Bhopal: Around 6 am on 6 December 2021 in the central Madhya Pradesh (MP) town of Vidisha, Brother Anthony, principal of the St Joseph Parish School, received a WhatsApp message from a teacher, warning him that Hindu extremist groups intended to hold a rally at the school.
Brother Anthony, who was settling down in his office and preparing for the class-12 mathematics examination scheduled later in the day, notified the police and the administration of the rally planned by the Bajrang Dal and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), both Hindu fundamentalist organisations allied with the state’s and India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
At 12.30 pm, a mob of more than 400 forced its way into the school. "Jai Shri Ram!" they shouted, echoing a salutation that has now become a slogan used by Hindu extremists to menace minorities.
Other slogans were raised: "Dharm ki raksha kaun karega, hum karenge, hum karenge! (who will protect the religion? We will, we will!)" and "Dharmantaran nahi hone denge (we will not allow conversion).”
Then, the violence began.
"They were in no mood to talk,” said Brother Anthony. “They just started attacking the staff and vandalising glass windows, cars of the teachers, and whatever came in between, with iron rods and stones".
After the damage was done, two policemen reached the school. No arrests were made at that moment. Four arrested after the video of the attack went viral got bail within 24 hours.
The Bajrang Dal and the VHP justified their attack on the school based on "ground input" that eight Hindu students were converted to Christianity.
"We got information from our sources that something wrong was happening there in the name of education against Hindus," said Nileesh Agarwal, VHP’s Vidisha district president, who was present during the attack. Brother Anthony said a communion for Christian students was deliberately misrepresented.
The attack on the St Joseph Parish school was widely publicised, but is only part of a series of intimidatory moves and attacks, not as widely publicised, on Christians by Hindu extremists, in a state with one of the highest number of offensive actions reported against Christians. In MP, these incidents have invited little or no police intervention. Some recent examples:
– On 25 October 2021, the VHP and Bajrang Dal in the northwestern town of Satna wrote to the management of the Christ Jyoti school, which is run by Christian missionaries, “requesting” an idol of the Hindu goddess Saraswati be installed in the school within 15 days.
– On 15 November 2021, Hindu extremists stormed a church in Satna, alleging illegal religious conversion. Later they blocked a national highway, demanding the police register a first information report (FIR), the start of criminal proceedings. The police baton-charged the lot, injuring a few. Soon, the police caved in, registered the FIR and took action against its own men for using force.
– On 10 October 2021, police in the northern MP town of Datia filed criminal cases and arrested a dozen Christians on charges of “public mischief” after they were illegally detained by Hindu extremists, allegedly for distributing Christian literature.
– On 17 September 2021, Paul Muniya, the auxiliary bishop of the Protestant Shalom Church in the southern town of Jhabua, and other Christians requested “urgent intervention” from the President of India to stop rising attacks against their schools, churches, pastors and congregations in MP.
The memorandum addressed to the President was submitted to the collector of Jhabua, which is 87% Adivasi, with Christians comprising 3.75% of the district population. It alleged that “false cases” were being filed against Christians, who were being attacked by members of the VHP, Bajrang Dal, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Adivasi Samaj Sudharak Sangh and the Hindu Yuva Janjati Sangathan, the last two focussed on Adivasi areas.
"We haven’t got any response yet,” said Bishop Muniya. “We even tried informing the chief minister through a letter, but that doesn’t seem to be effective."
Article 14 sought comment from additional home secretary Rajesh Rajaura and chief minister (CM) Shivraj Singh Chouhan but without success. Emails sent to Rajaura and phone calls and emails to the CM on 2 February received no response. We will update the story if they do respond.
In October 2021, Archbishop Leo Cornelio of Bhopal also wrote a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, urging him to "take effective steps to contain rising violence against Christians."
"Now even our prayer meetings are termed as religious conversion ceremonies, and false cases are registered against the faithful," wrote Archbishop Cornelio.
Why MP Christians Are Targets Of Hindu Extremists
An Article 14 assessment revealed that Christians in MP are largely targeted in areas with visible Christian symbols and institutions, such as churches, statues, prayers, and healthcare and education services. Most attacks are driven by allegations of conversion.
These allegations appear to have played a key role in 17 FIRs and the arrest of 75 Christians since the Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, also known as the anti-conversion law, was promulgated in January 2021. According to the United Christan Forum (UCF), an advocacy group, 70 “incidents”, which include intimidation and hate speech, and 32 “violent attacks”, have been reported from MP since the law came into being.
As in many other states run by the BJP, Christians in MP face repression from not just right-wing Hindu organisations but the government.
After reviewing dozens of cases and speaking with victims, Christian community members, activists, and Hindu extremist leaders, we found the majority of cases were the result of either misconceptions, misinterpretations—usually deliberate—or fake news about conversions.
