Activists Urge India to Stem Anti-Christian Campaign

Sep 25, 2003 06:35 PM EDT

NEW DELHI - Following this week's death sentence to a man accused of killing a missionary and his two children four years ago, human rights and Christian groups in India are urging the federal government to quell efforts at whipping up a campaign against the minorities.

On Monday, Dara Singh was sentenced by an eastern Indian court for roasting alive missionary Graham Staines and his two minor children in an Orissa village in January 1999. A group called the Dara Sena, or Dara's army, called for a closure of Orissa's Mayurbhanj town Tuesday to protest the judgment.

Groups such as the All India Christian Council, the All India Catholic Union and Prashant stress that the federal government in New Delhi and the state administration in Orissa must clamp down on the activities of "a fringe group" protesting the sentence on Singh.

Singh has said he will not contest the conviction, but die "like a martyr." The Dara Sena states that after the execution, demonstrators will carry his ashes in an urn to different parts of the country.

"The sponsored deification of Dara Singh is aimed at sharpening the hate campaign against minorities in the country," observes the secretary general of the Christian Council and the vice president of the Catholic Union, John Dayal.

The activists fear the move has the potential of stirring up anti-minority passions in a country where radical Hindu groups have led attacks on Muslims and Christians in recent times.

"There will be serious repercussions of an act like this, starting with a ripple," warns Cedric Prakash, the head of the Ahmedabad-based human and minority rights group, Prashant.

"The protestors should not be allowed to vitiate the atmosphere," he says.

Prakash cites the case of the Godhra carnage, when a train compartment full of Hindu activists was set ablaze by a mob of Muslims in the western Indian state of Gujarat in February last year. The charred bodies of the passengers were brought to Ahmedabad in Gujarat and the city was swept by violence against Muslims that carried on for three months, killing at least 2,000 people.

"The Godhra attack was despicable, and so were the efforts at gaining political mileage by bringing the bodies to Ahmedabad," says Prakash. Following the carnage and the ensuing polarization of Hindus and Muslims, elections were held in the state in which the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party - accused by human rights groups of playing a partisan role in the violence - swept to power.

While stressing they are against the death penalty, the activists point out that the Indian law has a provision for execution in the "rarest of rare" cases.

"Justice has been served," says Prakash. "Now it is up to the state and federal government to ensure no one is allowed to break the law of the land," he says.

Dayal emphasizes that the Staines killings should not be treated as a simple murder case.

"Dara Singh campaigned for the Bharatiya Janata Party (which is the also majority partner in India's federal coalition government) and his deification is aimed at spreading hate against the Christian and Muslim communities," he says.

Since his conviction last week, Dayal says he has been flooded with anti-minority handbills.

"Dara Singh is an offshoot of the hate campaign against the minorities," he says. "The campaign seeks to brand Christians and Muslims as foreigners in India, and that is scary," he holds.

Already, there have been several instances of attacks on Christians in recent months.

Dayal points out that a people's forum organized by the Christian community in the southern state of Karnataka in June recorded 100 cases of atrocities against Christians in the state in a year.

The complainants cited instances of preachers being assaulted, churches attacked, pastors beaten up and prayer meetings disrupted.

The forum, which is presided over by legal luminaries and civil rights activists in the state, is preparing a document to be presented to the federal government.

"These instances point to a travesty of the Indian law," says Dayal. "And the law of the land must be upheld."

The activists stress that the government must ensure the sentencing of Dara Singh is not allowed to snowball into a campaign against the minorities.

"The state has to come down with a very strong hand on all those seeking to vitiate the atmosphere," declares Prakash. "If it fails to do so, people will arrogate powers on themselves, and propagate that might is right."