Machilipatnam (Andhra Pradesh), Hyderabad (Telangana) & Guntur (Andhra Pradesh): On 2 May 2022, 10 Hindu men burst into a Christian prayer room in the home of a pastor in the coastal Andhra Pradesh town of Machilipatnam.
They called themselves the Shiva Shakthi Sainyam or the Shiva Shakthi Army.
“What is your caste?” they asked the pastor. Of the 10, only two or three spoke, witnesses recounted.
The chapel was on the top floor of a private property, a small independent house owned by Father Gnanaraju, a convert to Christianity. The pastor’s family lives in the house, and Christians from the locality gather to pray in a prayer room on the top floor.
“If the microphone was the issue it could’ve been resolved very simply,” said Gnanaraju. “They did not have to invade our personal space and belittle our god.”
He has owned the property for eight years and never experienced any disruption, he told Article 14.
A video of the event showed one of the men asking the devotees, aggressively, “What are you Christians doing amongst us Hindus? We must protect our homes.” The video was recorded by the Shiva Shakthi team and posted on their social media page, among other posts promoting Hindutva. The group has 400,000 subscribers on YouTube.
Conversion of religion, unless forced, is not prohibited in India, and the Constitution guarantees the right through Articles 25, 26, 27 and 28. In 2021, the Andhra Pradesh unit of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) declared that it would enact a law against religious conversions if it came to power in the state assembly.
In May 2022, the Shiva Shakthi Sainyam filed a petition with Spandana, the Andhra Pradesh government’s public grievance redressal platform at the Machilipatnam collectorate, demanding closure of Gnanaraju’s chapel. The matter appeared to be resolved when Gnanaraju wrote to the collectorate assuring officials that no microphones would be used in the chapel.
Several Machilipatnam residents believed that the town’s communal harmony was in danger from the Shiva Shakthi Sainyam. The unease comes against a backdrop of accusations by right-wing organisations (here, here and here), over the past few years, that Andhra Pradesh chief minister YS Jagan Mohan Reddy and his family promoted conversions to Christianity.
In 2021, the Andhra Pradesh police had to issue a clarification after BJP leader Sunil Deodhar claimed that Christians had erected a huge cross in Guntur, on a hill where a revered Hindu shrine is located—the cross had been erected a kilometre away. Former chief minister N Chandrababu Naidu of the Telugudesam Party has called Y S Jagan Mohan Reddy a “Christian chief minister” who failed to prevent attacks on Hindu religious sites, while RSS mouthpiece Organiser has called Reddy’s administration a “government of the church, for the church and by the church”.
Gnanaraju said his was not the first chapel in Machilipatnam to experience such hostility from the aggressive Hindu outfit. “The Shiva Shakthi Sainyam has been going door to door collecting funds in the name of Hindutva and instigating people to join them,” he said. “We all live in unity in our peta (area) , but they are trying to create a divide between us. Because we are a minority, they are taking undue advantage.”
In Christian Localities: Saffron Flags, Slogans Of Jai Shri Ram
Working with their motto to establish Shiva Shakthi ‘in every village and every home’, volunteers in all 26 districts of Andhra Pradesh conduct workshops to speak about Hindutva; they hold rallies, evening classes and self-defence classes for Hindu children aged 10-18 years. They also disrupt prayers in churches that they believe are “illegal”, or built without permissions, and demand that local authorities shut these down.
On 22 May 2022, Article 14 attended a Hindu dharma sammelana or religious gathering organised by Shiva Shakthi in Rajiv Gandhi Nagar, Guntur, about 35 km south of the state capital of Amaravati.
A Dalit Christian dominated area, Rajiv Gandhi Nagar comprises 3,000 houses, including only 500 Hindu households. “The rest are converted scheduled caste and scheduled tribe (SC/ST) Christians,” said Lakshmi Ramanuja Das, a full-time employee with Shiva Shakthi whose responsibilities include crowdfunding and gathering people for rallies and workshops.
She said in colonies that have such SC/ST dominance, “where the locals are uneducated”, the group screens films on Hindutva. One such short film is Pastor- Beggar, in which a pastor is compared to a beggar trying to trap Hindus to earn money through converting them.
Nearly 50-60 people from the locality attended the workshop, most of them in the 10-18 years age group.