Allegations of religious conversion are frequently levelled against holy communions, prayers, and charismatic retreats. At the St Joseph's Parish School, a holy communion of Christian students appeared to have been deliberately mistaken for conversion.
"Firstly, what they claimed as conversion was our holy communion for Catholic students,” said Brother Anthony. “There was no Hindu student. Secondly, that communion was happening in a nearby church 2 km away from the school. They attacked the school on a false input, and it's part of their agenda to disturb our peace.”
Holy Communion is among the seven sacraments of the Roman Catholic church, given only to Catholic Christians. The entry of outsiders is usually prohibited during the process.
Aside from the attack on the St Joseph Parish School in October 2021, a Christian missionary girl's hostel in the town of Raisen in central MP was closed in November after a "surprise inspection" by a team from the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR), led by its chairperson Priyank Kanoongo.
Kanoongo claimed a Bible was found in the possession of Adivasi students, who he alleged were brought there for "special purposes" in the guise of education. He did not say what this purpose was, but the reference was to conversion.
Education has been a major focus of Hindu groups targeting Christians in MP.
"Among other things, their prime target is our services for the marginalised; in that, their focus is education,” said Father Maria Stephen, public relations officer (PRO) of the Madhya Pradesh Catholic Church Association (MPCCA), told Article 14. “We brought education and led the way. We developed the country. They know we have missionary schools in every corner of the country. Government schools are not good, and it's an open and naked truth.”
“They (Hindu groups) are insecure with the quality of our service and fear that people might convert,” said Fr Stephen. “That's why they (the government) don't include us in any policy committees, fearful that their hidden objective will be exposed.”
MP Is No. 5 Nationwide By Threats, Attacks Against Christians
Similar attacks on and intimidation of Christians were reported by Article 14 in November and December 2021 in Uttarakhand and Karnataka and is part of a growing nationwide trend of violence against a minority that makes up no more than 2.3% of India’s population, according to the 2011 census, unchanged since 1951.
Christians have been attacked in tribal villages in Chhattisgarh, Christian families have been ostracised for embracing Christianity in Jharkhand, and churches were attacked in Haryana around Christmas.
The UCF called 2021 the "most violent year" for Christians in India, with 486 registered incidents of violence, intimidation and hate speech. Almost 500 complaints were reported on a UCF toll-free helpline in 2021, more than an incident per day.
According to the UCF, 104 “incidents” were reported [nationwide] over November and December 2021, “as if to warn Christians from celebrating the birthday of lord Jesus Christ–Christmas”.
A December 2021 report lists Madhya Pradesh at fifth position with 38 incidents for the year, after Uttar Pradesh (102), Chhattisgarh (90), Karnataka (59) and Jharkhand (44). These states are among nine that now have anti-conversion laws: the others are Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Odisha and Arunachal Pradesh.
"Christians are being targeted across India, not only in Madhya Pradesh but even in non-BJP ruled states like Jharkhand and Chattisgarh,” A C Michael, a former member of the Delhi Minorities Commission and national coordinator of the UCF, told Article 14.
In 2021, The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, a government body recommended to the US government that “India be designated as a “country of particular concern” for “engaging in and tolerating systematic, ongoing, and egregious religious freedom violations, as defined by the International Religious Freedom Act (IFRA)”. It also asked that India be added to its list of countries designated as the worst religious-freedom violators.
The publicity around the violence and hate speech boosts the confidence of Hindu extremists. MP Hindu groups who have successfully intimidated Christians told Article 14 how hate speeches, calls for genocide & dharm sansads or recent Hindu religious gatherings helped boost their confidence, spurred their dedication to “saving Hinduism” & making India a "Hindu Rashtra".
Many members of Hindu groups we spoke to asked their names we withheld because they had been "instructed" to avoid voicing their views in public after controversy over recent events.
Charismatic Retreats Are Favourite Targets
The focus of Hindu extremist groups in MP—where Christians in 2011 made up 0.29% of the population, a marginal rise of 0.1% since 2001—appear to be congregations of Charismatic Christians, who believe personal experience of God allow them to do things that appear supernatural, such as divine healing, delivering prophecies or speaking in “tongues” or different languages.
Charismatic retreats are popularly known among Hindu groups in MP as "changai sabhas", borrowed from the Punjabi word changa, which means all is well. According to these groups, the sabhas are conversion events in which fathers or pastors call locals under the guise of treating their illness, befriend them with monetary or other lures and convert them.
"The changai sabhas are where the majority of conversions take place, and we never miss them,” said Alkesh Rawat of the Hindu Yuva Janjati Sangathan (HYJS) and a member of the RSS. “That is the best opportunity to catch them red-handed.”
