Massive ‘Reconversion’ Event in India Aimed at Christians


Hard-line cleric leads campaign in Maharashtra, ideological capital of Hindu nationalism.

MUMBAI, India, October 27 (CDN) — Hundreds of tribal Christians and adherents of aboriginal religion from villages in Maharashtra state were reportedly “reconverted” to Hinduism yesterday in the Mumbai suburb of Thane at a ceremony led by a Hindu nationalist cleric.

Swami Narendra Maharaj’s goal was to “reconvert” 6,000 Christians in the so-called purification ceremony, reported The Hindustan Times, which put the number of “reconversions” at around 800. Hindu nationalists believe all Indians are born Hindu and therefore regard acceptance of Hinduism by those practicing other religions as “reconversion.”

Maharaj, a Hindu cleric known for opposing proclamation of Christ, has allegedly led anti-Christian attacks in tribal regions. On March 15, 2008, his men reportedly attacked two Catholic nuns, Sister Marceline and Sister Philomena, from the non-profit Jeevan Jyoti Kendra (Light of Life Center) in Sahanughati, near Mumbai.

The attack took place in a camp to educate tribal women on HIV/AIDS, which also provided information on government welfare programs, according to Indo-Asian News Service. The assault in Sahanughati, Alibaug district was followed by a mass “reconversion” ceremony in the area on April 27, 2008, said Ram Puniyani, a well-known civil rights activist in Mumbai.

Rightwing Hindu groups are mostly active in tribal areas. Hindu nationalists attack Christians in tribal areas because they provide social and development services, regarded as competition by rightwing Hindus seeking to woo tribal voters, said Anwar Rajan, secretary of the People’s Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL) in Maharashtra’s Pune city.

Kandhamal district in the eastern state of Orissa, where a massive spate of anti-Christian attacks took place in August-September 2008, is also a tribal-majority area. At least 100 Christians were killed, 4,600 houses and churches were burned, and over 50,000 people were rendered homeless in the violence.

Sociologists maintain that India’s tribal peoples are not Hindus but practice their own ethnic faiths. Hindu nationalists run Ekal Vidyalayas (one-teacher schools) in tribal regions to “Hinduize” local villagers and repel conversions to other faiths. These schools are operating in over 27,000 villages of India.

Dubious Claims

An anonymous spokesman of Maharaj said the plan for yesterday’s event was to “reconvert” 6,000 Christians to achieve the larger goal of “bringing back” 100,000 Christians, according to the Press Trust of India (PTI) news agency.

The rightwing spokesman in Maharashtra, a western state where Hindu nationalism originated decades ago, claimed that Maharaj and his followers had overseen the conversion of more than 94,000 Christians “back to their original faith” and plan to complete the target of 100,000 in the next two years.

Maharaj, whose followers call him Jagat Guru (Guru of the World), told PTI that those who “reconverted” were not coerced.

“We are not having a religious conversion here – it’s a process of purification,” Maharaj was quoted as saying. “We taught them the precepts of the Hindu religion, and they decided to convert to Hinduism on their own after repentance. They were not forced.”

Many reports of “reconversions,” however, have been found to be false.

In 2007, Hindi-language daily Punjab Kesari reported that four Christian families in Nahan town, in the northern state of Himachal Pradesh, had “reconverted” to Hinduism. But a fact-finding team of the All India Christian Council revealed that none of the members of those families had ever converted to Christianity.

The Hindustan Times reported yesterday’s ceremony included rituals involving cow’s milk, seeking forgiveness from ancestors, installation of idols of the Hindu gods Ganesh and Vishnu, and an offering ritual performed by priests from Ayodhya, in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. Ayodhya is believed to be the birthplace of the Hindu god Rama.

Home of Hindu Nationalism

The basic philosophy of Hindu nationalism was expounded by Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, popularly known as Veer Savarkar, in 1923 through the publishing of a pamphlet, “Hindutva: Who is a Hindu?” Savarkar, who is from Maharashtra, argued that only those who have their ancestors from India as well as consider India as their holy land should have full citizenship rights.

A follower of Savarkar, Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar, also from Maharashtra, further developed the Hindu nationalist philosophy through a book, “A Bunch of Thoughts,” in 1966. He claimed superiority of Hinduism over other religions and cultures of the world.

