Thursday, August 25, 2016

Persecuted Christians in India - the case of Kandhamal

Kandhamal: Long Wait for Justice
 Ram Puniyani
Today, nearly a decade later when we are remember with pain the horrific violence of Kandhmal in 2008, many issues related to the state of affairs of communal violence, state of minorities, the state of justice delivery system come to one’s mind.
The incident
Just to recall, Orissa witnessed unprecedented violence against the Christian minority in August 2008. On August 23, 2008, Swami Laxmananand along with his four followers was killed, probably by a group of Maoists. Immediately, anti-Christian violence began on a big scale. The way it began it seemed as if preparations for it were well afoot. It was systematic and widespread. It sounded as if preparation was already there just the pretext was being awaited. (1)
Christians in India
Christians are a tiny minority in India. Contrary to the perception that British brought Christianity to India, it is one of the oldest religions of India. Its spread has been slow. Not much was heard against this minority till the decade of 1990s, when suddenly it started being asserted that Christian missionaries are converting. Anti-Christian violence has been occurring more in the remote-interior places and is accompanied by another phenomenon, that of Ghar Vapasi (return home), which is the conversions of Adivasis into the fold of Hinduism, by Vishwa Hindu Parishad-Vanavasi Kalyan Ashram. (2)
It is from 1996, that this phenomenon of conversion-anti Christian violence has captured the attention of all of us. Suddenly, as if from nowhere has descended the ‘threat of conversion to Christianity’ by force or fraud. Simultaneously, attacks on priests and nuns increased in distant interior places. It has been a peculiar phenomenon that while these attacks in remote places were being undertaken, the Christian institutions in cities – schools, colleges and hospitals – were hard pressed to cope with the demands on their services related to education and health. The selective targeting of Christian missionaries in distant places was a matter of serious attention, concern and introspection.
Social Common Sense
As the ‘social common sense’ started accepting, ‘yes, they are converting’, ‘they have been converting’, a sort of silent approval of layers of society and state officials did accompany these attacks on the missionaries. One was used to hearing about attacks on Muslim minorities so far. How come a new minority came to be perceived as the ‘source of trouble’ and hence started being targeted? (3)
Anti Christian violence did begin with isolated incidents like the attack on the Catholic Health Centre of India near Latur (1996), burning of Bibles and attacks on the Christian congregations. But most shocking was the burning alive of Pastor Graham Steward Stains (1999, January) along with his two sons, Philip and Timothy, aged 9 and 7 years, who were sleeping in a jeep after a village festival. Gradually the pattern of these attacks started emerging. In the remote places where Vanvasi Kalyan Ashrams (Society for Welfare of Forest Dwellers), an outfit of RSS, have been active and doing the propaganda work along with starting of Ekal schools and have been Hinduising Adivasis, the incidents were more pronounced and intense.
Anti Christian Violence: Characteristics
The violence against Christian missionaries has by now become a matter of routine. Unlike the anti Muslim pogroms-violence, it has been scattered and generally low key, occurring at sporadic intervals. Barring few dastardly acts like Pastor Stains’ burning and Rani Maria’s being hacked to death the incidents were medium in intensity and did not take the shape of carnage or pogrom against the community till the one in Orissa (December 2007 and later August 2008). The occurrence of these incidents was mostly in places that are having rampant poverty and illiteracy. The apathy in highlighting these core issues, deprivations, by a section of media was appalling. At the same time, by word of mouth the propaganda against Christian Missionaries was intensified.
The message has been spread that Christian missionaries working in remote places are soft targets and one can get away without much reprisals. Also the anti-Christian mobilization of Adivasi youth through cultural manipulation was the groundwork on which the anti-Christian violence could sustain. In the atmosphere created by the activities of RSS progeny, local communal groups have felt emboldened to pick up any small issue and to make a violent incident out of it. Its’ frightening effect on the victims is tremendous. It also begins to polarize the local communities into Christian and non-Christian camps amongst whom the seeds of tension are sown.
Cultural:  Agenda
The physical violence has been accompanied by cultural manipulation in these areas. The silent work to Hinduise Adivasis through religio-cultural mechanisms has been stepped up from last three decades. People like Swami Aseemanand (Dangs), Swami Laxmanand (Kandhmal, Orissa), followers of Asaram Bapu (Jhabua, MP) began their work in popularizing Hindu gods and Goddesses in the region. The choice of Gods/Goddesses from the vast pantheon of Hindu religion was a clever one. Here Shabri (Symbol of poverty and deprivation) was the main goddess, the idol for Adivasis. Temples in her names were started and regular Kumbhs (mass religious congregation of Hindus) were organized in her name. Kumbhs have been a tradition in Hinduism on fixed interval of time on the banks of Holy rivers; Ganges in particular. Modifying that tradition, these Kumbhs were organized in Adivasis areas. Here the work of conversion to Hinduism, the spread of ‘Hate against’ foreigners’, particularly Christians, was spread. In addition an atmosphere of terror was created against those who do not toe the line of Vanavasi Kalyan Ashram. (4)
Similarly the God Hanuman, the foremost devotee of Lord Ram was also made popular, by spreading his lockets and through different stories around him, in the Ekal Schools and Sarswati Shishu Mandirs. It created an atmosphere of divide in the Adivasi areas; Adivasis turned Hindus, the Hindu dalits and upper caste versus the Christians. It is this atmosphere of divisiveness, which has been at the root of the violence in these areas.
Political Agenda
This has been a part of the different activities undertaken by RSS combine to promote the agenda of Hindu nation. While RSS has floated many a organizations to communalize different sections of society, BJP, VHP, Bajrang Dal, etc. it has also unleashed a set of cultural activities, set of educational institutions along with infiltration in media, bureaucracy, police and military. They are gradually imposing the idea of Hindu nation and accompanying culture and ideas. The culmination of this has been the violence against minorities, polarization of communities along religious lines and ghettoization of minorities. While all this is going on the violence against minorities’ is the most visible part of this phenomenon.
