UCAN: Bishop says Hindu demand against tribal Christian rights targets mission work
JAIPUR, India (UCAN) – A Catholic bishop in northwestern India says a renewed Hindu demand to strip non-Hindu tribal people of their constitutional rights is a move against mission work.
The Hindu groups "probably want to deprive non-Hindus of their tribal rights as a disincentive to conversions," according to Bishop Joseph Pathalil of Udaipur, whose diocese is based in Rajasthan state.
The demand was raised at a Feb. 25 rally led by Vanvasi Kalyan Parishad (VKP, forest dwellers' development forum), an affiliate of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS, national volunteer corps). RSS is the umbrella body of organizations working to make India a Hindu nation.
Carrying bows and arrows, about 40,000 tribal people came singing and dancing to the rally in Udaipur. It passed a resolution demanding that non-Hindu tribal people be stripped of constitutional concessions granted to all tribal people.
These include rights to reserved land, to live in reserved forests, and to harvest and sell minor forest products. Tribal people also are entitled to financial assistance in education, and quotas are reserved for them in jobs and educational institutions.
The Indian constitution treats "every tribal equally, irrespective of religion," Bishop Pathalil explained to UCA News in a telephone interview from Udaipur, 660 kilometers (about 410 miles) southwest of New Delhi.
Currently, tribal Christians "enjoy all the special rights and privileges accorded to tribal people, although I would say they often find it difficult to procure them from an indifferent system," he added.
The state is now run by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP, Indian people's party), considered to be the political wing of the right-wing Hindu groups. Christian leaders say tribal people in Rajasthan's southwestern region have suffered attacks from Hindu groups since the present government came to power in December 2003.
Media reports say the government tacitly supports these groups. For example, government departments were involved in organizing the Feb. 25 rally, which was addressed by top-ranking officials of Hindu bodies.
In one of those addresses, RSS chief K.S. Sudarshan cautioned the tribal people against the "vested interests" and "disruptive forces" operating in the area. He urged them to stand up, get organized and fight such "evil forces." Such terms are often used by RSS activists to refer to religious minority groups such as Christians and Muslims.
Tribal people have not faced major attacks for the past year or so. However, an evangelical group called Emmanuel Mission International, based in Kota town, faced several incidents of harassment after Hindu groups accused it of publishing an "objectionable" book on Hindu deities.
Bishop Pathalil acknowledged that "there has not been any major attack on Christians in the area of late, but the harassment continues." His vehicle was stopped and pelted with stones near the predominantly tribal district of Banswara in October 2005.
The prelate said workers of Hindu organizations aim to create terror by "stalking nuns and priests when they visit the villages." But over time, he continued, "we are getting accustomed to this kind of situation."
The state known for desert tourism has 56 million people, 88 percent of them Hindus. Christians number barely 73,000, and 60 percent of them are tribal people belonging to various Churches and denominations.
Most of the tribal Catholics belong to Udaipur Diocese, from where attacks against Christians have been reported. The VKP is active in the area with its "re-conversion" programs, which attempt to bring tribal Christians back to Hinduism.
"They have a huge network in the area. All the big villages have at least one institution managed by an RSS affiliate," Bishop Pathalil said.
Niranjan Singh, a lawyer familiar with the tribal situation in Rajasthan, considers the Hindu demand "merely an attempt to provoke tribal people and create disharmony among the tribal communities." Tribal rights do not come under the state government, but are part of national policy.
"One cannot also say that all the tribal people present at the rally agreed to the resolution, which was read out in a language they do not speak," Singh observed, noting that the Hindu leaders at the rally spoke in Hindi. Most tribal people speak their own tribal dialect.
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