Ramesh Vasunia, a pastor from Padalva village in Madhya Pradesh’s Jhabua district, has been in jail since December 5, charged with attempting forced religious conversions. His wife and four others have also been arrested on the same charges.

The arrests were ostensibly based on a complaint against the pastor by Moga Vasunia, a resident of the same village. The first information report registered by the police states Moga Vasunia and four others had visited the prayer hall where Pastor Ramesh was conducting a service on December 5. There, the pastor allegedly sprayed holy water on Moga Vasunia. The FIR also claims that the pastor had promised the visitors Rs 1,000 each, a motorcycle and medical facilities if they converted to Christianity.

But Moga Vasunia, the 70-year-old pandit of a Shiva temple in Padalva, now denies making those allegations. “This is wrong. I have never been sprayed with [holy] water or lured with a bike, nor did I visit the prayer hall to convert to Christianity. I did not say all this,” he told Scroll.in.

Ramesh Vasunia’s arrest follows a long siege on the Christian community in Jhabua district, on the border of Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat. For a year now, there have been rallies by Hindutva groups, mostly led by Premsingh Damor, a member of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Adivasi Samaj Sudhar Sangathan. Alleging forced conversions, they demanded that churches in the district be shut down.

In September 2021, the local administration in the Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled state threw its weight behind the Hindutva groups. Acting on Damor’s repeated complaints, it issued notices – to pastors, priests as well as lay Christians – to furnish certain details so that “legal action can be initiated against the persons doing forced conversion”.

Six pastors challenged these notices in the Indore High Court. The matter was heard on December 4 and the court stayed the implementation of the notices till the next hearing. Reacting to the developments in court, the administration withdrew all the notices. However, a day after the hearing, one of the petitioners was arrested under the 2021 Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act on charges of converting people to Christianity through allurement.

That petitioner is Ramesh Vasunia.

Pastor Ramesh Vasunia has been in jail since December 5 and his bail has been rejected twice since. Picture credits: Aishwarya S Iyer

‘We are illiterate’

It was a Hindutva rally on December 5 that paved the way for Pastor Ramesh’s arrest, Moga Vasunia claimed. When the rally reached the pastor’s prayer hall, so did the police, who went on to arrest him, he said.

“They called me to the police station and asked me what happened,” Moga Vasunia said. “So I detailed how people are lured to be Christians in the area.”

He said he told the police the many ways in which people were lured into conversion: money, medical services and coconut oil with substances that instantly relieve pain. “All these are ways to trap them, these are schemes,” Moga Vasunia pronounced, asserting he was not swayed by these temptations.

Effectively, he said he did make a complaint to the police, but it was a general one – not one specifically alleging that he had been lured into conversion.

But Pastor Ramesh’s son, 23-year-old Samuel Vasunia, who works in a bank, alleged Moga Vasunia’s complaint itself was prompted by an old feud with his father. “Why would we invite him to our home when there has been an old rivalry between us?” he asked, sitting outside the prayer hall, built as an extension to the pastor’s home.

Pastor Ramesh's family is waiting for him and his wife to be released. Samuel Vasunia (second from left), who witnessed his father being picked up by the police, believes this is a way to harass the Christians of Jhabua. Picture credit: Aishwarya S Iyer

“This complaint against my father is motivated as he is a no-nonsense person and also petitioned the matter in the High Court,” Samuel Vasunia said. “They do not want Christians to pray in peace.”

He added that Moga Vasunia had complained to the police about his father once before, after kanwariyas – Hindu pilgrims – passing by the prayer hall had allegedly made comments about it and matters got heated. Another time, the two men nearly came to blows after a discussion at a tea stall about carol singing and Navratri escalated into an argument.

But on one matter, Samuel concurred with Moga Vasunia – the 70-year-old priest had never set foot in their prayer hall.

On the left is the prayer hall and on the right is Ramesh's home in Padalva village in Ranapur tehsil. Picture credits: Aishwarya S Iyer

Built on land owned by Ramesh Vasunia, the prayer hall is a simple structure with a cross on top and Christmas stars hanging from the roof. Jhabua district is dotted with such home churches.

According to the FIR, the four other men who visited the prayer hall with Moga Vasunia are Shankar Damor, Bathu Singh Bhabor, Prakash Bhabor and Kailash Damor. Moga Vasunia said he vaguely knew where Shankar Damor lived, but knew nothing about the others.

