It was supposed to be a day of celebration, but instead it turned into the latest example of violence by Hindu radicals against Christians and the conversion of tribals. Hundreds of Catholic faithful were beaten, humiliated, mocked, and driven away.
On January 24, a few hundred Catholics crossed the Brahmaputra river to get to Majuli. Situated in the middle of the river, on its Indian side, in the district of Jorhat in the state of Assam, the island is a well-known tourist attraction. Since 1987, it has had a small parish in Jainkraimukh, but its fame is mainly due to its historical remnants of Assam culture, like the sacred palace of Neo-vasihnavite Satras and the monasteries founded by Srimanta Sankradeva in the 16th century.
The small community of the island, mostly made up of Mishing tribals, was celebrating the priestly ordination of the first Catholic priest born in Majuli, Hemonto Pegu. For the occasion, the pastor, Fr. Bartholomew Bhengra, had invited the priests and faithful of the nearby communities to participate in the celebration presided over by Joseph Aind, Salesian bishop of Dibrugarh.
Faithful from the parishes of Mariani, Sarupathar, Naojan, Jagun, Dibrugarh, and other villages of the district of Jhorat came to the island. In order to reach Majuli, they all had to cross the river by boat, and then get onto buses and jeeps to get to Jengarimukh, where the ordination was being held. Priests, men, women and children took two hours crossing the Brahmaputra and one on the roads of Majuli, which, at 577 square kilometers, is the largest river island in the world.
After the ordination, at about 2 in the afternoon, the various groups began heading back toward the river. When they reached the village of Kamalabari, some of the jeeps on which priests and religious were traveling were stopped by a crowd of local people belonging to the tribal communities. Asked why they were on the island, the members of the group explained that they had attended the ordination of the new priest. They were insulted by the crowd. Witnesses of the aggression say they were threatened with statements like "Never come back again and if you do come back, we will cut you into pieces and throw you into the Brahmaputra," and "Missionaries go back Christians should not enter our place!"
The community of Mariani - the largest group at the ordination, with about 400 people - was stopped by a group of about 600 people near the boat dock. The pastor of St. Antony, Fr. Caesar Henry, and the rector of St. Xavier High School, Fr. G.P. Amalraj, were on an off-road vehicle in front of the bus. They were immediately pulled off the vehicle and beaten. The attackers shouted, "Here are the missionaries, kill these dogs," beating and kicking the two priests. Then they went to the bus, made the parishioners get off, and began to beat the men mercilessly. The crowd continued to shout insults: "you dogs, you beef eaters [editor's note: Hindus are vegetarians], this is the land of the Hindus and you have no right to come here! Why do you come to convert the tribals?"
After the violence, the people were forced to walk 5 kilometers to get to the boat dock, while the crowd continued to insult them on their walk for about an hour. Shaken up and concerned about the safety of the young people, women, and children, the priests advised the local authorities, asking for protection at least for the other groups. The buses carrying students from Holy Cross School in Naojan were escorted by the police, but stones were still thrown at them. The authorities then provided boats for the groups of faithful, and at 6 o'clock in the evening the groups were able to cross the river again.
Commenting on the events, Fr. Caesar Henry says, "As we have just celebrated the 60th anniversary of the Republic, we cannot help but ask, Are we not Indians? Do we not have the right to move from place to place without being harassed and persecuted because we belong to a group and profess a faith? The constitution provides freedom and equal rights to all. Do our great gurus and sages teach us to abuse or ill-treat innocent and simple people who go to attend social and religious celebrations?"