“In this land, Hindus have been the owners, Parsis and Jews the guests, and Muslims and Christians the dacoits [bandits],” he said.

The emergence of Hindu nationalist ideology from Maharashtra came in reaction to the politics of social justice by Dr. Bhim Rao Ambedkar and Mahatma (Jyotirao) Phule, said Irfan Engineer, director of the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies in Mumbai and an expert on religious conflicts. Phule led a mass movement of emancipation of lower castes, mainly Shudras and Ati-Shudras or Dalits, in the 1870s. Ambedkar, known as the architect of the Indian Constitution, began movements against “untouchability” in the 1920s.

Also born in Maharashtra was the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteer Corps, or RSS), India’s most influential Hindu nationalist conglomerate. It was founded in 1925 in Nagpur by Dr. K.B. Hedgewar.

Hindu society has traditionally had four castes or social classes, namely Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra. While Shudras belong to the lowest caste, Dalits were formerly known as “untouchables” because the priestly Brahmin class considered them to be outside the confines of the caste system.

During British colonial rule in the Indian subcontinent between 1858 and 1947, sections of the Brahmins felt the British were sympathetic towards the Dalit reformist movement, said Engineer of the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. Mahars, Maharashtra’s largest Dalit people group, have been very organized and powerful since then.

The PUCL’s Rajan said that the Brahmins have long portrayed minorities as enemies of Hinduism.

“Since the Dalit reformist movement is essentially against the Brahmin hegemony, the Brahmins had to react and get organized,” Rajan said. “As a part of their strategy to weaken the reformist movement, Brahmins projected minorities as the ‘real’ enemies of all Hindus, including Dalits and other lower castes, diverting attention away from the atrocities they meted out on them.”

Most of the founding leaders of Hindu nationalism, including Savarkar, Hedgewar and Golwalkar, were Brahmins. Since communal troubles benefited Hindu nationalists politically, the use of divisive issues became routine for them, Rajan added.

After two successive defeats of the Bharatiya Janata Party, political wing of the RSS, in general elections in 2004 and 2009, differences between the moderate and extremist sections within the Hindu nationalist movement – which blame each other for the party’s downfall – have deepened to unprecedented levels.

In frustration, the extremists have accelerated their activities, especially in Maharashtra, the ideological capital, said Dr. Suresh Khairnar, a well-known civil activist from Nagpur.

Report from Compass Direct News 

INDIA: RECENT INCIDENTS OF PERSECUTION


Madhya Pradesh, July 10 (Compass Direct News) – About 50 Hindu extremists from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Bajrang Dal ( Youth Wing of the World Hindu Council) chanting, “Jai Shri Ram [Praise lord Ram]” barged into Beersheba Church and attacked pastor Kuldeep Daniel, his family and church on June 14 in Ratlam. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that the extremists beat, punched and kicked the pastor, his wife, two children and brother and also verbally abused them. They also destroyed church musical instruments and took the pastor’s books and his brother cell phone. The couple suffered minor injuries. The pastor filed a police complaint at Alkapuri police station, but no arrests had been made at press time.

Karnataka – Police on June 12 detained Christians on a false complaint of conversion by allurement at Renuka Lodge, Athishaya Colony, Krishnaraja Sagar. The Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) reported that a Church of Christ house church pastor, K. Nagaraj, had organized a fasting and prayer service on June 9-12 in which many pastors and other Christians had gathered. At 11 a.m. a Hindu extremist from the area identified only as Vaiaramudi led a mob of around 20 people into the lodge, making baseless allegations of bribing people to convert to Christianity. The extremists beat the Christians and took them to the police station, where they registered the complaint. Police allowed the injured Christians to obtain medical treatment but detained Pastor Nagaraj and his wife, Anusuya. With the intervention of GCIC, the couple was released at 11:45 p.m. without charges.

Andhra Pradesh – Police on June 7 arrested pastor David Raju on a baseless complaint of forceful conversion from Hindu extremists in Hyderabad. According to the Evangelical Fellowship of India, Pastor Raju was invited by local Christians in Mangalagiri to preach in their church. Upon his arrival, about 20 extremists gathered and began beating the pastor, accusing him of forceful conversion and distributing gospel tracts. The Hindu hardliners later dragged the pastor to a local police station, where he was detained for about eight hours. With help from local Christian leaders, the accused reached an agreement with the Hindu extremists in which the pastor was given permission to continue Christian meetings in the area and the Christians forgave the extremists.

