Right wing Hindu activists on March 12 destroyed a partition of more than four-decade-old mission hospital run by Catholic nuns in Ujjain in Madhya Pradesh, even as a dispute over it was pending in court for adjudication. The goons also manhandled the hospital staff and misbehaved with the nuns who opposed their illegal act.
According to sources, a drove of about 60 activists along with an earth mover and other sharp equipments razed down the boundary wall of Pushpa Mission Hospital, a mission hospital run by nuns under the Syro-Malabar Catholic diocese and erected a fencing claiming the ownership of the land. The hospital has been serving the poor in the region for decades.
Pushpa Mission Hospital was founded on December 1, 1974. It was a time when no healthcare facilities were available in villages and no awareness of health care programmes were present. In the beginning, nuns and doctors went to the villages and conducted many medical camps, supplied free medicines and tried to make them aware of the importance of health and dignity of human life. The sources said, the trespassers, some of them covered their faces with handkerchiefs, said they have valid court order in their support and therefore, taking possession of the land allegedly encroached by the hospital, a charge which the hospital authorities denied. The hospital authorities, however, agreed that there was a dispute over a portion of the land in which the hospital is built and the matter is pending in the court for adjudication after the personal assistant of the local Member of Parliament (MP) had stalked claim over it in January this year.
“Unruly men armed with sharp edged weapons and a JCB machine demolished more than 50 feet boundary wall of our hospital and erected a fence and installed temporary shop (Gumti) on that portion”, said Fr Anthony Pulickamandapam, the director of the hospital. “When the hospital staff including nuns opposed their illegal entry into the hospital they were manhandled and forced them to flee for safety”, he said. “They destroyed the transformer and disconnected water supply putting the lives of nearly 200 patients including 12 in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) in the hospital. We, however, with the help of a generator soon established electricity connection to the ICU and saved lives of those admitted there”, Fr Anthony said. What worried the Catholic Church authorities more is the non-cooperation of the police. “We contacted the local police station and other senior officials of the police department seeking help, but to no avail”, lamented Bishop of Ujjain, Sebastian Vadakkel. “Even our nursing staff approached the women police station to lodge a complaint, but they were turned way. We will now move the court for appropriate action as the matter is subjudised and no final decision has been passed so far” the Bishop added.
The mission hospital is locked in a legal dispute over nearly 2,000 square feet land in one corner of the hospital with one Gagan Singh, personal assistant of BJP Parliamentarian from the area. Singh accused the hospital of encroaching a portion of the land belonging to him. He also showed a land registry in his favour. Earlier in January last week, Singh along with his supporters made an attempt to demolish the hospital boundary wall and take possession of the land without any prior notice. The Church people opposed the move and moved the Madhya Pradesh High Court, seeking a stay on any change in the status quo of the land until legal settlement of the dispute. The court, however, refused to pass any order instead directed the Church authorities to move appropriate lower court for settlement.
“We, as per the direction of the high court, moved the trial court where the matter is still pending”, says the Bishop. The Church, in the petition sought an interim direction to maintain the status quo in the form of a stay from the trial court, which refused to pass any order saying “there was no such need”, as the situation was peaceful, noted the prelate. “Singh interpreted it as an order in his favour and bulldozed our boundary wall and forcefully took passion of the disputed land with the tacit support of the district and police administration”, regretted the bishop. Ever since the dispute arose the Church leaders maintained that they are ready to comply with appropriate court order.
“The land was given to us by the local civic body for use and hence, we used it and now we do not know how Singh got a land registry of land belonging to the civic body that too in 2015”, said Fr Antony.
Archbishop condemns the attack
Meanwhile, Archbishop Leo Cornelio, who heads the Catholic Church in the state, condemned the attack. “It is a systematic planning to bring disturbance and violence among the peace-loving Christian community”, he said in a statement and added “This type of violence will not be tolerated anymore.”
The Bhopal Archbishop urged the government to protect the community and its properties. “I ask the authorities to take action on culprits immediately. It’s a cowardly action to destroy the hospital that has been serving the poor”, he said. Meanwhile, a Catholic delegation led by Bishop Vadakkel called on Governor Anandi Ben Patel and sought protection to the community members and their properties. “The Governor promised to look into the matter”, said Bishop Vadakkel. He said, the attack was a deliberate attempt to paint a bad picture of the Christian community, ahead of the assembly election to be held in the state.
Christians face persecution in MP:
The Christian community accounts for less than one per cent of the 7.5 million population of Madhya Pradesh. According to sources, people of the community face maximum number of persecution in the state for standing for the poor and working class for their uplift. The state witnessed 52 attacks on Christians in 2017 and 28 in 2016, said a report released by Persecution Relief, an ecumenical forum that records Christian persecution in India.
