Lucknow: On 3 October 2021, pastor Nandu Nathanael Singh, 45, and his wife Savita were leading a small congregation in offering Sunday prayers at the home of vegetable vendor Neeraj Maurya, near Azamgarh city’s government hospital, when around 11 am, members of Hindu extremist group Bharat Raksha Dal barged in, saffron stoles partially covering their faces, and began to take photographs.
Accompanying the Hindu extremists were local media personnel and policemen, Singh said. As the assembled devotees watched in horror, the pastor and his wife were led away. They were taken to Kotwali police station in the heart of Azamgarh city in eastern Uttar Pradesh (UP), along with Maurya.
The couple was sent to jail on charges of conducting illegal religious conversions, despite Maurya’s pleas that he was still a Hindu, as were the others who had gathered to pray at his home.
Through the year 2021, as many as 103 cases of harassment of Christians were reported from across UP, and more than a dozen Christian pastors were jailed for allegedly conducting illegal conversions to Christianity.
The cases of illegal conversion brought against pastors were filed under the state’s new anti-conversion law, the Uttar Pradesh Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Act, 2021, which makes religious conversion a cognisable and non-bailable offence.
Pastors charged under the law face up to 10 years in prison in cases where conversion is proven to be effected through misrepresentation, force, undue influence, coercion, allurement or other fraudulent means. The law made it mandatory for those seeking to convert to give advance notice to the state of their intent.
A public interest litigation challenged the law in the Allahabad high court, where the case awaits a final hearing.
Pastors Heckled, Attacked
Christian pastors have held prayer services and delivered sermons in homes or in prayer halls across UP for several years, but a narrative of forced conversions has gained ground recently, prompting Hindutva groups to heckle and attack pastors and others leading Christian prayers.
The arrests and attacks in UP came as other Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-ruled states sought a law against religious conversion amid growing instances of violence against Christian institutions.
On 21 October 2021, civil society organisations released a fact-finding report listing 288 violent incidents against Christians, most of them in north India.
In November 2021, Article 14 reported that pastors had been attacked and churches ransacked in BJP-governed Uttarakhand. On 6 December 2021, a Christian school in Madhya Pradesh was attacked while students appeared for an examination inside.
In December 2021, an Article 14 investigation found that in four Karnataka districts, many violent incidents had remained unreported, pastors and congregations had been terrorised, and the police often didn’t act against attackers allied with Hindutva organisations.
Article 14 studied incidents of violence against and harassment of Christians in three districts of Uttar Pradesh—Azamgarh, Varanasi and Fatehpur. During the months of January, February and March 2022, these districts recorded four, five, and seven such cases respectively.
In most cases, investigating officers had no evidence of people converting to Christianity, while complainants were largely affiliated to Hindu right-wing groups. Pastors and others who were jailed also said police appeared to align themselves with the complainant.
Faith and religion should be seen as different entities, said Varanasi-based advocate Rohit Kesarwani, who is conducting research on cases of allegations against Christian pastors. “Nobody one can stop faith, religion is a different thing,” he said. “If somebody is a Hindu but visits a dargah, it does not mean that he has become a Muslim.”
If people approach religious men of a different religion in the hope of finding spiritual solutions to their problems, that would not amount to conversion, he said.
He said that in several cases he has observed in which Hindutva organisations made allegations of conversions, activists sat silently during prayers presented by a pastor and then made allegations of conversion without evidence or substance.
Senior advocate Sanbha Rumnong who practises in the Delhi high court said the burden of proof as per the UP anti-conversion law lay with the accused, to show that the allegations were false.
“Hence, until the accused is able to produce evidence before the court to show his innocence, there is a good chance that he will be convicted,” Rumnong said. No conviction under the newly enacted law has been recorded yet.
“Pastors facing charges should approach the high courts for their rights and should file cross-complaints,” Kesarwani said. Clergymen tended to avoid such aggression, and the “chain of fake cases” continued, he said.
Azamgarh Pastor, Wife Spent 4 Months In Jail
According to pastor Nandu Singh of Azamgarh who was arrested in October 2021, a daily prayer service used to be held for the Maurya family, who later requested a weekly prayer service for a larger group of about 20 to 25 friends and acquaintances.
“Just before the incident, I saw an unknown person wearing a face mask and shorts,” said Singh. As the stranger began to shoot a video of the worshippers, he approached the man and requested him to wear trousers as it was a prayer service.
