In Madhya Pradesh and Odisha the church is under attack from Sangh Parivar outfits led by the Bajrang Dal, and governments that are eager to invoke the anti-conversion law. None of these cases stand in the court, built, as most of them are, using falsified evidence and testimonies.
BY GOVIND KRISHNAN V
ILLUSTRATIONS BY STUDIO 28
“Subject to public order, morality and health and to the other provisions of this Part, all
persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practise and propagate religion.”
—Article 25(1), Constitution of India
“And he said unto them, go ye into all the world, and preach the Gospel to every creature.”
—Mark 16:15, Kings James Bible
“I know it was on this word ‘propagate’ that the Indian Christian community laid the greatest emphasis, not because they wanted to convert people aggressively, but because the word ‘propagate’ was fundamental part of their tenet. Even if the word were not there, I am sure, under the freedom of speech which the Constitution guarantees it will be open to any religious community to persuade other people to join their faith. So long as religion is religion, conversion by free exercise of the conscience has to be recognised.”
—K M Munshi, Constituent Assembly debates.
Towards the end of 2014, a seven-minute clip recorded on a mobile camera was shared on WhatsApp and as an MMS in Bhopal. It was a partial recording of an attack by Bajrang Dal activists on a group of Christians in the city.
“Nanga karo, nanga karo (Strip them naked)!” a man in a white shirt shouts, pointing at a group of five men lined up against the wall of a room. There are about 10 attackers. Most of them seem to be in their twenties, wearing shirts and T-shirts, and a couple have bags slung over their shoulders. Reluctantly, some of the men start to undress. One man who removes his shirt is yanked down and made to kneel on the ground, before being sharply whacked. “Pants bhi utharvao (Make them take off their pants also)!” someone cries.
The camera shifts to the left side of the room where two men are sitting on the floor. One is an old man, with a crown of silver hair. A bishop of the Pentecostal church from Mumbai, his head is bowed and he is now dressed in his white vest. “Dada, aap bhi utharo (Grandpa, you take it off too)!” he is told by a man whose face is hidden from the camera.
The men lined against the wall, including two middle-aged people, have all removed their shirts and vests. They are interrogated and made to produce identity cards. One man is given pen and paper and made to write down their names, phone numbers, and addresses.
There is some talk of taking the captives to a mandir. Two Bajrang Dal activists pick up a large poster with drawings and hold it up to examine it. “Bahut gandi, gandi copy nikhli, bahut gandi!” one of them says.
The camera zooms in on an old-fashioned iconography of two naked women in Paradise. “Yahi to hai, Christian ka kaam. Bosdi ke! Yahi tho sikha rahe the (This is what Christians do! Cunts! This is what they were teaching),” the second man says. Before the video ends, there is a last shot of the old man, his back bowed, eyes facing the floor.
The video stops there, but not the violence. “They stripped us completely naked. Phir murga banaya,” says Hari Krishna Rana, who was one of the seven Christians in the video. The attack took place in Rana’s house.
More than two months after the attack Rana is sitting in the courtyard of a small church in Bhopal. Next to him is the pastor of the church, a Tamilian who migrated to Madhya Pradesh decades ago. He leans over and asks Rana, “Murga? Woh kya hota hai?”
Tall and thin, Rana keeps his hands folded on his laps as he talks. “They made us hold our ears and repeatedly sit down and stand up,” he says. Though it is nearing 1 p.m., the winter is cold and he keeps his coat buttoned over the waist of his blue jeans. The brownish-yellow coat is too big for him and he tells me later that it is not his own. “They took everything from the house, including all the clothes.”
The attack happened on November 4 last year. The next day, Hindi daily Dainik Jagarancarried it as its top story. The headline read: “Minors were being taught the lesson of conversion”. The sub-headline read: “Six-member team came from Bombay: Bajrang Dal strips and beats them”. Though the story reports the assault by the Bajrang Dal, most of it narrates the alleged religious conversion as fact.
The first paragraph says: “The issue of conversion has come to the forefront in the region’s capital, Bhopal. In a house in Bhilkhirya police station limits, 15 minor children were taught the lessons of religious conversion. For this purpose, a six-member team had arrived from Mumbai. The lessons of religious conversions were taught to the children in a closed room, without the consent of their guardians.”
Rana and the Christians from Mumbai have a different story to tell, one which follows a pattern consistent with hundreds of similar incidents in Odisha, Himachal Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat and Arunachal Pradesh, where there is a law against forcible conversion. These are states where various Sangh Parivar outfits are active.
“Parivar” is the umbrella term used to refer to dozens of Hindutva organisations across the country, most of which are directly or indirectly related to the Rasthriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the mother ship. Most Parivar outfits draw their legitimacy and strength from the RSS, and are supported—covertly and overtly, in thought and deed—by the Nagpur-based organisation.
The RSS provides an ideological framework from which many violent actions on the ground sprout from seemingly disparate groups.
Six Pentecostal Christians from Mumbai, including a bishop, came to Bhopal on November 4. They stayed at Rana’s house. “There were no Hindu children in the house. There were only a few children from my own family, for whom we wanted to hold a vacation Bible programme,” says Rana.
