‘We will cut you up’: A glimpse of violence Christians face in India

Dec 28, 2021 | Religious Persecution

At least 305 incidents of attacks on churches and Christians have been reported during the first nine months of 2021 alone

On a cool and pleasant morning on October 3, Pearl Lance was getting ready for her Sunday prayers at a church in Roorkee town of India’s Uttarakhand state, when she heard loud voices outside. 

Before she could gauge what was happening, a large group of men and women broke into the church chanting “Har har Mahadev” and “Jai Sriram”, invocations for the Hindu gods Shiva and Ram. 

Then all hell broke loose at the Church of Prayers, located in the upscale Solanipuram locality of the town. One man punched her in the chest, Pearl, 34, said. Some women accompanying the angry mob held her as she was beaten. Others went on a rampage, destroying furniture and other objects inside the church. 

Pearl identified one of the attackers as Rakhi Pradhan, leader of a littleknown Hindu right-wing group Rudrani Sena. “Hum tumhe Hindutva ke naam pe maar bhi sakte hain (We can kill you in the name of Hindutva),” Pearl quoted Pradhan as threatening her. 

Prio Sadhana Lance, Pearl’s mother, has been leading the Sunday prayers at the church since her husband, pastor R.D. Lance died due to Covid-related complications in September 2020. 

More than 200 members of far-right Hindu groups, including the Bajrang Dal, were involved in the attack on the church, Indian media reported. They accuse the Lance family of luring poor Hindus to convert to Christianity. The family denies the charges. Christians constitute just 2.3 percent of India’s 1.3 billion population. 

The Bajrang Dal and other right-wing groups are close to the Bharatiya Janata Party, the nationalist political party which heads the federal government in New Delhi and also in several states, including Uttarakhand. Most of the Hindu groups are part of the Sangh Parivar (family) headed by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the BJP’s ideological fountainhead.

Though attacks on minority communities—Muslims and Christians—are not new in India, the number of religious hate crimes has increased ever since the BJP stormed to power in 2014, riding on its big push for a Hindu-centric governance agenda. 

Opposition political parties accuse the BJP of using religion as a tool to polarise voters ahead of elections. For the record, Uttarakhand will vote in February to elect a new state government. 

In several cases of hate crimes against minority communities, the perpetrators went scot-free as police refused to act on the complaints. 

Scarred and scared

Pearl and her younger sister Eva would help Sadhana prepare for the prayers. Speaking to TRT World, 25-year-old Eva, still visibly shaken, said, “They broke CCTVs, tables, chairs, photographs of my late father, and everything in the church. They asked me for the DVR (which holds the CCTV recordings).” She added that one of the women in the group, Seema Goel, asked her why Christians lured poor people to convert. “I remained silent.”

Goel, one of the accused in the mob attack, is a member of the BJP’s women’s wing. NDTV, an Indian TV channel largely critical of the government, quoted her as claiming that though she was present at the church, she was not involved in the vandalisation.

Other people present in the church for the prayers were not spared either.

A group of men cornered an old man and assaulted him, “Tu chamar hai, hum tumhe katenge (you are lower caste cobbler, we will cut you up,” they allegedly threatened the man. Caste divisions are very prominent in India’s Hindu society and the so-called lower castes face crippling exploitation and discrimination. 

Eva said the old man’s wife was also assaulted by some people in the mob.  

“They pulled the hair of his wife, dragged her towards the door”. 

Rajat Kumar, 23, a technical degree holder who volunteers at the church, was assaulted so violently that he threw up and lost consciousness, the Lance family said. 

When Eva tried to rush him to a hospital, the mob allegedly blocked her car. They relented only after much pleading. Eva said Rajat was admitted in the ICU of a local hospital for a week and still can’t walk properly. 

The police are yet to arrest a single person though Eva lodged a complaint on October 3. Meanwhile, police have lodged a counter-complaint against Sadhana, that includes 78 non-bailable sections. 

Numbers say it all

The Roorkee incident was one among a string of attacks on Christians and churches. A fact-finding committee of three nonprofits has found 305 incidents of attacks on churches or Christians during the first nine months of 2021. The report ‘Christians under Attack in India’ says that 66 incidents were reported in Uttar Pradesh, 47 in Chhattisgarh, and 32 in Karnataka. In many cases, attackers have lodged counter-complaints with police against pastors and church groups. 