Rawat alleged these sabhas were only held to convert Hindus. “They falsely claim to cure people's illnesses and convert them by luring them with money, cars and other items,” said Rawat. “They used to happen every Friday and Sunday, but now to increase their numbers fast, they have made it more frequent".
Father Rocky Shah, public relations officer of the Catholic diocese of Jhabua, said that Charismatic retreats were rare and were held to pray together not to convert non-Christians.
"They (Hindu groups) even call our holy mass, all prayers, changai sabhas,” said Fr Shah, acknowledging the sabas were a prime target. “They don’t know these things, what the values are, our prayers, their religious significance. They just call everything a changai sabha and allege conversion. This is disrespectful and wrong.”
‘A Month In Jail For Prayer’
On 27 January 2021, pastor Mahender Nagdeve was called for a special prayer at the home of a government-school teacher named Chhatarsingh Katre in the village of Bagholi in the southern MP district of Balaghat. As they prayed, a mob of Hindu extremists associated with the Bajrang Dal and accompanied by the police, barged in and alleged conversions.
“I had to spend a month in jail for just holding a religious prayer and on the false accusations of religious conversions,” Nagdeve told Article 14. “This is wrong."
"They started abusing us with religious slurs, even the police were abusing us,” said Nagdeve. “The police asked us to come to the police station for some time and said they would release us after asking a few questions.”
When Nagdeve and 2 others at the prayer meet reached the police station, they were arrested without an FIR, which was filed five hours later, quoting sections 506 (criminal intimidation) and 34 (acts done by several persons in furtherance of common intention) of the Indian Penal Code 1860, and sections 3 and 4 of the MP anti-conversion law.
"The FIR was a clear afterthought of the mess the police and Hindu forces had made by disrupting a religious prayer, to which even the police weren’t entitled,” said Vijay Jain, Nagdeve's lawyer.
“They were even arrested without an FIR at 3.30 pm, the FIR was filed around 8.30 pm,” said Jain, who alleged a “cover-up”, adding that the witness in the FIR was a relative of the complainant. He said his client was only allowed to file a counter FIR when he wrote to senior officers.
The police disallowed Nagdeve a counter FIR, allowing him to do so after his lawyer wrote to senior officers. It was a "joint operation" by Bajrang Dal and the police, said Nagdeve. The local police denied this version.
“Arrest was made after the FIR only, and we had to maintain the law and order situation that time,” said Raghunath Khatarkar, then town inspector of the Lalbarra police station.
Nagdeve and two others, including another pastor, were locked up and other members of the congregation confined to their home with a police vehicle deployed outside.
The FIR accused Nagdeve of "offering Rs 10,000 per month to each villager for converting to Christianity”, an accusation he denied. After a month in jail, Nagdeve was released on bail. The case is in court. According to Nagdeve, neither the complainant nor the witness mentioned in the FIR were present during the prayer.
"I don't remember whether the complainant and witness were connected," said Khatarkar.
"They have a problem with the style of our prayers. Protestant pastors have a way of praying that involves a loud voice, and when they do that, these fellows get frightened,” said Fr Stephen. “They want us to say prayers quietly while sitting in our homes and do it at a single place and not go to other homes."
Members of the Hindu groups we spoke with referred to weekly prayers, charismatic retreats and holy communion as "conversion events”, but none of them could explain the religious significance of any.
They claimed Hindus were converted by Christians in a variety of ways, the most common and simple of which was to sprinkle their "special water" during a prayer.
That “special water”, priests told us, is a reference to holy water, blessed by a member of the clergy and used to deliver blessings in church or at home. Conversion is only possible through baptism, which requires an administrative procedure not merely by sprinkling water.
That procedure, according to MP’s anti-conversion law requires anyone who wants to convert of “free will” and the priest involved of giving a 60-day notice to the district magistrate before the intended date of the conversion, failing which the person is liable to be fine Rs 25,000 and imprisoned for one to five years and the priest fined Rs 50,000 and imprisoned for three to five years.
MP’s Christian Tribals And The RSS
Our analysis of attacks on MP’s Christians, revealed the major targets were Christian tribals.
As much as 14.7 % of MP’s population is tribal, the largest by numbers in India, with Jhabua being the epicentre of attacks against Christians. As with the neighbouring district of Alirajpur, also tribal-dominated, Jhabua witnessed pronounced mobilisation by the RSS and its affiliates against Christians.
Christians in Jhabua have been the targets of Hindu-extremist groups, backed by sympathetic police and local administration, as The Wire reported in December 2021.
In September that year, the district administration issued an order requiring priests, whose names were provided by Hindu groups, to provide information about churches, and details of conversion from those who had adopted Christianity.