The role of state agencies has been no different in these incidents than what it has been in the anti Muslim violence. In most cases, the administration has looked the other way when communal goons were on the rampage. The administration most often provided enough leeway for them to wreck havoc, indulge in intimidation, violence and to get away with that. The Adivasi areas, which were so far peaceful, started witnessing communal tensions. The area of violence in Adivasi regions is synonymous with the map of spread of Vanvasi Kalyan Ashrams and Vishwa Hindu Parishads in an indirect way.
RSS had been floating different organizations for different sections of society; Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, to Hinduise Adivasis was founded in 1952 and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad founded in 1964 was to play an important role in the anti Christian tirade in times to come. Another RSS progeny which, directly supported violence against Christians, Bajrang Dal, was founded by RSS in 1984. After the intimidation and browbeating of Muslim minorities, especially after the post Babri demolition Mumbai riots, they stepped up their social dominance and needed another community to target their trishuls for further expansion of their social and electoral base, and that was done by the bogey of forced conversions and accompanying anti Christian violence, which started coming to the fore from 1996 onwards. The targeting of minorities has played an important role in polarizing the communities, in consolidation of the majoritarian politics in various ways. (5)
The burning of Pastor Stains, in that sense was a turning point for Human rights groups, who so far were trying to grapple and respond to the anti Muslim violence. With this many concerned groups took up the investigations of the violence against Christians in the right earnest. As such, the first major cover up had to be undertaken by the BJP led NDA Government itself, in the aftermath of Stains murder. Initially, as a fire fighting measure, the functionaries of the NDA government tried to give a clean chit to the RSS combine. After the murder, the then home minister Lal Krishna Advani stated that he knows Bajrang Dal very well and this act could not have been done by that organization. To put a veil on the episode, the three cabinet ministers, George Fernandez, Murli Manohar Joshi and Navin Patnaik rushed to the site and proclaimed that the murder of Pastor is an international conspiracy to destabilize the BJP Government. This way they tried to bypass the real issue, i.e. involvement of Dara Singh, an activist of Bajrang Dal. (6)
Struggle for Justice: People’s Tribunals 
The case of Orissa was specifically investigated by India Peoples Tribunal, led by Justice K.K.Usha (retired) of Kerala High court in 2006. (7) This tribunal forewarns about the shape of things to come.  This tribunal assessed the spread of communal organizations in Orissa, which has been accompanied by a series of small and large events and some riots…such violations are utilized to generate the threat and reality of greater violence, and build and infrastructure of fear and intimidation. It further noted that minorities are being grossly ill treated; there is gross inaction of the state Government to take action. The report also describes in considerable detail how the cadre of majoritarian communal organizations are indoctrinated in hatred and violence against other communities it holds to be inherently inferior. If such communalization is undertaken in Orissa, it is indicative of the future of the nation… the signs are truly ominous for India's democratic future.
It is in this backdrop that when the Kandhamal carnage took place, the offense of RSS affiliates, the lapses and partisan behaviour of state machinery, the lack of rehabilitation and deliverance of justice came as a big jolt to the victims and became the matter of concern for human rights groups. The lack of proper investigation and other actions on the part of state were the key for getting justice for the victims. While many a sincere, scattered efforts to help the afflicted were undertaken by different groups. These efforts were effective but inadequate in their reach. The tribunal organized for Orissa violence under Justice A. P.Shah (Retd) brought out the truth of the carnage. The hope was that the victims will be suitably rehabiliatated and get justice. (8) 
This tribunal observed, (excerpts)
“The appalling feature of the Kandhamal violence, where rescue and relief work by non-profit, charitable and humanitarian organizations was prohibited through a government notification, indicates the impunity with which the state government acted, and its scant respect for rule of law and human rights of the victim-survivors of the violence.”...
“The dismal conditions in the government-run relief camps  are clearly indicative of the indifference of the state government to the plight of victim-survivors.”...”The testimonies of victim-survivors as well as the reports presented to the Tribunal indicate that victim-survivors were forcibly sent back to their villages, or abandoned near their villages, with total disregard to their safety.”...“Peace-building Initiatives: The fact that many victim-survivors are unable to return to their villages due to threats and intimidation by perpetrators, and many of those who have returned continue to live in constant fear and security, lead us to conclude that the state government’s peace initiatives have been a dismal failure and nothing more than an eyewash.”
It also made lot of recommendations about relief, rehaibilation, compensation and justice. This excerpt is very telling “Implementation of State’s Duty Towards Peace-building, Voluntary Return and Reintegration:  The State should recognize the Internally Displaced Persons’ right to return to their homes and create all possible enabling conditions to facilitate such safe return in accordance with the above standards. The state ought to discharge its duty of creating a conducive, safe and peaceful environment that can sustain return or re-integration of victim-survivors through access to public services, legal and personal documentation, and to livelihoods and income-generating opportunities without any form of discrimination.”
As usual the recommendations of the tribunal remain in the limbo. The heartening feature of struggle for justice in Kandhamal is the dogged determination of the victims and human rights activists to get the justice. This is also the time to understand that justice is a long term goal also which requires a programmatic alliance between the struggling sections of society, be it dalits, Adivasis, women, workers or struggling sections of society. In the light of growing intolerance in society, in the light of the growing stifling of the democracy society the need to build social alliances to preserve democracy and human rights is all the more crucial at this juncture.
Foot Notes