Rana says the first smell of trouble came when two Bajrang Dal leaders, Umesh Thakur and Hari Om Pal, knocked on his door at about 10 a.m. They wanted money. “They asked for Rs.2.5 lakh. They said, ‘Tumhe bahut foreign funding milte hai (You get a lot of foreign funding). Give us our cut and you can carry on with your programme.’ I refused. How could I give Rs.2.5 lakh?” says Rana.
Rana says he stepped into the house and closed the door. What he did not see was the two men making calls on their cell phones. Half an hour later, reinforcements arrived.
Sensing trouble, the group decided not to hold prayers. They had also sent the children away, when the Bajrang Dal group burst into the house.
“They abused us and beat us. And they did unspeakable things. A few people went to the toilet and carried filth on their slippers. Most of us were made to smell it,” Rana says.
A large number of Bajrang Dal activists had gathered outside by this time. The police arrived after 5 p.m., when called by the Bajrang Dal. They did not arrest the attackers or disperse the mob. Instead, at the insistence of the Bajrang Dal men, the two sub-inspectors did not even allow the Christians to get dressed, says Rana.
“They wanted to make us march like that to the police station. It was only when the CI (circle inspector) arrived that we were allowed to get dressed. Then all seven of us were taken to the police station.”
At the police station, Rana says the two Bajrang Dal leaders repeated their earlier demand for money, in exchange for not registering a case. The police announced to the media that the Christians had been arrested for “forcible” conversion. In the magistrate’s court, police argued that the six had come from Mumbai to convert non-Christians. They spent a week in Bhopal central jail before being released on bail by a sessions court.
A complaint was also registered against some Bajrang Dal workers for the attack. Town Inspector of Bilkhria police station, T. Sapre, says one activist has been arrested in connection with the case. He refused to discuss details of the case against the arrested person or the case against the Christians. Zone additional superintendent of police, Riyaj Ikbal, says the rest of the attackers are absconding.
Rana and other members of the Christian community allege that the assailants are at liberty and the police are deliberately not acting against them.
Rana says they looted his house and made away with cameras, DVD players, and money. For the last two months, he has not gone back to his village on the outskirts of Bhopal. “I met them on the street once. They threatened to cut off my hands and legs if I returned
to the village.”
Six states—Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Arunachal Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh—have laws against religious conversion by force. The history of anti-conversion laws in India goes back to the British administration. During the Raj, when Christian missionaries were allowed to preach across the country without legal restrictions, several Hindu-ruled states enacted laws banning conversions and missionary activity.
After Independence, the demand for an anti-conversion law was rejected by the Constituent Assembly. The right of Christians to convert people was recognised in the legislative debates as part of their religious tenet, and was one of the significant motivations for the adoption of Article 25(1) of the Constitution, which includes the right to propagate one’s religion.
The discourse on anti-conversion and its legislative impetus has its roots in the report of the Madhya Pradesh Christian Missionary Activity Enquiries Committee (1956). Known as the Niyogi Commission report, it was commissioned by Congress-ruled Madhya Pradesh over anxieties that adivasis and Dalits were converting en masse to Christianity due to foreign missionary activity.
The Niyogi committee concluded: “As conversion muddles the converts’ sense of unity and solidarity with his society, there is a danger of his loyalty to his country and State being undermined. A vile propaganda against the religion of the majority community is being systematically and deliberately carried on so as to create an apprehension of breach of public peace. Evangelisation in India appears to be a part of the uniform world policy to revive Christendom for re-establishing Western supremacy and is not prompted by spiritual motives. The objective is apparently to create Christian minority pockets with a view to disrupt the solidarity of the non-Christian societies, and the mass conversions of a considerable section of adivasis with this ulterior motive is fraught with danger to the security of the State.”
The commission recommended, among other things, legislation that would in effect ban inter-religious conversions. An extremely diluted form of the committee’s recommendations was enacted by Madhya Pradesh and Orissa (now Odisha).
In 1967, Orissa enacted a law that, in an Orwellian touch, the state named the Orissa Freedom of Religion Act, 1968. Madhya Pradesh followed suit with the Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, which had exactly the same contents. In 1972, the Orissa High Court struck down the Act as unconstitutional, ruling that, “Article 25(1) guarantees propagation of religion and conversion as a part of Christian religion”.
In 1977, a Supreme Court bench, in Rev. Stainislaus v. State of Madhya Pradesh and Ors, upheld the validity of both the Madhya Pradesh and Orissa laws. The Supreme Court reasoned that the right to propagate one’s religion was limited to transmitting one’s religion by spreading the tenets of the faith and did not amount to a right to conversion. While the laws remained on the statute books over several decades, the rise of the Hindutva movement has seen cases registered against Christians and in some cases Muslims, in these states.
Rajeev Dhavan, senior Supreme Court lawyer and constitutional expert, submitted a legal opinion to then governor of Rajasthan regarding the constitutionality of the anti-conversion law the state tried to enact in 2006. He quotes from an article he wrote in relation to it: “The decision of the Supreme Court in the Stainislaus case is flawed for many reasons. Yet, it has been portrayed as the last word. What is needed is to examine the constitutional dispensation on religious freedom afresh inorder to reappraise the anti-conversion legislation as a danger to the secular fabric that holds India together.”
