Desecrations of Holy Crosses and Graves in South Goa
The media reported that around 150 Holy Crosses and more than 40 graves were desecrated in South Goa in the last 15 years (Verma, 2017). However increasing number of desecrations has been reported since last week of June and throughout July. Desecrations took place in villages including Loutolim, St. Jose de Areal, Gudi Paroda, Cuncolim and Curchorem. Goa evokes an image of a quaint yet vibrant state famous for its natural beauty, churches, forts and a unique cultural mélange characterized by peaceful coexistence. Quite contrary to this picture, when in June and July 2017 the media reported an alarming number of desecrations of Holy Crosses and graves in a cemetery in South Goa, it disturbed the social conscience of the secular liberal scholars throughout India and in Goa particularly. Ironically, this assault on religious symbols of the Christian community comes in a State where the Christian population is sizeable.
Until 14th July, no arrests were made and the police reported to the media that they had no leads. However on 14th July, the police arrested one Francis Pereira from Curtorim village. With the arrest, the police and the Chief Minister of Goa, Mr. Manohar Parrikar conveyed that the real culprit was arrested and the case solved. Thus there would be an end to the spree of desecrations. But more Crosses were desecrated at Madkai and Chimbel on 25th July and 27th July respectively even while Francis Pereira was in custody (The Times of India, 2017).
The fact finding team consisted of Fr. Savio Fernandez, Executive Secretary of Council for Social Justice and Peace (CSJP), Ranjan Solomon, social activist and associated with CSJP, Roselle Solomon, social activist and associated with CSJP, Irfan Engineer, Director of Centre for Study of Society and Secularism (CSSS) and Neha Dabhade, Deputy Director of CSSS. The Team had a brief sharing with prominent activists in Goa on 13th July in Margao about the context of Goa and overall condition of religious minorities marked by marginalization and discrimination.
The fact finding team visited desecrated religious symbols and interacted with the members of the Christian communities and the priests at the affected sites. The team also interviewed politicians and people’s representatives. The representatives included Mr. Reginaldo Lorenco, MLA from the constituency of Curtorim and Mr. Ravi Naik, former Chief Minister of Goa and currently MLA from the constituency of Ponda. The team interacted with a priest of a Hindu temple and the DGP Police, team also met the members of family of the accused Francis Pereira.
Goa, once Portuguese colony, is rich in diversity. According to the 2011 census, has 66.08% Hindus, 8.33% Muslims and 25.10% Christians along with small number of other religious minorities. In South Goa where the desecrations have taken place, the proportion of population is as follows- Hindus 53.34%, Muslims 9.93% and Christians 36.21%. Thus the population of Christians and Muslims is comparatively higher in South Goa than in North Goa where the Christians are only 16.40%. Currently the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) rules the state though it didn’t emerge as the party with largest majority of votes in the State assembly elections conducted in May 2017. BJP, a right wing Hindu party swearing by the political ideology of Hindutva, has to compromise its ideological positions for political expediency in view of this diversity. This creates tensions and contradictions which play out in policies of the State. Despite the political instability, Goans have largely lived in peaceful coexistence.
There have been exceptions to this harmony. In recent times, there were riots in Curchorem- Sanvordem in 2006. The accused in this violence include senior BJP members – Satish Dhond and Sharmad Raiturcar (The Hindu, 2012). Fact finding reports of the riot indicated a significant role of the RSS and VHP in fomenting communal hatred and violence (Fact Finding team blames Sangh for Sanvordem Violence). Similarly in a bid to demonize and stigmatize the Muslim community, the Sanatan Sansthacarried out bomb blasts in Margao in 2009. The accused were carrying fake beards to give an impression that the Muslims were behind the bomb blasts (Messias, 2009). The Sanatan Sanstha under the pretext of ‘scientific spiritualism’- its stated objective, has been instigating hatred against minorities like Muslims and Christians through its publications like Sanatan Prabhat. It calls upon the Hindu community to take up arms to ensure the ‘destruction of the evildoer’ which it considers as an integral part ofdharma (Gatade, 2010).
In its campaign to spread hatred and sharpen faultlines based on identity politics, the Hindutva nationalists have recently exploited the issues of demand to ban beef in Goa, demand to stop subsidies to schools teaching in mediums other than Marathi and Konkani and hate speeches against minorities. It would be worthwhile to point out that in June 2017, before the spate of desecration, the Hindu Jan Jagruti Samiti, a sister organization of the Sanatan Sanstha organized an All India Hindu Conclave in Goa to discuss the establishment of a ‘Hindu Rashtra’ in India. In this Conclave, many hate speeches were given by Hindutva activists. Sadhvi Saraswati in particular called for open violence against beef eaters, particularly targeting the Muslims and Christians and the Scheduled Castes and Tribes. Sadhvi Saraswati said, while inaugurating the All India Hindu Convention at Ramnathi village, “I would recommend the Government of India that those who consider it as a status symbol to eat the meat of one’s own mother should be hanged in public. Then only people will realize that it is our duty to protect ‘gau mata’, (The Times of India , 2017)”
She also exhorted the Hindus to keep arms at their homes to protect themselves, heightening anxieties of Hindus without any basis. She said, “If we do not stock arms, we will be destroyed in future“. No action was taken by the State against her and others who spewed venom and hatred against Muslims and Christians and incited violence against them. Her statements constitute offence under sections 153, 153A and 295A of the Indian Penal Code. The police and the State is duty bound to take action against the Sadhvi.
