Hostilities Flare in BJP-Run Madhya Pradesh, India

Anti-Christian violence, efforts to tarnish church increase in past five years.

NEW DELHI, October 14 (CDN) — Since the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in Madhya Pradesh in December 2003, Christians in the state have suffered increased attacks and concerted efforts to tarnish their image, church leaders said.

Before the BJP took office the state recorded two or three attacks against Christians per year, they said, whereas Jabalpur Archbishop Gerald Almeida said that in the past five years 65 baseless charges of forceful conversion – commonly accompanied by mob violence – have been registered in his diocese alone.

“There are some groups who are closely monitoring the Christian movement, and these people are bent on creating problems for the Christians for the past five years,” Almeida told Compass.

The state is not able to control these groups, he added. Indeed, police routinely working with Hindu extremist groups filed an average of more than three unsubstantiated complaints of “coerced” conversions each month in the past five years, according to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Madhya Pradesh (see sidebar below).

In the first eight months of this year, Madhya Pradesh saw the third highest number of attacks against Christians and Christian institutions in the country with 11, behind Karnataka with 43 and Andhra Pradesh with 14, according to Christian advocacy organizations.

The Rev. Anand Muttungal, spokesman for the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Madhya Pradesh, said growing attacks on Christians were a symptom of fear among Hindu extremists that the Catholic Church’s influence is spreading.

“The Church as an organization is doing very well in many fields,” Muttungal said. “It causes those fundamentalists to worry. It could be one of the main reasons for the continuous attacks on Christians.”

Madhya Pradesh has a Christian population of 170,381, only 0.3 percent of the total in the state, according to the 2001 census. The state’s history of religious intolerance runs deep, with an “anti-conversion” law passed in 1968 that has serves as a pretext for harassing Christians.

Igniting anti-Christian violence shortly after the BJP came to power was an incident in Jhabua district, where the body of a 9-year-old girl called Sujata was found in one of the Christian schools on Jan. 11, 2004. Although a non-Christian confessed to the crime, Hindu extremists used the event to justify various attacks against the Christian community.

Abuses became so rampant in 2005 and 2006 that the National Commission for Minorities (NCM) sent a fact-finding team to Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh in June 2006. Investigators found that Hindu extremists had frequently invoked the state’s anti-conversion law as a means to incite mobs against Christians and to get Christians arrested without evidence.

Jabalpur Archbishop Almeida cited cases chronicled by the NCM such as the arrest under the anti-conversion law of two local women who were merely distributing gospel tracts in March 2006. Almeida also cited the NCM report on the jailing of four pastors in January 2006 for alleged “forceful conversion” after Hindu extremists from the Bajrang Dal dragged them to a Hindu temple and forced them to deny Christ.

Catholic Church records show that in 2007, a 70-year-old woman identified only as Mrs. Godwin was arrested along with another woman on charges of forceful conversion; they too were only distributing religious literature, a right they had under the nation’s constitution.

Christian leaders said one aim of such abuses of the state’s anti-conversion law is to tarnish the image of Christians by showing them as lawbreakers. Hate propaganda and spurious allegations against Christians continue unabated in the state, church leaders said.

The customary practice in India and especially in Madhya Pradesh, they said, is for Hindu extremists to raise false allegations on the slimmest of pretexts and get police to make hurried arrests.

Political Machinery

After the NCM report in 2006 first documented the violence, the Madhya Pradesh political machinery’s influence became evident when State Minorities Commission Chairman Anwar Mohammed Khan asserted that reports of Hindu extremists attacking Christians in the state were “baseless.”

Khan told Frontline magazine that extremists had not targeted Christians. The magazine also quoted state Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan as saying the BJP government was greatly concerned about “unethical conversions” – presumably of Hindus to Christianity.

The magazine criticized the state Minorities Commission for speaking “the same language as the Bajrang Dal and the state chief minister,” thereby failing its mandate to defend minorities.