Even at a conservative estimate—derived from conversations with police, lawyers and evangelical groups—scores of Christians are fighting cases of forced conversion in Odisha, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh There is no official data on the number of prosecutions launched under anti-conversion laws.
“The most cases are reported from Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. All of these are false cases. Christians are being persecuted by Hindutva groups like Bajrang Dal using the anti-conversion law. We have not heard of anyone being convicted so far,” says Vijayesh Lal, executive director, Evangelical Fellowship of India, a national Christian organisation which acts as a central network of evangelists in India.
Fountain Ink investigated several cases of alleged forcible conversion in Madhya Pradesh and Odisha. All follow a pattern. Hindutva groups, mostly Bajrang Dal and Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), attack Christian prayer meetings in homes and churches, and assault people. Even in the few cases of proselytisation, there is no evidence that force or coercion was applied.
Hindutva mobs invade churches and private homes and often assault Christians. They then alert the media and police about “forcible conversions”. Instead of arresting the assailants, police arrest the Christians. FIRs are registered under the Freedom of Religion Act, and the cases often make it to trials that drag on for years. Complaints are rarely registered against the attackers and they are never arrested.
Both the Hindi and Odiya media cover these incidents as cases of “dharmaparivartan” (religious conversion), giving prominence to the allegations of Hindutva outfits and glossing over or ignoring the violence they perpetrate. Media coverage often makes no distinction between legitimate conversions and “forcible” conversions prohibited by law. The effect is one where the State, fringe religious elements and the media act in collusion to criminalise proselytisation itself.
Andreas Soni was meant to be a doctor, but he ended up an evangelist. His story resembles that of many people who convert to Christianity in India: a personal crisis, followed by an experience of miracle or healing, and finally the acceptance of Christ as the only saviour. “Main college mein Prabhu mein aaya (I came to the Lord in college),” says 69-year old Soni. Bundled in a grey jacket, the silver-haired man wears thick, round glasses. He rides an old Bajaj Boxer bike with a “Jesus Saves” sticker on the number plate, and always carries a blue cloth bag with evangelical literature, which he hands out to people. It is his mission in life. “It is wrong to call my activity religious conversion; people change their life, not their religion. They come to Christ in their life.”
While studying to be a doctor in Rewa Medical College in Madhya Pradesh, Soni, driven by problems at home, took to drugs. He became addicted to pethidine, similar to morphine that is used as a painkiller. Two of his fellow students, pethidine addicts, committed suicide. Soni increasingly found that he could not concentrate on his studies. With things worsening at home, the thought of taking his own life came to him regularly.
“I tried praying to many gods and goddesses. I did pujas and tried yoga. But nothing worked. Then a few Hindu friends, who were also believers in Christ, told me about a Christian family that prayed for people. I went there one night. The prayers were led by a lady professor and she asked me to pray to Jesus Christ and accept him as my saviour.”
When Soni reached home, the words seemed unconvincing. Alone, wretched, driven by despair, he decided to kill himself. “Then I had a supernatural experience. I heard a low voice talking to me and asking me not to take my life.”
That was when Christ came into Soni’s life.
His decision to convert came at a heavy price. He was thrown out of the family and disinherited. He quit medical school and came to Jabalpur. “Ye log kehta hain ki Christian banne se bahut paisa milta hai. Kuch nahi milta, aur bahut kuh khona padta hai. (These people say that if you become a Christian you will get a lot of money. You don’t get anything and you have to lose a lot.)” He met his future wife, a schoolteacher, and got married. He continued to spread the “good news”, often travelling north to Uttar Pradesh and Bihar and west to Gujarat.
Then his run-ins with local Hindutva groups, including the Bjarang Dal and VHP, started.
In 2006, Soni was charged under the Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act for forcibly trying to convert a Hindu at the Jabalpur railway station. Soni had been preaching Christianity to the railway stationmaster, who he says was an alcoholic. He says that when the stationmaster, a Brahmin, converted, this raised the ire of local Hindutva groups.
On the evening of May 2, he drove down to the railway station as usual. “I met a young man, I think an engineer, called Pradeep Kumar, who was sitting near the ticket window. I gave him some literature and was telling him about the Christian faith when a mob suddenly gathered. There were around 10 of them, wearing saffron headbands.”
Soni recognised one of the leaders, a man named Yogesh Agarwal, the leader of a sect called Dharma Sena. Members of VHP were also part of the group. There were loud cries of “Jai Sriram!” and “Maaro! Saale ko maaro! (Beat him, kill him!)” as the mob set upon the 60-year-old man. Among those present was a middle-aged sadhu in saffron robes.
As Soni crumpled onto the floor, the beatings continued. His glasses were broken and he was hit repeatedly on the chest. “I cried out that I was a heart patient and not to hit me. Someone from the crowd retorted ‘Jesus will come and save you’.” During Soni’s trial, Pradeep Kumar stated that Soni was manhandled by the crowd that gathered.
Soni was dragged to the railway police station by the Dharma Sena and VHP activists. He remembers that some mediapersons arrived on the scene. “Yogesh Agarwal ne SI ko bataya ki videsh se paisa leke mein Isai dharm ka pracharan kar raha hoon (Yogesh Agarwal told the SI that I had taken money from foreign countries and was preaching Christianity).”
