Hubballi-Dharwad/Belagavi/Gadag/Bengaluru: On 21 September 2021, Gulihatti D Shekhar of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) made an impassioned speech in the Karnataka Legislative Assembly claiming that Hindus were being “forcibly” converted into Christianity in his constituency. He claimed 18,000 people had been converted, including his own mother.
“(My mother) was taken to their religious places stating that good things will happen to her,” said Shekhar, from Hosadurga in central Karnataka. “Where she was told not to wear kumkum (vermilion), have the photos of (Hindu) gods or religious items. She was brainwashed and sent back. After coming home my mother is systematically following it to the extent that her ringtone is also Christian songs.”
As other BJP members of legislative assembly (MLAs) joined in, claiming conversion was rising, Karnataka’s home minister assured the assembly that the government would bring about an anti-conversion law that would criminalise conversions through force, inducement or false claims.
A month later, Somu Avaradhi, a 40-year-old well-built pastor, prepared to deliver a sermon at a prayer hall in Bairadevarakoppa on the outskirts of Hubballi city, some 400 km north of Bengaluru.
Avaradhi, who runs a business cleaning water tanks, embraced Christianity nearly 18 years ago, and over the past five years, he preached his faith—delivering sermons in a prayer hall or holding prayers in the houses of believers.
Allegations of conversion dogged Avaradhi sporadically: in 2013, he was attacked when he visited a village; while, in 2019, a group barged into his home during his daughter’s birthday party claiming that he was converting the gathering.
Voluntary religious conversion or preaching/propagating one's religious tenets is guaranteed under Article 25 of the Constitution. Post-independence India has a storied history of religious conversion. In 1956, B R Ambedkar, India's first law minister, converted to Buddhism along with 500,000 of his followers.
On 17 October 2021, Avaradhi found himself caught in a whirlpool of communal politics and became a focal point of a Hindu fundamentalist Hindutva narrative of forced conversions in Karnataka and nationally.
That narrative has gained ground this year, and hundreds of attacks have been reported nationwide. On 21 October, the Association for the Protection of Civil Rights, United Against Hate, and United Christian Forum released a fact-finding report listing 288 violent incidents against Christians, most in north India.
The report said there was a rise in attacks on churches and hate speech against Christians and police cases were often filed against victims of these attacks, pastors and their families. In November 2021, Article 14 reported how pastors had been attacked and churches ransacked in BJP-governed Uttarakhand.
Among the latest attacks was one on 6 December on a Christian school in Madhya Pradesh, even as students appeared for an examination inside.
Our investigation of attacks in four Karnataka districts found that many violent incidents were unreported, pastors and congregations were fearful, and the police often condoned or didn’t act against attackers who are allied with the ruling party or its allied Hindutva organisations.
Numerous Christian victims of attacks who spoke to Article 14 accused local police of aligning themselves with Hindutva groups or refusing to register complaints or focussing investigation solely on the victim and not the assaulters.
When Article 14 sought comment from Praveen Sood, Karnataka’s director general of police, he denied police complicity or a reluctance to file cases.
“It isn’t true,” said Sood, who denied any rise in attacks on Christians. “The police have taken action based on complaints from both sides and have acted impartially.”
‘The Police Asked Me Why I Believe In Jesus’
When Avaradhi arrived at the prayer hall for his Sunday mass, a routine he had been following for two years, he found a group of around 40 Hindu fundamentalists had surrounded the hall.
“They were harassing believers who had come to the prayer hall. They were taking down their names, asking the women why they were not wearing a kumkum or wearing flowers in their hair,” Avaradhi told Article 14. They asked them how much money they were being paid to attend the mass.”
The mob had claimed to be “conducting a survey” of Christian prayer halls— a reference to an 16 October 2021 order by the Karnataka Intelligence department directing its personnel to intelligence officers to survey unauthorised Christian prayer halls. Avaradhi’s prayer hall had been in operation for two years after taking permission from the municipality.
The saffron-clad mob entered the hall and started singing bhajans and shouting “Jai Shri Ram!”. When the police arrived, Avaradhi was whisked away to the police station, while devotees were asked to go home.
Avaradhi was eventually taken to a hospital after nearly fainting at the police station.
Unknown to Avaradhi, a large group of protestors, including local BJP MLA Arvind Bellad, gathered at the police station, demanding immediate action against the “Christian missionary”. A complaint had been filed by a person from the Bhovi community, a scheduled caste community in Karnataka, claiming that Somu had offered inducements of money, jobs and property if he converted to Christianity.
Avaradhi said he was asked by the police to flee the city for his own safety. The protests intensified, as Hindu fundamentalists blocked highways and got into angry confrontations with the police.
