After Madrassas, Christian schools being targeted in Assam; leaders fear the move

(Photo: Unsplash/Erik Mclean)

After the closure of madrassas last year, Christian leaders in Assam are increasingly worried that Christian schools could be the next focus for shutdown by Hindu nationalist groups. This concern has escalated in light of several recent incidents targeting Christian schools.

Yesterday, on March 4, the Hindu Yuva Manch made a demand to the government to close all Christian institutions, mirroring the action taken against madrassas the previous year.

“Madrassas, according to them, were breeding grounds for terrorism, and Christian institutions, according to them, are breeding ground for conversions,” stated Allen Brooks, spokesperson of the Assam Christian Forum, while speaking to Christian Today yesterday.

Incidents have been reported where Hindu right-wing groups demanded Hindu ritual at a Catholic school on Ash Wednesday, harassed a nun on a bus for wearing Habit, demanded nuns and fathers to wear ‘normal dress’ and initiated poster campaigns against missionary schools, demanding to remove iconography and chapels from school premises.

The Sanmilito Sanatan Samaj launched poster campaigns in Guwahati and other parts of Assam, giving ultimatum to missionary schools to remove iconography and chapels from their premises. Instances like these have caused fear and tension among Christian educational institutions. The Hindu group alleged that having religious symbols turn educational institutions into a religious affair, which the Christians have denied.

Some posters have been pasted before the Don Bosco School, St Mary’s School in Guwahati, Don Bosco High School Lichubari in Dibrugarh and Carmel School Jorhat.

In a particularly alarming incident reported by Crux, a Catholic school in north-eastern India, had to request police protection after members of a Hindu nationalist group threatened to forcibly hold a Hindu ritual at the school on Ash Wednesday, which fell on February 14 this year.

The Don Bosco School in Dhajanagar, on the outskirts of Udaipur in the state of Assam, said members of the Hindu Jagran Manch announced they intended to conduct a Saraswati Puja at the school on February 14, coinciding with Ash Wednesday. Saraswati Puja is a ritual honouring the Hindu goddess of wisdom and knowledge, typically held in February to mark the coming of spring.

The school’s principal, Sister Tessy Joseph, said members of the Hindu Jagran Manch visited the school on February 8 and 9, demanding permission to perform the ritual on the premises. The school refused, citing its status as a Christian minority institution protected under Article 30 of India’s constitution. In response, the Hindu activists had threatened to gather locals and swamis and conduct the ritual anyway “by hook or crook.”

Fearing the threats, Sister Joseph had filed a two-page application with the district magistrate requesting security measures to “prevent such an illegal act and protect the institution.” But the municipal government didn’t respond, while police said they would take action once the situation was verified.

The situation is exacerbated by the political landscape, with Assam being governed by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Similar demands were also made to three other schools in Assam, prompting an emergency meeting of missionary school representatives on February 11 in Guwahati.

Bishop Lumen Monteiro, who oversees the Don Bosco School, was quoted saying the Catholic church “has been selflessly serving the people of the region and beyond, without discrimination of caste and creed, through our education apostolate.” He said the schools aim to provide quality education and contribute to nation-building, not push religious conversions.

But Hindu nationalists have increasingly accused Christian schools of conversions and demanded access for Hindu rituals. The Hindu Jagran Manch uses aggressive tactics, including forcibly “reconverting” Christians and Muslims to Hinduism.

The parallels with the closure of madrassas are evident, with the Assam government’s decision to convert Islamic schools into general schools.

In 2020, the Assam government had decided to convert 740 Madrasas (a religious Islamic school) to general schools and by 2023, 1,281 madrassas in 21 districts of Assam were converted to “normal schools.” In March 2023, Assam chief minister had given a statement that he had shut 600 madrasas and went on to shut all of them. In May 2023, he announced the shutting of 300 more madrassas.

Concerns are rising among Christian leaders, viewing the targeting of Christian schools as a continuation of discriminatory policies.

“They targeted the Muslim schools and now they are targeting the Christian schools,” said Brooks.

Amidst escalating tensions, Christian leaders in Assam are questioning the readiness of the Church to confront these challenges. With Hindu groups escalating their actions, the situation remains tense, with Assam becoming the latest battleground for religious rights and freedoms.

“There are too many battles to be fought every day, here in Assam. The question is, ‘Is the Church ready?’,” questioned Brooks.

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