After some time, a tall young man in his thirties arrived, accompanied by Dharma Sena activists. Soni had not seen him before; he says the man stuck him as being uneducated. The man complained Soni had offered him Rs.5,000 to convert to Christianity. The police registered a case under the Freedom of Religion Act. Later, during the trial, the police officer who registered the case testified Soni was brought the police station by a group of people. He further testified he had not asked any questions or conducted any enquiry before registering the case. No case was registered against the Dharma Sena and VHP activists who had assaulted Soni.
After he was allowed to contact his lawyer, Soni got bail at the police station. He was hopsitalised for his injuries, but he had no fractures and made a quick recovery.
The five years that followed were a constant mental and emotional torture. “I had to appear at the court every two weeks. The court clerks, the registrars, officials, everyone treated me like I was a criminal. I met the Bajrang Dal people including Yogesh Agarwal several times and they threatened to kill me.”
There was also the constant fear of a conviction. Soni had been charged with forcibly trying to convert someone’s religious faith by allurement (Section 3). The punishment was up to one year in prison. Four Hindu men, including Pradeep Kumar, testified Soni had offered them Rs.5,000 for changing their religion. After almost five years, on March 30, 2011, a railway magistrate court found Soni guilty under Section 3 read with 4 of the Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act. He was not imprisoned but fined Rs 2,500.
He appealed the decision before a fast-track court.
On September 30, 2011, the court overturned the decision of the railway court and found Soni not guilty. Reviewing the proceedings before the lower court, it came to the conclusion that the testimony of the witnesses was not believable. Moreover, most of them had made the charge of allurement at the trial, but had made no mention of money being offered when the police complaint was filed.
The court also concluded that witnesses who testified against Soni had done so at the behest of the Dharma Sena. In its decision, the court ruled: “It is apparent from the examination of Anil Kumar Balmik (the prosecution witness) that he did not testify before the court in an independent capacity. Rather, he has given the testimony under pressure of the convenor of Dharma Sena, Yogesh Agarwal.”
According to Chad M. Bauman—an associate professor of religion at Butler University, Indianapolis, who studies evangelical activity in India—Christian evangelists used to preach the gospel openly to non-Christian audiences in the streets using megaphones up until about 1998. They would sing songs, and distribute pamphlets and copies of the Bible. This was evangelism aimed openly at a non-Christian audience.
But a growing Hindu resistance mobilised by the Sangh, and instances of anti-missionary violence, have forced evangelical Christians to change their methods.
In his book Pentecostals, Proselytization, and Anti-Christian Violence in Contemporary India, Bauman writes: “Open-air preaching has been largely replaced by a variety of techniques (for example, “web evangelism”, “friendship evangelism,” “care cell evangelism”) that follow lines of friendship and family relationships, and that put an emphasis on evangelising only where one is invited.
But in rural areas, conversions take place largely along the lines of prayers and healing. Hindus who are known to Christian believers are told to pray to Christ when facing a family crisis or illness. They are invited to pray in churches as well as the house of Christian families. While many develop a belief in the efficacy of praying to Christ, some go further and change their religion, prompted by their personal experience as well as Christian preaching. Those who become Christian because of a perceived healing experience are often those who have minimal access to healthcare and are limited to folk medicine or superstitious practices.
Foreign missionaries have been working in tribal areas of erstwhile Madhya Pradesh (which included Chhattisgarh) since the decades before Independence. They build hospitals and schools in districts like Raigarh, Bilaspur, Bastar and Sarguja. Many tribals converted to Christianity over the years, including some instances of mass conversions before Independence. Though the religious conversions were not at a demographically significant scale, they raised Hindu anxieties about a demographic shift.
This was the context in which the Niyogi Commission was appointed by the Madhya Pradesh government. The commission, after visiting tribal areas, concluded that the charitable activity of the missionaries, including the medical and educational services, were a tool for conversion. The language of “forcible” conversion or conversion by “coercion” entered the report’s conclusions and recommendations in which monetary benefits like jobs and social services which the tribals received due to missionary activity was seen as a lever for coercive conversions. However, the commission did not isolate any case of “forced” conversions.
When the Swatantra Party came to power in Orissa, it enacted the Orissa Freedom Of Religion Act in 1967. A year later, the Samyukta Vidhayak Dal—a coalition which included the Jan Sangh—passed the Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act. Both criminalised forcible conversion, but left the definition of “allurement” vague and broad. However, the law largely remained on the statute books.
During the Eighties, when the Hindutva movement was starting to build up in north India, Christian conversions became a central political issue in Madhya Pradesh. Ten foreign missionaries living in Madhya Pradesh for decades were given deportation orders by the Congress home ministry headed by Arun Nehru. They were accused of anti-national activities.
This provoked a confrontation with the Christian community, which accused the government of being partisan. A Supreme Court stay order allowed the missionaries to avoid deportation temporarily, but the issue did not go away.
In 1990, the BJP formed the government in Madhya Pradesh with Sunderlal Patwa as chief minister. Patwa called the missionaries “traitors” in public, accused them of forcible conversion, and called for their deportation. Patwa and other BJP leaders also accused other Christian organisations of being involved in forcible conversions.
