Bijay Kumar Minj, New Delhi
Updated: July 25, 2019 07:12 AM GMT
Women take part in a bamboo dance March 1 during the Kut festival in the Christian-majority Mizoram state capital Aizawl. India’s pro-Hindu BJP party has launched a cell to help Christians in the state. (IANS photo)
India's politically dominant pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has launched a bid in the north-eastern state of Mizoram to improve its image among members of the Christian majority there.
Mizoram has the highest concentration of tribal people of any Indian state and Christians form 87 percent of its 1.1 million people.
Leaders of the BJP, which rules nationally and in many states, have been accused of a past apathetic response to violent Hindu nationalist hardliners.
However, on July 24 it launched in Mizoram what it called a new "Missionary Cell".
Lal Hriatrenga Chhangte, a local Christian leader who joined the party recently, was named to head the group charged with reaching out to Christians.
Chhangte told ucanews.com that the move had been approved and mandated by the BJP’s central leadership.
Missionaries from Mizoram serving anywhere in India would be able to take advantage of a 24-hour helpline to seek assistance when faced with problems, Chhangte said.
He added that the goal was to build a positive relationship with all churches.
"The BJP intends to work as a friend of Christians and Christian organizations," he added.
Meanwhile, Mizoram BJP president J.V. Hluna expressed a desire to overcome misunderstandings and misgivings about the party in Mizoram and the rest of India by emphasizing that the BJP is a genuinely secular party that believes in the Constitution of India.
State BJP leaders estimate that some 5,000 so-called ‘Mizo’ Christian missionaries from different denominations work in various parts of India.
Christian leaders in the populous nation have been complaining about increased violence against missionaries, particularly in the villages of northern India, at the hands of Hindu hardliners.
They also allege the BJP-led governments in most northern Indian states take a sympathetic approach to Hindu groups pushing to make India a nation of Hindus, something said to embolden them to attack members of religious minorities.
Presbyterian-dominated Christian communities are socially and politically influential in hilly Mizoram state, which is sandwiched between Bangladesh and Myanmar.
Local reports said BJP's attempt to win over Christians began after it failed to make an impact in last year's state polls.
The party contested 39 of Mizoram's 40 seats, but won only one.
The party also contested the state's lone national parliamentary seat, but came third behind a local party and an alliance led by BJP's main rival, the Congress Party.
However, the BJP wields considerable political power in all six other states in the region. It runs the governments in Assam, Manipur, Tripura and Arunachal Pradesh states, and is part of coalitions that rule Nagaland and Meghalaya.
Mizoram is one of the three Christian majority states in India along with Meghalaya and Nagaland.
However, Christians in nearby Tripura also voted for BJP in February 2018 polls.
"Therefore, the idea is to woo the Christian voters and to make inroads," said Robert Vanlalhana, a Mizoram-based teacher.
The state initiative coincides with a marathon BJP nationwide membership drive launched in first week of July.
Some local people sceptically suggest that the Mizoram hotline would allow the collection of personal details about missionaries that could be used by hard-line Hindu groups to target them.
Both Hluna and Chhangte denied such a possibility and said the contact details of missionaries would be treated confidentially.
Catholic Bishop Stephen Rotluanga of Aizawl, in the Mizoram state capital, tentatively welcomed the initiative but added that there was a need for caution as politically motivated undertakings were not necessarily fulfilled.
"We need to know what exactly their agenda is and how serious they are in their words," Bishop Rotluanga, said.
Sajan K George, who heads the Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC), expressed doubts over the BJP's motives.
"If they (the BJP) are serious, let them curb the persecution of Christians in BJP-ruled states," he told ucanews.com.
"No one will take such moves seriously."
However, Christian leader A. C. Michael, a former member of the Delhi Minorities Commission, welcomed the move as "a great initiative of BJP."
"It would be good if they start similar cells in the rest of India especially in states like Utter Pradesh, which is witnessing the highest number of incidents of violence against Christians in the past few years," Michael said.
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