Pre-Poll Communal Violence in Delhi, Part II: Why the Multiple Attacks on Delhi Churches are a Cause for Concern

Delhi Police officers investigate the attack on St Alphonsa church in Vasant Kunj on 2 February 2015. This was the fifth attack on a church since last December and came just five days before the Delhi assembly elections. Photo by Sonu Mehta/Hindustan Times via Getty Image
05 February, 2015

St Alphonsa, a large church nestled among opulent farmhouses near the Institute of Liver and Biliary Sciences in south Delhi, was the latest casualty in the recent attacks on Christian institutions in the city. In the fifth such attack to have taken place in the nine weeks leading up to the assembly elections, the secluded church was vandalised just before dawn on Monday, 2 February 2015, by unidentified attackers. The miscreants stole some items and desecrated religious equipment, including the monstrance and the ciborium—sacred vessels that are crucial to the act of prayer. This incident follows alleged arson attacks on churches in Rohini and Dilshad Garden along with acts of vandalism in Jasola and Vikaspuri. When I reached the church at around 11 am on Monday morning, Kerala’s home minister—Ramesh Chennithala from the Congress party—was talking to a group of about ten journalists just outside the church compound. Chennithala promised to write to the lieutenant governor of Delhi about the increasing incidents.

Inside St Alphonsa, a visibly agitated Father Vincent Salvatore was addressing a dozen reporters and police officers. He was upset with the administration’s inaction in all the recent incidents. “Police seems to be hand-in-glove (with the perpetrators),” he said. “Ek kaan se sunte hain, doosre se nikaal dete hain” (What goes in through one ear, comes out the other).

Salvatore then turned his attention to the local Congress candidate for the upcoming elections, Satbir Singh, who was visibly low-spirited. A few minutes later, as he talked to Singh, Salvotore remarked on how even though Obama had made a point to bring up the importance of religious harmony on his trip to India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s refusal to comment on these incidents was worrying for the Christian community. “Silence gives consent,” he said, before adding, “We are peace-loving people. If it had been another community, Muslims, khoon kharaba ho jaata” (Blood would have been shed).

Salvatore isn’t completely off the mark. While the identity of those behind these attacks largely remains a mystery, the failure of the current government to curb or successfully investigate these incidents appears to have encouraged their recurrence.

Salvatore’s view was echoed by at least three more members of the church who had gathered there after they heard of the incident. While the chancellor of the Delhi archdiocese, Father Mathew Koyickal, said that these attacks showed a “clear pattern,” my visits to three of these five sites suggested that the details might be different.

Nonetheless, the series of attacks in quick succession “had the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India [CBCI] worried,” as the CBCI deputy secretary, Father Joseph Chinnayyan, told me. He also added that the recent attacks were a new phenomenon that began after the new dispensation had taken over at the centre. Chinnayan asserted that there had not been any such incidents in Delhi over the previous years, when the Congress was in power, both in Delhi and at the centre. However, he went on to clarify that he did not want to suggest that the Bharatiya Janata Party was directly involved in any of these cases.

The St Sebastian Church in Tahirpur, next to the Rajiv Gandhi Super Speciality Hospital near Dilshad Garden in east Delhi, was burned down in the wee hours of 1 December 2014. By the time fire tenders arrived, a little after 7 am in the morning, the altar and the main hall had been reduced to ashes. I spoke to two guards in the vicinity, Peter—a guard at St Sebastian church who is on afternoon duty—and Ravi—a guard from an adjacent church—who said that they did not believe that it was arson. They both asserted that there had never been any communal tensions related to the church in the neighbourhood. Both of them proceeded to take me through the interiors of the church, as they explained that the fire had probably started in one of the rooms on either side of the altar, in which a lot of the church’s clothes, candles and other important objects were stored after mass the previous evening. They claimed that the guard on morning duty had not been present when the building caught fire, and by the time he unlocked the main door—the only door that was locked from the outside—the fire had already spread to the ante room and reached the plywood altar. The case is being investigated by the Delhi Police’s Crime Branch and they haven’t yet announced whether or not this incident was an act of arson. However, a day after the incident, the Hindu reported that a can of kerosene had been found on the second floor by the police during their investigation. However, Peter told me that he kept a can of diesel on the second floor for the generator, which was on the roof.