Under the leadership of former union minister Dilip Singh Judeo, the RSS started conducting ghar wapsi (literally meaning “home coming”) programmes among Christian tribals throughout the Nineties, with the help of the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, a body associated with the RSS. The BJP claimed it was bringing the tribals “back home” to their original religion—a false claim because tribals have their own faith and rituals at variance with Hindu ways.
In 2003, when Uma Bharti, a Hindutva hardliner, became chief minister, the focus of the anti-Christian campaign shifted from anti-missionary rhetoric towards ordinary believers and pastors. The Bajrang Dal, formed in 1986 during the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, started receiving state patronage in Madhya Pradesh, says Indra Iyengar, a former member of the Madhya Pradesh Minorities Commission. According to many accounts, the Uma Bharti government actively encouraged the Bajrang Dal and VHP to bring to light cases of alleged “forcible” conversion.
Even after Shivraj Singh Chouhan, perceived as being more moderate than Bharti, replaced her, the administration continued to give the Bajrang Dal and similar groups preferential treatment. After the BJP came to power under Narendra Modi, both national and regional media have reported an increase in the anti-conversion cases in the state. Some of these cases are against Muslims.
During the 1970s, Rajesh Choudhary used to attend RSS shakhas as a child growing up near Bhopal. He enjoyed the marches in khaki shorts and the physical exercise. The conversations at the shakhas are also a happy memory.
But he didn’t particularly like the “Hindu Hindu Bhai Bhai” slogan that they kept repeating. Or the way, he says, people there thought of Muslims as enemies.
After school, he stopped attending the shakha. He didn’t have time. He joined a street gang and got into one scrape after the other. Looking back, he says he was lost and on a path that was inexorably leading to a life of crime.
Rajesh’s life was transformed drastically when his father was diagnosed with a brain haemorrhage. “The doctors asked us to be ready to take him home. It was hopeless,” he says. A Christian asked him to pray to Jesus Christ. “I told him I would not convert,” Rajesh recalls. But he telephoned the local church and asked them to pray for his father. “In my mind I thought, if you can save him Lord, I would dedicate my entire life to your service.”
Rajesh says that in 10 minutes, his father showed signs of revival, a development that shocked doctors. In 10 days, he made a complete recovery. Rajesh firmly believes that Jesus Christ saved his father. He converted to Christianity and eventually became a pastor. Over time, his entire family became believers.
Rajesh Choudhary fought an anti-conversion case for seven years. It started, as usual, with the local wing of the Bajrang Dal taking an interest in the activities of his church. “In January 2006, Bajrang Dal members came and started sitting for church services. They would record videos of the services and prayers,” Rajesh says.
He knew then that trouble was brewing. The Bajrang Dal contacted local Hindi channels and newspapers and soon, reporters and cameramen descended on the church. “They asked believers why they were coming to church. They asked if they had been converted or offered money,” he says. The police approached him in a few days. They wanted him to close the church. The reason offered was that there could be trouble from Hindutva groups. Rajesh refused.
Rajesh had heard of several cases of Christians being arrested under the Freedom of Religion Act. After he consulted his lawyer, he expected an arrest was imminent.
One night in April, a police van drew up in front of his house at midnight. Eight policemen including the town inspector arrested Rajesh and took him to the police station. He called his lawyers as well as prominent members of the community. Around 4 a.m., he was released upon bond. No FIR was filed.
Three months later, a case was registered under Sections 3 and 4 of the Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act. The charge was that he had tried to convert two people, Santosh Sen and Pancham Ahirvar, by inducement and offer of money. Rajesh says he has never met either of the petitioners. A man named Kamalesh was also charged with Rajesh in the same case. Kamalesh died during the trial and proceedings against him were dropped.
Through endless adjournments and arguments, the case went on till March 2013. On March 21, the court acquitted Rajesh Choudhary. From 2006 to 2013, the prosecution and police failed to produce the petitioner Pancham Ahirvar. The police case was that Rajesh promised Santosh Sen, the other petitioner, that his children’s future would be assured if he converted to Christianity. Rajesh was also accused of offering money as well as threatening Sen to convert.
Sen testified in 2009 that the case was fabricated by the town inspector. “I do not know the accused Rajesh and Kamalesh. Around two-and-a-half years (ago) from today, two constables came to me from Gohlapur station. They told me that the TI sahib (town inspector) has called me. An hour later I went to the police station. On being asked, I told him I have a barber shop (cutting ki dhukan). He asked me to sign as a witness. I asked him what the testimony was about. He told me I had nothing to do with that. I had no information on what he made me sign … I had not made the complaint reported in Gohlapur police station. I had not written in the report that the accused Rajesh and Kamalesh had tried to convert me to Christianity. Neither had I written that on accepting Christianity, my children’s future would be secured.”
The court did not pass any strictures or direct action against the police for fabricating the case.
The Jabalpur court is a two-storey red building, with a small temple housed in its inner courtyard. The temple is about 30 by 20 feet, and was established, locals say, about 30 years ago. A “priest” distributes prasad but is reluctant to make conversation.
There has been a spate of anti-conversion cases registered against Christians in Jabalpur since 2000. “I have personally counted 72; there must be at least 100,” says Choudhary.
Jabalpur superintendent of police Haricharananarayan Mishra Chari refused to comment on cases related to Rajesh Choudhary or Andrea Soni. He claimed, contrary to what is reported, that there have been no recent cases where the anti-conversion law has been applied.