Against the above context, some of the crucial findings of the fact finding committee are as follows:
Definite Pattern to the desecration:
The team found that most of the Crosses desecrated were at isolated places and some not easily visible from the road. All the crosses desecrated had their bases attacked at the edges with heavy equipment like steel sledge hammers only at night. The locations were carefully researched and at the Guardian Angel cemetery, the CCTVs were also damaged. This suggests there was lot of preparation, planning and reconnaissance invested in desecration of crosses. The pattern of desecrating the crosses was the same. This suggests that the incidents of desecration were not isolated but part of one conspiracy hatched by the same individuals or organization. There is a pattern to it which involves more than one culprit.
The role of Sanatan Sanstha and its activities:
The Sanatan Sanstha through its publications and the Hindu Jagruti Conclave incited violence against beef eaters, read Christians and Muslims. In fact, according to the Sanatan Sanstha it is the duty of the Hindus to eliminate them.
The Sanstha which supports the BJP electorally is polarizing communities by sharpening identities as explained earlier. By advocating stocking of arms and hatching conspiracies like bomb blasts to falsely implicate Muslims; it is militarizing the Hindu society and encouraging violence. Sadhavi Saraswati’s open call of violence along with the other instigations by the Sanstha is abetting violence and emboldening attacks on religious minorities. The Sanstha cannot escape responsibility for creating this vitiated atmosphere where violence is normalized and resorted as a reaction to minorities.
The perception of the Christian community, the elected representatives and the member of the Hindu community team spoke to; indicate that the desecrations may have been triggered off by the Hindu Conclave in Goa in early June 2017. Open hate speeches were made against minorities. No action was taken against the speakers. No complaints were lodged either though the speeches were reported widely. This has emboldened the Hindutva fringe elements. It cannot be a mere coincidence that a spate of desecrations took place after such speeches.
Role of the police/ state:
The team found the action of the State and the police wanting on multiple fronts. The police so far have not taken adequate measures to bring the culprits to justice. The police for a long time didn’t make any arrests. After mounting pressure from the citizens and civil society they finally arrested one Francis Pereira. Interestingly until a couple of days before the arrest of Francis Pereira, the police in its response to the media had claimed it had ‘no clue’ as to who can be behind the desecrations and thus no arrests were made. Now the police believe that there is no need of further investigation and all the aspects of the desecration have been adequately investigated into after the arrest of Pereira. The Chief Minister himself proclaimed that Francis Pereira indeed is the real culprit and the desecrations will now come to an end. It is odd for a Chief Minister to suggest that an accused is guilty pending a trial in a court of justice.
The fact finding team does not think that the real culprits have been apprehended. Francis Pereira is merely a scapegoat to hide the larger conspiracy. The police seem to be heavily relying on confessional statement of Pereira which is not admissible as evidence in court. The equipment with which demolitions were carried out has not been recovered. Often the confessions are forced out of the accused by exerting lot of pressure, stress and threats. Thus confessions don’t have much credibility. After interacting with the family members of Francis Pereira it seems unlikely that he could carry out the desecrations.
The hate speeches delivered at the Hindu Conclave has fuelled an atmosphere of violence and hatred towards minorities and the spate of desecrations has followed it as a natural consequence. The speeches may have abetted the desecrations. In any case, the police and the State as part of their duty has to take actions against these hate speeches especially in the context of the desecrations. But no case is registered against the hate speeches. The police claim that Francis Pereira single handedly desecrated the religious symbols. But the team does not find it plausible that a single man who is 50 years old can plan so many desecrations single handedly without any motive in such a short span. Moreover the desecrations have not stopped after the arrest of Francis Pereira. The police are either under tremendous political pressure to close the case and toe the political line or are unwilling to get to the real culprits.
In any case, the people of Goa have lost their faith in the police. Most of the crosses have been desecrated couple of times before this too. The police have exhibited little sincerity to solve the cases and arrest the culprits. Thus not all incidents were reported to the police. The people prefer not to go to the police since they know the police will do very little. This points out to the helplessness and frustration amongst the people.
Post the alleged desecrations of Frances Pereira – Madkai and Chimbel
The police and government have declared with certainty that the lone desecrator was Francis Pereira. This theory falls when one sees continuing desecrations in Goa even after arrest of Pereira. Once again, the Chief Minister has jumped the gun and proceeded to announce that the police have leads. These have happened again in two Christian locations.
In Madkai 12 crosses were desecrated. They were ruthless and pillars were thrown on the ground, the main gate was uprooted. Francis has claimed his innocence. The police cannot obviously do this on the basis of conspiracy theories and police methods of investigation which are often threatening and based on pre-meditated outcomes.
To establish this allegation, the community found in Chimbel, a lone cross was desecrated. The police have put forward a theory which people have dismissed, that cattle may be responsible for the fall of the structure. Rather than collecting forensic evidence, the police officers and other police personnel, destroyed evidence by replacing the fallen pieces and reconstructing the cross. When Catholic priests arrived on the spot, they saw the cross being tampered and the attempt to change the facts. Clearly, there is an angle that even the police may be hiding. Chimbel leave room for doubt in citizen minds of political manipulation and possible police complicity. The police were seen trying to construct a theory and building evidence around that.
- The fact finding team recommends constitution of a Special Investigation Team (SIT) under the supervision of the Bombay High Court or the Supreme Court to impartially investigate the desecration and bring to justice all involved in the crime. Such an investigation should explore the political angles and the state of communal tensions now prevalent in Goa.
- The fact finding team also recommends that legal action must be taken against hate speeches made at the Hindu conclave under relevant sections like 153A and 295A of the Indian Penal Code.
- Civil Society will have to undertake sustained campaign against communal forces and compel the State Government to perform its Constitutional obligation of arresting hate crimes and upholding democratic rights of all citizens. Sustained campaign will also have to be undertaken to promote feeling of brotherhood and sisterhood among members of all religious communities.