The event began with kids holding saffron flags walking up to a small stage, chanting slogans of ‘Jai Shri Ram’ and ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’.
A volunteer, Harshavardhana Sastri, said in his speech that the British were not responsible for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre of 1919. “...it has been fed into our brains that Britishers killed us Indians, but that is not true,” he declared. “Britishers used Indians to kill Indians by offering them money to kill our people.”
A local resident named Naresh told Article 14 that pastors in the region “target” families in crisis situations, people looking for spiritual or religious answers to problems. His son is disabled, and a pastor visited his shop and tried to convert the family, he claimed. “They get money from the church for converting people.”
Naresh swore that he had never touched the Bible, and said he had been “educated” about the conversion “conspiracy” by Shiva Shakthi.
‘Pastors Earn In Lakhs For Conversions, It Is Their Business’
In Obulnaidupalem village, 16 kilometres away from Guntur district, Shiva Shakthi organised another workshop on 18 May 2022 where boys and girls aged 10 years - 18 years were given lessons in Karra Samu, a form of self defence using sticks. Volunteers said these lessons were aimed at making Hindus strong enough to defend themselves.
Bhavyashree Lalitha, a confident 17-year-old dressed in an orange and blue churidar kurta, her hair braided and a red bindi on her forehead, conducts these workshops everyday at 6.30 pm. They are attended by a group of 10 to 30 kids.
Lalitha is a class XII student at the Bandlamudi Hanumayamma Hindu Degree College for Women in Guntur. Her father Nagaraju, 37, is an auto driver and a part-time Shiva Shakthi volunteer.
The family has lived in Obulnaidupalem for 13 years and said they have witnessed a rise in Christian dominance in the state after the YSR Congress party assumed power. She said current chief minister YS Jaganmohan Reddy has also favoured Christian conversions.
“When open category individuals are converted, pastors earn money in lakhs, this is their business,” she told Article 14. She said she learnt this from organisations such as Shiva Shakthi, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP).
Her workshops include martial arts training, Karra Samu classes and history lessons that highlight “lost” facts, she said.
“Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru were against our country’s fight for freedom, they supported Britishers and Nizams, but no one knows this truth,” she said, without substantiating her claim. “I learnt this after joining Shiva Shakthi.”
Shiva Shakthi: A Company To Counter Criticism of Vedas, Puranas
The Shiva Shakthi Adhyatmika Chaitanya Vedika was founded in 2015 by Karunakar Sugguna, Komatineni Venkata Ramakrishna Rao, Kalyan Kumar Chatlapally, Narsing Rao Vangari, all local residents with a shared belief in Hindutva who met through a Facebook group. From the original nine directors, the Hyderabad-based organisation’s board now comprises these four men.
Under section 8 of the Companies Act, 2013, Shiva Shakthi is incorporated as a company to carry out charitable work. The primary purpose of a ‘section 8 company’ is to promote non-profit objectives, and members of these companies do not receive dividends from profits.
The organisation’s stated chief objective is to spread awareness about the ‘Christian conversion mafia’, and to create ‘chaitanyam’, or unity among those fighting for a holy Hindu land.
Addressing Hindus, its website says: “Poisonous propaganda and public criticism of the Vedas, Puranas, and the epic Ramayana, Mahabharata have become common in society today.”
According to founder-president Sugguna, the organisation employs 30 full-time staffers in a Hyderabad office. They work on raising funds, notifying people of upcoming workshops, designing pamphlets for these workshops, gathering crowds for their rallies and mobilising support on social media. In a studio in this office, they produce videos and films for YouTube.
Hindutva Group Faces Cases For Cheating, Forgery, Loan Fraud
On 2 December 2021, the Hyderabad police registered a first information report (FIR) against Sugguna and Devireddy Anand Kumar Reddy of Shiva Shakthi under sections 406 (punishment for criminal breach of trust), 420 (cheating and dishonestly inducing delivery of property), 465 (forgery), 468 (forgery for the purpose of cheating), 471 (using as genuine a forged document or electronic record) and 34 (acts by several persons in furtherance of common intention) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), 1860.
Among the complainants in the case was Karate Kalyani, a film-actor and social activist, who later made public her accusation that Shiva Shakthi had collected funds illegally.