Karnataka – Police on June 7 disrupted a Sunday worship service and closed an Apostolic Church in Davanagere, claiming that the church had an illegal license. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that the village head and Hindu extremists had interrupted a prayer meeting conducted by pastor Prem Prasanth on May 29 and questioned him about permits for constructing a church building there. The pastor told them that he obtained the necessary permission from the village head, to which the official denied giving Christians any such permission, saying they were engaged in forcible conversion efforts. On May 31, the pastor received a notice cancelling the church license. Police subsequently disrupted the following Sunday worship meeting, ordering Christians to leave and locking up the church. The pastor appealed to police, who told him to take the matter up in the court. The church remained shut down at press time.

Assam – Hindu extremists from the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council) on May 31 vandalized a Baptist church in Jorhat and threatened two Christian girls, 16-year-old Moromi Gogoi and Monica Gogoi, 18, daughters of a pastor who was arrested on May 8 by Assam police on false charges of forcible conversion. The Hindu hardliners also demanded 5,000 rupees (US$100) from the girls. A source reported that about 10 intolerant Hindus entered the church premises and broke the church’s fence, walls, windows and doors, and they had threatened the two girls several times via mobile phone to stop their ministry or face dire consequence. Assam Valley Baptist Mission (AVBM) leaders took the matter to officials, refusing to meet the demands. An AVBM representative told Compass that calm had returned to the area as news spread that police were following up the matter.

Andhra Pradesh – Police detained Christians after Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) extremists falsely accused them of forcible conversion. The Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) reported that pastor S. David of Yesu Prarthana Mandiram (Jesus Christ Prayer House), in Shad Nagar, Mahaboob Nagar district, organized a Vacation Bible School on May 25-31 for nearly 75 children in Kammadanam village, Mahaboob Nagar district. On May 28, as two Christians identified only Narasimhalu and Ramesh were conducting classes, local extremists from the Hindu extremist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Vishwa Hindu Parishad arrived and accused the Christians of forcibly converting village children. The extremists filed a complaint at Shad Nagar police station against Pastor David, Narasimhalu and Ramesh. Jey Prakash, GCIC regional coordinator, told Compass that police held the Christians until evening and released them without charges, but the Vacation Bible School was stopped immediately.

Madhya Pradesh – About 10 Hindu extremists from the Hindu extremist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh attacked pastor Ramesh Mandevey, leaving him unconscious on May 24 in Dewas. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that about 10 Hindu hardliners stopped the pastor as he was on his way back from visiting a Christian’s home and assaulted him. Sustaining internal injuries, the pastor was hospitalized in a local hospital. Local Christian leaders filed a police complaint at Dewas police station, but no arrests have been made.

Assam – Police on May 8 arrested and beat pastor Tarun Gogoi for alleged forceful conversion, suspicion of having links with Naga rebel militants and receiving donations from them for construction of their church building in Jorhat, Guwahati. The Hindustan Times reported that the pastor was accused of carrying out religious conversions – which are legal in India – with the help of tribal Naga underground groups, and the administration ordered him to temporarily stop construction work on their church building. Hindu extremists had filed a complaint against the pastor of luring local people to Christianity by offering cash and gifts-in-kind. Area church leaders denied any involvement with underground groups and forceful conversions, and they demanded legal action from authorities against officers who mistreated Pastor Gogoi. The pastor was released on May 9 after church intervention. Temsu Wathi, president of Assam Valley Baptist Mission, told Compass that after an inquiry, local officials said there was no evidence of forceful conversion and allowed the Christians to resume the church construction.

Tamil Nadu – Hindu extremists in Krishnagiri attacked pastor Paul Chinnaswamy on May 6, seriously injuring him. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that the intolerant Hindus assaulted Pastor Chinnaswamy near his church. Kicking and punching him, they struck his chest and jaw and broke two of his teeth. Local Christians rushed to the scene and took him to a nearby hospital. The pastor filed a police complaint at Uddinapally, and officers took the pastor to three areas to identify the attackers, but he was unable to identify anyone. No arrests had been made at press time.

Report from Compass Direct News