The reconstruction of a century-old Catholic church, built by Jhabua’s former ruler Uday Singh, was also halted in December, and the government refused to renew the licences of seven missionary schools run by the Catholic Diocese of Jhabua, citing "unavailability of subject-wise teachers and land records”.
The majority of anti-Christian incidents in Jhabua and nearby Alirajpur go unreported in the media because they occur in rural areas, but are some that were reported:
– On 26 December 2021, a Catholic priest and two others were held under anti-conversion law for “luring” tribal villagers to Christianity.
– On 5 December, six pastors in Jhabua's Ranapur were arrested after submitting a memorandum to the Collector alleging that false conversion cases were being filed against them.
– On 7 February, a Christian priest was booked for attempting to convert a tribal family to Christianity, one one of the first cases to be registered under the anti-conversion law.
The attacks are not led by large Hindu organisations, such as the RSS, Bajrang Dal, or VHP, but by smaller, local tribal Hindu groups that they back.
A Tribal Hindu Group’s Role In Anti-Conversion Law
These tribal Hindu organisations, whose key leaders and members are, however, mostly RSS, Bajrang Dal or VHP members, argued they were saving tribal culture, traditions and heritage.
One such group is the Hindu Yuva Janjati Sangathan (HYJS), founded in 2017 to combat religious conversions, headquartered in Jhabua but more active in Alirajpur district.
"These big organisations are talking about Hindus and their rights and are organising programmes, but nobody is ready to fight on the ground and take on these Christians one on one,” HYJS state president Dilip Chouhan told Article 14. “That’s why we created the HYJS to fight one on one with Christians more aggressively and use the machinery of these established organisations.”
"Earlier, when we founded the HYJS, neither the Bajrang Dal nor the VHP were talking about it, but we created such a powerful atmosphere that today you see these forces are working more actively than us in every state and that is our success,” said Dilip Chouhan.
In the beginning, said Dilip Chouhan, it was tough to win over people because they were dependent on Christian organisations for “every basic essential”, from education to hospitals.
But they successfully created an anti-Christian “atmosphere”, he said, over a couple of years, using social-media campaigns, public meetings with locals and by submitting memoranda to the collector and chief minister (CM) alleging conversions.
In 2020, before the birth anniversary of 19th-century Adivasi freedom fighter Birsa Munda in November, the HYJS reasoned, said Dilip Chouhan, that a "good and favourable environment" had been created. They submitted a memorandum to CM Shivraj Singh Chouhan demanding a law against conversion, which Chouhan regards as the biggest achievement of his organisation.
Since then, there has been no looking back for Chouhan and his people.
‘They Can’t Afford To Anger Us’
The basis of the "success” of the HJYS and other tribal Hindu group is rooted in the BJP’s defeat by five seats in the 2018 assembly elections, after two consecutive terms under Shivraj Singh Chouhan.
Tribals were assumed to have played a key role in ousting the BJP from power, with the party’s tally of reserved tribal seats falling to 16 out of 47 from 31 in the 2013 elections.
After its loss, the BJP worked to retrieve its tribal vote bank, with local journalists, experts and political analysts agreeing that the BJP was indeed pandering to the demands of groups like the HYJS.
"We were the main reason the BJP lost the elections (in 2018),” said Dilip Chouhan. “Since then, they have actively kept an eye on our demands to get us back. We are reaping the benefits. We demanded an anti-conversion law and got it implemented. Our support from the BJP comes because they are dependent on our vote bank. They can’t afford to anger us.”
Christians said Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s government had noticeably hardened its stance against Christians.
‘CM Was A Very Good Friend In The Past’
"I know Shivraj Singh,” said Fr Stephen of the MP church association quoted earlier. “He is a soft man and was a very good friend of ours in the past. He used to come on every Christmas and wish us well. But this term, he didn’t come.”
Stephen said the chief minister’s behaviour towards Christians had changed. “He is doing it under pressure and we understand it,” said Stephen, “As it is the RSS which is running the government.”
Indeed, the roots of the CM’s hardened stance lies with the RSS, more precisely with its affiliate, the Akhil Bharatiya Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram (ABVKA), set up in 1952 in Jashpur, MP, as a counter to Christian missionaries. The RSS calls Adivasis or tribals vanvasis, or forest dwellers.
The RSS is the parent organisation of the BJP, and dozens of leaders of the state BJP and ministers in the current MP cabinet trace their roots to the RSS, including Shivraj Singh Chauhan.
Today, the ABVKA is present in 42,000 villages nationwide in 323 districts and runs more than 20,000 projects, including schools, hostels, and hospitals.