Surya Namaskar in all BMC schools is an imposition of sangh parivar’s saffron agenda

BJP is making the life of non-Hindus miserable inside India, who are now forced to pay obeisance to the sun - Surya. This is simply unacceptable.

All Muslims are fuming on the new directive, esp. the Muslims for Secular Democracy (MSD) which strongly protests the decision of the Brihan Mumbai Municipal Corporation to make Surya Namaskar compulsory in the over 1,200 schools run by the civic body.

The BJP claims Surya Namaskar is beneficial in leading a healthy life, improves concentration and has nothing to do with any religion. While the combination of yogasana postures involved may well be beneficial for good health, Surya Namaskar does mean “salutations to Lord Surya (The Sun), the giver of energy to the world” and is widely regarded as “a wonderful regular routine of exercise, prayer and worship given in the scriptures”.

It is for this reason that very many Muslims find Surya Namaskar objectionable since Islam forbids bowing before or worship of anyone except God.

MSD believes that notwithstanding its posturing, the BJP’s decision to impose Surya Namaskar on all students irrespective of religion is an integral part of its saffronisation agenda.

It therefore supports the demand for a rollback of this unconstitutional decision of the BJP and its ally, the Shiv Sena.
Statement issued by Hasan Kamaal, Javed Siddiqi, Noorjehan Safia Niaz, Javed Anand, Feroze Mithiborwala.