“I cannot comment on past cases. I can only comment on cases in the last two years since I took charge. There have been no cases of forced conversion. It is the fundamental right of every citizen to convert people to his religion. But the law punishes people who try to convert using money, influence or power. If Bjarang Dal has been using violence against people, they can complain here and we will take action.”
Odisha is the only state that has seen sustained Hindu-Christian communal clashes. The history of communal violence in the state has a direct link to conversions by Christians.
Missionary activity started in Odisha in the early decades of the 20th century. Post-Independence, Odisha was the first to enact an anti-conversion law aimed at Christian proselytisation. Along with humanitarian work, missionary activity was concentrated in tribal areas and over the years, significant numbers of Dalits, mainly Panas, converted.
From the Eighties to the Nineties, the economic betterment of the Panas brought to the surface tensions with the tribals, who were mobilised by the VHP and Bajrang Dal and started to articulate a Hindu identity.
Hindus accuse missionaries of exploiting poverty to make converts, while the Christian community accuses Hindutva organsiations of spreading hatred against Christians. The situation was further aggravated by a Maoist insurgency which drew more cadres from the Pana community.
In 1999, Graham Staines, an Australian missionary working for the education of tribals, was burnt to death along with his two children. Dara Singh, a Bajrang Dal activist was convicted for the crime.
In 2008, the communal cauldron exploded in Kandamahal district. The murder of Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati and four others by unknown assailants led to communal violence against Christians. Several people were killed, hundreds were injured, and thousands of homes burned in the violence that followed. In some places, Christian mobs retaliated against innocent Hindu families.
The aftermath of the Kandamahal riots led to a polarisation among communal lines across Odisha that persists to this day. Christian proselytisation is viewed with hostility by the majority community. The anti-conversion law invites the state to intervene in ways that are partisan.
The Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act requires that anyone converting someone to another religion should inform the district magistrate within a month of the ceremony. The Orissa Freedom of Religion Act mandates that anyone undertaking religious conversion should inform the district magistrate a month in advance. Failure can attract up to a year’s imprisonment under Section 4 of the Act.
In 2011, in complete violation of all constitutional rights as well as the law’s stated purpose of protecting people from forced conversion, four families in Odisha were arrested for converting to Christianity without informing the administration. While the High Court stayed proceedings, the state has not dropped the case.
Plain Paper FIR
P.O Village Kunchibani under
Badampur G. P. P. S. R. G Pur,
D.O- Since last one year (2010) D.R 25.3.2011 at 4 pm
Complainant- Inspector S K Dash
Sec of Law; Section 4 of Orissa Freedom of Religion Act, 1967, I, Sri Santosh Kumar Dash, Inspector-in-charge of Police, PS Rasagobindapur, District Mayurbhanja, Orissa, do hereby lodge this plain paper FIR suomoto (sic) to the effect that, I got reliable information that a group of people from village Kunchibani under Badampur G.P , P.S Rasagobindapur, district Mayurbhanja, has been converted from Hindu religion to Christian religion in a fraudulent manner, violating all norms, rules and laws … My enquiry revealed that one, Babuli Bindhani, S/O Alam Bindhani of village Kunchibani … was suffering from dieses (sic disease) in the year 2010. He contacted one Manual Mohapatra … who is a pastier (sic) of Balasore church, who also assured to be cured (sic) if he accepts Christianity. Then he along with his wife Shantilatha Bhindani accepted Christianity … He was then taken to a training center (sic) of Christian religion called ‘Orissa Follow up’ at Kuruda Balasore and given a (sic) training for 15 days and then he was also declared a Pastier (sic). On his instigation many people of his caste attended weekly Christian prayer in his house on each Sunday from 11 AM to 1 PM. They celebrated all Christian festivals … On local enquiry, villagers of Kunchi Bani … stated that the family members of Babuli Bindhani, Kuna Bindhani, Deepu Bhindani have accepted Christian religion and Christian prayers are being observed in their house premises in regular intervals and many people are coming and attending prayers.
All the conversions from Hindu Religion to Christian Religion was done without the knowledge of the administration in a fraudulent manner violating the provisions of Orissa Freedom of Religion Act and Rule …all those who converted from Hindu religion to Christian religion illegally … are liable us/4 of the Orissa Freedom of Religion Act 1967.
Hence drew up this plain paper FIR and … took up investigation.
An extremely narrow road leads off from the main road towards Kunchibani village in Odisha. Thatched huts dot both sides of the road, enclosed by fences made of twigs. Yellow unsown fields and shallow ponds break up greenery that is variegated with tall bamboo trees, palms, neem trees, cacti, and date palms.
Near the village, the tarred road gives way to a dirt track. Signs of poverty are everywhere. Five women sit by a low dilapidated hut with a tattered fence. The older women are dressed only in saris, their breasts half-concealed by the folds of the cloth.
Fifty-year-old Luda Ram’s house is located behind the hut, but the improvement is only a matter of degree. Large plastic boards are stacked against the thin walls to protect from the cold. Except for a cot, the cow dung-plastered floors are bare of furniture.
Luda Ram was one of the women arrested for converting to Christianity.