According to the FIR, Sugguna and Reddy, the treasurer, incorporated another company named Shiva Shakthi Foundation on 21 February 2020. In addition, Reddy and his wife Sunitha also ran Engineers CADD Centre Pvt Ltd, a training centre, whose property was mortgaged with RBL Bank Ltd’s Ameerpet branch in Hyderabad, for Rs 2.49 crore.
In November 2020, the Reddys also incorporated another non-profit company named Bhagavat Gita Foundation.
The FIR said Shiva Shakthi Foundation and Adhyatmika Chaitanya Vedika began to raise funds for an office, and made several appeals on social media, without revealing details of the property to be purchased. According to the FIR, the company inaugurated an office in March 2021 after collecting donations to the tune of Rs 1 crore. In September 2021, Sugguna reportedly posted a video on YouTube and Facebook, requesting more donations.
“We helped them raise money the first time,” Kalyani, whose real name is Padala Kalyani, told Article 14. “But when they asked to raise money again, there was something fishy about it. They are creating a communal divide between Hindus and Christians and earning money.”
When Kalyani approached the police, inquiries at the office of the sub-registrar in Banjara Hills, Hyderabad, revealed that no property document had been registered in the name of Shiva Shakthi.
The FIR said the directors of Shiva Shakthi Foundation, Bhagavat Gita Foundation, Engineers CADD Centre Pvt Ltd and office bearers of Shiva Shakthi Adhyatmika Chaitanya Vedika raised funds from the public for charitable causes, using their section 8 companies, and “misappropriated and diverted the funds to their personal accounts” to repay a bank loan.
On 18 December 2021, the crime investigation department (CID) of Telangana police notified the commissioner of the Income Tax department in Hyderabad of the matter.
Signed by the CID’s additional director general of police, the letter said directors of Shiva Shakthi Foundation had used money “raised from fraudulent sources” to clear a bank loan, an act tantamount to “loan fraud resulting in money laundering and income tax evasion”.
Article 14 tried to contact Inspector Nageshwar Rao and inspector P Padmanabha Raju of the central crime department of Hyderabad police, who are in charge of investigations into the Shiva Shakthi case. Rao was unavailable while Raju said he was no longer in charge of the probe.
Earlier, in 2018, cases were registered against Shiva Shakthi and another group named Hindu Janasakthi for allegedly burning a copy of the Bible and spreading false propaganda against the Christian community in the Meerpet, Kukatpally, Singotam and Warangal police stations in Telangana and the Rentachintala, Singarayakonda, Marturu and Chirala police stations in Andhra Pradesh.
In 2018, the All India True Christian Council filed a public interest litigation in the Hyderabad high court seeking transfer of cases against the two organisations to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).
In 2019, a Shiva Shakthi activist was arrested in Krishna district of Andhra Pradesh for announcing a Rs 1 lakh reward for anyone who proved that Jesus was born on 25 December.
‘Temples Do Not Need Permission In India, Churches Do’
Karunakar Sugguna is a man of medium build, dark haired, wearing a vermillion mark between his eyebrows and a calm appearance. He wears a red-orange tayattu (amulet) around his left wrist.
The 34-year-old resident of Tenali in Guntur, Andhra Pradesh, was formerly a banana vendor. Born to a Christian couple, Sugguna said he is a recent convert to Hinduism.
Along with selling bananas, he started posting on YouTube videos questioning the Bible and the pastors in and around Tenali. A subsequent series of meetings with top Hindu pontiffs in the region led him to Chinna Jeeyar Swami, who has reportedly guided the Telangana state government in the construction of the Yadadri Temple in the town of Yadagirigutta in the Yadadri Bhuvanagiri district.
According to people who knew Sugguna, it was Chinna Jeeyar Swami who asked Sugguna to spread awareness about Hinduism.
He called pastors leading prayers in the villages a “Christian conversion mafia” that converts Hindus to Christianity to earn money from the church.
Shiva Shakthi’s website vows to take down illegal chapels and mosques.
He said his volunteers had forced local bodies to close down 10 churches in Andhra Pradesh. He said he would not provide details, in order to protect their volunteers. Article 14 could not confirm his claim.
According to Sugguna, widespread conversions to Christianity are afoot in Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and some northern states.