This year the commission tried to increase state control over church activities, unofficially recommending that the government enact a law to set up a board to manage church properties such as schools, colleges, hospitals and charities. The Christian community strongly protested, and the state withdrew the proposal.

Leo Cornelio, archbishop of Bhopal, said the Minorities Commission recommendation “shows beyond doubt that it is disloyal to minorities” and “loyal to the government,” according to the Indian Catholic.

The battle over state control of church properties is not over. Muttungal told Compass that the Minorities Commission has started to collect details of church properties through the Education Department. It is certain, he said, that this will lead to a legal battle involving the Education Department, Minorities Commission and the Catholic Church.


Police Collusion Seen in ‘Forced Conversion’ Complaints

NEW DELHI, October 14 (Compass Direct News) – Hindu extremist groups in collusion with the state police filed an average of more than three baseless complaints of “coerced” conversions per month in the past five years – shortly after the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power – according to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Madhya Pradesh.

“I have gathered information from all the districts of the state, according to which the number of [forced or fraudulent] conversion complaints against Christians in the last five years is over 180,” the Rev. Anand Muttungal, spokesman for the state’s Catholic body, told Compass.

Muttungal said he asked the Madhya Pradesh State Crime Records Bureau, a body under the state interior ministry that monitors criminal complaints, about the number of forced conversion complaints in the last five years, and the state agency put the number wrongly at fewer than 35.

Muttungal also said most of the complaints were filed by third parties – not the supposed “victims” – who were unable to produce any unlawfully converted people to support their allegations. He added that the complainants were mainly members of the Hindu extremist Bajrang Dal, youth wing of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP).

“In Jabalpur, the complaints were lodged mainly by the Hindu Dharam Sena [Hindu Religion Army],” he said.

Most recently, the leader of the Hindu Dharam Sena on Sept. 27 got police to interrogate, without cause, a Catholic group traveling through Jabalpur. The Rev. Anto Mundamany of the Carmelite of Mary Immaculate order said the inspector-in-charge of the Civil Lines police station and four other policemen came to the Carmel Niketan center, where the group had stopped for dinner. Police interrogated him and the 45 Catholic visitors about their religious identity, he said, to determine whether the visitors were Hindus whom the priests and nuns at the center might be forcibly trying to convert.

Journalists accompanied the police, and the following day local newspapers reported on the incident, portraying the Christians as inherently suspect.

“Although the police left after making sure that all the participants who had arrived for an inter-parish tour were Christians, the newspapers made no mention of that fact,” Mundamany said.

The local daily Dainik Bhaskar reported that Yogesh Agarwal, head of the Hindu Dharam Sena, had informed police about a supposed “conversion plot” by the Catholic order.

“There can be little doubt that the police are party to this disturbing trend,” Muttungal said.

The incidence of anti-Christian attacks is the highest in the state in Jabalpur – local Christians say the city witnessed at least three attacks every month until recently, mainly by Agarwal and his cohorts. Although numerous criminal complaints are pending against Agarwal, he remains at large.

A Christian requesting anonymity said police officers personally act on his complaints against Christian workers.

A June 2006 report by the National Commission for Minorities (NCM) found that Hindu nationalist groups in Madhya Pradesh had frequently invoked the state’s anti-conversion law as a pretext to incite mobs against Christians. The NCM report also pointed at police collusion in the attacks.

“The life of Christians has become miserable at the hands of miscreants in connivance with the police,” the NCM said in its report. “There are allegations that when atrocities were committed on Christians, the police remained mere spectators, and in certain cases they did not even register their complaints.”

The NCM is an independent body created by Parliament in 1993 to monitor and safeguard the rights of minorities.

Muttungal said the Catholic Bishops’ Conference would approach the state high court with the facts it has gathered to prove police involvement in complaints against Christians.

Most complaints against Christians are registered under Section 3 of the Madhya Pradesh “Freedom of Religion Act” of 1968, popularly known as an anti-conversion law. The section states, “No person shall convert or attempt to convert, either directly or otherwise, any person from one religious faith to another by the use of force or by inducement or by any fraudulent means nor shall any person abet any such conversion.”