“He left, and almost immediately, some people wearing an orange cloth covering their mouths entered,” said Singh.
According to the pastor, the SHO of the Kotwali police station who had also arrived took the copy of the Bible and a diary from his partner and led him away, with his wife following.
At the police station, the inspector of the local intelligence unit (LIU) interrogated Singh and wrote a report, according to Singh. “My wife was also sent to jail,” he said. “I begged them not to send my wife to jail, but no one listened to me.” They were presented before the chief judicial magistrate’s (CJM) court the following day via video-conferencing.
Incidentally, Singh had visited the video conferencing hall of the court at the time of its inauguration three years back.
At the time, a multi-faith ceremony had been held during which religious leaders representing Hindus, Muslims and he had said prayers in the presence of a judge from Allahabad. “I had never thought that I would be presented in the same hall facing serious allegations.”
According to the first information report (FIR), Nandu Singh, his wife Savita Singh, and Neeraj Maurya were booked under sections 295 (injuring, defiling a place of worship with intent to insult a religion), 504 (intentional insult, with intent to provoke breach of peace) and 506 (criminal intimidation) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), 1860. The couple was also booked under Sections 3 and 5 (1) of the Uttar Pradesh Prohibition Of Unlawful Religious Conversion Ordinance, 2020.
The Singhs spent four months in jail, finally getting bail from the Allahabad high court after being rejected once by a sessions court. Maurya was not arrested.
Complainant’s Bajrang Dal Friends Heckled Pastor
According to the FIR, the complaint against the Singhs was filed by a man named Sudhir Gupta, a resident of Azamgarh, who alleged that the pastor regularly made a group of 30 to 40 people sit in a room and converted them to Christianity under the pretext of helping them. He said they defrauded people of money by doing this and, allegedly, when Gupta protested, the Singhs and Maurya threatened to kill him.
Gupta told Article 14 that he heard of the couple from a labourer at a friend’s house who would not come to work on Sundays in order to attend the prayer service. “My friend went there and made a video,” Gupta said. “Nandu objected to this and asked him not to make a video.”
According to Gupta, he then informed others including the Kotwali police station that a religious conversion ceremony was underway. “When I reached there, my Bajrang Dal friends also gathered,” he said.
Inside, he said, there were 30-40 women and 10-15 men. He said the women began to move forward and he and his friends retreated until police arrived shortly thereafter.
Asked if he had any evidence that the pastor was converting people at this event or if anybody was known to have been converted to Christianity at this event, Gupta said Maurya, the home-owner, had recently converted.
Maurya denied Gupta’s allegation. Speaking to Article 14, Maurya said all those who attended prayer services at his house continue to belong to the same castes and religions. “Nobody has converted,” he said, “neither I nor anyone in my house. The allegations are baseless.”
Pastor Singh was granted bail on 11 February 2022.
He told Article 14 that he has conducted prayer services for “more than 200 believers” in Azamgarh for the last 15 years.
SHO Dhirendra Kumar Srivastava of Kotwali police station refused to respond to queries about the investigation into the pastor’s religious activities. Asked how many people had been converted to Christianity by Singh or within the jurisdiction of the Kotwali police station, the SHO disconnected the call.
Superintendent of police (SP) of Azamgarh district Anurag Arya, did not respond to questions sent by email, while the city SP for Azamgarh town could not be contacted.
In Varanasi Village, Pastor Was Beaten By A Mob
Neil Durai, 32, who has a master’s degree as a pastor from Visakhapatnam’s Church On The Rock theological seminary, has served as a pastor in Varanasi district since 2014.
On 3 August 2021, Durai visited the home of a man named Lalji Vishwakarma in Karkhiya village. Vishwakarma had lost three children soon after their birth, and Durai decided to offer prayers at the man’s home at the behest of a friend, Vijay Patel.
“The last round of prayers was going on,” Durai told Article 14, recounting the incident that occurred around 7.30 pm. Apart from Vishwakarma's family, Patel and his wife Kiran were present.[[https://article-14.com/uploads/2022/05-May/18-Wed/Neil%20Durai.jpg]]
“It was about to end, when suddenly, a crowd of 40 to 50 people surrounded Vishwakarma's house. The mob accused me of conducting religious conversion. After that, some people came in and started beating me.” He was beaten with sticks and a plastic pipe all over his body.
