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Bearing the cross for their faith? - The Hindu

Anita Joshua ()
October 11, 1998

Title: Bearing the cross for their faith?
Author: Anita Joshua
Publication: The Hindu
Date: October 11, 1998

edded to Christ, they were prepared to bear every conceivable
cross for His sake. But, even in the worst of their nightmares,
they had never seen themselves as being forced to bear the kind
of cross that rape inflicts on a hapless woman. Their folly -
living in the back of beyond to serve the poorest of the poor,
in ministering to the Lord.

Today, though physically brutalised and mentally battered, a
couple of the four Christian nuns who were gang-raped in the wee
hours of September 23 at a convent at Nawapara Bandharia village
of Jhabua district of Madhya Pradesh have expressed a
willingness to return to the mission and continue their work.

However, this in no way means that the Christian community has
not been affected by the gang-rape or - for that matter - the
looting of a convent in Baghpat district of Uttar Pradesh the
very next night, the series of attacks on Christian institutions
in Gujarat and the murder of two priests in Bihar. Within a week
of the Jhabua incident, the Archbishop of Delhi and president of
Catholic Bishops' Conference of India, Bishop Alan de Lastic,
submitted to the Union Home Minister, Mr. L. K. Advani, a
memorandum saying that "for the first time since Independence,
the Christians in India are beginning to feel threatened". And
the action of the missionaries speaks better than these words -
many a priest running a mission in the remote corners of Madhya
Pradesh have applied for arms licences! Ironical, indeed, that
a religion which does not believe in an ye for an eye should
have its priests wielding guns.

Apparently. the decision to apply for arms licences for self-
protection was taken following a suggestion by the Madhya
Pradesh police. Conceding that possession of weapons struck at
the very roots of his religion, Bishop George Anathil, Bishop of
Indore - under whose diocese the Nawapara mission falls - rued
that the harsh realities of running missions in far-off places
had forced the missionaries to strike a compromise. "It is not
for offence, but for defence - primarily to scare people away".

But for the DIG (Indore Range), Mr. Vijay Shukla, arming the
missionaries is not the solution to the problem. Holding the
view that the incident at the Nawapara convent which doubled up
as a dispensary and school - was primarily a random attack by
local tribals, he insisted that their reformation was the only
answer. "Everyone seems to have forgotten that the 'adivasis',
who constitute 84 per cent of the district's population, trace
their roots to the very same criminal tribes which used to loot
and waylay people. Removal of criminal tribes by the law does
not necessarily mean that they cease to exist. "

Insisting that the nuns have fallen prey to one such habitual
attack by the Bhils, Mr. Shukla pooh-poohed the theory that
these tribals never indulged in rape. "This is far from the
truth. There have been cases of 'adivaasi' women being raped.
But, seldom do such cases reach the police station. Crime is a
joke for them; particularly when they are drunk". From the
investigations carried out over the fortnight, the police have
concluded that there was no premeditated plan to target the

Preliminary investigation and interrogation of 12 of the 21
accused have shown that the group had made an abortive robbery
attempt at the neighbouring village of Bhagor. When the
villagers chased them away, they apparently decided to strike at
the convent, presuming that nobody would be there. What makes it
difficult for the church to subscribe to this theory is the fact
that the group tried to gain access to the convent on the
pretext of getting medication for an ailing child. When the
nuns asked them to call the parish priest, Fr. Augustine, from
his house - located about half-a-kilometre away - the assailants
were said to have told them that the "father was not there".

This, Fr. Augustine said, "indicated that they were aware of my
absence". just that evening, he had left for Indore. Further
strengthening the community's apprehension that Christians are
coming under organised attack in this tribal district - which
incidentally borders Gujarat where there have been a number of
attacks on missionaries in the recent past - is the fact that
there was a break-in attempt at a nearby mission in Jhamali two
days after the Nawapara incident. And, about a month ago, a
convent in Dattigaon in the district was stoned.

Another fact that makes the missionaries dispute the police
theory of a random attack is that lawlessness has been the bane
of Jhabua for long. In fact, the district has recorded the
highest rate of murders in the country and travelling at night
without escort will amount to courting danger. Vehicles are sent
in convoys with police protection at night. "But, rarely have
missions been attacked in the past. This is why we suspect that
the attacks are motivated by forces that are against our working
in the area," said Bishop Anathil.

Adding to their fear was the statement by the Vishwa Hindu
Parishad's central secretary, Mr. B. L. Sharma, 'Prem', who
sought to justify the attacks as the result of' the "anger of
patriotic Hindu youth against anti-national forces". Accusing
Christians of trying to "tempt Hindus" to convert to
Christianity, the VHP has demanded that the missionaries "pack
up and leave the country".

While this statement pointed the needle of suspicion to the
fanatic elements in the Sangh Parivar, this was just part of the
mudslinging that political parties resorted to soon after the
crime. With Madhya Pradesh going to the polls next month, the
Congress(I) and the Bharatiya Janata Party, arch-rivals, made
the most of the incident to score political points. Each accused
the other of shielding the criminals. Distancing itself from the
VHP statement, the BJP maintained that the incident should not
be given a communal colour. "The RSS does not even have a base
in the area," argued the party's general secretary, Ms. Sumitra

The National Commission for the Minorities is of the view that
the rape of the nuns was an attack on the human rights of women
and did not amount to a violation of the minority rights. Though
the church has not disputed the commission's observation and
justified it by saying that "minority rights are part of the
larger issue of human rights", it will take a lot more to
convince the leaders of the community that this attack is an
isolated incident and not part of a "Concerted effort" across
the country to scare the missionaries away.

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