NEW DELHI, May 5, 2020 (Morning Star News) – An attempt by Hindu nationalists and media in western India to blame Christians for the mob killing of three Hindus threatens to provoke violence against Christians, sources said.
A tribal mob on April 16 killed the three men, two of them Hindu ascetics, in Gadchinchale village, Palghar District in Maharashtra state.
“Linking this gruesome incident to the church looks like a deliberate attempt to malign the Christian community and can increase attacks on Christians not just in Palghar district but also elsewhere,” Vijayesh Lal, general secretary of the Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI), told Morning Star News. “Rumors spread through social media, and vicious attacks by cow vigilantes have resulted in several incidents of lynching throughout India in the recent years, and we condemn each and every one of them. The Christian community has lost at least four of our own to these senseless killings; the Muslim community has lost many more.”
Hindu ascetics Mahant Kalpavruksha Giri, 70, Sushilgiri Maharaj, 35, and their driver, Naresh Yelgade, were traveling when forest guards who had previously stopped them due to the coronavirus lockdown stopped them again as they were returning to Mumbai. At a check post near Gadchinchale, about 55 miles from Palghar town, they were in an area tense from social media warnings against gangs kidnapping children and selling their kidneys – other assaults had taken place days before, and vigilantes patrolled the area, according to reports.
A small mob that grew to nearly 400 members attacked them on suspicions of being kidnappers or robbers, according to area Christians and media reports. Villagers began pelting the Hindu ascetics’ car with stones at about 9 p.m., and forest guards called police. Upon arrival police called for reinforcements when they saw the size of the mob, but another, 250-strong mob on the way to the site stopped the back-up officers, according to reports.
The growing mob accused police of protecting thieves and kidnappers as officers took Maharaj and Yelgade to a police car. When officers attempted to move the older ascetic, Giri, to the police car, the mob reportedly attacked them.
Members of the mob reportedly damaged the cars of both police and travelers and killed the two ascetics and their driver; officers were unable to stop them, and four policemen were injured and had to be hospitalized.
“The people who killed them reportedly were only a few from among the mob, but the larger mob was there and witnessed the killing,” area Christian leader Sakharam Shinde told Morning Star News.
Police later arrested more than 100 people, including nine minors, under sections of the Indian Penal Code related to murder, attempt to murder and deterring a government servant from performing his duty.
“The police chased people and arrested many, but in some cases, the police also broke into the houses of the people who were not involved at all and in fact did not even know about the incident and arrested them too,” Shinde said.
A local court in Dahanu on Thursday (April 30) extended judicial custody of those arrested until May 14.
Two days after the killings, Hindu nationalists on social media began trying to portray the perpetrators as Muslims. Videos released on Twitter were said to include the mob calling out Muslim names.
Attempting to counteract the attempts to stir up religious division, Maharashtra Home Minister Anil Deshmukh tweeted that the incident had no sectarian element, and Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray stated the same in a video released on April 20. When fact-finding sites like Altnews.in investigated and took the air out of the claims of the Hindu nationalist posts, the social media narrative switched to allegations of a Christian conspiracy, sources said.
“Locals say that there were many in the mob with cross on the neck who allegedly beat the Sadhu [ascetics], however, this can only be verified after a thorough unbiased investigation,” tweeted the Hindu nationalist handle @thakkarsameet, who has close to 24,000 followers, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
By April 23, Hindu leader Swami Nischalanand (@Swamijitweets) was tweeting, “Can’t ignore that #SadhuLynching location #Gadchinchale has 18-20 #Churches within 5km, all paying ₹2 lakhs to each fresh convert. So even if claimed otherwise, all arrested #tribals can be #ConvertedXtians!”
National TV channels with Hindu nationalist sympathies ran special reports alleging that a conspiracy between churches and area leftists had led to the lynchings. Zee News and Republic news channels not only attempted to frame the killings as sectarian but also political, with some reports linking Sonia Gandhi, head of the Indian National Congress, to the killings. Online news portals like opindia.com came out with supposed exposés alleging that Christian missionaries, the left and other political parties had a part in the killings.
