At least 134 incidents of violence against Christians in India were carried out in the first half of 2016 alone, compared with 147 incidents in all of 2014 and 177 in 2015, according to an independent report.
The Evangelical Fellowship of India's Religious Liberty Commission (EFIRLC) notes that cases chronicled from Jan. 1 to June 30 were "just a fraction of the violence on the ground."
Of major cases of violence against Christians across 21 of India's 29 states, the report places Uttar Pradesh as leading the list with 25, followed by Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh with 17 and 15 respectively.
"In Bastar, Chhattisgarh, religious fanatics attacked a church and tried to set a pastor and his pregnant wife on fire after thrashing them at remote Tokapal in Chhattisgarh's Bastar region," the report states. "The pastor and his wife managed to escape after they were beaten up and doused with petrol. The attackers destroyed the electronic equipment at the church, besides thrashing the pastor's children and setting ablaze scriptures and furniture. The FIR [First Information Report] stated the assailants were well-armed and even tried to burn the pastor's house."
Physical violence, arrests on false allegations and stopping church services were frequent crimes, with attacks on churches, vandalizing and threats also recurring. One person was reported to have been murdered because of his faith.
EFIRLC's report, backed by independent fact-finding surveys, points out that local units of the Bajrang Dal, Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Akhil Bharatiya Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram and other Hindu extremist splinter factions affiliated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh were the groups most often behind the violence.
Rise of Tamil Nadu
Though anti-Christian violence is assumed to be more widespread across the north Indian states, Tamil Nadu in the south rose to fourth position on the list with 14 incidents.
Some of them were brutal. A pastor from Kambam in Theni District of Tamil Nadu was attacked during a worship service on Jan. 17. Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) activists attacked his head with a heavy, sharp object, leaving him to what they supposed would be his death. Emergency treatment for profuse bleeding saved his life.
Telangana, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh were the other southern states making it onto the list with seven, six and two cases respectively.
'Freedom of Religion' Acts
In many incidents, Christians were accused of conversion by force or allurement and charged under so-called Freedom of Religion Acts after they were harassed, threatened and thrashed. The acts, popularly known as anti-conversion laws, declare conversion by force, allurement or fraudulent means to be criminal. Radical Hindu groups commonly use them to falsely implicate Christians.
In Dhar District of Madhya Pradesh, for example, Balu Sastya and his wife Bhuri, both blind, were called to pray for a sick person. When they had gathered at the house of the sick person along with 11 others, a mob of more than 50 people with sticks and stones surrounded the house.
They uttered abusive words and threatened to kill Sastya and his companions, but when police arrived, the extremists filed a complaint against him and others, accusing them of attempting to convert gullible villagers by promising them physical healing. Sastya, his wife, and their 3-year-old son had to spend two days and three nights in jail before they were released on bail.
Even in states like Uttar Pradesh, where such laws do not exist, propagation of one's faith, especially Christianity, is generally misperceived as illegal because of the laws.
At least 10 arrests and repeated cases of false allegations hint at the hand-in-glove relationship between non-state actors and local administrators. In many cases, the local administration and police refused to act and openly sided with the assailants.
Hindu radicals in Digal village of Malkangiri District in Odisha (formerly Orissa) state threatened Christians early this year, warning them to leave the village for worshipping Jesus Christ. As the Christians were on their way to a police station on Jan. 19, the Hindu extremists ambushed and beat them in the presence of local police. Officers declined to help the Christians.
The escalation of anti-Christian violence was consistently related to city and state election times.
"While Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh have a history of anti-Christian policies and violent non-state agencies targeting the community," wrote the EFI general secretary, the Rev. Vijayesh Lal, "there has been a startling rise in such targeted violence in Uttar Pradesh, which faces elections early in 2017, and in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, governed by [Prime Minister Narendra] Modi's ally, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, with Miss Jayaram Jayalalithaa as the Chief Minister."
One of the most infamous cases from Uttar Pradesh state was that of pastor Avdhesh Savita in Orai town, Jalaun District. Members of the Hindu extremist Youth Brigade (Yuvavahini) on Jan. 29 kidnapped Pastor Savita under the guise of policemen, beat him brutally, shaved half of his head, eyebrows and mustache, and paraded him on a donkey for about half an hour. The pastor was later charged with forcible conversion.
Findings from Bastar District in Chhattisgarh state, central India, suggest systematic attempts to persecute Christian minorities. Such attempts include hate campaigns and misuse of laws that grant rights of self-governance and preservation of culture to tribal (Adivasi) villages to provoke communal tensions.
Hindu radical groups have succeeded in associating local cultural and customs legislation with Hindu religious practices, denouncing everything non-Hindu as a threat to their culture and identity. Section 129 (c) of the Chhattisgarh Gram Panchayat Act states, "The Gram Sabha shall have the power to safeguard and preserve the traditions and customs of the people, their cultural identity and community resources and customary mode of dispute resolution."
Such laws are used to restrict Christians from practicing and propagating their faith.
EFIRCL's report includes detailed and alarming accounts of several other incidents of violence against Christians.
Lal issued the following recommendations in the report:
- Enact a comprehensive hate crimes legislation to safeguard the rights of religious minorities.
- The Ministry of Home Affairs should provide trainings on human rights and religious freedom standards and practices to the state and central police and judiciary.
- Although maintenance of public order is a state responsibility, the central government should issue an advisory to the state governments to repeal the anti-conversion laws.
- The government should ensure an active Commission for Human Rights and Commission for Minorities is operational in every state, and that members of each commission are appointed by transparent and non-partisan procedures.
- Prevent and pursue, through the judicial process, all violent acts against religious and tribal minorities and Dalits.