The women tried to protect Durai by hiding him in a room. According to the pastor, state minister of the Hindu Jagran Manch (HJM), Gaurish Singh, accompanied by a policeman, came to the room where he was hiding.
Durai told them he had called the police helpline. According to him, Gaurish Singh said in response that the chief minister had given instructions that people like him would have to be jailed. “He said I will get seven years’ imprisonment,” Durai said. “He said we had come to destroy Hinduism.”
Durai tried to respond to the Hindutva activist’s allegations that he was funded by foreign Christian missionaries by saying he lived in a rented house for Rs 1,200 a month, that he had neither money nor any foreign funds.
“Then he picked up our Bible, written in Tamil, and started reading nonsensical things about Lord Rama, even though he did not know Tamil,” he told Article 14. He said the gathered Hindutva activists recorded a video of the attack claiming that a conversion had been stalled.
According to Durai, policemen had arrived in response to his call for help but the police personnel who had accompanied the HJM activists instructed them not to enter the house.
The tense standoff ended around 9 pm, when policemen took Durai, Patel and his wife to the Phulpur police station, 8 km away.
“The same policemen whom I had called obeyed Gaurish,” Durai told Article 14.
At the police station, while Durai and Patel showed their bruises, Gaurish Singh flatly denied that he or his men had assaulted the pastor.
The SHO arrived a little later, interrogated them and ordered that all three of them be kept in the lock-up. Durai said he asked the SHO what evidence he had that any illegal activity had taken place, and requested that the police call Vishwakarma's house to reconfirm and ask if anyone in the family had been converted.
“We were kept in the lock-up for two nights and two days,” he said. His pleas to telephone his wife who was in Tamil Nadu with their one-month-old child were ignored
On their first morning in the lock-up, a large group of nearly 80 upper caste men belonging to Thakur and Brahmin families visited the police station and urged the police not to let them off. As news of their arrest spread, about 40 regional pastors rushed to Phulpur and requested the police administration to consider the fact that no conversion had taken place.
Police produced the three of them in court on 5 August, and Durai was sent to Banaras Jail, 35 km from his village of Sadhu Kutiya in Mirzamurad block, about 30 km west of Varanasi.
Complainant Was Hindu Jagran Manch Leader
According to the FIR lodged at Phulpur police station, complainant Gaurish Singh, who described himself as the state minister of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s (RSS) subsidiary organisation HJM, said he received information about a conversion in Karkhiya village around 9 pm on 3 August 2021. He claimed eyewitnesses had told him that three “Christian agents” were trying to convert poor, uneducated Hindus. The complaint said “Christian literature” and “video recordings” were available.
According to the FIR, a case was registered against the three accused under sections 3 and 5 (1) of the Uttar Pradesh Prohibition Of Unlawful Religious Conversion Ordinance, 2020. in addition to sections 153 A (promoting enmity between groups on grounds of religion) and 295 A (deliberate, malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings) of the IPC.
Investigating officer sub-inspector Yogendra Yadav told Article 14 that his investigation had established that pastor Durai was “luring people with money”. He said a chargesheet had been submitted to the court.
Rohit Kesarwani, a colleague of Durai’s lawyer Gopal Vishwakarma, said they had tried to procure a copy of the chargesheet but had been told by the clerk at Azamgarh sessions court on 19 April 2022 that the chargesheet had not yet been filed.
“It has been almost eight months in the case, but the police could not file the chargesheet,” Kesarwani said.
Asked how many Hindus had been converted in his jurisdiction as per his investigation, Yadav said this was the first such case in the area.
Durai was granted bail by a sessions court on 1 September 2021.
Advocate Gopal Vishwakarma told Article 14 that he had not been acquainted with Durai earlier, but the mob attack had occurred at his maternal uncle’s home.
He said there were significant discrepancies between the FIR and the arrest memo of the police. While the arrest memo said the Patel couple were walking from the main village square with copies of the Bible and had tried to escape on spotting policemen, the FIR had said those gathered at the Vishwakarmas’ home already had the BIble.
“Our Constitution allows all Indians to keep any religious literature,” said the lawyer Vishwakarma. “How can this be proof of religious conversion?”
He said his uncle had approached representatives of various religions to offer prayers at his home following the death of his children. The pastor’s prayer service was part of that series of multi-faith prayer services, he said.