Offenses under the anti-conversion law are “cognizable,” meaning police are empowered to register a complaint, investigate and arrest for up to 24 hours, without a warrant, anyone accused of forced conversion.

Police also use Sections 153A and 295A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) to arrest Christians. Section 153A refers to “promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion and doing acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony.” Section 295A concerns “deliberate and malicious acts to outrage religious feelings.” These IPC crimes are also cognizable.

Report from Compass Direct News 


Recent Incidents of Persecution

Madhya Pradesh, July 31 (Compass Direct News) – As if conversion were illegal in India, nearly 50 Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP or World Hindu Council) and Bajrang Dal activists on Sunday (July 26) stormed the compound of the Assembly of God Bethel Church in Habibganj, Bhopal, accusing Christians of converting people. The Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) reported that pastor K.A. George and a guest pastor were about to baptize a woman and her daughter when the extremists entered the church premises shouting “Jai Shri Ram [Victory to Lord Ram].” The Indian Express reported that Superintendent of Police R.S. Mishra stated that Hindu extremists Devendra Rawat, Kamlesh Thakur and others charged that conversions were taking place; church secretary Abraham George filed a counter-complaint that the VHP and Bajrang Dal disrupted the Sunday service. The VHP and Bajrang Dal extremists also accused the church of “allurement” in the conversion of the woman’s daughter, but a GCIC regional coordinator told Compass that the woman and her daughter have been worshipping there for many years and stated that they desired to receive baptism of their own free will. At press time, police were investigating the complaints of both the parties.

Madhya Pradesh – On Sunday (July 26) about 40 Hindu extremists from the Dharam Sena (Hindu Religious Army) attacked the Sneh Sadan (Home of Love) Institute run by Christians in Japalpur. A source reported that at about 12:30 a.m. the Hindu extremists shouting anti-Christian slogans tried to enter the institute for the handicapped run by the Methodist Church. Prior to the attack, the extremists filed a police complaint against the home manager, Lily Paul, for alleged forceful conversion. The police reached the premises before the extremists did major harm. Police took written statements about the institute from Paul and promised to carry out an inquiry. “Sneh Sadan is the abode of about 40 special people, and the incident has left us shaken,” Paul said. Police provided protection for the home.

Karnataka – Hindu extremists on Sunday (July 26) attacked a prayer meeting of St. Thomas Evangelical Church in Hassan, beat the pastor and destroyed church furniture. The extremists filed a complaint against pastor Basanth Kumar of forceful conversion and handed the church’s Bibles and hymnbooks to police, reported the Global Council of Indian Christians. Officers registered a case of forceful conversion against the pastor and released him on the condition that he would present himself whenever summoned. The next day at about 6 p.m., the police summoned the pastor and arrested him for “abetment of a thing.” He was released on bail on Tuesday (July 28) with the help of local Christian leaders.

Andhra Pradesh – Hindu medical students at Gandhi Medical College under the influence of Hindu extremists from the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP or World Hindu council) on July 23 beat a professor and filed a complaint with the college principal accusing three faculty members of forceful conversion in Musheerabad. A source reported that the extremists had the Hindu medical students submit a letter to the principal charging that Prof. Anthony David, Dr. Sudhakar and Dr. Uday Kumar were forcibly converting people to Christianity. The principal called for a meeting, and about 100 Hindu extremists gathered at the college. The principal informed the extremists that the college would form a committee to investigate, and the panel reported that no religious conversions took place on the college premises. The extremists crowded around Sudharkar and Kumar, angrily questioning them, and after they left two unidentified extremists followed the third professor, David, to his room and beat him. The professor sustained minor injuries. Tension prevails on the college campus, a source said.

