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 


Recent Incidents of Persecution

Karnataka, September 17 (Compass Direct News) – A mob of about 300 people attacked and torched a Christian prayer hall on Sept. 7 in Bada village, Davangere district just after prayers concluded at about 9 a.m., according to the The Hindu. The assailants broke the asbestos ceiling and windows and set fire to material inside, including Bibles, a cross and a pulpit, the daily reported. A pastor identified only as Lukas E., who was at the site of the attack, described the attackers as “locals” but refused to name them. Police have registered a case, though the pastor said he did not wish to file charges against anyone because they were his “own people.” Villagers who accused the pastor of “converting the locals” by luring them with gifts and by “demeaning Hindu gods and religious customs” told the newspaper that the attack was “spontaneous.” A police official told Compass that 10 persons have been taken into custody. The incident occurred even as prohibitory orders were in force for an area within a 200-meter radius of three other prayer halls in Davangere town, which have been under attack since mid-August. The Hindu nationalist Hindu Jagarana Vedike had threatened to forcibly close down these “unauthorized places” if the district administration did not do so by Sept. 6, stated the daily.

Karnataka – Police on Sept. 6 arrested a pastor in Terekere, Chikmagalur district. Dr. Sajan K. George, national president of the Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) said that on Aug. 31 nearly 40 Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) extremists had disrupted Sunday worship of Emmanuel Church and threatened pastor C.S. John, warning him to hold no further Christian worship. On Sept. 6 nearly 25 intolerant Hindus came to Emmanuel Church, shouting anti-Christian slogans and making false conversions allegations against Pastor John. A GCIC representative told Compass that the Hindu extremists forced Pastor John to a local police station and filed a false complaint against him for “malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings,” and insulting a class of people’s religion or religious beliefs. With GCIC intervention, the pastor was released on bail on Sept. 8.

Karnataka – Hindu extremists on Aug. 31 stormed Sharon Church in Holalkere block of Chitradurga district, Karnataka beat the pastor, dragged believers out of Sunday worship and forcibly applied Kumkum red circles on their foreheads. As is customary in India, police were mute spectators. The Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) reported that as pastor N. Kumar had finished preaching, nearly 25 intolerant Hindus led by area extremists identified only as Srinivas, Hanumantha and Basavaraj barged into the church shouting “Jai Bajrangi [Hail Lord Hanuman].” Armed with wooden clubs and saffron flags, the extremists slapped Pastor Kumar and made false accusations of forcible conversions. According to GCIC, the extremists threatened the assembly of around 35 believers that they had to convert to Hinduism or else be smacked with clubs. Grabbing him by his collar, the extremists dragged the pastor outside the church, other frightened believers were made to follow, and kumkum was applied to their foreheads. The believers were warned that they would be tonsured if they worshipped in Sharon Church again. The watching policemen then took Pastor Kumar to Hollakera police station. The GCIC brokered a compromise between the Hindu extremists and the church: Pastor Kumar did not file a complaint, and the extremists agreed not to harass the believers. Kumar was given first aid at Hollakera government hospital for a bleeding ear.

KarnatakaHindutva (Hindu nationalist) extremists on Aug. 31 stormed Full Gospel Church at Sharavati Nagar, Old Hubli, beating a pastor and others and making false allegations of forced conversions. Dr. Sajan K. George, national president of the Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC), reported that as worship was going on a group of nearly 30 extremists led by D. Kabadi, Jagadish Katti Satish and another person barged in shouting Hindu devotional chants, walked up to the dais and slapped and punched the Rev. David Perumal. When pastor Thankaraj Dhansingh rushed to the aid of Perumal, he too was repeatedly hit on his head and back. The Hindu extremists cursed congregants and chased them away. Police arrived and took Rev. Dhansingh and Perumal to the police station, with the intolerant Hindus following shouting anti-Christian slogans. With the GCIC’s intervention, a First Information Report was filed against the extremists, George said. Perumal was admitted to a medical clinic for treatment. At press time no arrests had been made.