When asked about the contradictory statement attributed to him in the FIR, Moga Vasunia claimed he had not read it: “We are illiterate. I was called to the police station and I went and shared the information. I do not know what they wrote.”

However, Jhabua Superintendent of Police Ashutosh Gupta claimed, “The complainant came to the police station with a written complaint and, according to the written complaint, legal action has been taken.”

Ramesh Vasunia’s lawyer, Sachin Sisodia, said Moga Vasunia’s denial undermined the police case against the pastor since it no longer met a key condition of the 2021 Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act.

Under the law, a person who intends to convert to a religion other than the one they were born into, needs to submit a declaration to the district magistrate 60 days before, stating that they are doing so of their own free will, “without any force, coercion, undue influence or allurement”. Similarly, any religious priest who organises the conversion must give 60 days’ prior notice to the district magistrate.

The law stipulates that only the person who has been converted could register a complaint against the priest.

Sisodia pointed out that Moga Vasunia had not even been to the prayer hall. Yet, the police made him the complainant, the lawyer reasoned, because among the five people who had been named as conversion targets in the FIR, he was the only one who lived in Padalva village.

Moga Vasunia's temple, about a five minute walk from the prayer hall. (Picture credits: Aishwarya S Iyer)

A skirmish followed by more arrests

Ramesh Vasunia is not the only one to be arrested – four women, including his wife, and a man from Padalva village are also in jail.

Describing the events that led to the arrests, Samuel Vasunia said the local police visited their home church on December 5, told his father they had some questions for him, and took him to the Ranapur police station. “By that time, men on four or five bikes had also arrived,” Samuel Vasunia said. “All these are the men who regularly conduct rallies.”

Pastor Ramesh’s wife, Kumtu Vasunia, and four other worshippers followed him to the police station. “An altercation occurred outside the police station and my mother hit the complainants,” Samuel Vasunia explained. “As a result, all of them were booked, not just my father.”

Since December 5, along with Ramesh Vasunia, his wife Kumtu Vasunia, and the four worshippers, Saju Ben, Sama Ben, Ranga Ben and Adya, have been in Jhabua jail on forced conversion charges.

Their bail application was rejected twice, first by the magistrate who said his was not the right court to grant bail and then by the sessions court. While rejecting bail, the sessions court said that there was sufficient evidence against the accused and that they were likely to influence witnesses if they were released on bail.

The next bail hearing in the case was supposed to be on December 21, but Samuel Vasunia said the hearing did not happen.

One of the many rallies carried out by the Bajrang Dal and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad in Jhabhua. Picture credits: Aishwarya S Iyer

‘Procedural lapses’

While Pastor Ramesh and the others wait for bail, there has been some reprieve for the Christian community in Jhabua district.

The Indore court had stayed the notices issued by the district administration in September, citing a Supreme Court judgment from the 1960s which said, “A person is not liable to answer for the verity of his religious views, and he cannot be questioned as to his religious beliefs by the State or by any other person.”

Three days after the stay, the district administration withdrew the notices altogether.

They had been issued on September 13 in six tehsils of Jhabua district. All of them read the same. If recipients had been converted “using coercion or temptation”, the notices said, they were to report at the tehsil office with documents and put down a written statement. Priests and pastors were to provide documents proving their appointment to the position as well as “documentation related to conversion”. This would be a prelude to legal action against such conversions.

One of the notices issued to announce the immediate withdrawal of the prior notices that asked Christians for details about religious conversion. Picture credits: Aishwarya S Iyer

A circular issued by the district administration on December 8 said the notices issued in September were being withdrawn on the high court’s direction. It added that “all the proceedings under it are aborted at this point”.

When Scroll.in met Jhabua district collector Somesh Mishra, he said the notices had been withdrawn because of the state assistant advocate general had pointed out “procedural mistakes”.

“First, the tehsildar or SDM [sub-divisional magistrate] or tehsildar, who issues the notice, has to take permission from the district magistrate. That was not done,” Mishra explained. “Secondly, the Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act 2021 was not even mentioned in the notices when they were distributed.”

Public notices are required to cite provisions of a relevant law under which information is sought from private citizens. The notices issued in September did not mention the 2021 Act or any other law.

‘Why did they go to court?’

Auxiliary Bishop Paul Muniya, who leads the Protestant Shalom Church in Jhabua district, is still offended. “The administration should never have issued the notices,” said Muniya. “They should have called us. The fact that they issued a notice shows their bias. When law and order [goes] into the hands of these groups then where will we go?”

