“We have designated Hindu Munnani members in all the 100 wards in Coimbatore. We immediately get to know when a non-Hindu takes residence in any ward in the city.”

Group of Christians in India, image for representation. Image for representation.
Delve Communal Violence Monday, October 17, 2022 - 07:45

In the electoral politics of Tamil Nadu, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is nothing more than a fringe player. The same cannot be said for the Hindutva ideology of the saffron party which appears to be growing deep roots in the state that prides itself on its Dravidian brand of politics. According to a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed in the Supreme Court by a group of Christian organisations in August this year, Tamil Nadu has been witnessing an alarmingly high number of hate crimes against Christians and their institutions since 2014 when Prime Minister Narendra Modi assumed power.

When TNM decided to hit the ground and investigate the claims of anti-Christian violence in the state, we not only found strong traces of the ideology of hate in the interior parts of the state but also discovered cases where the police and bureaucracy are also hostile to the missionaries.

In 2019, Tamil Nadu was second only to Uttar Pradesh when it came to hate crimes against Christians, (see table) according to statistics compiled by the United Christian Forum (UCF), one of the petitioners in the PIL. A bulk of the hate crimes were recorded in BJP-ruled states or in states where the party has a strong presence. Tamil Nadu presents the only exception to this trend.

According to UCF, there were 227 instances of hate crimes in Tamil Nadu between 2014 and 2022 in which Christian communities, pastors and churches were targeted by Hindutva extremists. The reports are based on the information collected by the UCF helpline, a toll-free number that was launched in January 2015 to help victims with legal remedies. The UCF report compiled a range of incidents involving disrupting prayers and attacking believers, attacking/abusing pastors and their family members, and vandalising churches.

Nearly half of the incidents (117) were reported from the Kongu region and nearby, made up of Coimbatore, Erode, Dharmapuri, Krishnagiri, Salem, Namakkal, Karur, Dindigul, Tirupur as well as parts of Madurai district. This region, which is dominated by the landed and politically influential Gounder and Thevar castes, is otherwise notorious for atrocities against Dalits.

We met pastors who shared that they have been evicted from the spaces they rented for prayer meetings, and attacked on accusations of conversion by Hindutva forces, chief among them the Hindu Munnani. The playbook in many attacks in the region is almost identical: identify a church or prayer service, incite the neighbouring residents by claiming conversion, surround and attack the churches, pastors, their families, and prayer halls, get the police involved, and force the landlord to evict them from the premises by threatening further violence.

While it wasn't difficult to access the victims of the anti-Christian violence, we were more keen to hear from the alleged perpetrators. Our quest led us to Coimbatore, the Hindutva laboratory of Tamil Nadu and stronghold of the Hindu Munnani. Coimbatore topped the Kongu region with 42 incidents of hate crimes, according to the UCF report. While the city has traditionally seen extreme communal violence between Hindus and Muslims, anti-Christian violence is a relatively new phenomenon in Coimbatore. And the Munnani is at the forefront of this campaign, police sources said.

The Hindu Munnani

A militant affiliate of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) which started in the early 1980s, the Munnani grew exponentially in the early 1990s by organising Vinayaka Chaturthi festivals with the tacit support of the then All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) government of J Jayalalithaa. These festivities, which involved taking out massive public processions, often degenerated into riots as organisers insisted on passing through neighbourhoods dominated by Muslims. But in the last decade, the Munnani has started focusing their attention on Christians, a top police official in Coimbatore said on the condition of anonymity.

The Munnani has one person designated to keep a watch on the Christian community in every neighbourhood of the city, said the organisation’s Coimbatore South district secretary, Govindraj Natarajan. “We have designated Hindu Munnani members in all the 100 wards in Coimbatore. We immediately get to know when a non-Hindu takes residence in any ward in the city. We know if they are involved in conversion or just leading normal lives.”