Tamil Nadu – Hindu extremists on July 22 assaulted a Christian media team and accused them of forceful conversion in Erode. The All India Christian Council reported that the intolerant Hindus attacked 10 members of the Young Men’s Evangelical Fellowship, South Division, while they were distributing gospel tracts. They seized and burned all literature, damaged their vehicle, kicked and beat the Christians and took them to a Hindu temple, where they were forced to lie down and pay homage to idols. An unidentified local Christian alerted the police, who came to the site and freed the Christians. One of the team members received hospital treatment, and the rest were provided first aid.

Karnataka – The Karnataka High Court on July 20 continued a stay order against demolition of the Indian Apostle Church (IAC) building in Channagiri, Davangere district, according to The Hindu. Area Christians had challenged the demolition order and charged that the district administration had taken several anti-Christian measures, including ordering the church demolition. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that previously police had disrupted the church’s Sunday worship service and closed the IAC, claiming that it had opened with an illegal license; officers issued arrest warrants against two pastors and seven Christians in Ajihalli village, Davanagere. Earlier, on May 29, the village head along with Hindu extremists had disrupted a prayer meeting led by pastor Prem Prasanth as the church building was being dedicated. The pastor told them he had obtained permission from the village head, but the chief denied issuing a license to the Christians. On June 25, the village head sent a notice to Pastor Prasanth cancelling the license for the church building. On July 7, police disrupted the worship service and closed the church. Later, when Pastor Prasanth and other Christians went to Channagiri police station to inform officials that they had obtained the license from the village head, officers filed false charges against them for rioting and voluntarily causing hurt.

Haryana – Hindu extremists from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on July 19 attacked a children’s educational center in Ambala, beating Christian staff members and ordering everyone to vacate the premises. A source reported that BJP Hindu extremists attacked pastor Daniel Kamaraj and his staff, who are running a free educational program under Children Compassion Ministry. The five Christian staff members sustained minor injuries. The intolerant Hindus accused pastor Kamaraj of forceful conversion and forced him to leave. The pastor went to the police station the next day, where officers told him to vacate the building as soon as possible. At press time the learning center had been relocated to the pastor’s home.

Andhra Pradesh – Police arrested a Christian woman identified only as Hemavathy on charges of “proselytization” on July 19 in Tirupati. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that the arrests were made on the basis of the complaint filed by a medical officer from Shri Venkateswara Ayurvedic College-Hospital, who accused her of distributing religious pamphlets on hospital premises. Area leaders from the Hindu extremist Bharatiya Janata Party staged a protest in front of the police station demanding action be taken against Hemavathy. The Hindu reported that Circle Inspector V. Subhannna said action would be taken in accordance with Government Order No.747, which prohibits “proselytization in and around Hindu temples and institutions.” The Christian woman was released on bail on July 21 at 6 p.m.

Karnataka – A mob of about 20 Hindu hardliners on July 19 attacked a prayer meeting and accused Christians of forceful conversion in Pillingiri, Shimago. At about 7 p.m. a pastor identified only as Chinnadurai was leading a prayer meeting at the home of a member of his Pentecostal Mission church when the intolerant Hindus stormed in and threatened and assaulted the Christians, reported the Evangelical Fellowship of India. The Hindu extremists filed a police complaint of forceful conversion and pressured officers to arrest the Christians. Police arrested the Christians for “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class” and unlawful assembly. The Christians were released the next day.

Andhra Pradesh – Police on July 19 arrested Pastor Devadass of Manna Church after Hindu extremists from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh beat him and accused him of distributing gospel tracts on Hindu temple premises. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that about 10 extremists assaulted the pastor as he was returning from a Sunday worship meeting. They dragged him to a police station and accused him of distributing gospel tracts at the Rajarajeshwar Hindu temple in Vemulawada. Officers detained him for a couple of hours, releasing him on the condition that he return to the station the next day, when they took a written statement from him. On July 24 police arrested the pastor in his home for “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class.” The pastor remained in Karimnagar district jail at press time.