Despite the withdrawal, there is confusion among the Christian community in Jhabua. Pastors Mangal Singh Vasunia and Ran Singh Bhabor, both of whom were petitioners who challenged the notices, did not know they were being withdrawn from all six tehsils. “This is a relief, but the administration should inform us,” Mangal Singh said.

While the notices were worrying in themselves, there was another detail that had troubled the Christian community in Jhabua. The notices were copied to several government offices, the concerned police stations – and to Premsingh Damor, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad member who had been spearheading the Hindutva rallies all year.

Prem Singh Damor, who wants the administration to make a list of Christians in Jhabua and deny them benefits assured to Scheduled Tribes. Picture credit: Aishwarya S Iyer

“Why should he be part of a government exercise?” asked 25-year-old David Bhuriya, who is Muniya’s assistant. “He is not an official of the government.”

When asked, district collector Mishra said, “Premsingh Damor was issued a copy of the notices as he was the one who brought a complaint to us. He came here, did a meeting, and sent representations to everyone, including the chief minister and prime minister. This should not have happened but this is how it is happening traditionally here.”

Damor’s name has also cropped up elsewhere: on the phone screen of Moga Vasunia’s son, Nagar Vasunia. He had sent a copy of the FIR against Pastor Ramesh filed on December 5. Nagar Vasunia claimed he was not able to read the FIR, either.

Damor is not happy that the pastors filed a petition. “Why did they have to go to court?” he demanded. “Did we threaten them? Was there violence? Did we slap them? No, right? The notices were issued to ask questions. I plan to move a plea in the High Court as well. As long as I am alive, the issue will stay alive.”

For over a year, he has been mobilising protest rallies against Sunday or Friday prayers. According to Bishop Muniya, it started in November 2020. He rattled off a few slogans commonly heard at these rallies: “Isaaiyo ke dalaalo ko, goli maaro salon ko” [let’s shoot the followers of Jesus], “Isaaiyo ke dalaalo ko, jootay maaro salon ko [let’s hit the followers of Jesus with our shoes].

Reservation row

Damor’s efforts did not end with the rallies and shooting off letters to government functionaries, from local officials all the way up to the prime minister. He also made two exhaustive lists of churches, home churches and pastors in Jhabua. The first included 56 names, with addresses, and the second included 70 names. District officials said most names on the lists got notices, including a pastor who had died earlier in the year.

Damor wants the administration to identify who are Christians and who are not. He wants those who have converted to Christianity to be barred from subsidies and reservations for Scheduled Tribes.

This, despite court rulings that say people would not lose their Scheduled Tribe status if they converted, unless it was shown that they had given up tribal customs. Ministers from the central government have also reiterated the point. Members of Scheduled Castes who convert to Christianity or Islam, however, stand to lose reservations and other benefits.

“Once they become Christians, they are no more tribals as they give up the tribal culture,” claimed Damor, who belongs to a Scheduled Tribe himself.

In the recent months, Damor’s demand to have benefits revoked for Scheduled Tribes who convert, has been echoed by BJP members of Parliament. On December 18, the BJP member of Parliament Mitesh Patel demanded an end to reservations for people from Scheduled Tribes who converted. On December 19, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad reiterated it.

Damor said he was backed by both the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal. “They support me because they support my cause,” he said. “I have huge respect for them in their work on the ground to ensure conversions do not happen.”

He claimed the groups helped move the courts and find lawyers as they had networks that people from tribal communities did not.

For now, the rallies have stopped in Jhabua. The administration has imposed Section 144, restricting large gatherings, before the panchayat elections starting in January. Restrictions will remain in place till February 22, when the results are declared.

A rally led by Bajrang Dal members on December 16 against alleged forced religious conversion in Jhabhua. Picture credit: Aishwarya S Iyer

But a glance at Damor’s Facebook profile shows Hindutva groups are not taking a break yet. He has posted memorandums sent by the Bajrang Dal and Vishwa Hindu Parishad to the police. If there is a Christmas fair from December 23-25, the memorandum warns, “then Bajrang Dal will protest and the responsibility for what follows with be on the administration and the state”.

After restrictions are lifted, Damor plans to be back on the streets in full force. “Starting February 23, the movement will restart,” he declared.

This is the first in a two-part series on anti-Christian violence in Madhya Pradesh.