“This is a Hindu nation, temples do not need permission but chapels and mosques do, even if they are private properties.” He claimed the word ‘secularism’ in the Indian Constitution was added as an afterthought, “just for the sake of it”.
Using Social Media To Polarise Hindus
On 6 June 2022, the foundation put up a video justifying statements made on television by Nupur Sharma, at the time a spokesperson for the Bharatiya Janata Party, about the prophet of Islam. The anchor speaking in the video, Kalyan Chatlapally, also a Shiva Shakthi co-founder, said in the clip: “What Nupur said was true and to suspend her was an act of cowardice.”
The video clocked more than 66,000 views by June-end.
On 15 January 2022, a class 12 student named Lavanya reportedly consumed poison and committed suicide in Thanjavur, in coastal Tamil Nadu. BJP and VHP leaders circulated a video of the girl purportedly accusing her school management of harassing her for refusing to convert to Christianity.
In a video posted on 5 February 2022, Shiva Shakthi’s Siri Chandrasekhar described the Lavanya suicide case as a “zombie attack”. She accused Christians of luring Lavanya to convert to Christianity. In some other videos, anchors were seen accusing all pastors of being rapists.
In 2021, Shiva Shakthi began to post content in five languages—English, Hindi, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam. According to Sugguna, many people who watched their videos “realised” that they had been forcibly converted into Christianity and sought help to convert back to Hinduism. “We call this ghar wapsi,” he said.
Under the Ghar Wapsi series of videos, the group welcomes people who return to their ‘original dharma’ with new clothes, a photograph of Hindu deity Rama and a copy of the Bhagavad Gita. A few interviews of candidates who converted to Hinduism are also on their YouTube channel.
The rest of their content mainly comprises short films and arguments with pastors about their preachings on the Bible, all written and directed by Sugguna himself.
Sugguna told Article 14 that “a lot of pastors” sexually abuse children. “They adopted the sanyasi habit of Hindus. They become nuns and bishops and do not marry.” While sanyasis have dietary restrictions, Christians eat non-vegetarian food, he said, “which is why Christians become aggressive and abuse children.”
According to Census 2011, Hindus constitute 88.46% of Andhra Pradesh’s population. According to the National Family Health Survey (5th round) in Andhra Pradesh, 97.4% of men and 95% of women are non-vegetarians.
Of 26 districts in Andhra Pradesh, Shiva Shakthi has been active on the ground in five districts, almost all with a sizable population of scheduled castes and scheduled tribes—Kadapa (13% SC/ST), Guntur (24.7%), Krishna (22.2%), East Godavari (22.4%), West Godavari (23.4%). In Telangana, they are active in Nalgonda (18.3%).
According to the group, most converted Christians in these districts belong to Dalit communities, though Christians believe otherwise.
Father Joseph, a converted Christian in Guntur, said the trend several decades ago was that SC/ST’s were attracted to a religion that did not practise untouchability, “but now it’s everywhere”. He himself was not from an SC/ST community.
On 25 April 2022, the Shiva Shakthi Foundation posted on social media that members of the VHP and Bajrang Dal from Mandapeta, in Konaseema district, located about 200 km from Amaravati, had attended a meeting hosted by them in Arthamuru village of the coastal East Godavari district.
Shiva Shakthi has collaborated with the Global Hindu Heritage Foundation, also called the Save Temples Organisation. Save Temples is a Texas, USA-based group whose members call themselves ‘dharam pracharaks’ or Hindu religious evangelists.
Although the founder denied receiving any support from political parties and other Hindutva groups, Sugguna has been seen with Bandi Sanjay Kumar, the BJP’s Telangana state president; Vara Prasad Nagularapu, founder of the Rashtriya Dalitha Sena and a part of the Hindu Joint Action Committee; and CBR Prasad, a retired airman of the Indian Air Force and a prominent personality in the state.
Complainants in cases where police are investigating the Shiva Shakthi group told Article 14 that they faced harassment and threats for filing these cases.
Asked why the police have not shut down any of the group’s activities, a former associate of the company said the group collected funds by cheating believers. “Dhanam moolam idham jagath,” he said. “Money is the root cause of this world.”
(Vidheesha Kuntamalla is a freelance journalist based in Hyderabad. She writes on politics, gender and social justice.)