Avaradhi and his family, including two young children aged 11 and 13 years, were picked up by the police as they travelled towards Bengaluru.
“At the station, I was interrogated for five hours,” said Avaradhi, who added that he had not met the complainant before and recognised him only as one among the mob that entered the prayer hall.
“We did not get any complaints or petitions of impropriety in police conduct during the investigation of this case,” K Ramarajan, deputy commissioner of police (law and order) of Hubballi-Dharwad city at the time. He said it was official policy to register an FIR on all complaints.
“I didn’t even know what case was registered against me,” said Avaradhi. “Instead, the police asked me why I believe in Jesus; asked for my bank account details and properties I own; why I gave my son a Christian name; where I buy my Bibles from; and how many people I have converted.”
Avaradhi was arrested on 18 October and was released on bail only 10 days later on 28 October.
Police Cases Against Christians Who Are Attacked
Somu Avaradhi’s case is just one among scores in a pattern of attacks by Hindu fundamentalist on Christian pastors—particularly those from the Protestant denomination—in Karnataka over the past two years.
Based on calls received on their helpline, the United Christian Forum report estimated there had been 32 incidents of violence against Christians in Karnataka between January and October 2021. Karnataka ranked third in incidents of violence, after Uttar Pradesh and Chattisgarh.
This may be an undercount, considering that first information reports (FIRs) are not filed in all cases by fearful victims. Protestant Christian leaders in seven districts of Karnataka told Article 14 of at least 53 incidents of varying degrees of violence since 2020.
In multiple incidents, FIRs had instead been filed against Christians who had been attacked: either under section 295A (outraging religious sentiments) of the Indian Penal Code 1860, or under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989.
The first to receive a call after an attack on a Christian congregation is Sudhakar J Samuel, executive member of the Belagavi Pastors and Christian Leaders Association.
“There have been at least 16 incidents in Belagavi district alone of which FIRs were filed in just three cases,” said Samuel. “In the others, the people assaulted were too scared to approach the police or there was hesitancy to pursue a lengthy court case.”
B Rajashekhar, a Davangere-based pastor and president of the Christian Forum for Human Rights, said that the increase in attacks on Christians have taken place primarily after chief minister Basavaraj Bommai took over in July 2021.
Since the BJP came to power in Karnataka in 2019, Bommai, who came over to the BJP a decade ago from the socialist Janata Dal (United), has attracted controversy for virulently toeing the Hindutva line: from pushing for implementation of the National Registry of Citizens in Karnataka to seemingly condoning ‘moral policing’ or vigilante attacks on interfaith couples.
The CM has now thrown his weight behind such an anti-conversion bill and promised it would be implemented soon.
“There were a few attacks before,” said Rajashekhar, who had taken on the 2008-2013 BJP government through a writ petition after churches were attacked in Davangere city. “But now, the attacks have increased in scale and numbers. The ultimate goal seems to be to paint Christians and minorities as people who are threats to Hindus. The effort is to bring an anti-conversion law.”
Attacks A Precursor To An Anti-Conversion Law
Talk around an anti-conversion law in Karnataka gathered momentum after BJP MLA Shekhar began a debate in the Karnataka Assembly about conversions.
On 13 October, the house committee on backward classes and minorities— which he chaired—ordered a survey of “unauthorised” persons conducting Church work. A few days later, the intelligence department of the State police ordered the survey.
Shekhar continued his crusade on social media in November through a viral video , implying that Hindus were in danger of being swamped.
“If we don’t save Hindu community, in 15-20 years, the entire Hindu community will be converted to Christianity,” said Shekhar, who urged BJP workers and political representatives to file FIRs if they learnt of conversions. “People who are protesting about the issue should understand this.”
This “rise” is contradicted by official census figures, which instead note a decline in the percentage of the Christian population in the state between 2001 and 2011. In 2001, 1.90%, or a little more than a million in Karnataka declared themselves as Christians. In 2011, this dropped to 1.87%.
While many Christians, particularly from the Protestant denomination, have not changed their birth certificates or obtained other government documentation to reflect their Christian beliefs, it is virtually impossible for such a small community to draw away significant numbers of Hindus, who form 84% of the state’s population.
The BJP MLA claimed that he had received complaints from numerous people who sought his “help” to escape harassment from the Christian community. A survey of villages in the MLA’s constituency led by the local tahsildar found no evidence of forced conversion. That did little to curb the conversion narrative.
No Forced Conversion Found, But Rhetoric Rises
The All India Veerashaiva Mahasabha, a body representing Karnataka’s politically-influential Veerashaiva Lingayat community—and whose secretariat comprises politicians across party lines—said in a 15 November statement that they were “concerned about news reports of people from their community converting through inducements”.