Manipur – Village leaders in Huikap this month tried to decree that no corpses of Christians will be allowed to be buried in the village. The All Indian Christian Council reported that the unconstitutional order came after a 2-year-old boy from a Christian family drowned in a village pond on July 19; the body of the boy was buried in a church plot, but the next day anti-Christian villagers forced the father of the child and the pastor of a church to disinter it. Village authorities later agreed to let the boy’s body remain at the graveyard on the condition that the corpses of minor children be buried according to Hindu custom. This order was also unconstitutional, and Northeast Support Centre and Helpline spokesman Madhu Chandra told Compass that area police officials had issued an order to the Hindu village leaders to refrain from enforcing it. At press time calm had returned to the area.

Karnataka – Police on July 18 arrested four Christian workers in Bangalore after Hindu extremists dragged them out of a house, beat them mercilessly and charged them with forceful conversion in Bangalore. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that Hindu extremists attacked Madan Kumar, Amar Singh, Munendra Kollar and James Wesley while they were praying in a Christian’s home. The Christians were reported to have previously distributed gospel tracts and pamphlets. At 8:30 p.m. the Christians were taken to Gnanabharathi police station and arrested for “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class” and actions contrary to national integration. They were released on bail the next day.

Karnataka – Hindu extremists beat a pastor and accused him and his wife of forceful conversion on July 10 in Chitradurga. The Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI) reported that at about 10 a.m. the Hindu extremists, led by H.R. Kallesh, stormed the tea stall of a woman identified only as Sharada, wife of a pastor identified only as Nagaraj, and questioned her about her faith. The extremists verbally abused her, threatened to burn her alive and asked her how much money her family had received to convert to Christianity. They took her to a police station to file charges against her, also accusing her and her husband of forceful conversion. On hearing about the incident, the pastor rushed to the police station, where the extremists repeatedly struck him upon his arrival while officers stood by watching, according to EFI. The pastor also filed a complaint against the attackers. No arrests had been made at press time.

Karnataka – Police issued arrest warrants against pastor Godwin Nicholas and Charles Ravi Kumar on the basis of a complaint filed by Hindu extremists against them of forceful conversion and bribery in Hassan. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that the Hindu extremist Sangh Parivar filed a police complaint on July 10 in Arsikere police station falsely accusing Pastor Nicholas and Ravi Kumar of forceful conversion and offering people money to convert to Christianity. A First Information Report was registered against the Christians and arrest warrants were issued, but they were granted bail on July 13.

Gujarat – Suspected Hindu extremists on July 6 attacked a Christian school in Dahod. The Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI) reported that authorities of St. Stephen High School requested some female students with henna designs on their arms to wash them off in accordance with school rules. The parents of one unidentified student reported the matter to the Hindu extremists. The following day, the extremists barged into the school and asked authorities why the girls were asked to wash off the henna designs. Unable to listen in their fury, they started beating the principal and desecrated Christian statues at the school. EFI reported that the school remained closed the following day as a sign of protest against the incident, and area Christians wore black badges. The school filed a police complaint, but no arrests had been made at press time.

Andhra Pradesh – Hindu extremists from the Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad (All India Student’s Council), formed under the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, on July 1 attacked St. Agnes School in Mahaboobnagar. Reacting to the punishment for disturbing class of a Hindu student identified only as Keerthi, the Hindu extremists along with the student’s brother attacked the Christian school shouting, “Jai shri Ram [Praise Lord Ram].” They destroyed furniture and other fixtures and threatened to harm school authorities. Both parties filed a police complaint. No arrests had been made at press time.

Chhattisgarh – Hindu extremists from the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP or World Hindu Council) and Bajrang Dal (Youth Wing of the VHP) put up three signboards in Bastar in July sternly warning Christians not to preach in the area. The signboards, placed at three different sites, read, “Preaching about Jesus Christ is strictly prohibited in the area.” The signs include pictures of Hindu deities along with names of the extremists groups. Most of the churches in Bastar, which borders the troubled district of Kandhamal, Orissa state, were closed down as the Hindu extremists continually threatened tribal Christians there.

Report from Compass Direct News