Meanwhile, the Indian Express reported that Delhi’s Archbishop, Anil Couto, had written to the prime minister asking for a judicial enquiry into what the community suspected was arson.  Chinnayyan told me later that some “wilful hands” were involved in the fire. This was the first of the five incidents in Delhi. The case was soon transferred to the Delhi crime branch, which set up a Special Investigation Team to look into the incident.

A week from the fire at Tahirpur church, on 7 December 2014, the evening mass in a newly constructed church in Jasola was disrupted when a stone was thrown from outside and broke a window. When I went to meet Father Jacob Nagelimalil, the head of this church, a tea-stall owner in front of the church’s gate—who was there when the stone was thrown through the window—claimed that a young boy from the nearby village had hurled a stray stone at his friend in the empty ground next to the church’s wall, and that stone happened to hit the window. A beat constable repeated the story to me as well. When I ventured to ask Nagelimalil what he thought of this, he responded that even if it was theory, it was worth investigating whether the child had thrown the stone at someone else’s behest.

Again—without any official word from the investigating authorities—it appears that the heightened concern by the Church was a result of the tense political atmosphere, created due to the communal clashes across India in the past year, coupled with the violence between Hindus and Muslims in the Trilokpuri and Bawana neighbourhoods of Delhi in the previous months. The environment and the media narrative—both of which have been communally charged—have contributed to the increased concern and anxiety around any incident of this sort, even though it may have been ignored earlier. Furthermore, this identification—misplaced as it may be—of these incidents as communal in a politically charged atmosphere, seems to have encouraged those with anti-minority sentiments continue with such acts, hence creating a vicious circle.

On 3 January in northwest Delhi’s Rohini Sector 6, the crib in the Church of Resurrection was found to be burned under suspicious circumstances. On 14 January, a church was vandalised by three men, two of whom were recorded by the CCTV security cameras and apprehended by the police soon after. CBCI’s Chinnayyan told me that the men claimed that it was the result of a bet among them—waged in an inebriated haze of bravado—and that they denied being affiliated to any religious or political group. Chinnayyan seemed unconvinced.

I met Chinnayyan at his office opposite the Gol Dak Khana in central Delhi on 31 January. CBCI is the highest decision-making body of India’s Catholic churches and also takes care of their media interaction. I asked him what he thought of all these incidents, a few days before the vandalism at St Alphonsa. He reiterated that the community was definitely worried.

He admitted that he did not know who was behind these acts and whether or not they were even connected, but he did opine that it could be a part of the current regime’s polarisation campaign, or even third party miscreants who were trying to create animosity between the churches and the BJP. Chinnayyan was not alarmed by what had happened in Delhi, because it had received media attention. After all, he said, the situation was much worse for Christians in many other parts of the country.

Regardless of whether Chinnayyan’s assessment is accurate, the recurrence of these acts has clouded the perception of church’s members towards the BJP. The CBCI conducted a Special Consultation on 20 January with the four Catholic cardinals of India and representatives from various Christian organisations. A press release issued after the meeting noted that “The shocking incidents that have taken place against Churches, clergy and laity in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi have caused great concern for the Christian community. The recent controversies in the name of religious reconversions portray a negative image about India. Communal polarization and the bid to homogenise India are posing threat to all minorities—women, dalits, and all linguistic, cultural and religious minorities. … The Christians of this country need assurance from the Government that we are protected and secure and safe in our motherland.”

As Delhi’s archdiocese’s chancellor Koyickal told me, when I had gone to Vasant Kunj shortly after the vandalism at St Alphonsa, a statement from Modi on these incidents would comfort Christians in the city. He was not sure of the intent behind these acts, or whether they had been catalysed by the Delhi elections, but he believed that the Christian community deserved security and protection, like everybody else. “Aren’t we citizens of this country?”

Read Part I of the Pre-Poll Communal Violence series, 'How Trilokpuri Was Set Back by Three Decades,' hereand Part III, 'No Matter Who Wins in Bawana, the Victory Shall Be the BJP's,' here.