‘Missionaries Have Reached 80% Of Villages’
Speaking to Article 14, the complainant in the case, Gaurish Singh, said the HJM has a unit in each district of UP.
“We have a ‘station unit’ present in police stations’ jurisdiction, and we also have monitoring committees at the village level, where our workers inform us about incidents or conspiracies,” he said. “Pastor Neil and his associates were plotting the conversion of poor people in Karkhiya gram sabha under Phulpur police station.”
He claimed that the “final process of conversion” was underway when they reached the Vishwakarmas’ home on 3 August 2021. When the police appeared hesitant to send the three accused to jail, the HJM members approached local journalists to highlight the issue, he said.
“... due to this there was pressure brought upon the Phulpur police station.” he said.
Asked how many Hindus had been converted to Christianity by Durai over the last year in the jurisdiction of the Phulpur police, Gaurish Singh said Christian missionaries had reached 80% of the villages and members of the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes were “targets” for conversion.
“People like Neil lure these poor people with financial help,” he said.
He added that “these people” follow Christian traditions in matters of faith, but remain Hindu on paper, accept government benefits meant for backward class groups and use the Scheduled Castes And Scheduled Tribes Prevention of Atrocities Act, 1989 to sue upper caste people. “This is a kind of fraud,” he claimed. “I have written a letter in this regard to the district magistrate of Banaras.” He said the superintendent of police for rural Varanasi was investigating the trend.
In Fatehpur, Police Made 63-Yr-Old Pastor Do Sit-Ups
Ram Lal, 63, formerly a migrant labourer in Delhi, has lived alone in Khaga tehsil of Fatehpur district since his wife's death, cared for by a married daughter who lives nearby.
About five years ago, Lal said, he came in contact with a pastor named Man Singh, who taught him to pray. “I began to benefit from the prayers and then started praying for other poor people from 2017 onwards,” he said. “People also started benefiting.”
After the Covid-19 lockdowns, he was offering prayer services at his home in Khaga’s Bairagi Purwa village.
On 13 January 2022, while he was praying at the home of a villager named Vinod Kumar with about 30 people in attendance, some locals objected. Lal was taken to the Khaga police station where a clerk reportedly asked him why he was converting people’s religion.
When he was presented before the SHO, a constable told him to hold his ears and do sit-ups. “I, a 63-year-old old man, held my ears and did sit-ups,” he said. “After that I was sent to jail.” He spent 35 days in Fatehpur jail before being released on bail.
Complainant Was BJP Worker On Campaign Rounds
The FIR lodged at Khaga police station was based on a written application submitted by local youth activist and worker of the Bharatiya Janata Party, Jugesh Singh.
According to the FIR, Lal was spreading propaganda for Christianity by gathering local people, distributing books related to Christianity. “He asked me and my companions to convert to Christianity,” the complainant’s application said.
The Khaga police booked Lal under sections 188 (disobedience to order promulgated by public servant), 295-A, 504 of the IPC and sections 3 and 5(1) of Uttar Pradesh Prohibition Of Unlawful Conversion Of Religion Act, 2021.
Jugesh Singh told Article 14 that he had visited Khaga's villages in connection with campaigning for the BJP in the assembly elections. “On the way, we found 70 to 80 people present at this location, praying,” he said. “On seeing us, all of them started saying we would be destroyed.” He claimed that is when they called the Khaga police.
Asked how many Hindu families had been converted to Christanity by Lal, and about the Constitution permitting all religious literature in Indian homes, Jugesh Singh did not respond.
Inspector Rajiv Singh, the investigating officer, told Article 14 that when police arrived at the spot, about 60 to 70 people of all age groups were present, and all were outsiders. “That is how the case came to light that they were lured by Lal.”
He refused to discuss the matter further when asked what inducements had been offered by the accused.
Lal said only 30 people had gathered for the prayers, and that he himself belongs to a scheduled caste. “You have seen my house,” he said. “If I had money to lure someone, I would have built my house first.”
His financial condition had worsened since the arrest, Lal said, the Rs 100-Rs 200 he would be given as donations for conducting the prayers having dried up now that he no longer visited people’s homes to pray.
“I visit my daughter’s house where I eat two meals a day,” he said. “Neither she nor my son-in-law has any objection to my prayers.”
(Mohammad Sartaj Alam is an independent journalist based in Lucknow.)