The Role Of The RSS
"The fundamental issue is that vanvasis are too innocent, plagued by scarcity, and development reaches them too late,” said senior RSS functionary Balmukund Pandey, based in Delhi, told Article 14, explaining how the ABKVA worked towards Adivasi welfare and “self esteem”.
“The Ashram educates vanvasis about Indian cultural origins to safeguard them from foreigners,” said Pandey. “Christians also serve, but their purpose is religious conversion. Vanvasis are ignorant, and they don't know what they're doing or where they're going, which is where we educate them about who we are and what our dharm is.”
Bhanwar Meghwanshi, a former RSS swayamsevak or worker, described to us how the ABVKA worked with Adivasis: urging them to bring those who had converted for shuddhikaran or purification.
"These acts were carried out by local tribes, but the brain and strategy were solely of the RSS,” said Meghwanshi. “This was accomplished from Jhabua and Alirajpur in MP to Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh to south Rajasthan."
The result is Adivasi versus Adivasi tension because Adivasis allied with the ABVKA tended to excommunicate their converted compatriots.
In Jhabua, for instance, the anti-Christian mobilisation is being led by Adivasis, who are also members of radical Hindu organisations. They are arrayed against churches and Christian missionaries, with a significant number of pastors being Adivasi Christians.
Indeed, most incidents of Adivasi mobilisation against Christian Adivasis have been from either tribal-dominated MP districts or areas with significant tribal populations, such as Alirajpur (88.98%), Jhabua (87%), Mandla (57.88%), Raisen (15.4%), Satna (14.36%), and Sagar (9.3%).
Meghvanshi said the RSS' motivational methods included the pratah smaran or morning prayer, with discourses by Adivasi members, connecting tribal heroes with Hindu heroes, such as Lord Ram, Eklavya and the Manipuiri Rani Gaidinliu.
"We have learned everything from the RSS, but to implement those things (intimidation) we have to get permission from there (the RSS),” said Vijay Meda, an Adivasi associated with the HYJS and an active member of RSS. “Here we are free to do whatever we want.”
An Adivasi intrinsic to the Hindu cause is Azad Prem Singh Damor, the president of the Adivasi Samaj Sudharak Sangh (ASSS) in Jhabua, a poster boy of sorts among RSS members for anti-Christian mobilisation in the region.
Damor’s resume indicates how the operations of more violent wings of the Hindu ecosystem merge with RSS thought in addressing Adivasi society.
Damor, who took over the ASSS after his father died in 2019, organises rallies, gives aggressive speeches, holds local public meetings and frequently sends letters to the district administration alleging conversions by Christians, imparting zeal and “aggression” to their efforts, said leaders of Hindu groups.
Converted Adivasis Vs Non-Converted Adivasis
Some in the Bajrang Dal describe Damor as being their fellow traveller, while his social media posts mention his association with VHP. However, after media reporting (here and here) on recent attacks named Damor as a key conspirator, he has toned down his rhetoric and stayed silent on his association with other groups while talking to Article 14.
"Our movement is dharmantaran mukt [conversion-free] Jhabua,"said Damor. “Conversion is the big conspiracy of Christians for national conversion, making tribals anti-Hindu, to remove the existence of tribals, the presence of tribals, and to engage our people in anti-national activities after cutting them off from Indian culture and values."
Echoing the RSS line on Adivasis, Damor said “they (Christians) are running this big racket of illegal conversions against us”.
“Humare kandho ka galat istemal karke galat kaamo mein lipt karna chahta hai, kyunki kul milaake hindu virodhi banana chahte hai hume, kyuki hum anpadh or bhole log hai na isliye (by using our shoulders, they want to embroil us in wrong things, basically to make us anti-Hindu because we are innocent and uneducated people),” said Damor.
Damor claimed his fight against alleged illegal conversions was entirely legal, citing the Indian Constitution's 5th Schedule, which designates areas with a preponderance of tribals as subject to a special governance mechanism meant to safeguard their cultural and economic interests.
"But these missionaries' agenda is the opposite,” said Damor. “To win over us tribals to their side in order to weaken the opposition against them because we are an aggressive community, and they want to take advantage of this quality. They are breaking the law by having their churches and everything in designated areas. This land is ours, and they will have to leave. That's it.”
Responding to Damor’s allegations, Bishop Muniya, an Adivasi Christian, said: "I am a tribal, I practise Christianity, but I haven’t left my roots. I follow the same rituals, traditions, and culture that either Damor or other tribals follow. I just have different beliefs. Our parental property, family, culture, and everything else are here. Where will we go? We are still tribal."
Bishop Muniya, who has been a target of Hindu groups, said he was "lucky enough” to get support from family and neighbours when that happened. “But that’s not the case everywhere,” he said. “They don’t understand that this is an attempt to create an internal fight among us tribals.”