The Mahasabha urged Lingayat religious institutions to increase contact with devotees to prevent conversion and to create programmes to “bring back the converted”.
Seers from 50 religious institutions and from the Hindu extreme-right, such as the Sri Ram Sene and Hindu Janajagruthi Samithi (both organisations face numerous criminal cases, including links to the murder of journalist Gauri Lankesh), met chief minister Basavaraj Bommai seeking an anti-conversion bill.
Pramod Muthalik, the controversial head of Sri Ram Sene, an organisation frequently named by victims of numerous attacks on Christians (here, here and here), denied that there were any “special instructions” to his followers to target Christians.
“We have been making a galata (‘ruckus’ in Kannada) and raising the issue of conversions for over 10 years now,” Muthalik told Article 14 in a phone interview. “But it is after [BJP MLA] Gulihatti Shekhar raised the issue in the assembly that the issue has received publicity and attention. Now that there is a BJP government in power, we believe an anti-conversion bill can finally be passed.”
“We are 100% going to oppose these efforts by Christians, as they are not only trying to convert Hindus through their pastors, but also trying to destroy Hindu culture through educational institutions and hospitals built by missionaries,” said Muthalik. “What we need is an anti-conversion bill which would give strength to Hindu activists like us to stop this menace.”
‘Anti-Conversion Law Will Give People The Right To Attack & Harass Us’
Article 25 of the Indian Constitution guarantees the freedom for profession, practice and propagation of religion. However, numerous states over the history of independent India have enacted laws that prevent conversion through force.
An Anti-conversion law is in force in Uttar Pradesh (2020) and Madhya Pradesh (2021), with other BJP-ruled states also mulling legislation against forcible conversion. Former judges and bureaucrats have criticised the law as being a “stick to harass” minorities.
This is what Christians in Karnataka fear. Archbishop of Bengaluru Peter Machado has written three times to CM Bommai in 2021, warning that the bill will be used to harass the Christian community.
“Hindutva forces are building a movement for hatred against Christians. The anti-conversion law is being created for this purpose,” said Cedric Jacob, Protestant pastor and the vice-president of Karnataka State Christian Minority Welfare Association. “It will give people the right to assault Christians in the guise of conversion.”
Protestants become targets as many of their believers are neo-converts from Hinduism and come from socio-economically disadvantaged Hindu castes. Unlike other Christian denominations, their prayer meets are not conducted in informal prayer halls and not in Churches.
Many pastors and believers—some of whom embraced Christian beliefs decades ago, such as Avaradhi—have not formally declared themselves as Christians and sought government certificates that record the change in their religion.
“It didn’t seem like a necessity for many,” said Jacob. “But now, even applying for a certificate will become difficult if the anti-conversion law is passed.”
Persecuted By The State
Soon after the attack on Avaradhi, thousands of Protestant Christians across North Karnataka came to Hubballi demanding action against those orchestrating attacks.
But justice in these cases is often elusive.
In Avaradhi’s case, there had been two complaints filed against the mob. One, by his sister-in-law who names 16 people and at least 60-70 others for criminally intimidating the congregation and destroying sacred items in the prayer hall.
An additional complaint was filed by Ramarajan—the former deputy commissioner of police in Hubballi quoted previously—against protestors who had gathered at the police station. The complaint, filed against a local Hindutva leader and 100 others, states that the mob had abused the police and called the DCP a “convert, anti-national and a stooge of Sonia Gandhi”.
Ramarajan was transferred less than a month later, a decision that the police commissioner and the former DCP described as “administrative”. There were no arrests in the complaint filed by Avaradhi’s family. “Where is the justice when I spent 10 days in jail and have my life upturned, while no action has been taken against those who assaulted me?” said Avaradhi.
Labhu Ram, Hubballi-Dharwad police commissioner, denied allegations of bias. “Ashok (accused of abusing the police) was not arrested because he took anticipatory bail,” said Ram. “Other complaints in the incident are still under investigation.”
Tied To A Tree, Beaten: Police Say Attackers Untraceable
On 1 March 2020, 31-year-old Manjunath Keralli, a junior lawyer in the district-headquarter town of Gadag in central Karnataka, was attacked by a mob when he had gone to Banakanakoppa village. He was preaching at a believer’s house where a crowd of 15 had assembled.
“Within a half hour of the service, some people broke the latch of the door and barged into the house.,” said Keralli, the first in his poverty-ridden Kuruba (an other backward caste) family—where he was virtually raised by his mother—to become a graduate.