Karnataka – About 30 Hindu extremists belonging to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council) on Aug. 24 handed over a pastor and 10 others to the Frazer town police station for preaching the gospel and pressured police to file a case against them in Bangalore. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that the pastor, identified only as Nelson, and the 10 others were preaching and distributing gospel tracts in Doddigunta when the extremists began threatening them and took them to a police station, where they were arrested for “hurting religious sentiments,” statements conducive to public mischief and unlawful assembly. The Christians were released on bail after two days.

Karnataka – Hindu extremists on Aug. 27 disrupted a prayer convention, accused a pastor of forced conversions and beat him in Kala Bhavan, Gadag. The Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) reported that Hindu extremists from the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council) disrupted the two day-prayer meeting held with prior police permission, brutally beat a pastor identified only as Santosh and dragged him to the police station. The extremists forced the pastor to give a written statement saying he would not conduct future prayer meetings or share the gospel with anyone. He was released after he was forced to submit a written statement to police. Again on Aug. 28, the intolerant Hindus threatened the pastor at his house, saying that they would burn him and his family if they did not leave the area within 24 hours. The pastor filed a police complaint. GCIC told Compass that a First Information Report was not filed, and that the two parties reached a compromise.

Karnataka – Police on Aug. 27 arrested a pastor on charges of hurting religious sentiments and “uttering words with intent to insult the religion of any class” after Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) extremists filed a false complaint of forcible conversion against him in Arasikere, Hobli, Davangere. Dr. Sajan K. George of the Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) said that nearly 100 extremists belonging to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Bajrang Dal came by van to the Full Gospel Assembly Church. Pastor K.P. Rajshekar was not at the church building, and the Hindu extremists angrily asked four Christians identified only as Nagappa, Umesh, Yogaraju and Mallesha Naik, about allurements they supposedly received to convert to Christianity. Asha Devi, a GCIC representative, told Compass that the extremists also forced the four believers to the Yellamma Temple, smeared vermillion on their foreheads and made them bow to Hindu idols. “However, they have not renounced Jesus Christ,” Devi told Compass. As is customary in India, police jailed the victims of Hindu extremist aggression. At press time, the GCIC was seeking their release on bail. The extremists had also demanded that the four Christians provide details about the pastor and other families who worshiped there and subsequently went to Pastor Rajshekar’s house, dragged him out and shoved him into the van along with his wife Anapoorna and daughter Geetha. They took them to a police station and filed bogus charges of fraudulent conversion against the pastor and his family.

Karnataka – Police on Aug. 24 detained a pastor after Hindu extremists stormed an evangelistic meeting, attacking the pastor and bringing forth false witnesses to testify against him in Ramalingeshwara Camp, Koppal district. The Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) reported that Pastor Jeeva Prakash of the Bethesda Prayer House was preaching at a gospel meeting in Ramalingeshwara Camp, where nearly 100 believers had congregated, when a mob led by two local extremists identified only as Virupakshappa and Giri of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh barged into the assembly shouting curses. They slapped Prakash and attempted to make him chant “Jai Sri Ram [Hail Lord Rama].” In spite of repeated hitting and punching on his stomach and head, Pastor Praskash staunchly refused to give in, at which point the extremists dragged the pastor and a few others to a police station, the report stated. GCIC regional coordinator Laxminarayan Gowda told Compass, “The extremists brought two persons identified only as Chinnappa and Lakshmamma, who falsely testified that Prakash had promised them money to attend the meeting.” With GCIC intervention, the pastor and believers were released at around 10:45 p.m. without being charged.

Orissa – Evangelist Prem Dan Khora was arrested on Aug. 22 after Hindu extremists belonging to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP) filed false complaints of “forcible” conversion and destruction of idols against him in Dasamantapur, Koraput district. According to the Global Council of Indian Christians, Khora was distributing gospel tracts in the area when Hindu extremists from the VHP were demonstrating against a commission set up to probe the December 2007 anti-Christian violence in Kandhamal district. The extremists snatched the tracts and thrashed him for nearly an hour, leaving him barely conscious. They dragged him to the police station, where he was arrested for “hurting religious sentiments” and trespassing. GCIC told Compass that the whereabouts of the evangelist remained unknown at press time.

