2008 Attacks On Christians in Southern Karnataka - Background and Cause

Background and Cause

Mangalore has long been a major Christian centre in India. In 1526, under the viceroyship of Lopo Vaz de Sampaio, the Portuguese took possession of Mangalore and Christianity began to spread. Many Christians migrated to South Canara from Goa. The Mangalorean Catholics were persecuted by Tipu Sultan during his reign between 1782 to 1799 and many were forcibly converted to Islam. On 24 February 1784, Tipu rounded up 60,000 to 80,000 Mangalorean Catholics and transported them to Seringapatam. They were held there in captivity for 15 years, until Tipu was killed by the British at the Battle of Seringapatam on 4 May 1799. Only 15,000–20,000 of those Catholics taken captive in 1784 survived. In the latter half of the 19th century, Protestant missionaries began working in Mangalore and surrounding communities, and the Vicariate of Mangalore was established in 1853. Mangalore, noted for its many churches and the strong representation of Catholics, was at one time known as the "Rome of the East". However it is also noted as a pilgrimage centre for Hindus, given its numerous Hindu temples and shrines. Between 1991 and 2011, the percentage of Christians living in India reportedly dropped from 2.7 per cent to 2.2 per cent, a declining figure which has been linked to ongoing difficulties facing Christians in a predominantly Hindu nation. In 2008, an estimated 320,300 Christians were living in the Dakshina Kannada district.

"Historically, Dakshina Kannada district has been a very long standing RSS / VHP stronghold. Right from the days of the freedom movement and thereafter when Gandhi was assassinated by a group of fanatics who maintained that his brand of politics was unacceptable to the Hindu fundamentalists, the district has always been the nerve-centre of these movements with regular morning drills on the maidans (grounds), processions, baithaks (seatings) and sammelans (meetings). These activities took a violent turn after the year 2000 when it was found very convenient to target the Muslim community on the ground that they are allegedly anti-nationals and that they are disloyal to this country. It is an offence under the IPC to indulge in any form of communal disharmony but the offensive articles kept regularly appearing in the Press headed by a leading Kannada daily owned by some industrialists from Manipal, particularly after the 1993 Bombay Bomb Blasts and violent incidents in different parts of the country. Mangalore in particular, and some of the other towns in Dakshina Kannada were prone to Hindu–Muslim violence though on a relatively small and isolated scale but this was definitely a disturbing factor. Never had it happened before that the Christian community had been attacked."

— Extract from the Saldanha Commission report into the background of religious tensions in the Dakshina Kannada district.

Several explanations of the cause of the September 2008 attacks have been postulated. Many Christians believe that the attacks were a direct response from right-wing Hindu organisations who were targeting the people of Mangalore and the surrounding area because they had been outspoken about persecution of Christians in Orissa. St. Aloysius College, a Jesuit institution in Mangalore, and some other 2000 Christian schools in Karnataka, went on strike for varying periods between 29 August and the 5 September prior to the attacks, protesting against anti-Christian persecution in Orissa, contrary to the orders of the government who stated that they were to be regular work days. Primary and secondary education minister Vishweshwar Hegde Kageri, responding to the shutting down of the Christian educational institutions in Karnataka, had directed the public education department to issue show-cause notices to schools that had objected to the violence against Christians in Orissa. A Christian institution in Shimoga had reportedly received a notice from the education ministry of Karnataka during the strike saying, "The VHP and Bajrang Dal have conducted a protest against the closure of schools and criticised your action. They have submitted letters requesting action against you for this. In this context, you are asked to show cause as to why action should not be initiated against you for using religion as an excuse to announce a holiday and as to why permission to run your institution should not be withdrawn." State Home Minister V. S. Acharya explained the reason for the notices, "All Christian institutions are grant-in-aid institutions of the government and they should have had the courtesy to inform us before declaring a holiday. Their decision to act unilaterally cannot be tolerated." The education minister was backed by the State President D. V. Sadananda Gowda, who issued a statement in which he stated that Christian education institutions had committed a crime by declaring holiday without obtaining the state government’s permission. However, the Indian National Congress (INC) condemned Hegde's statement to take action against Christian education institutions and the leader of the Opposition in the Legislative Assembly, Mallikarjun Kharge, stated that "The minister’s statement is not proper. It may lead to law and order problem in the State." Bajrang Dal proponents protested with banners outside the St. Aloysius College gates and across Mangalore on Saturday 31 August, the day after the college had closed for a holiday, chanting slogans such as, "Jai Mata Di" (Hail to the Mother) and "Bharat Mata ki jai" (Hail Mother India). It should be noted, however, that the closure of the schools in Mangalore were not alone; some 45,000 institutions across India had participated on 29 August in a "prayer for peace and communal harmony" in response to the events in Orissa.

Another explanation is that the attacks were an angry response by Bajrang Dal over the allegations that the New Life Fellowship Trust were indulging in forceful religious conversion of Hindus and distribution of vulgar literature slandering Hindu gods and goddesses. Bajrang Dal claimed that nearly 15,000 people had been forced to adopt Christianity as their religion in Mangalore alone in the past year after monitoring the situation. In the book Satyadarshini, written by Andhra Pradesh Pastor Paravastu Suryanarayana Rao, it was also reported that the New Life Fellowship Trust had denigrated and defamed Hindu gods, causing anger amongst the Bajrang Dal. Hindu activists also alleged that excerpts from Rao's book had been published in pamphlets to spread its influence. Mahila Parishat leader Asha Jagadish believed that the attacks were solely motivated by religious conversion by New Life and claimed that her neighbour was forcefully converted into Christianity to marry a Christian girl, further stating, "The Holy Saint School in Bangalore, where I studied up to fifth standard, did not allow me to wear kumkum or bangles according to Hindu tradition." Fr. Francis Serrao, rector of St. Aloysius College, stated that he believed the attacks were not due to conversion, but was rather a reflection of the struggle between Christianity and Brahmanism and theorised that Christian ideology and Brahmin ideology can never coexist as "Christianity propagates love and Brahmanism propagates hate."

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