Pastor Babuli Bindhani stands in the middle of her yard. At 25, he does not look like anyone’s idea of a pastor. A tall, lithe man, his hair is cropped short and he wears his neatly-ironed shirt and trousers in a manner that reminds one of a schoolboy’s uniform. His black shoes are polished to a startling shine.
The results of Inspector Santosh Dash’s investigation was that two “Christians” turned up at the village in March 2011. The two men met Bindhani and his cousin and wanted to know who the Christians in the village were. “They said they were evangelists and wanted to bring us gifts. So I gave them the names of the families who were now Christian,” says Bindhani.
As the two men went away, they stopped to talk to three villagers. It was from his Hindu neighbours that Bindhani got to know that they were plainclothes policemen.
It was not the first time the police had talked to him about his change of faith. Three months ago, he had been summoned by the town inspector. “He told me to do whatever I was doing lawfully. He asked me to inform the magistrate. I told the pastor (who converted Bindhani) that the conversion has to be registered. He said that he has informed the authorities. But for some reason he did not.”
The day after the appearance of the plainclothes policemen, Bindhani went to the town of Balasore. A newspaper he bought carried the news of conversions in Mayurbhanj district. Several newspapers carried the same item. “They had all our names. It had all the details. It said the due process of the law was not followed. Even the FIR number of the case was there,” he says.
Bindhani realised things were going to turn ugly soon.
On March 28 at about 10 a.m., a police contingent arrived at the village. Luda Ram recounts: “I had just cooked the rice and was about to eat it when Babuli’s (Bindhani) younger brother came and called. He said the police is calling us all. The police rounded up the Christians. There were two lady constables. They told me nothing will happen to us. As we were being driven off in the van, people started shouting. ‘Take them away. If they return, let them return only after they have become Hindu’.”
Bindhani’s wife was arrested and their child was also taken to the police station.
Bindhani was not in the village when the arrests happened. He received a telephone call from his brother, telling him the police were in the village and rounding up Christians. Soon, he got another call from the police inspector. “He told me he had my wife and kid. And told me not to abscond. I told him I would reach the station in an hour.”
Bindhani says he reached the police station at 2 p.m. Twelve Christians and two children were sitting on the veranda. After meeting the inspector, Bindhani took his place among them. None of them had eaten anything. Bindhani says the police gave them no food the entire day, nor were they allowed to fetch it for themselves. “A three-year-old child was among us. He kept crying for food the whole day. We asked the police for something to eat. They did not budge. They told us that Lord Jesus Christ will feed us.”
The 14 Christians, including the pastor who was arrested later, were taken to the courthouse in the morning. The judge granted them bail at Rs.20,000. Under Rule 4 of the Orissa Freedom of Religion Act, any person intending to change his religion has to give advance notice to a first class magistrate that he is changing his religion of his/her own will. However, not giving notice is not an offence. No penalties are prescribed for it.
As they came out of the courthouse, Bindhani says they were besieged by the media. “They asked us why we converted to Christianity. They asked us how much money we had taken from the Christians.”
A few days after they returned to Kunchibani, Bindhani received summons from the police station. He says he was verbally abused and threatened to stop practising Christianity. “Some eight cops surrounded me. They started abusing me in the filthiest language. They told me they will put me and my wife back in jail. They asked me to stop practising Christianity. They told me not to preach Christianity or convert anyone. I was shaking like a leaf in the wind. I was so scared that I wet myself standing there.”
To carry out the law and prevent the “illegal” practice of Christianity, policemen were stationed in front of his house, Bindhani says. “For 15 to 20 days police watched our houses throughout so that we could not hold prayer services in the open. Two constables were stationed in two shifts. Night and day,” he says.
But they continued to pray quietly, inside the walls of their small houses. Only after the bishop of the Baptist church gave a representation to the district collector did the policemen stop harassing them, he says.
In June, Bindhani and the others petitioned the Orissa High Court to quash the case. The court stayed all proceedings. In almost four years, there has been no further hearing on the petition. Bindhani, his wife, Luda Ram, and 10 others remain “illegal” Christians.
Odisha director general of police Sanjeev Marik does not explain why the police were still prosecuting Bindhani and his fellow Christians. He says every person has the freedom to choose his own religion and that the case could be an aberration at the junior level.
He says: “We have been acting against the Bajrang Dal whenever they have indulged in violence. We are a communally peaceful state. Since 2011, we have had no cases of forced conversion. While it is true that the high court has given a stay in this particular case, it is not a final order. One cannot simply drop cases like that. If people feel the police have made a mistake, they can approach the court. There is no doubt that every person can choose their own religion. That is a Constitutionally guaranteed right. But there are procedures to be followed under the Orissa Freedom of Religion Act. If some junior officer has made a mistake, people can complain against him to the higher authorities. You see, at the village level, social mores often colour people’s perspectives. It is very different from what happens in the city.”
Sitting behind the counter of his ayurvedic medical shop in Bhopal, Sudheer Agarwal greets me with enthusiasm. He is a top functionary of the Dharma Jagran Samanvay Vibhag, a Hindutva group with close ties to the Bajrang Dal. He is known in Bhopal as one of the main movers behind the ghar wapsi programme and as a prominent face of the Sangh.
A short, round-headed man, Agarwal’s face is shadowed by silver bristles. A grey sweater covers his rotund figure. As he turns away from the counter to talk to me, his face lights up. “I am happy that you have come to the right place. You can get the correct information.”
