Christians Wary as India’s Massive Election Begins
April 17, 2009This week's kickoff of India's multi-stage election was marred by violence carried out by Maoist rebels, but for many of the country's Christians, Hindu extremists are of greater concern.
The communist insurgents killed at least 16 people, including security and polling officials, in three northeastern states – Jharkhand, Chattisgarh and Bihar – on Thursday, one of five election days spread over the next month.
Around 140 million people out of a total electorate of some 714 million were eligible to vote on the first day of what is described as the world’s biggest democratic electoral process.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s Congress party is facing off against the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which led governing coalitions for eight years until unexpectedly losing to a Congress-led coalition in 2004.
Despite the arrest earlier this week of a firebrand Hindu nationalist figure accused of inciting hatred against Christians, organizations representing the embattled minority have expressed concern about the possibility of violence over the election month.
The National Council of Churches in India, a grouping representing Protestant and Catholic denominations, said Christians across the country were praying for a peaceful election.
The arrested politician, Ashok Sahu, is the BJP candidate for a parliamentary seat representing Kandhamal, a district in the eastern state of Orissa.
Orissa last year saw some of the worst violence against Christians in India’s history, as Hindu mobs torched homes and churches. Scores of Christians – contested figures range from 60 to more than twice that number – were killed and tens of thousands fled their homes.
Eight months later, thousands are still in makeshift emergency camps where, according to Barnabas Fund – which supports Orissa Christians and other Christian communities under threat around the world – they live in cramped conditions with minimal government assistance, fearful of further attacks.
Indian Christian organizations warned ahead of the election that minorities may be intimidated into voting for parties they would not otherwise support – or into staying home.
Barnabas Fund reported that during the violence in Orissa, attackers deliberately sought out and destroyed Christians’ identity papers, without which citizens may not vote.
In the event, voting in Kandhamal and other parts of Orissa was reported to have gone smoothly on Thursday, with officials saying about 53 percent of registered voters had cast their ballots. Authorities provided extra security and transport to help those still in the relief camps to vote. Further voting is scheduled in Orissa next Wednesday.
Sahu was arrested after reportedly making inflammatory speeches earlier this month, accusing Christians of a conversion campaign and renewing allegations from last year that Christians were behind the death of an octogenarian Hindu leader, Laxmanananda Saraswati.
Maoist terrorists active in eastern India claimed responsibility for the August 2008 attack that killed Saraswati. But Hindu nationalists blamed Christians instead, triggering the Orissa violence.
Saraswati was a veteran leader of a BJP-allied fundamentalist organization called the World Hindu Council (Vishwa Hindu Parishad or VHP), which strongly opposes the conversion of Hindus to Christianity.
It accuses Christians of using material inducements to lure poor Hindus – especially those designated as Dalits or “untouchables” in India’s rigid caste system – to convert to Christianity.
Orissa is one of five Indian states where BJP authorities have passed anti-conversion laws which the U.S. State Department says infringe upon an individual’s right to change religion.
Christians, who account for about 2.3 percent of India’s population of 1.1 billion, deny luring, bribing or coercing poor Hindus to convert. Christians say those who have become believers do so willingly, and in the process escape the discriminatory caste system.
The Christian ministry Open Doors, which maintains a watchlist of countries where Christians face the worst persecution, this year moved India to 22nd place, up from 30th last year.
“The violence in Orissa and in other states comes at a time when many Christians feel that Hindu fundamentalism is on the rise,” Open Doors said this week. “The extremists’ goal is to make India a Hindu nation, rather than a secular one.”