alleged that Hindu students, who are a majority at church-run schools, are not able to worship the goddess of learning, Saraswati.
G.S. Markam, a leader of indigenous minority people in Madhya Pradesh, said Christians constitute soft targets in divisive communal politics.
He said hard-line groups sought to split Christians and non-Christians to ensure that upper-caste Hindus continue to live in luxury.
Hindu groups, guided by their umbrella organization RSS or Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteer Corps), sought total Hindu domination, he said.
The RSS is the ideological mentor of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which rules most northern Indian states, including Madhya Pradesh, as well as nationally.
The BJP has been accused of endorsing various pro-Hindu fanatics.
Fight to block empowerment of poor
Bishop Anthony Chirayath of the Syro-Malabar Eastern Catholic Church said Hindu hardliners do not believe in equal treatment for poor tribal people or Dalits, formerly known as untouchables.
So they sought to destroy or tarnish the image of educational institutions that increased awareness of the needs of the poor, he added.
The Catholic Church runs nearly 15,000 colleges and schools in India, more than 40 percent of the total provided by all Christian denominations.
Christians are also widely engaged in the provision of medical services and social welfare.
"If these institutions are tarnished, Christians can be tainted," Bishop Chirayath explained.
An ecumenical forum called Persecution Relief says that 736 hate crimes were recorded against Christians in India in 2017.
Christian institutions were targeted in at least 10 percent of these cases, said the forum's founder, Shibu Thomas.
Hindu fundamentalists had been working to "grab land" and other property from various church groups, Thomas added.
Another trend was for "fringe elements" to gain publicity by attacking Christians in order to advance their state or national political ambitions.
Thomas complained that hooligans masquerading as patriots are protected by law enforcement agencies when they demonize minority religions.