It is Christmas, but there are no signs of celebrations at the Seventh Day Adventist Church in Asroi village. The church is locked, and three policemen stand guard outside. Villagers said the local pastor, Vikas Paswan, holds prayers during the weekend, but there was no midnight mass this Christmas eve.
The village is located about 30 kilometres from Aligarh, where the RSS-linked Dharma Jagran Samiti had planned to hold a “ghar wapsi” of 5,000 Christian and Muslim families on Christmas Day. The programme was called off last week, but the effect lingers.
In August this year, it was alleged that right wing groups had turned the Asroi church into a temple and over 70 Christian Valmikis had been “reconverted” as Hindus. But it was later found that the church had not been disturbed. However, a temple is now being constructed near the church, as some of those who were “reconverted” have claimed it as “Hindu land”.
“The local pastor visits the church for weekly services. However, we don’t know why no prayers were held for Christmas. One reason could be because there are very few Christians left in the village. Moreover, the August incident caused polarisation,” said Rampal, 30, among the Valmikis who “reconverted” to Hinduism.
Two Valmiki families who live behind the church started constructing the temple. “The church was constructed when over 30 villagers accepted the Christian faith in 2001. We came back to our faith (Hinduism) for personal reasons. The remaining Christians live in the nearby village. While this land is still with the church, it originally belonged to Hindus. So we are building our temple here. We are want to worship our God and it’s our right to construct the temple,” said Netrapal, an elder of one of the families.
The two families, have spent over Rs 40,000 on the construction so far. The men are daily wage labourers, but they say “money doesn’t matter”.
“Yes, we are poor, but this is a question of faith. Money doesn’t matter. Constructing the temple is the most important thing. It will be completed in two more months. We will place an idol of our God and call the priest,” said Rampal.
“Earlier, there were rumours that Hindu groups have taken over the church, but no organisation has been involved. We have paid for the construction of the temple ourselves. We celebrated Diwali too. We are Hindus and will continue to remain so,” said Rajbir, another family member.
When contacted, Additional SP (Rural), Aligarh, Sansar Singh said, “Permission was granted to hold prayers for Christmas at the Asroi church. We have provided security and the area has remained peaceful. We have no information on why the prayers were not held.” Stating that there has been no dispute over the construction of a temple, he said: “The temple is being built on private land”.
In Aligarh, the Church of Ascension is just kilometres away from the Maheshwar Inter College, where the “ghar wapsi” was scheduled to be held. Like every year, the traditional midnight mass was held on Wednesday. But this year, there were PAC personnel guarding the road leading to the church.
“We are just being cautious. The situation is normal and we want the celebrations to continue peacefully,” said the circle officer. Similar security was visible across all major churches here.
“The traditional free-spirited Christmas celebrations are gone. Fringe elements have caused this damage to the friendship between the communities,” said a pastor on condition of anonymity.
“There is news that the Christian community is under fear. We are not intimidated or threatened by anyone. If the police is providing security, it is their job. None of us have made any special requests,” said the pastor of Church of Ascension, Sunil A Luke.
But others admitted that there are signs of “visible change”. Advocate Osmond Charles, who lives just 500 metres away from the church, said the kilometre-long road from the church to the market would see “carnival-like celebrations” at this time of the year.
“People from all communities would gather here and celebrate Christmas. It used to be carnival-like celebrations. Special cake shops were set up. For the first time in decades, these celebrations are missing,” he said.
“Can’t you see outside. Things have changed. Where is the atmosphere of festivity? The Christians may not say it openly, but it is so polarised now. There is a hidden fear. The government has assured peace, but it not just about maintaining peace. This is a festival in which all the communities celebrated,” said Charles.
Ravinder Singh Burman, 70, is among the few Hindus at the midnight mass. “You see these empty chairs. Earlier, no chair would be vacant. People would stand and attend the mass,” he said. Blaming “fringe elements”, Burman said: “I am an RSS man and have always voted for the BJP. Everyone knows that the party’s agenda is development. These are fringe elements which are taking advantage of the government at the Centre. I have come for the midnight mass. Where is the question of anyone being against Christianity?”
As the prayers come to an end and the people get ready for a bonfire, Anand Maheswari, 25, lights up the night with some fireworks. He has been a part of the Christmas celebrations since childhood. “I always store some crackers from Diwali for Christmas,” he said.