NEW DELHI — The new millennium has been terribly cruel to Christians in India. Fanatical Hindu organizations — which are wings of the country’s ruling party, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — have unleashed a reign of terror on the second-largest minority group after the Muslims. Murder and mayhem and desecration of churches are no longer confined to remote forests or nameless villages, where modern communication has not yet reached. They now occur in well populated and policed areas.

Even as this piece is being penned, the news of a church in the Western Indian state of Maharashtra being burned down comes on the ticker. On June 7, the Christian warden of a school, a prominent missionary in the central Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, was battered to death as he lay asleep on a cot outside his humble dwelling.

His cook, the only witness to this gruesome event, died mysteriously while he was being interrogated by the police in the station. First, this was termed a suicide, but later the authorities admitted that he had been killed. They had to because the marks on the body were an obvious giveaway.

On June 8, several crude bombs exploded at four churches in three different states, including Goa on the west coast. The damage to the holy places was immense, though fortunately not many people were hurt.

Two days later, a church worker in the northern Indian state of Punjab was also slain.

A wounded and shattered Christian community found the administration absolutely lackadaisical. The government refused to see any conspiracy in these wanton acts, and called them the work of criminals, not the design of fanatics. The police has chosen to treat these as routine cases of law-and-order violation, despite ample evidence to the contrary.

A survey conducted by an Indian news magazine revealed that there had been 36 cases of murder, arson and looting directed against this minority. And, the perpetrators have been members — at least in most of the cases — of the rabid Bajrang Dal, Rashtriya Swayam Sevak and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad.

These groups have openly said that their task is to finish off the Christians. One of the chiefs of the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak, Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar, says in his book “Bunch of Thoughts” that the followers of Jesus Christ are “blood suckers, not blood givers” who are “out to demolish the religious and social fabric of our life.”

The establishment of the BJP government merely gave an added impetus to these zealous organizations, which seem to thrive on a platform of hatred and intolerance. The prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and his Home Minister, L.K. Advani, perhaps encouraged the animosity even further when they attributed the outrage against Christians to plain criminals.

But when questioned by the media, the Indian leaders failed to explain why these assaults should coincide with the BJP rule in New Delhi. After all, the Christians have lived peacefully with the Hindus in India since its independence 53 years ago.

Vajpayee and his government must realize that they can ignore this question only against a grave peril to India’s much-publicized secular image.

BJP’s subsidiary units are outside the electoral process and hence unaccountable to the voting population. Although the Hindu ruling party by itself may not be as hostile to other religious orders as its affiliates are, it cannot afford to forget that displeasing and alienating the Christians will invite global wrath and a possible disruption in the flow of much-needed economic aid. Most of it comes from the rich Christian nations.

This must have been foremost in the minds of Indian planners when they scheduled, at virtually the 11th hour, a meeting between Vajpayee and Pope John Paul II at the Vatican. When the pontiff raised the issue of brutalization of the community, the Indian prime minister is said to have assured him that efforts would be made to prevent such evil. New Delhi stood for a secular society as envisaged in the constitution, he emphasized.

Easier said than achieved. For, even in the BJP there are hard-core elements who believe that minorities like Muslims and Christians must be thrown out of the country, primarily because they have been using the power of persuasion and money to convert a large number of people.

This may be true, but one must remember that Hinduism — with its rigid caste system which imposes a life of servility on those who belong to the lower rungs — has, by refusing to keep pace with times, provided an atmosphere conducive for conversion. Many low-caste Hindus have willingly embraced Islam or Christianity only because it gave them a certain dignity of existence denied by the faith they were born into.

Undoubtedly, Vajpayee and his BJP have a tough road ahead: if they fail to check their partners in their plan to annihilate the Christians, the world, where Christians are widely influential, is not going to be forgiving.

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