Fr Maria Stephen, the PRO of MP Region, said in his statement “the entire Catholic Church is shocked to know the planned attack on mission hospital. We the minorities feel unsafe in the midst of repeated attack on the Church personnel and institutions. We want an explanation why the hospital has been attacked?”
Talking to Mitaan Express, Evangelist Shibu Thomas, the founder of Persecution Relief, said attacks on Christians by Hindu fundamentalists in India have increased in the past years and it has been spiralling ever since the BJP came to power at the Centre in 2014. There were 736 reported attacks against Christians in 2017, against 348 in 2016, he added. “On an average, every day, at least one member of Christian clergy or faithful is beaten and Churches, Christian institutions are destroyed or vandalised in India.” Everywhere, the official machinery, it seems, to be working in tandem with the right wing activists, he alleged.
“Softer forms of persecution are continued unabated as so-called Hindu nationalist groups have publicly asked Hindu community people to boycott Christian-owned businesses, refuse to rent them properties and deny them employment,” he said. He said, denying building permission to establish/repair places of worship by the authorities concerned, obstructing to pray at one’s own property and constraining the right to worship – it all amounting to violation of religious freedom, which are increasing in numbers and frequency day after day in the country.
Shibu said, “There has been international condemnation and outcry against the religious intolerance in India.” The USCIRF (United States Commission on International Religious Freedom) annual report categorised 12 countries under “Tier 2” due to deteriorating religious freedom in these countries and unfortunately, India has been included in Tier 2 in 2017 for the second time, he added. Right to freedom of religion or belief is an all-inclusive right, which is being taken away directly or indirectly in the country.
One cannot have religious freedom without having freedom of worship; freedom of association; freedom of expression; freedom of assembly; protection from arbitrary arrest and detention; protection from interference in home and family; and most importantly, without having equal protection under the law.
He maintained that across the world, state authorities, police, religious fundamentalists and terrorists are trying to stop spread of Christian faith, but God is Sovereign and whom God has marked for His purpose will prevail. According to the annual report of Persecution Relief, open, daring physical attacks on Christian priests, pastors, leaders and members are increasingly high in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Chhattisgarh States that contribute to 53% of persecution incidents across India in 2017.
Uttar Pradesh which ranked second in 2016, topped with 69 incidents, a spike of 57%. After the new Chief Minister Adityanath Yogi took office in March 2017, there has been a spurt in anti-Christian incidents. Madhya Pradesh with 52 incidents saw a spike of 54% while Tamil Nadu with 48 incidents saw a spike of 60% from 2016.
The Anti-Conversion Bill has unfortunately positioned the Government as the arbiter of truth or religious correctness, as they empower officials to enforce particular religious views against individuals, minorities, and dissenters. In practice, the Bill has proven to be ripe for abuse and easily manipulated with false accusations. Allowing the State’s involvement, it promotes increased governmental interference in matters that involve pure ethical choices. It ingrains a deep and dangerous sense that the state is always watching you, and it has nothing but your best interests in mind. It is a matter of grave concern.
These laws were decreed because of concerns raised about apparent unethical conversion tactics and to promote religious harmony. Government officials need to assess the legality of conversions out of Hinduism and to provide for fines and imprisonment for anyone who uses force, fraud, or “inducement” to convert another. While the laws allegedly protect religious minorities from forced conversions, they appear one-sided, only concerned about conversions away from Hinduism but not toward Hinduism.
Observers note that these laws create a hostile and, on occasion, violent environment against religious minority communities because they do not require any evidence to support accusations of wrongdoing. The law encourages extremists to enforce their notions of truth on others, often through force, thereby worsening religious intolerance, discrimination, and violence, which is frequently used to silence critics or democratic rivals under the guise of enforcing religious piety. Seven Indian states – Chhattisgarh, Himachal Pradesh, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Odisha and recently Jharkhand have passed the “Freedom of Religion Act(s),” commonly referred to as the anti-conversion laws, restricting religious conversion.
Most of the outbreaks of communal abuses against Christians tend to occur more frequently from these states that have passed this bill. Most of the attacks were simply based on suspicions or allegations that Christians are forcibly converting Hindus through inducement and denigrating Hinduism. The Central Government needs to strengthen the capacity of State and Central Police, to implement effective measures to prohibit and punish cases of religious violence and protect victims and witnesses. While Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks publicly about the importance of communal tolerance and religious freedom, members of the ruling party in collusion with Hindu nationalist groups implicate in religious freedom violations, use religiously divisive language to inflame tensions, and call for additional laws that would restrict religious freedom.*Views expressed are author’s own.