It was a calm Friday evening in December, when about a dozen Christian villagers sat to pray in a house in Bilkua village in the eastern Indian state of West Bengal. A few minutes later, a group of Hindu men armed with wooden sticks barged into the house, disrupted the service and left.
When 34-year-old pastor Ramu Hala restarted the service, the armed men came back to stop him and asked him to leave right away. It’s been more than a two months, but Hala — who is from a nearby village — hasn’t returned to Bilkua.
The country’s Hindu right — led by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the parent organization with several arms, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling BJP — has for decades viewed Christianity and Islam as alien religions. But Modi’s tenure since 2014 has seen the Hindu right largely target Muslims, with the government keen to avoid alienating the West.
Now, as the BJP prepares for a political test pivotal to expanding its base, mounting attacks on Christians are sparking worries that the RSS might be replacing the coyness of the past six years with a newfound aggression against the religion’s followers.
West Bengal, with a population larger than Germany’s, is one of a handful of states that the BJP has never ruled. But recent gains — it emerged as the second-largest party in the state behind the ruling Trinamool Congress in the 2019 national elections — have whetted its appetite for power there, where they anticipate more success in next year’s state elections.
The RSS now holds 2,650 daily and weekly meetups – called shakhas – across the state, up from 2,000 in 2017, according to the organization. That increased footprint has coincided with a sharp rise in attacks against the Christian community, from 17 in 2017 and 2018 combined, to 26 in 2019 alone, according to Persecution Relief, a Christian nonprofit.
Last March, a group of Hindu men used knives to attack Anand Hari, 62, the pastor of Full Gospel Evangelical Church, about 150 miles from Bilkua. He was hospitalized for three days. Last month, police arrested three men for allegedly hurling bombs at a church. In many other cases, victims — including Hala, the pastor attacked in Bilkua — are too scared to report cases against their attackers. Returning to Bilkua, Hala says, is out of the question.
The founders of the RSS questioned the loyalty of Indian followers of Christianity and Islam because their holiest shrines lie outside of India. Their successors have long accused Christian missionaries of converting poor Hindus to Christianity through enticements. In 1999, Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two sons were burned alive in their car by members of the Bajrang Dal, a paramilitary group that’s a part of the RSS umbrella.
But following a series of attacks on churches soon after Modi came to power, the Hindu right has focused its attention on Muslims, driving a spike in hate crimes against the community. The controversial new citizenship law that discriminates against Muslim migrants treats Christians on par with Hindus.
That go-soft approach toward Christians now appears to be cracking, starting with West Bengal, where the BJP is trying to consolidate Hindu votes for next year’s elections against the Trinamool Congress, which it has portrayed as pro-minority communities. How this new strategy plays out could determine the RSS approach to India’s 28 million Christians nationally.
In July 2019, RSS volunteers in the Sundarbans region forced a Christian nongovernmental organization from Kolkata to change the design of the school building they had built for poor Hindu children in the locality. The building was originally shaped like a church.
Father Dominic Gomes, vicar general of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Calcutta, says, “Christians are extremely anguished about these attacks, which have become a common phenomenon now.”
West Bengal minorities commission vice chairman Michael Shane Calvert insists that the “stray” attacks on Christians have been handled well by the administration. But Hari says he had to visit a police station 10 times before his complaint was registered. Ten months after he was stabbed, the police have yet to make an arrest.
And the reverberations of these attacks are beginning to be felt beyond the state’s 658,000-strong Christian population. The Indian constitution allows religious minorities to run their own education institutions free from several government regulations. That, many fear, could be the next target. “We fear that there will be an attempt to cripple the church by attacking the missionary educational institutions,” says Father Rodney Borneo, principal of Loyola High School, Kolkata.
The government did not invite even one of India’s 30,000-odd Christian educational institutions to offer suggestions while drafting a new education policy. In January, a federal BJP minister, Giriraj Singh, said those who study at missionary schools lack “Indian culture.”
The irony of these increased attacks coming amid the debate on the citizenship law — which will help migrant Christians become Indian nationals — isn’t lost on Gomes. “If they cannot make Christians of this country feel safe,” he asks, “how can they keep Christians of other countries safe here?”