Home > Articles > Is this the end of an era for Christians in Madhya Pradesh?
By Vivek K. Tankha
The author of this article, Shri Vivek K. Tankha, is a former Advocate General of Madhya Pradesh. He reflects on what he saw and learnt about what has been happening in the past few months in Jhabua, Madhya Pradesh.
J habua is located on the western fringe of Madhya Pradesh (central India) and is one of the 48 districts in the state. It is a district with a sizable tribal population with an enviable record of social harmony and religious tranquility. Most townships and cities in the state have campuses called mission compounds. In these campuses you will find a church, a school and a spread of resident Christian families. A large proportion of quality schools in Madhya Pradesh are these, which were established and are run by Christians. Hindu fundamentalists in the state are now targeting these institutions.
On 30 Dec 2003 a group of Christian girls in village Antervalia, Tehsil in the district of Jhabua were participating in a bible quiz competition. Some members of the local Hindu fundamentalist organizations, which work in tandem and have close proximity to the ruling party, stoned and humiliated the girls near the prayer house. The fundamentalist crowd also burnt the jeep used by the girls to reach the village. It is a sad truth that till date no action has been taken by the state administration against any of the mischief mongers.
On the same day a group of fundamentalists burnt the homes of Lal Singh Bhuria and another Christian resident in village Antervalia. While no visible action was initiated against the rioters, Lal Singh Bhuria was arrested some days later for an alleged charge under section 307 IPC.
The next day, on 31 Dec 2003 the scene of fundamentalist activity shifted to village Gadauli Toli, in tehsil and district Jhabua where a group of Hindu fundamentalists went about shouting, terrorizing and humiliating the members of the local Christian community. Till date no action to book the guilty has been taken by the administration, not even a measure of instilling confidence in the minority community.
The sequence of terror and humiliation was followed up in Thandla town where two Christians, Sangeeta and Williams, were manhandled on a public road. The cross they wore were snatched and thrown away by the accosting goons. All this happened presumably in full public glare, in the presence of the local BJP MLA and on a bazaar day. The incident signaled a loud and a clear message that the resident Indian Christians do not have a place in the local society as ushered in by the new dispensation, who, by quirk of destiny, have the mandate to govern the state.
O n 11 Jan 2004 in the mission compound in the township of Jhabua, the resident Father discovered the body of a hapless ten-year-old girl, Sujata. It seems the little girl was raped and murdered the previous evening and the body was placed in the mission compound. The local priest, Rev. John Sunny, reported the matter to the police. No arrests were made on that day. The next day, 12 Jan 2004 passed off peacefully with the school in the mission compound functioning as usual. Incidentally the mission school has more Hindu children than Christians.
But on 13 Jan 2004 the fundamentalist organizations organised a dharna in front of the mission compound, demanding the arrest of Father Sunny, accusing him of sexual assault and homicidal death of little Sujata. Highly inflammatory and objectionable pamphlets were distributed blaming the Christian community and the priest for this ghastly crime. Unprintable words were used with gay abandon to humiliate the members of the Christian community. All this continued till 14 Jan 2004 when these fundamentalist forces criminally trespassed into the Catholic mission compound and into the mission school and beat up the principal, Fr. John Sunny, and two other priests Fr. John Kennedy and Father Arockyaswamy. The motorcycle and jeep of the Principal were damaged. As if these were not enough, the principal and about six priests were taken into custody by the police and confined in the police station. The fundamentalists warned that the Christian ‘aliens’ should leave the premises and the State.
Not satisfied with all this violence that continued for weeks, a Catholic priest and a deputy ranger K.C. Mal, a Christian, were beaten up in a public road by a mob of Hindu fundamentalists on 14 Jan 2004. They ran towards their home to seek refuge and protection. The crowds chased them and in fact surrounded the house. It is alleged that K.C. Mal, the deputy ranger, fired a shot in the air to scare away the crowd. The people of Jhabua tell me that he is languishing in jail for this ‘offence’ of firing in the air under section 307 IPC, whilst the real culprits roam around scot free. A truly sad commentary of our criminal justice administration.
T he village Amkhut in Tehsil Alirapur in district Jhabua is predominantly a Christian village. About 80% of the villagers are Christians. It is here that a group of Hindu fundamentalist led by a woman activist from Gujarat entered the mission school compound in the guise of a rally. At that time the school children were busy writing the Class 8 pre-board examination. The group of protestors, who trespassed into the school building, defiled the picture of Jesus Christ, manhandled the teachers and students and tore the answer sheets of the students appearing in the pre board exams and damaged the school. Soon further reinforcement of fundamentalist supporters arrived at village Amkhut from neighbouring places like Bhabhra, Kathiwada and Alirajpur. There was an atmosphere of mayhem all around. The area witnessed unparalleled harassment of the resident Christians. It is alleged that a member of the Christian community fired at a fundamentalist group. The Christians say it was in self-defense while the Hindu extremists call it an open act of provocation! Who is provoking whom is writ large in the sequence of events, which commenced from December 2003.
Till today in the district of Jhabua 17 members of the Christian community have been arrested for causing a homicidal death and rioting. Out of these 14 are still in jail. Some Sisters have been released on bail. Surprisingly not a single member of the rampaging groups has been arrested for any of the above incidents.
Two cabinet ministers were deputed by the Chief Minister to visit the district to assess the situation. From the helipad the ministers proceeded straight to the circuit house where they met their party men and the pliant members of the state and local administration. No effort was made to meet the affected Christian families. All this despite the fact that on 11 Jan 2004 the Hindu fundamentalists, on their return to Alirajpur from village Amkhut, committed the following acts of vandalism:
It is alleged that Ms. Taramani, a Christian from Alirajpur, was picked up by the fundamentalist goons and taken to nearby forest area where she was allegedly raped, beaten and abandoned. Her house in Alirajpur was burnt.
The members of the Christian community who were staying in rented houses found their belongings thrown out.
The Government announced ex-gratia amount of Rs.100,000/- as compensation for the fundamentalist supporter who died as a result of a gun shot injury and another Rs.100,000/- to little Sujata’s kith and kin. It also announced Rs.5000/- for the people who were injured. No compensation has been paid to any member of the Christian community for either injury suffered or damage inflicted upon their properties. So far the only compensation paid is to members of the Hindu fundamentalist groups.
T he Christians are bewildered by the turn of events in their State. It is a sad Picture of constitutional breakdown of the state machinery. A serious virus of religious and linguistic division is being systematically spread across the county. The homes and properties of the members of the minority community are in danger. Many Christians have left their homes seeking protection and solace elsewhere. While no effort has been taken by the State government to punish the guilty, the members of the minority community have been arrested on false charges.
All the affected members of the Christian community are not foreign missionaries but are respected citizens of India. They are as much Indians as any other person living in this country. To brand them as foreign nationals and to persecute them as persons belonging to a foreign land is neither permissible nor acceptable.
It seems the malady of religious majoritism is now spreading to Madhya Pradesh. It also signals the beginning of the end of an era of peaceful coexistence of people of different religions in this state, which may soon become a story of a by-gone era. I can only share my disgust for such misplaced populism. They know not what they are doing. Wittingly or unwittingly these people are encouraging the end of our cohesiveness and the unity of our country. If we fail to speak today it may be too late tomorrow. The posterity will never forgive us.
Mr. Vivek K. Tankha is a former Advocate General for the State of Madhya Pradesh and now a Senior Advocate residing in New Delhi.