“They dragged me outside where over 70 people were standing. They claimed I was converting people in the house,” said Keralli. “They abused me. Even though people in the house said they were believers, the mob continued to beat me. They even tied me to a tree before calling the police.”
At the police station, Keralli detailed the attack in a complaint. A fellow villager filed a complaint claiming that Keralli had enquired about his religion and then proceeded to insult Hindu Gods. FIRs were filed in both cases: criminal restraint (IPC 506 and 341), unlawful assembly (IPC 149, 147, 143) and causing hurt (IPC 504, 323) in Keralli’s complaint; and, promoting enmities between groups (IPC 153A), outraging religious sentiments (IPC 295A and 298).
In January 2021, the police filed chargesheets in both cases. While they claimed there was enough evidence to prosecute Keralli, they could not “trace” the persons who had attacked him.
“I had named 13-14 people in my complaint,” said Keralli. “And yet, the police claimed that they could not find those responsible for the attack on me. I’m the only one who has to spend years battling this in court.”
‘I Thought I Would Die’
Earlier in the year, Suraj (name changed on request), 37-year-old, short-statured pastor in Belagavi city, was attacked when he went to his Hindu brother-in-law’s house. A mob of 60-70 people gathered on 5 April 2021 claiming that he was converting them.
“These are my relatives, but the mob claimed that I had come to convert them,” said Suraj. “Even when my relatives objected, they didn’t relent. They started attacking me, asking me for names of all the people I had converted. They said they would forcibly take me door-to-door asking people not to come to my Sunday service.”
The assault was public, and the violence performative, said Suraj.
The mob grabbed Suraj’s collar and paraded him for over 1 km. They forcibly applied kumkum (vermillion) on his wife’s forehead as a symbol of Hinduism, and warned his brother-in-law against filing a police complaint.
“I was slapped on my head repeatedly,” said Suraj, whose ear drums were damaged in the attack. “I was beaten till my skin turned blue. I thought I would die.”
Suraj was among the few we met in Belagavi who filed a police case after an assault. The attackers were not arrested.
“They live in the same area as me,” said Suraj. “I see them roaming menacingly outside. I’ve stopped my sermons after the incident.”
An Atmosphere Of Pervasive Fear
The attacks have created an atmosphere of fear: prayers halls have remained shut, pastors confining activities to “safe” areas and relying increasingly on online services.
This was evident in Belagavi district after a prayer meet was disrupted by a Hindu mob on 7 November 2021. The prayer hall was locked from the outside. Later that day, an FIR was filed against K J Cherian (74)—a pastor in Belagavi city for over four decades—for “insulting Hindu idols”.
After the incident, the police called and advised pastors to restrict their activities.
T Thomas, President of Belagavi Pastors and Christian Leaders Association, which represents 60 congregations in the city, said apart from pastors being told not to hold prayers in prayer halls there were complaints of police noting down addresses and mobile numbers of believers.
“People are definitely scared,” said Thomas. “A significant number are not coming for prayers fearing attacks.”
The police move or urging pastors to stop prayer meetings in halls stopped after Christian groups wrote a letter on 24 November to the city police chief seeking a clarification. Belagavi police commissioner K Thiyagarajan denied there was any formal order issued to pastors to curtail worship in prayer halls.
“The local police took certain action based on the law and order situation,” said Thiyagarajan. Asked about the FIRs filed against pastors, he said: “We’re only filing an FIR because we received a complaint. There is a fair investigation in progress in these cases.”
The attacks and conversion narratives from the Hindu right have created evident fissures between Christian communities and their neighbours.
In the village of Bailhongal in Belagavi district, prayer meets held by 45-year-old pastor P Prabhakarin a badminton hall for 2.5 years were attacked by a local group adorned in saffron shawls.
“The police asked us not to pray there anymore,” said Prabhakar. “They said if we wanted to pray, we should go to a Church. Since the attack, we have been searching for a place to pray. But, no one is ready to give us a hall.”
Avaradhi said he had been virtually ostracised by the neighbourhood where he had lived his entire life. He had spent nearly Rs 50,000 on the court case thus far and exhausted his savings.
“The earnings from my water-tank-cleaning business supports my household,” said Avaradhi. “But since the incident, my photos have been circulated everywhere. I haven’t got a single order so far.”
After he was released from jail, said Avaradhi, the owner of the house that his family rented asked him to vacate. Hindutva groups had told locals not to rent his family a home.
“My children are being harassed at school. I haven’t stepped out of my home,” said Avaradhi. “But those who barged into my prayer hall are scot free.”
(Mohit M Rao is an independent journalist based in Bengaluru.)