Saw Khin Tint should resign from the Advisory Commission

An advisory committee has been formed in Myanmar, headed by ex-UN secretary general Kofi Annan, to solve the sad and inhuman catastrophe facing the Rohingya minorities of Arakan state. Since 2012, some 140,000 of them don't have any home to return, as a result of genocidal campaigns by racist and bigot Rakhines, which were aided by government agencies, Buddhist politicians and monks. The persecuted Rohingya were denied their right to even cast vote in the last general election.

The formation of the advisory commission should be a matter of celebration, unfortunately, such enthusiasm is dashed by a rotten rat. It includes a known racist and bigot Rakhine Literature and Culture Association (Yangon) chair Daw Khin Saw Tint, who is Rakhine. I must admit that I didn't know much about her position until I came across Dr. Zarni's link:

(Thanks to Dr. Maung Zarni for sharing the info with English translation.) Upon reading the piece from Khin Saw Tint, there is no hiding that she is a very hostile person, an anti-Rohingya zealot. And that is a sad thing to see happen to the advisory commission that is supposed to come with solutions to resolve the decades-old problem.

One would have liked to believe that Suu Kyi would have been more careful in selecting members of the Advisory Commission. Obviously, we are all disappointed to see the inclusion of a racist and bigot like Saw Khin Tint to whom Rohingyas have no history prior to the Burma's independence from Great Britain. Such deniers of the truth are provocateurs of the 'slow' genocide that we know is happening with the Rohingya people. Unless their narratives are disallowed or shun, they will continue to leave Burma a divided country where the rights of vulnerable minority would suffer immensely.
After being named in the commission, she said she believes working together with independent and highly respected international figures will present a clear image of what is happening in Rakhine State to the international community. “The problem can only be solved with a bilateral approach,” she said. “I think it is good to include unbiased representatives from the Muslim community because their consultation with the local residents will help us find the best solutions and understand what is happening on the ground.”

I have no confidence in her knowing her highly deplorable statements that deny Rohingya history. Knowing her biased, hateful position on Rohingya, in all fairness, Saw Khin Tinit should excuse herself from the commission so that it can do its task fairly.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

World Rohingya Day

On Friday, 19 August 2016, the first World Rohingya Day demonstrations took place around the world. Thanks to all who organized, participated, and publicized these rallies.

Rallies and demonstrations took place in London, UK; Washington DC, Toronto, Canada, New York, Chicago; Stockholm, Sweden; Boston; Los Angeles; and many other places.

                        The speakers demanded end to the ongoing genocide of Rohingya people who are indigenous people of Burma living in their ancestral lands.

In London, the World Rohingya Day Rally in front of the Burmese Embassy was attended by several dozen people, including many Rohingya.  Speakers included Maung Zarni; Tun Khin, President of Burmese Rohingya Association UK; Ko Aung, 8888 Generation Leader and former political prisoner; Laua Haigh, Myanmar Affairs, Amnesty International; Claire Denman, Public Affairs Officer, Christian Solidarity Worldwide; and Anna Roberts, Burma Campaign UK.  Video of Zarni’s speech can be found here:            

Journalists from Al Jazeera were present, and coverage of this event can be found in the Burmese publication the Irrawaddy.

In Washington, D.C., the rally was held in front of the Embassy of Burma at 3:00 P.M.  Attendees carried placards demanding that the Burmese Government restore Rohingya rights. Dr. Wakar Uddin Ahmed, Director General, Arakan Rohingya Union demanded restoration of Rohingya citizenship.

The Chicago rally took place in Federal Plaza. Speakers included Jennifer and Tauseef from the Burma Task Force team; Aishah, a translator in the Rohingya community; Dr. Azeem Ibrahim, author and scholar on the Rohingya; Jacob Heiss, musician who advocates for indigenous people’s rights; Shaukat, a Rohingya immigrant; and Asayo Horibe, a Japanese internment camp survivor and Buddhist leader. A poem by a Rohingya was read out by Shirmeen (interning producer at Radio Islam). Two Rohingyas told their first-hand stories. Muslim, Buddhist, and Christian perspectives on the responsibility to protect were shared. The rally was covered by the Burma Times & Rohingya Vision TV. 

