- The Washington Times - Friday, January 26, 2007

NEW DELHI — Overcoming a monthlong resistance by militant Hindus, a woman from one of India’s indigenous tribes finally succeeded this month in marrying her fiance, a Christian rickshaw-puller, after the governor of Madhya Pradesh state — where the poor, physically handicapped woman lives — intervened on her behalf.

Militant Hindus, chanting angry slogans against Christians, stormed a government marriage registrar’s office at Jabalpur in central India last month, interrupted polio victim Meena Gond’s marriage to Peter Abraham, and said they would no longer tolerate a Hindu woman marrying a non-Hindu or any such anti-Hindu activity on Indian soil.

Mr. Abraham is a tribal Christian whose origins were in the Gond tribe. His great-grandfather embraced Christianity about a hundred years ago.

Armed with swords, tridents and wooden bars, the Dharam Sena (Religious Army), an offshoot of the World Hindu Council, threatened to kill the clergyman if he helped the couple get married in his chapel, forcing the couple to cancel their planned marriage.

Sudhir Agrawal, a Dharam Sena leader, said his men opposed the marriage because it was part of a larger Christian plot to convert Hindus.

No Christian conversion

“For more than a century, we did not raise a voice against Christian conversions in India. But now we are organized. We will not tolerate such anti-Hindu activities on our soil anymore,” Mr. Agrawal said. “The man lured the poor girl by offering her money and promising her a better life. The marriage is simply being used as a tool to convert a Hindu girl and increase a member of their community.”

But finally, when the issue snowballed into a national controversy, Madhya Pradesh Gov. Balaram Jakhar urged the chief minister of the state to help the couple. Then, in a special ceremony Jan. 11, the local administration carried out the couple’s marriage in Jabalpur.

It was not just the delaying of her marriage, but the assertion by the Hindu activists that Miss Gond was a Hindu that kicked up a bigger controversy with leaders of other indigenous tribes across the country.

Miss Gond’s family, however, insisted that she was not a Hindu. “We have no connection with Hinduism, we have never worshipped any Hindu god in our house,” said her brother, Radhe Gond.

Family was animist

Patras Gond, a tribal elder in the region, said the family was originally animist, and that most still are.

“Missionaries converted some of us to Christianity, and others adopted Hinduism after living in the majority Hindu community for many years. But like Meena and her family, more than 85 percent of us still follow a religion that has no connection with Hinduism or Christianity,” he said.

The Hindu activists contend the family is Hindu but just doesn’t know it.

“The origin of Hinduism is deeply rooted in what the Gonds and other tribal people follow in their religious life today,” said Dilip Singh Ju Deo, a Hindu nationalist leader who belongs to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Mr. Ju Deo is known for his “ghar-wapsi” or “homecoming” movement that converts Christian Indians to Hinduism.

“In fact, all indigenous tribal people in India are originally Hindu,” he said. “For ordinary tribal people, it is impossible to understand the vastness of Hinduism. Missionaries have taken advantage of their ignorance, simplicity and poverty, and converted them to Christianity. This attempt by the Christian man to marry away Meena is yet another example of how missionaries are targeting the Hindus in India.”

Christian leaders angry

Christian leaders in Madhya Pradesh were outraged by the interference in the couple’s wedding, saying government agencies and the BJP-ruled state were not protecting minority Christians and their rights.

Onjamang Haokip, a former state minister and Kuki tribal leader in the tribal-dominated northeastern state of Manipur, said the assertion by Hindu leaders that members of all indigenous tribes of India were originally Hindu is ridiculous.

“Even before missionaries converted us, we used to eat beef, we did not worship idols and never did we consider any of the Hindu gods as our own. We are tribals and we know about our origin better than those Hindu leaders do,” said Mr. Haokip.

Indira Iyengar, the Madhya Pradesh Christian Association president, said the Hindu activists had no right to attempt to disrupt the marriage of Miss Gond and Mr. Abraham because both the bride and groom were adults. But she said the discrimination was official.

