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Indian activist attacked for supporting tribal cause

BJP's youth wing accused of beating up Swami Agnivesh outside hotel in Jharkhand state

Indian activist attacked for supporting tribal cause

People help stunned social activist Swami Agnivesh after he was attacked by suspected Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha activists in Jharkhand's Pakur district on July 17. (Photo by IANS)

Church leaders in India have condemned an attack on rights activist Swami Agnivesh by suspected members of hard-line Hindu groups angered by his stand for the rights of tribal people in Jharkhand state.

The politician-turned-activist was attacked on July 17 while he was on his way to address a gathering of tribal people in Litipada in Pakur district.

Members of Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha (BJYM), the youth wing of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), beat him up when he came out of a hotel, Hindi media reports said. The attackers also tore his clothes.

The BJYM activists were said to be camping outside the hotel where Agnivesh was staying. They also shouted "Jai Shri Ram" (Hail lord Ram) slogans that Hindu groups normally shout during gatherings, reports said.

They accused him of being "hand in glove" with Christian missionaries to incite tribal people in Jharkhand, said Hindi newspaper Dainik Jagran (Daily Vigil).

The attack happened on the same day that India's Supreme Court asked the government to make a law to end spiraling incidents of mob violence. The court asked states not to allow people to take the law into their own hands.

Bishop Anand Jojo of Hazaribag told ucanews.com that it was unfortunate that Agnivesh was attacked on the day the court asked for measures to stop "mobocracy." 

He said the new trend in the entire country makes people feel they can attack any person they think is wrong. "Most often, the weaker sections of society are at the receiving end," he said.

Agnivesh, a known supporter of rights of the poor and children, was once a legislative member in Haryana state but quit politics to become an activist.

"Swami Agnivesh has always spoken about the human rights of tribals and voiceless people. But for BJP supporters, anyone who speaks for the tribals is anti-government," said Father Vincent Ekka, who heads the department of tribal studies at the Indian Social Institute in New Delhi.

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Agnivesh was due to address a tribal festival organized to commemorate the anniversary of Damin-i-Koh when Santal tribal people settled permanently on a large tract of land allocated to them by the British government in 1832.

Tribal people have been protesting what they claim are government attempts to amend laws so that it would be easier to grab their land for development projects. They suspect the government is working on behalf of miners and multinational companies.

In parts of India, the constitution allows tribal people to govern themselves without interference from state and federal governments. In some areas of Jharkhand and other states, tribal people are demanding similar autonomy.

People who speak in support of tribal people are often seen as anti-nationals and anti-Hindu, said Gladson Dungdung, a tribal activist in Jharkhand.

"This is the new India that hates freedom of speech … anyone who talks about constitutional rights, tribal rights, secularism, democratic values and facts will be treated like this, as happened today with Swami Agnivesh," he said.

Jharkhand, under BJP rule since 2014, has witnessed several anti-Christian activities including Hindu hardliners banning Christian prayers and the entry of pastors to villages. Many Dalit and tribal leaders allege that their communities are threatened with violence to dissuade them from becoming Christians.

Jharkhand has about 9 million tribal people, who form 27 percent of the state's 33 million population. About 1.5 million people in the state are Christians, at least half of them Catholics.

The state was carved out of the southern part of Bihar in 2000, purportedly to improve the welfare of impoverished tribal people.

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