In New York City, the World Humanitarian Day rally too place in front of the United Nations. The speakers list included, Adem Carroll from the BTF team; Imam Aiyub Baki and Syrian American Imam Samer al Raey; Indian Muslim activist Sana Uddin; Three speakers from Amnesty International main offices; and at least 6 Rohingyas spoke in English and in their language. Organizers & participants gave out our materials to passersby, as well as at the closest Masjid after Juma prayers. We also gave our statements to 2 journalists that were in the area to report on other UN activities, one proved to be Indian media.

In Stockholm, Sweden, the rally was held in front of the Swedish Parliament House. It was heavily attended by Rohingya with several Rohingya speakers.

In Toronto, Canada, the rally was held at Mississauga Celebration Square. It was very well attended by both Rohingya and non-Rohingya, and was deemed by the organizers to be a great success. Speakers included Anwar Arkani - Leader in the Rohingya community; Sayyid Ahmed - Rohingya refugee; Farheen Khan - writer, community activist, consultant; and Farina Siddiqui - business management consultant, speaker & community activist.

In Los Angeles, the rally was held in front of the Consulate of Myanmar.  Speakers were informal, sharing slogans and stories.

In Boston, the rally was held at Harvard Square.  It was attended by some Rohingya and many allies, carrying placards with the Rohingya’s grievances.

In Durham, North Carolina, there was no rally, but artist Kulsum Tasnif included a nod to the Rohingya cause in her exhibit which opened on 14 August and will close on the 27th.  Called Journey to the Good Life, the exhibit showcases paintings inspired by the refugee experience.  Interviews taken by BTF staff with anonymous Rohingya refugees were audio-recorded and piped into the exhibit for viewers to hear while exploring the art.  Ms. Tasnif reported good attendance at the exhibit and was excited to mention that it was well received – particularly the audio interviews that contextualized it.

Myanmar's Rohingya Muslims: Glimmer of hope at last?

There haven't been many good moments for Myanmar's Rohingya Muslims in the last four years.
This country's dramatic political changes have passed them by. Greater democracy has not brought greater respect for the stateless Rohingya's human rights.
But the formation of an Advisory Commission on Rakhine State represents a rare glimmer of hope.
For the first time, the Burmese government is seeking international expertise to try and solve one of the country's most complex problems.
It's a significant shift. For years, the official Burmese mantra has been that "no foreigner can possibly understand Rakhine's problems".
Now Kofi Annan, the former UN secretary general, has been tasked with taking a fresh look at the issues as head of nine-member commission. His report could just add to the mountain of papers written about Rakhine and the Rohingya, or it just might be a game-changer.
To read the latest development, please, click here.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Section 144 imposed in Agartala

Section 144 was imposed in Agartala after several people were injured in clashes between supporters and activists of Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT) and local residents in different parts of the city, the police said.
“A group of people from the procession of IPFT attacked some persons at the heart of the town at Kaman Chowmuhai and ransacked some shops and set fire to some vehicles, apparently without provocation.
“This incident resulted in clashes and at least 17 people including women were injured,” SP (Police Control), Uttam Bhaumick said.
Soon after the incident, DGP, K Nagraj and SP (West), Abhijit Saptarshi rushed to the spot with a large contingent of police and paramilitary forces brought the situation under control, he said.
Bhaumick said in one place the police had to resort to lathi charge to disperse the unruly crowd.
The IPFT, a tribal based party, today took out a procession in the city demanding ‘Twipra land’, a separate state for the tribals by curbing out the Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council (TTAADC) from the state.

Mali extremist begs ‘forgiveness’ for destroying Timbuktu shrines

You may recall the horrific and criminal activities of the Wahabi zealots when they destroyed Islamic shrines in Mali. Now one of their captured leaders says that he was wrong and begs for forgiveness. He pleaded guilty to intentionally ordering the attacks on nine shrines and the Sidi Yahia mosque between June 30 and July 11, 2012 when the extremists seized control of part of northern Mali. The attacks on the ancient shrines triggered a global outcry, and archaeologists hope the trial will send a stern warning that such plundering of our common heritage will not go unpunished.

To read the story, click here.