The police, who are aware of these ward-level watchers, say that they are highly trained. “You will rarely see them in the forefront when violence breaks out. They are not in it to become leaders of agitations. Their role is to work quietly in the community and provoke violence rather than participate in it,” said the senior police officer in Coimbatore.

Meeting Govindraj Natarajan at his home in Myleripalayam was a peculiar experience. He made us wait for two hours at a roadside tea stall even as it rained heavily. When TNM was finally allowed to enter his residence, the Hindu Munnani leader asked for a photo and a video of this reporter, and had already informed his superiors in the organisation about the reporter’s arrival. The Munnani members at Govindraj’s residence were highly suspicious and seemed nervous about an English news outlet seeking an interview about the Munnani’s mobilisation against Christians.

However, when we finally came to face each other, Govindraj was surprisingly amiable and eager to talk about his group’s campaign against Christians. “This area is filled with members of the Gounder caste, you cannot see caste discrimination here,” he said.

“In our locality there were only two to three Christian families until a few years ago. But now, more than 40 families believe in Christianity, and in recent years the number of conversions has increased and conversions are peaking in the DMK regime,” he said. Govindraj, who has been with the Munnani for 17 years, denied that the group was involved in attacks against the minority community. Instead, he claimed that they worked among Hindus to create awareness about threats to the religion. He said that the group restricted itself to filing complaints to the police against illegal churches.

Reacting on instances of anti-Christian violence, he said that it was the result of ordinary Hindus reacting spontaneously. “We cannot deny there is tension between Hindus and the people who are trying to convert people to Christianity. Hindu Munnani leaders have never been involved in any of this violence. But how can ordinary Hindu people sit and watch pastors insulting Hindu deities?” he asked.

“We educate people about Hinduism and ask them to believe and practise traditional prayer methods. We give more awareness to the Dalit community by issuing pamphlets listing the goodness of our religion,” Govindraj said, justifying the violence. “Now after having awareness they have started to ask questions against the pastors. When they insult Hindu deities, Hindus are giving them a befitting reply.”

When we met Govindraj’s superior, Jeyashankar, the powerful Coimbatore general secretary of the Hindu Munnani, he immediately sought to counter the impression that the group was against all Christians. He said that the Munnani had no problem with mainstream Catholics and Protestants but were out to check the spread of evangelical groups such as the Pentecostal mission. To prove his point, he brought along his protestant Christian friend for the interview.

“Look here, see my friend Stalin, he is also Christian and we have been friends since our childhood. He invites us for Christmas and we invite him over for Deepavali and Pongal. He or his sect is never involved in any sort of conversions,” Jeyashankar said. Stalin sat through the interview and enthusiastically agreed with his childhood buddy as he launched a diatribe against evangelists.

We also met the Munnani’s state executive member, Satish, who has been with the organisation for 25 years. He said, “Conversion peaked in the late 70s and early 80s in the state. But the rates of conversion reduced after Hindu Munnani emerged as a supportive pillar to the Hindus.” Alleging that people are being converted in exchange for inducements, he said, “The Hindus who never bothered to read Ramayana and Mahabharata read the entire Bible without any hesitation once they converted to Christianity. See how money changes people.”

Revealing the focus areas of the Munnani, he said that they were keeping a close watch in the Dalit and Adivasi dominated areas around Coimbatore such as Perur, Alandurai, Thondamuthur, Anaikatti, Puliakulam, Sivananda Colony, Saravanampatti, Arivoli Nagar, Milekal, Chettipalayam, Kalaignar Nagar, and Samathuvapuram.

Ra Murugavel, a Coimbatore based lawyer, said that the period when AIADMK’s Edappadi Palanisamy was Chief Minister saw major deterioration in communal relations. “In the name of Edappadi Palanisamy, it was the BJP that ruled Coimbatore,” he said, adding that many things have changed for the worse in the last decade when the AIADMK was in power.