That inter-tribal clash tension is apparent. “Based on the memoranda we get, it is converted vs non-converted here,” Jhabua sub-divisional magistrate (SDM) Laxmi Narayan Garg told Article 14.
Vikas Pathak, author, academic and a journalist who has covered the RSS and BJP for nearly two decades, described the current period as a "moment of aggression", the product of an old rivalry between RSS and Christian missionaries dating back to the 1950s.
The RSS has worked hard at “Hinduising” the tribals by linking their festivals and traditions to Hinduism, said Pathak, “marinating” fear in Adivasi areas to keep churches and Christian missionaries in check. These radicalised Adivasi cadres, said Pathak, “were well energised” through social media, “aggressive speeches” by their leaders and television news slanted towards Hindu concerns.
The result is a pattern of well-practiced drills intended to instill fear in Christians, deployed in varying measure and fashion in tribal areas and towns.
How Hindu Group Instill Fear Among Christians
On the evening of 26 December 2021, a pastor based in Bhopal was at the home of a fellow Christian on the city's outskirts for prayer and church work, when someone knocked at the door.
When the pastor—he requested his name not be used—opened the door, a group of Hindu extremists abused him and Christianity, accusing him of conversion.
"I still couldn't figure out what happened or why, because we were just sitting there when this group came in, argued, called the cops, and handed me over to them,” said the pastor. “The group didn't even file a case against me; it appears they just wanted to keep their fear alive among us by harassing me".
Christian activist and spokesperson of the Rashtriya Isai Mahasangh or national Christian union, Richard James, said such intimidation followed a pattern, involving a technique that embedded a Hindu extremist in a “target church”.
The Trojan horse, so to say, attends services and if Hindu extremists land up with police in tow, their embedded compatriot alleges that he is being converted to Christianity by force or allurement, both criminal activities.
The details may vary, but the basic allegations of conversion remain.
On 14 December 2017, Father George Mangalapilly of the Satna diocese and 32 others were detained by police while on their way to the homes of other Christians to sing Christmas carols. Members of Hindu organisations surrounded the police station, alleging the carol singing was an attempt at conversion.
A criminal case was filed against Fr Mangalapilly for allegedly offering Rs 5,000 to Dharmendar Dohar, a Hindu, if he converted to Christianity. Fr Mangalapilly was released on bail the next day, but the case went on for three years through various courts.
On 13 September Fr Mangalapilly was acquitted by the Supreme Court which said: "In the trial, Dharmendar Dohar in his examination-in-chief denied that he was converted by the appellant. As a matter of fact, the witness went on to state that his signatures were obtained on a piece of paper by certain persons, on the basis of which the prosecution was launched against the appellant.”
Fr Mangalapilly said the case was “politically motivated based on the current atmosphere… to spread hatred in society”.
“It has now become a trend against us,” Fr Mangalapilly told Article 14. “I knew the complainant vaguely, but he was forced earlier to make a statement against me. The truth came out later.”
Planted ‘Evidence’, Trojan Horses, Garma Garmi
Almost every priest and pastor we spoke with mentioned "planted evidence" in the form of a complainant who was either new to, a day old, or a few days old in their congregation.
"These incidents have now prompted us to ask the fathers and pastors to always keep a note on the regulars, and if someone new comes, write down their details and ask them to sign that they are here of their own free will, and keep a close eye on them for a while,” said James. "We don't want to do this, but the times are like this.”
Aside from planted evidence, right-wing extremists generally carry out attacks, confrontations, or gherao (surround) through a process that varies, depending on how many of their numbers are available.
Hindu groups said they stationed members near churches, missionary schools and hostels to provide them with "ground inputs", generally sent to the district leader and quickly circulated. They either plan action, if an event is some days away, or if immediate, they march to the location after informing the police, sometimes instigating locals to join in.
Hindu extremists said they were prepared for what they called garma garmi (heating things up), especially when the police were late, among which they included “a few slaps” or some physical damage to create fear and ensure the local administration took them seriously.
This fear was evident during December 2021, said Fr Shah, who said it restrained Christians from celebrating Christmas with “the usual joy and happiness”.
"India is, was, and will be a Hindu Rashtra," said Pandey, the RSS functionary previously quoted. There is little question their immediate confidence arises from MP’s anti-conversion law.
Harassing An Orphanage Using Anti-Conversion Law
The MP anti-conversion law, according to the government, prevents forced religious conversions under the guise of marriage, as well as the use of force, misrepresentation, or other “fraudulent means” for converting from one faith to another.
But it appears the threat of the law is used widely and more effectively than its processes or intent.