Maharashtra – Kashinath Kadale, a tribal Christian laborer, was allegedly beaten and hanged to death by seven anti-Christian assailants from Jamblipada village in Thane district on Aug. 21, the national daily Times of India reported. At midnight the attackers barged into the house and thrashed the couple, with Kadale’s wife Tai escaping and returning hours later only to find her husband hanging from the roof. She filed a complaint with Jawahar police, saying they were sleeping in the house when they were attacked by seven unknown men. The Rev. Sanjiv Andrap, the village pastor, was quoted by Times of India as stating that the reason for the attack was that the villagers opposed Christian families and wanted them to leave the village. Over the last three years, on five occasions villagers had tried to evict the Christian families from the village, the daily reported. But the report stated that Inspector Rajendra Naik of the Jawahar police station said that the allegation made by the deceased’s wife was untrue, that the couple was drunk and “abused” the seven people who were going past their house. According to the police investigation, the seven people had an argument with the couple and later left. Abraham Mathai, vice-chairman of the minority commission told Compass that tribal peoples in the Thane area are constantly vulnerable to attacks from the local Hindu extremists.

Karnataka – Hindu extremists in Chikka Savananoor village, Gadag district on Aug. 20 beat an evangelist, made false accusations of forced conversion, dragged him to the village temple and tied him to a pillar to mock him. The Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) reported that Nagaraj Yellappa Limbuji, a private tutor who worships in Shalom Prayer Hall, was en route to work when a group of nearly 20 intolerant Hindus stopped him on the road and made false allegations of forcible conversions. The extremists slapped Limbuji before taking him to the village temple and tying him to one of the temple pillars. The GCIC’s Sajan K. George told Compass that the extremists kept him tied to the pillar for nearly one and a half hours, continuously mocking and cursing him. “One of the believers in the village informed the police, who arrived and set him free,” George said. “Limbuji has refused to register a complaint as he has forgiven the extremists.”

Andhra PradeshHindutva (Hindu nationalist) extremists belonging to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh on Aug. 17 demolished the half-built Jesus Prayer House Church building in Uppal hills, Hyderabad. The Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) reported that nearly 20 extremists led by Shekar Reddy marched towards the church structure under construction and, armed with iron rods, began harassing pastor David Raj, who was supervising construction. They made false accusations of forced conversion. Reddy also claimed that the land belonged to Hindus and that Christians had no right to worship or construct a church in the area. The intolerant Hindus shoved Raj to the ground and began demolishing the church building. Lion Francis, regional GCIC coordinator, told Compass that Pastor Raj filed a complaint at Uppal police station, but at press time no arrests had been made.

Uttarakhand – Six Christian workers and a Bible college student were beaten by a group of Hindu fanatics on India’s Independence day, Aug. 15, reports The Persecution Times. The mob became enraged after they saw Bible college student Rasul Sarvak passing out gospel literature with a team of other students from the college. When the mob attacked, the other students were able to escape, but Sarvak, the youngest in the team, was captured and beaten as the intolerant Hindus tried without success to force him to deny his faith in Jesus. “You are trying to make our country a Christian nation,” they yelled at him. They dragged Sarvak to the police station, where officers placed him in custody to protect him from the furious mob. Four Gospel for Asia (GFA) workers arrived at the police station for Sarvak’s release, but the fanatics stopped them outside and beat them at length in the presence of police. Two more GFA workers drove up to the police station and were also brutally attacked, with one of them suffering a severe eye injury. The mob vandalized the GFA vehicle and threw it in a ditch. They then turned to the vehicle used by the first group of GFA workers and tried to burn it, but police at last stopped them. The Hindu extremists left, and police transported Sarvak and the six GFA workers to another station to keep them safe. There, some local Christians came and filed paperwork, and the group was released.

Report from Compass Direct News