“1,331 women, 588 tribal and 513 Dalit were in injured these attacks. In 28 cases, places of worship were damaged, and 288 incidents of mob attacks were recorded. And only 30 FIRs (police record of complaints) have been lodged. Instead of taking action against vandalisers, police have asked Christians not to assemble in 85 cases,” says Minakshi Singh, who runs a nonprofit named Unity of Compassion, and one of the members of the fact-finding committee.

Activists, however, say the number of attacks could be much higher as many cases in rural or tribal areas, where there are no churches and prayers are held at community halls or houses of pastors, are not even reported.  

A history of attacks 

India has a history of attacks on Christians by right-wing nationalists for over 25-30 years, mostly over the alleged forced conversion. In January 1999, Christian missionary Graham Staines, 55, and his two children Philip (10) and Timothy (six) were burned to death by Bajrang Dal members in Manoharpur village of Odisha, one of the states in eastern India. Bajrang Dal accused Staines of luring or forcefully converting tribals to Christianity. 

In another horrific incident, 39 Christians were killed, and over 232 churches were destroyed in violence incited by Hindutva organisations in 2008 in the Kandhamal district in the same state. The National People’s Tribunal, headed by a Delhi court judge, reported that 600 villages were ransacked, 5,600 houses were looted, and 54,000 people became homeless during the riots. 

“Attack on the minority is a part of the campaign of RSS and BJP. One component is Muslims, and another is Christians. They can use the bogey of conversions against Christians, saying that the latter use their education and healthcare systems to lure tribals and Dalits to convert. Thus they use demographic anxiety among Hindus. The population of Christians has not increased. Thus the conversion is another lie like land-jihad and love-jihad,” said Apoorvanand, professor at Delhi University, who regularly writes on religious violence in India.  

Since the BJP’s ascension to power, Hindu groups have often used the term ‘Jihad’ to denote far-fetched conspiracies by Muslims. One such conspiracy is ‘Love Jihad,’ a trap to lure Hindu women for marriage and conversion and to grab land owned by Hindus. 

“Attacks and hate campaigns against Christians happen all across India and are not limited to only BJP states. VHP, Bajrang Dal, and other (far-right) groups find it easier in BJP-ruled states. Because police and administration either remain silent or take the side of perpetrators. To attack minorities on a regular basis is a strategy of BJP and RSS and this is not a one-time event. The message to Hindus is that they will rule now. And the message to Christians or minorities is that they cannot feel secure, and their daily lives will be precarious,” Apoorvananda added. 

“They use a two-way strategy. Violence against Christians through the legal way by enacting laws like anti-conversion law, freedom of religion law. And another is the illegal way of street violence,” he added.  

Anti-conversion laws 

Four BJP-ruled states — Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, and Madhya Pradesh — have enacted ‘anti-conversion laws’ that prohibit conversion through marriage. The states claim that the laws are aimed at countering the so-called Love Jihad.

Karnataka, a south Indian state that has seen more than 30 incidents of attacks on Christians or churches, will bring its own anti-conversion law, its chief minister Basavaraj Bommai said in November this year. 

Cherian Lemu, 69, a pastor in Karnataka’s Belagavi district, is still shaken since November 7 when right-wing group members barged into a hall in Maratha Colony, disrupting a prayer meeting where over 100 believers had gathered for a religious service. 

“Over 25 members stormed into the hall and asked us what we were up to? Whose permission have we taken to hold a prayer meeting? They took Bible copies from many attendees. How can you justify disrupting a religious place like this? People from all walks of life gather here to pray to God. And people disrupt such holy events,” said Lemu. Due to fear of being attacked, he has not left home since then. 

The police, instead of acting against the vandalisers, asked Christians not to hold prayer meets at rented halls. 

When TRT World contacted Belagavi police commissioner Thiyagarajan K’s office for comment, we were told to call again after December 24 after the winter assembly of the state’s elected lawmakers is over. 

T. Thomas, a pastor from Karnataka, pointed out that not a single accusation of conversion of Hindus to Christianity has been proven. “This act is nothing but a means to attack Christians.”

The population of Christians has remained the same — 2.30 percent in both the 2001 and 2011 Census of India, he argued.  

Meanwhile, Lemu is worried about devotees who attend prayers and attain peace from their daily struggles. “They will not be able to attend prayers as we are asked not to hold congregations,” he said.

 Varsha Torgalkar | TRT