For instance, on 6 January 2022, around 1 pm, several MP Child Welfare Committee (CWC) teams reached the St Francis Sevadham Ashram, an orphanage run by Christian missionaries in the northern district of Sagar.
A few minutes before arriving, the teams had sent Father Sinto Varghese, the director of the 147-year-old orphanage, an email with a CWC order to move the children in the orphanage to three child shelter homes. They asked Fr Varghese to sign the papers immediately because they had to take the children with them.
"I asked for some time to read the email and figure out what was going on, but they were in a hurry,” said Fr Varghese. “They asked for the students who were taking exams at the school, and I told them to wait until the exams were finished.”
“They didn't listen, went to the principal, argued with him, and thankfully the exam was over by 1.30 pm,” said Fr Varghese. "They were in such a hurry that they began doing medical checks of the students while they were having lunch. By that time, I had received word that we had obtained a stay of execution from the Jabalpur Bench of the MP High Court."
The CWC officials asked the orphanage for a physical copy of the court order, and called the sub divisional magistrate, to whom the children expressed their displeasure over moving out of what they regarded as their home, said Fr Varghese. The orphanage administration got the High Court order by 5.30 pm, and the officials left.
If Beef Allegations Don’t Stick, Allege Conversions
Chandra Prakash Shukla, president of the Sagar CWC told Article 14 the district administration in 2020 had refused to renew the orphanage’s licence, citing allegations that beef, the consumption of which is illegal in MP, was being served at the St Francis Sevadham orphanage. The request for renewal of the licence has been pending for two years.
“The main complaint (about beef) came from two students who were ready earlier but denied [complaining] when we went there that day,” said Shukla. “There were inputs about beef being served. However, we didn’t find it there.”
About the children’s reluctance to move out from the orphanage, Shukla said: “Kids are innocent and call every place their home.” He said the CWC had now requested a case be filed under the anti-conversion law.
Hindu right-wing groups had accused the orphanage of religious conversion of Adivasi children and demanded the anti-conversion law case be filed against them.
On 29 December 2021, the CWC had already moved out three children aged two to six from the orphanage without any specific reason being cited in the order, a move challenged by the St Francis Sevadham and stayed in the Jabalpur High Court, which asked the CWC why children were being moved during a pandemic and winter.
St Francis Sevadham houses seven institutions across 277 acres, including hostels, shelter homes, and schools for tribal children and children with special needs. The Sevadham's land is under lease from the government, which attempted to take it back in 2004, said Fr Varghese, resulting in a court stay.
Since then, said Fr Varghese, the Sevadham had been accused of religious conversions, threatened by Hindu groups, and three priests attacked, the intimidation intensifying after the MP anti-conversion law was enacted.
“This is a land dispute between us and the government, especially since a local Hindu right-wing group strongman has been attempting to take the land for years and has been harassing us with allegations that disrespect our religion and service to society,” said Fr Varghese. “These forces have threatened to charge and book us under the anti-conversion law several times. They are planting evidence and manipulating older kids who left to give statements against us.”
The orphanage case is one of several where the anti-conversion law is allegedly being used to settle other issues. Other victims refused to go on record, fearing escalation but said the law affected their daily lives and how they acted and talked with non-Christians, whom they now feared could freely allege conversion.
For their part, Hindu extremists alleged the law did not measure up to their needs.
“The conversion law is not very effective because the accused gets bail within 2-3 days,” said HYJS leader Dilip Chouhan, quoted previously. “It should have been more tight.”
Yet, it is undeniable the law aids action against Christians, the hate against them leavened in the first instance by social media.
Hatred Online, Effects In Real Life
On 3 December 2021, a video titled “Vidisha ka sabse bada school conversion mafia ki chapet mein hai (Vidisha’s largest school in the grip of the conversion mafia?)” was uploaded by a YouTube channel named 'Aayudh'.
The video claimed to be an "expose" of eight Hindu made to receive the sacrament, a religious ceremony. The channel’s host, Saurabh Kumar, implied the St Joseph Parish school, mentioned at the start of this story, was involved in mass religious conversions.
The next day Hindu organisations wrote to the district collector, threatening “violent protests” if an FIR was not filed against the school within a week. They also claimed that eight Hindu students were converted to Christianity at the St Joseph Parish School by "sprinkling water".
The mob at the school on 6 December was called through a WhatsApp message that went viral, calling for a “gherao”. The attack came three days after the YouTube video.
"That YouTube channel, Aayudh, did everything,” said Brother Anthony, the principal. “They created such an atmosphere. Else everything was fine earlier.” Aayudh later did a "ground report" on the incident and claimed credit for the protest.
Another recent video that appears to have influenced many Hindu fundamentalists in MP came from a YouTube channel called "Indix Online". In December 2021, it released a video called "The Real Mother Teresa; The Conspiracy Behind Making India a Christian Country."