Agarwal’s young nephew is with him. The boy is more wary. He asks for my publication’s name and immediately Googles it on his smartphone.
“We are not against Hindus, Muslims or Christians changing their religion. Par zabardasti nahin (But not by force). Thirteen families in Bhopal recently converted to Christianity. They were promised government jobs. The Christians get foreign funding,” Agarwal says.
I ask him if he can provide any evidence of money being used in conversions by Christians. The nephew cuts in “We have all the evidence. We have videos.” But he refuses to share them, saying they are “confidential”.
Agarwal says, “Earlier Hindus—that is, the people who follow Sanatan Dharma—were innocent. They could be converted easily. Now we are fighting back. The Christians use hospitals, schools and charities to convert. If it was only social service, why don’t they do it for people of every religion?”
I ask if the social service his group does caters to all religions. “After the Modi government has come to power, some Muslims have approached us. But we will let them come a few times before we can trust them. They may do ‘love jihad’. Ladki leke bhagenge (They will run off with the girls).”
Agarwal explains what he means by forced conversion and allurement, and how the Christians convert. “They will tell people in villages and tribal areas that they will give a litre of milk if they come to church. Later, they will say that you will get the milk only if you bring another person along. Also, they offer them jobs at hospitals and schools. And give benefits in other ways.”
In the ghar wapsi programme carried out by the VHP in Agra, Muslims were allegedly converted on the promise of ration cards, I say. He says, “See, when we are serving people, there are certain limitations. They must have asked for help and these people must have promised it. Then when they did not get it, they must have called in the media.”
During the conversation, customers wrapped in jacket and scarves against the bitter cold keep approaching the counter. Many seem to know Agarwal personally. He says the medical shop was started by his great-grandfather, more than 100 years ago.
Agarwal joined the RSS as a young man and his life view was shaped by reading the Marathi edition of Guru Golwalkar’s works. M. S. Golwalkar is a former head of the RSS and propounded its foremost ideology of a “Hindu Rashtra”. Agarwal is very happy with the Modi government, but says the central government has been unable to stop the forced conversions.
He says, “It is not their fault. We need the new amendment to the anti-conversion act to be passed. Only then can illegal conversions be stopped. And there should be a national law against forcible conversion.”
In the wake of the Agra conversion controversy, BJP president Amit Shah asked all Opposition parties to help the government bring in a national law governing religious conversions. The amendment Agarwal refers to was first introduced by the Madhya Pradesh government in 2006. It increased the term of imprisonment for converting by force, fraud or inducement to four years.
It made it compulsory for the person doing the conversion to take permission from the district magistrate a month in advance of the ceremony. The person who is converted also has to inform the authorities within a certain period of changing his religion. Both the preacher and the person converted can be imprisoned up to one year for failing to notify the authorities.
Former Madhya Pradesh governor Balram Jakhar asked the state government to submit cases of forced conversions from each district. The data submitted failed to satisfy him that such conversions were taking place in a significant number. The Bill was forwarded to the President who rejected it as unconstitutional and in violation of the right to freedom of religion.
The earlier Bill was resuscitated by Madhya Pradesh’s BJP government in 2013. It is now pending with the President.
In 2012, the Himachal Pradesh High Court struck down provisions of the Himachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act as a violation of right to privacy. These provisions required those converted to give a month’s prior notification to the district magistrate. It also proscribed a fine of Rs.1,000 for anyone who failed to do so.
In its judgement, the court said “Why should any human being be asked to disclose what is his religion? Why should a human being be asked to inform the authorities that he is changing his belief? What right does the State have to direct the convertee to give notice in advance to the District Magistrate about changing his rebellious thought? A person’s belief or religion is something very personal to him.
“The State has no right to ask a person to disclose what is his personal belief. The only justification given is that public order requires that notice be given. We are of the considered view that in case of a person changing his religion and notice being issued to the so called prejudicially affected parties, chances of the convertee being subjected to physical and psychological torture cannot be ruled out. The remedy proposed by the State may prove to be more harmful than the problem. In case such a notice is issued, the unwarranted disclosure of the voluntary change of belief by an adult may lead to communal clashes and may even endanger life or limb.”
The court also ruled that to penalise anyone who changed his/her religion was to defeat the purpose of the Act, which seeks to protect these very people. It ruled: “But, by and large, it is the poor and the downtrodden, who are converted by ‘force’, ‘fraud’ or ‘inducement’. By enacting Section 4 and making the non-issuance of the notice a criminal offence, the State has, in fact, made these poor and downtrodden people criminals.”
Several legal scholars have criticised the various anti-conversion legislations enacted by the states as unconstitutional. They say that the Orissa High Court judgment overturning the state’s anti-conversion law was correct, while the Supreme Court erred in the Stainislaus case.
Faizan Mustafa, vice-chancellor of the Nalsar University of Law, calls into question the distinction between “propagation” of religion (guaranteed as a fundamental right) and conversion that the apex court relied on in its judgement. “The distinction is wrong and is not consistent with the dictionary meaning of propagate. Propagation to be successful has to include conversion,” he says.
But the law being what it is at the moment, Babuli Bindhani and his co-accused still don’t know what the future holds.