A Hindu nationalist drive to “reconvert” non-Hindus over the Christmas season foundered, but protests against the campaign led to an unexpected consequence: a proposal to ban on all conversions except “reconversions” to Hinduism.
During an Advent season that saw the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi propose a “Good Governance Day” on Dec. 25 to divert attention away from Christmas, Parliamentary Affairs Minister Venkaiah Naidu proposed a ban on all religious conversions – not just “forced” or “fraudulent” ones.
Naidu floated the proposal with the supposed goal of quieting the growing din over conversions to minority faiths and alleged “reconversions” to Hinduism, though Christian leaders believe it came at least in part to appease Hindu nationalists upset at the government effort to distance itself from the “reconversion” campaign.
While no legislation has been drafted, voices within and outside of parliament supported the proposal by Naidu – who said he was a proud member of the Hindu extremist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) – which would brazenly violate religious freedom provisions in India’s constitution.
Throughout Advent, Christians, Muslims and other religious minorities in India were the target of a reconversion campaign led by the Dharma Jagran Samanvay Samiti (DJSS), Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) the Dharma Raksha Manch (DRM), among others. These reconversion drives caused political and religious tempers to rise and produced heated debate.
Following an attempted reconversion event by the DJSS in Agra, Uttar Pradesh in which 200 Muslims from at least 57 families allegedly “reconverted” to Hinduism, the group along with other Hindu nationalists planned an event in Aligarh intending to “reconvert” 4,000 Christians and 1,000 Muslims on Christmas Day. Opposition parties in parliament demanded a response from the prime minister.
The massive campaign in Aligarh never materialized, reportedly under pressure from the government. Instead, the National Democratic Alliance government led by the prime minister’s Hindu extremist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) sought to capitalize on the issue by calling for a nationwide anti-conversion law.
In accordance with the philosophy of Hindu extremist organizations such as the VHP and RSS that conversion back to Hinduism is “coming home” rather than conversion, sources from the ruling BJP, including its president, have indicated that “reconversion” to Hinduism would be excluded from the ban. “Reconversion” is predicated on the Hindu nationalist belief that Hinduism is India’s original and ancient religion, and therefore anyone of a different faith must be “reconverted,” though many converts to Christianity in India practiced indigenous religions rather than Hinduism.
On Dec. 18 – national minorities day – the head of the DJSS, Rajeshwar Singh, told media that his organization will make sure that India is “cleansed” of Christianity and Islam by 2021. Singh had earlier made news on Dec. 12, when he reportedly appealed for funds for the “costly” reconversion movement to Hinduism in Uttar Pradesh. His name appeared in undated letters and posters seeking donations of 500,000 rupees (US$7,900) for converting a Muslim and 200,000 rupees (US$3,155) for the ghar vapsi (“homecoming”) of a Christian.
During December, reconversion ceremonies were reported from Kerala to Uttar Pradesh to Punjab and Bihar states. Many of them turned out to be mere media exercises.
Scroll.in, an Internet news magazine, investigated an alleged reconversion of 500 Christians to Hinduism in Gujarat state and could not find “a single convert” even after visiting half a dozen villages that were said to participate in reconversion ceremonies.
In Gaya, Bihar, Christians were reportedly forced to approach police for protection after the RSS threatened harm unless they converted to Hinduism. Media described a VHP-organized reconversion ceremony as a “flop.”
“They refused to attend VHP’s ‘ghar vapsi’ and made it clear that they had changed their religion without any pressure or allurement,” a district police official from Gaya reportedly said. “It was their own decision for a life with dignity and honor.”
After a failed VHP reconversion ceremony in Bhatinda, Punjab, where not a single Christian turned up, Christian leaders from Bhatinda alleged that the VHP was trying to force Christians to convert to Hinduism. Representatives of the United Christian Welfare Association (UCWA), Pastors’ Fellowship Association and Punjab Christian Movement denounced Hindus’ forced conversions – declining to use the term “reconversions” as most converts were never Hindus in the first place.
Good Governance Day
Apparently more interested in appeasing Hindu nationalists than religious minorities as their clamor grew over the “reconversion” campaign, the Modi government announced a Dec. 25 “Good Governance Day,” which only added fuel to the blaze of controversy.
“We [the state government] were also told to observe Dec. 25 as Good Governance Day, but we refused,” Mamta Banerjee, chief minister of West Bengal state, told media. “India is a secular country, and we have a secular constitution.”
Since independence, Christmas and Good Friday have been official holidays in India, as are Muslim and Hindu holidays.