Supposedly based on a book by a former associate of St Teresa's, it accused her of encouraging religious conversions, “breaking the nation”, a familiar Hindutva trope, and child trafficking, among other things. The video went viral, with captions calling St Teresa a "witch," "evil," and "villain”.
According to our research, Hindu groups who oppose religious conversions frequently post messages with provocative titles, such as: "Hindus wake up for the religious war"; "Christmas to be celebrated as tulsi poojan diwas"; and "stay away from mosques and churches". Fake news dominates many posts.
A 10-part "Christmas Special Mega Series" about religious conversions on Sudarshan News, a television channel, hosted by its founder Suresh Chavanke, was widely shared in Hindu extremist Facebook groups. Suresh Chavanke was seen recently urging Hindus to "Fight, Die, Kill to make India a Hindu Rashtra".
The hate speeches of national leaders and local leaders, such as Damor, were well recognised in Hindu-extremist cadre. "Damor’s speeches against us go viral very often, where is provokes people against us and threatens us,” said Fr Shah.
"This movement of aggression could be attributed to social media and fake news spreading through it,” said Pathak. “Undoubtedly the biggest contributors in this rising polarisation.”
The least mentioned but one of the most important spokes in the wheel of hate against Christians in the role of the local administration and the police.
‘Administration Is Of The BJP, Always Helps Us’
Hindu groups acknowledge official assistance in intimidation or attack on Christians.
"We always go through the administration because going straight to these Christians will backfire,” said Rawat of the HYJS. “So we keep them informed. They always help us when we tell them what's going on. The administration is also helping us because the government is of the BJP.”
Indeed, there are many instances of partisan behaviour.
In Jhabua, the administration in September 2021 summoned 56 Christian priests and pastors, based on a list given by VHP, asking who they converted to Christianity and when. The order was soon revoked after the Church countered quoted rules and laws that disallowed such notices.
In November 2021, a district court summons was delivered to 15 other pastors asking similar questions about religious conversion. The pastors were summoned to the local sub-divisional office. The pastors petitioned the Indore High Court and the summons were stayed and later withdrawn.
“The matter is currently under the jurisdiction of the High court,” said Garg, the SDM. “We had given notices on the basis of the memorandums (sic) we had got. For maintaining law and order we have to give notices based on the memorandum.”
In November, the state government refused to renew the licence of seven missionary schools run by the Jhabua Catholic Diocese, citing the unavailability of teachers and land records.
"We have teachers,” said Fr Shah, the church PRO. “They are saying that property should be in the name of the school and not of the church. What's the issue when both organisations are ours? It was okay for years, but now they say this."
Sometimes, the police, instead of offering protection, cite a threat as reason to shut down, as on 5 December 2021, during Sunday prayer at a church in Padalva village of Jhabua. First two policemen came and asked the church to close, saying, according to Samuel Vasunia, son of pastor Ramesh Vasunia, that the Bajrang Dal and VHP were coming.
Within minutes, said Samuel, the Hindu extremists reached there with senior police officers, who asked the pastors to sit in their cars and took them away.
"They took my father to the police station and then said, you are converting people by luring them and sprinkling holy water,” said Samuel. “But in reality, only our prayers were going on.” His father was arrested.
Pastor Ramesh has been in jail since 5 December, based on the complaint of a neighbour, Moga Vasunia, with whom his family supposedly had a feud.
An investigation of pastor Ramesh’s case by Scroll revealed that the police and VHP colluded to put Pastor Ramesh Vasunia in jail.
"I have never been sprayed with (holy) water or lured with a motorcycle, nor did I visit the prayer hall to convert to Christianity,” Vasunia was quoted as saying. “I did not say all this. We are illiterate. I was called to the police station... I do not know what they wrote."
Almost every instance we considered revealed police and district administration ignorance of the law and bias, which many alleged had increased since the BJP came to power.
“Our people, who are now in big posts in the administration, are now helping in the fight, they feel that we are working on genuine issues,” said senior RSS functionary Kripashankar Singh who has worked with the ABVKA for over four decades. “They could have done it earlier too, but the atmosphere wasn’t such.”
Michael, the national coordinator of the UCF alleged the police underreported cases and filed cases against victims, such as pastors arrested on conversion allegations. "Police usually advise mutual understanding,” said Michael.
"Yes, they are breaking our morale with such incidents, but as God has said, you will have to bear the persecution and that too silently. The final word will be of Jesus and he himself suffered, "said Fr Mangalapilly. "But the story will not end with death. It will continue.”
(Devendra Pratap Singh Shekhawat is an independent journalist based in Rajasthan covering issues related to politics, governance, hate, religion and minorities.)