India church leaders suspicious about election candidate's arrest

By Ecumenical News International
April 16, 2009

Church leaders have said they are wary about the motives given by authorities for the arrest of a candidate for scheduled parliamentary elections from a "Hindu nationalist group" in the troubled Kandhamal district of India's Orissa state - writes Anto Akkara.

Ashok Sahu, candidate of the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party for the Kandhamal parliamentary constituency, was arrested on 14 April on a charge of making an "inflammatory speech" said to be aimed at fanning communal passion against Christians.

Indians began voting on 16 April 2009 in polls to elect members of parliament, who will elect a new prime minister in the country dubbed the world's biggest democracy of 1.2 billion people.

"If they were serious, they could have arrested him [Sahu] earlier. By arresting him at the last minute, the administration is only creating sympathy for him among the Hindu majority," said the Rev Enos Das Pradhan, general secretary of the Church of North India, which has a significant presence in Kandhamal. "We are shocked by this arrest at this 11th hour," Pradhan told Ecumenical News International on 15 April.

Roman Catholic Archbishop Raphael Cheenath of Bhubaneswar, who oversees the Kandhamal area, described Sahu's arrest after his acts of "spitting venom" for weeks against Christians, as a "load of eyewash". Cheenath said, "We are disappointed the election commission decided to ignore our demand for postponing the election in Kandhamal."

India's voting takes place over four weeks at more than 800,000 polling places and in five stages, on 16 April, 22 and 23 April, 30 April, 7 and 13 May. The results should be declared on 16 May.

Many Christians in Kandhamal died in widespread violence following the killing of Hindu leader Swami Lakshmanananda Saraswati on 23 August, allegedly by Maoist rebels. At the same time more than 5000 houses were looted and destroyed, rendering 50,000 Christians homeless and 250 churches and other institutions damaged.

Three quarters of the 600,000 people of the mountainous district of Kandhamal are Hindus.

Earlier in April, Pradhan had called on the federal election commission in New Delhi to postpone the polls in Kandhamal. He said that holding elections there now would be "disastrous" and a "travesty of democracy".

"Thousands [of Christians] have moved out of Kandhamal to safer places. Christians are still gripped in the fear of attacks. They would not like to return to their villages as the situation is still very tense and their safety in villages is still a great concern," Pradhan cautioned election commission officials on 8 April.

[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches.]

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