Rakesh Sinha, a member of parliament from the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and a senior spokesperson for the Hindu extremist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), asserted without any evidence on national TV that Christians and communists were behind the killing of the Hindu ascetics.
Organiser, the official mouthpiece of the RSS, linked Christians and the Communist Party of India in a report on April 20 entitled, “CPI-Christian missionary plot emerges behind the Palghar Lynching case; Another Governance Failure of Maharashtra Govt.”
Hindu nationalist Twitter accounts alleged that social activists with Christian and communist links were trying to bail out those arrested. The Logical Indian website fact-checked the claim and found it false.
Again Maharashtra Home Minister Anil Deshmukh took to Twitter to quell rumors. In an attempt to show that the killings were not sectarian, he released a list of names of those arrested to show that attackers and victims were from the same religious background.
“The list of the 101 arrested in the #Palghar incident. Especially sharing for those who were trying to make this a communal issue,” he wrote in an April 22 tweet. He also tweeted, “Palghar mob lynching is a grotesque incident which happened due to rumours on social media about child kidnappers & thieves prowling in the area. A high-level inquiry is going on & meanwhile people are requested not to fall for rumours & verify the facts from trusted sources.”
Hindu nationalists continued to blame Christians.
Fleeing to Jungle
Mass, arbitrary arrests caused panic among the tribal villagers, and hundreds of families fled to the jungles, including Christians, local sources said.
“Because the police were arbitrarily entering homes and arresting people, tribals from nearby villages ran off to the jungles to protect themselves,” Christian leader Shinde told Morning Star News. “This happened out of fear, because they do not know if they too would be rounded up. Some of them were Christians as well.”
Sunil Awale, a member of the local Minority Christian Welfare Organisation, visited with the local police inspector on April 29 along with fellow Christian community leader Gautam Khambade.
“I do not think that Christians are involved at all in this lynching,” Awale told Morning Star News.
Police told them that they want people to return to their villages, Khambade said.
“Our main concern is for the innocent families, especially women and children, who have run away from their homes and are barely surviving in the jungles,” Khambade told Morning Star News. “Some women are pregnant, and we cannot imagine the difficulties they may be facing.”
In an area where radical Hindus have persecuted Christians, the attempts to connect Christians to the killings could have dangerous consequences, the EFI’s Lal said.
“Last year there were at least three incidents of attacks on Christian in the district in the months of February, May and November respectively,” Lal said. “Palghar has been a sensitive district where churches, fellowships and Christians have been targeted by religious radicals belonging to various right-wing fundamentalists groups, and some of those attacks have been gruesome and violent in nature. I can personally recollect attacks from as long back as January 2013.”
The EFI condemns the killing of the Hindu ascetics, he said.
“It is an unfortunate act that should not have taken place and shows how rumors can take lives,” Lal said. “I hope that this unfortunate killing of the Hindu sadhus is not used by people who spread hate to further their agenda, to target Christians in this tribal belt as well. We appeal to the state government of Maharashtra to let the rule of law prevail and to bring the guilty to justice, and at the same time ensure security of the minority communities in the state.”
Archbishop Felix Machado, secretary general of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, lamented the propaganda as an attempt to defame Christians and create sectarian conflict when the country is “fighting the deadly global pandemic” of the novel coronavirus, according to UCA News.
After the killings, Palghar Superintendent of Police Gaurav Singh ordered the transfer of 35 police staff members, nearly all personnel of the Kasa police station. Police officials also reportedly suspended five police officers, including two that the mob attacked.
A new Kasa police station head, Siddhawa Jaybhaye, was appointed on April 20. Telling Morning Star News that the case has been transferred to the Criminal Investigation Department of Maharashtra state, she said she was not aware of the arrest of any Christians.
“We are working with community leaders to tell them that they have nothing to fear,” Jaybhaye said. “We are giving them assurance that they can come back to their homes.”
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom on April 28 urged the U.S. State Department to add India as a “Country of Particular Concern” to its list of nations with poor records of protecting religious freedom.
India is ranked 10th on Christian support organization Open Doors’ 2020 World Watch List of the countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian. The country was 31st in 2013, but its position has worsened since Narendra Modi of the BJP came to power in 2014.
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