While the government maintained that observance of Good Governance Day was optional and that it had issued no circular requiring government servants to work on Christmas Day, there were reports of various civil service employees working under direct orders from various ministries.
“It was an act of political symbolism that achieved what it wanted,” said the Rev. Vijayesh Lal of the Evangelical Fellowship of India’s Religious Liberty Commission. “It generated enough controversy and put the Good Governance Day in the memory of the people. Next year, it would be easier to push it alongside Christmas, and, in a few years, Christmas may effectively be sidelined as just the festival of the Christians.”
Archbishop of Delhi Anil Couto expressed anguish over reports that Central Board of Secondary Education-affiliated schools had been required to observe Good Governance Day on Christmas, while Archbishop of Bangalore Bernard Moras issued a strong statement against the government announcement.
“It is hurting the sentiments of Christians definitely, and not only of Christians, but also of others,” Moras said. “I feel good governance is a necessity today everywhere, but why fix it on 25th?”
Dr. John Dayal, member of the National Integration Council termed it “deliberate mischief.”
“Since Dec. 25 is the most important day of the year for Christians, the move effectively erodes the balanced approach to minority sentiments and customs built over the years,” Dayal reportedly said. “I see it in context of conversion drives and hate campaigns. It is deliberate, sheer discrimination against minorities.”
Attacks on Christians
Physical assaults were not excluded from the December attacks on Christianity. The Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI) recorded more than 31 assaults on Christians throughout the month, Lal said.
“In many places, existing laws are used selectively against Christians,” he said. “Even children as young as 8 months old were taken into police custody and kept there for almost five days in unhygienic conditions, in the bitter cold in Madhya Pradesh.”
Christmas Day saw police in Uttar Pradesh stop Christmas celebrations in at least four towns because of complaints from Hindu extremist groups alleging forced and fraudulent conversions.
In Madhya Pradesh, police beat some Christians arrested on charges of forced or fraudulent conversions en route to the police station. In a case in Khandwa, where 13 Christians were arrested, their attorney was also roughed up in court and warned not to appear on their behalf. Also in Madhya Pradesh, a missionary couple was charged under the state’s anti-conversion law, under which Christians are routinely accused without basis of forced or fraudulent conversion, with police beating the husband in custody before he was released on bail.
The EFI report for December also included threats against the Christian community in Assam, Chhattisgarh, Delhi, Bihar and Punjab states, and attacks on house churches and Christian buildings, including the gutting of a church in Delhi.
Hindu extremists disrupted an interfaith meeting organized at Geeta Bhavan, a Hindu establishment, in Indore on Dec. 28, as they forcibly dragged two Catholic missionaries participating in the meeting to the local police station, according to the EFI. Members of the Hindu extremist Bajrang Dal and Dharma Jagran Manch accused two men identified only as Father Prasad and Brother Sleeva of trying to forcibly convert Hindus.
The Hindu extremists registered a First Information Report against the two missionaries and demanded that police arrest them, but the charges against them were dismissed as frivolous. The next day, Hindu groups performed a purification ceremony at Geeta Bhavan by pouring milk and cow urine on the site where the missionaries had been participating in the interfaith meeting, asserting that it had become impure because of Christmas observance.
The EFI called on the prime minister to assuage fears that the Christian community is experiencing as a result of recent attacks and rhetoric and the pressure of forcible “reconversions.”
“Measures to boost the confidence of the minorities in India will result in much good will for the government and will boost the image of our beloved country globally as a responsible and inclusive nation,” according to the statement.
As the year ended, however, Christians were once again targeted in Madhya Pradesh. While returning back from a year-end prayer meeting on Wednesday (Dec. 31), at Tangri Kheda, near Barwani, pastor Suresh Chauhan and two others were ambushed by at least nine people who cornered them and forced them to stop their motorcycle.
The assailants on three motorcycles were soon joined by others, and they forced Pastor Chauhan and the two others to go with them to a nearby village of Anzad. As soon as they reached the village, the gang beat the three Christians, striking them with clubs, fists and kicks. The attackers told them that Christian converts were damaging society.
They then took them to the Anzad police station, where police beat the Christians – only to tell them later that they beat them for their own protection so as to appease the ire of the assailants, according to Anar Singh, a friend of Pastor Chauhan.
A case was filed against the Christians for alleged conversion by allurement. Local Christians who heard of their plight bailed them out the next day. Police confiscated mobile phones and Bibles belonging to the three Christians.
Courtesy: Morning Star News
Photo: Baptism of a convert to Christianity at an undisclosed viillage in India.
Photo courtesy: Christian Aid Mission
Publication date: January 6, 2015