“Government marriage officials refused to conduct the marriage even before the Hindu militants appeared on the scene. The state offers a cash incentive of 50,000 rupees [$1,135 U.S.] to a non-tribal man who marries a tribal woman because tribals are backward and the incentive is meant to encourage a non-tribal to wed a tribal woman,” said Mrs. Iyengar.

Incentive for Hindus only

“But before the governor [of Madhya Pradesh] intervened, state officials said that Peter would not be entitled to the incentive because it was meant only for Hindu men. This is an example of how even the government agencies have turned Hindu in this state. How can we expect protection of our rights from this government?” she asked.

“Over the past three years in Madhya Pradesh, Christian leaders have accused Hindu activists of 80 cases of vandalizing churches or attacking pastors and Christian charity workers. In all cases, including the rape of a pastor’s wife in Seoni district last month, Hindu radicals were accused.

“But in not a single case did police take action against Hindu men who are right now forcing Hinduism on tribal Christians in the state. Even many Hindu Awakening functions are being sponsored by the state in majority Christian areas. We the Christians are facing state-sponsored attacks in Madhya Pradesh,” said Mrs. Iyengar.

Hindu leaders contend that Christian missionaries have been converting tribal people and low-caste Hindus through “force and allurement,” a charge that has never been proved by investigating agencies in more than 300 cases lodged against missionaries across India in the past decade.

Opposition party acts

As the issue of marriages prevented by Hindu activists grew to a national controversy, Congress, the main opposition party in Madhya Pradesh, took up the case and blamed the BJP-ruled state government of not restraining Hindu activists.

“We met the governor [of Madhya Pradesh] and explained the situation. He got angry and said that the [state] government was doing wrong by not helping the couple in the marriage and not taking action against the Hindu activists,” said Naresh Saraf, a Congress leader in Jabalpur, after police and other government officials helped Miss Gond and Mr. Abraham get married Jan. 11.

“Meena was able to marry Peter simply because someone as high as the state governor came forward to help them,” said Mr. Saraf.

Mr. Jakhar spoke to the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, Shivraj Singh Chauhan, and asked him to organize the wedding immediately because the bride and groom were both adults and state government agencies were refusing to let them marry.

Pressure from the governor forced the chief minister to act. On Jan. 11 the police chief of Jabalpur brought the couple to the city court and a government officer married them under strict police security. After the marriage, the couple was escorted by police to their new home at an undisclosed address.

Police advise couple

“This marriage will surely anger the Hindu activists and they might try to attack the couple again. So we advised them not to go to their previous homes and alerted them against disclosing their new address to anybody,” said R.D. Bharadwaj, a Jabalpur police official.

But the couple did not seem worried about their security, at least for now.

“Until a few hours before our marriage, I thought that committing suicide was the only way out for me. I have no words to express my happiness now. I cannot believe that I have finally succeeded in marrying [Peter],” said Mrs. Abraham, while walking down the road with the help of her husband minutes after the marriage.

Holding his wife’s hand firmly as he headed for the new address Mr. Abraham said: “I know how they [Hindu activists] have been angry at this marriage and they will try their best to take Meena away from me. But I am not afraid of them now. If necessary, I will leave this state, but I shall not leave Meena. I know that God is on my side.”

Activists unrepentant

“In 2006, Hindus prevented at least 15 Hindu girls in Madhya Pradesh from marrying Christian men. In two cases we failed because the girls eloped to another state and our men lost track of the couples,” Yogesh Agarwal, a leading Hindu activist in Jabalpur, said two weeks ago.

Sudhir Agarwal, another Hindu leader in Jabalpur said: “Meena was able to marry Peter because the local government was forced to act in their favor. If the Congress party was not in power in New Delhi, if the governor of Madhya Pradesh was not a Congress party member, we would have definitely succeeded in stopping this marriage.”

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