“It was common to see evangelists spreading the gospel on the streets of the city; not any more,” he said. Hindu temple chariots would pass through Christian neighbourhoods without any resistance for decades, Murugavel recounted, but with the escalating tensions between the communities, this practice has become rare. “In the last four years, I haven't seen a single such procession. Of course, there have been several instances when these processions, backed by Hindu extremists, tried to force their way into Christian neighbourhoods with the tacit support of the police and district administration,” Murugavel said.

Dravidian polity — What about the bureaucracy?

The Union Home Ministry reacted sharply to the petition filed by the Christian organisations in the Supreme Court and called their data half-baked and based on reports planted in the media. In its affidavit to the apex court, the MHA said, “There appears to be some hidden oblique agenda in filing such deceptive petitions, creating unrest throughout the country and perhaps for getting assistance from outside the country to meddle with internal affairs of our nation.”

The Union government lawyer also argued that the issues highlighted can easily be handled by the local authorities in the states. This led us to look more closely at the role of the police and the civilian administration in Tamil Nadu.

An interesting feature of the crime statistics in the state is that the attacks against Christians rarely get counted as hate crimes or communal violence. In many cases, Murugavel said, the police broker a compromise between the aggressors and the victims. A Madras High Court lawyer and former Public Prosecutor based in Chennai said that the police also systematically downplay the seriousness of the cases. “On the occasions they do register cases, they avoid those sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) that deal specifically with religious violence such as 295 (defiling a place of worship), 295A (outraging religious sentiments), 296 (disturbing a religious assembly), 153 (provoking a riot) and 153A (promoting enmity between religious groups),” the senior lawyer said.

This claim was also made by another lawyer who provides legal aid to persecuted Christians in the Delta region of Tamil Nadu. This lawyer said that by not invoking the sections of the law that deal with communal violence, the police are able to pass off the well orchestrated attacks as conflict between individuals. “The political motivation behind the attacks is rarely the focus of the police investigation. It helps protect the leaders who instigate violence. This also helps the Dravidian parties maintain that Tamil Nadu is a secular state,” the lawyer said.

The threat of violence is an occupational hazard for evangelists seeking new followers. In fact, some welcome persecution as it allows them to emulate Christ who was also persecuted for his faith according to the Bible. The bigger problem for evangelists is getting permission from the district administration to hold prayer meetings and build churches.

The building laws in Tamil Nadu stipulate that permission must be sought from the District Collector (DC) to hold prayers in any new location. These permissions rarely materialise. With the help of a legal researcher, who trawled through the High Court website, we found that there are at least 100 cases filed by Christian organisations invoking their fundamental right to freedom of religion under Articles 25-28 of the Constitution.

These cases, the researcher found, have been filed by Christians cutting across denominations and from every part of the state. “That a religious minority has to go all the way to the High Court just for permission to worship shows that the community is not just harassed by fanatical mobs. It shows that section of the bureaucracy shares the same anti-minority sentiment,” he said.

With the help of the researcher, we compiled a list of 45 such cases that were disposed of by the courts in the last five years. Of the 45, only 10 were in favour of the Christian petitioners. In one case involving the Believers Church in Dindigul, the Madurai bench of the Madras High Court ordered the DC in February 2020 to respond to the petitioners within 12 weeks. The DC is yet to act on the court order, the promoters of the church told TNM.

In another case, pastor A Christ Amose constructed a church at a desolate spot on his own land in a village outside Vaniyambadi town. A person associated with a Hindutva group there complained to the district administration and sought the demolition of the structure. When the DC dithered on the matter, the Hindutva activist moved the High Court which in February 2020 put the matter back in the domain of the DC. There has been no forward movement in the case and the pastor has been barred from conducting prayers until final orders are passed. Speaking to TNM a person associated with the small Christian community in the village said, “There are three Hindu temples on private properties in the village. None of them have had to seek permission from the administration to conduct prayers. It seems these rules have been specially designed for minorities.”