Prem Singh Damor claimed he “left his job in the Army” in 2019. But the 36-year-old was evasive about the details of his Army career. “There are secrets of the Army that are even connected to my life – you can just write that I was in the Army,” said Damor, holding court in his house in Kalidevi village in Madhya Pradesh’s Jhabua district on December 15.
For over a year now, Damor has been the face of anti-Christian mobilisations in Jhabua district, organising rallies and shooting off letters to government functionaries. In September, it was at his urging that the Jhabua district administration issued notices to clergymen and lay Christians to furnish details about their conversion to Christianity. Most of those who were served notices featured on exhaustive lists drawn up by Damor.
The notices were meant to prepare ground for legal action against those responsible for alleged forced conversions. But they were withdrawn after the Madhya Pradesh High Court stayed them on December 4. A day after the court hearing, however, one of the petitioners in the case, a pastor from Jhabua district, was arrested.
Enraged that the petitions had been challenged in court, Damor vowed to continue his “movement” against religious conversions. In a conversation with Scroll.in in his sprawling home, he claimed that conversions were a conspiracy to extinguish Adivasi culture.
“We were never Christians or Muslims to begin with,” said Damor, who belongs to the Bhil Adivasi community himself. With every conversion, he claimed, “the culture gets damaged. Then you will see later that there are no Adivasi people left here.”
According to Damor, the motive behind these conversions was clear: “They want to end all the benefits and securities we are granted under Schedule Five of the Constitution.”
This is a false claim, as Christians in the district have been at pains to point out. “We are not ending the Adivasi community and its culture,” protested Father Rockey Shah, public relations officer of the Catholic Diocese in Jhabua. “We are going out of our way to preserve it by including it in our traditions.”
Christians in Madhya Pradesh say they find themselves increasingly besieged over the last year, shortly after the Bharatiya Janata Party returned to power in the state in March 2020. The Adivasi community has long been riven over the question of religious conversions. Now, a government that has become explicit in its Hindutva assertions has weaponised the old discord.
First, it passed a stringent anti-conversion law in January 2021. Jhabua district has seen a string of arrests under the law this December – most of the accused are clergymen, charged with attempting conversion through fraudulent means.
Second, the government has lent institutional weight to mobilisations such as those led by Damor. His growing clout in Jhabua district is visible in ways big and small – for instance, he sent a police escort to guide this reporter to his house.
A local police official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, clarified that Damor had been in the Central Industrial Security Force and not in the army, but admitted he had “considerable influence” in the area. He attributed this to Damor being a member of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, an affiliate of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the ideological parent of the BJP.
But Damor’s career in political mobilisation started even before he joined the Hindutva group about a year ago. His journey from Adivasi activist to Hindutva campaigner reflects the complex roots of Madhya Pradesh’s anti-Christian crackdown.
‘Why are we being hunted here?’
Damor, who has a bachelor’s degree in political science and a masters in sociology from Jhabua’s Azaad College, said he gave up his job in the armed forces to continue the legacy of his father, who died in 2019.
Baba Khumsinghji Maharaj, as his father was known in Jhabua district, had been a locally revered activist who agitated against alcoholism and superstition in the Adivasi community. To continue this work, Damor took charge of the organisation founded by his father and named it the Adivasi Samaj Sudhar Sangathan in 2019.
Alcohol, Damor argued, is behind most violent conflicts within the Adivasi community. “The same tools that are used on the land then would be used to kill each other,” he said. “Families kill each other over the control of land.”
But soon after he took charge of the Adivasi organisation, Damor found himself drawn to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. Damor said he was impressed by their work on “ghar wapsi” – the Hindutva project to draw people who had converted to other religions back into the Hindu fold.
“Ghar wapsi” is necessary, Damor claimed, because “Schedule Five says that there can be no conversion in protected areas for Scheduled Tribes.”
That claim is false.
The Fifth Schedule of the Indian Constitution lays out specific rights and protections for Scheduled Tribes and Scheduled Areas in most parts of the country. It is aimed at preserving tribal culture and autonomy in Scheduled Areas and ensuring social justice. In 2004, the Supreme Court ruled that an individual who converted to another religion would not lose his Scheduled Tribe status unless he gave up tribal customs.
But Damor insisted conversions are an onslaught on Adivasi culture. “The government reserves forests for tiger conservation – can you hunt a tiger there?” he demanded. “Similarly, the government has reserved land for Scheduled Tribes here. So why are we being hunted here?”
If anyone did convert, Damor said, it should be under the procedure laid down by the new anti-conversion law, which goes by the name of the Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act. Apart from longer jail sentences for alleged forced conversions, the new law stipulates that those who convert must give 60 days’ notice to the district magistrate.
“Then the magistrate will ask queries, the district magistrate is sitting here to protect the culture of the people,” Damor elaborated. “The administration should let everyone know who is a Christian. So we can decide if we should speak to them, interact with them or not. Otherwise how will we be able to protect Adivasi people?”
Violence returns to Jhabua
Christians in Jhabua district recall violence against the community in 2004, during Bharatiya Janata Party leader Uma Bharti’s brief stint as chief minister of Madhya Pradesh. The rape and murder of a nine-year-old girl in a local Christian school had brought on a violent backlash from Hindutva mobs.
“The homes of Christians were burnt, people were beaten up and our property was looted,” said 40-year-old pastor Ran Singh Bhabhor, who belongs to the Bhil community in Jhabua.
David Bhuriya, who works with the Protestant Shalom Church in Jhabua, recalled a church newly built by his father that was broken down in 2004.
Rockey Shah of the Catholic Diocese of Jhabua said a Hindu man had confessed to raping and murdering the nine-year-old girl but no action was taken against the Hindutva mobs that went on the rampage afterwards.
For about 15 years after that, there was relative calm. In his first three terms, Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan projected himself as a moderate face of the BJP. That changed when he became chief minister again in March 2020, after being dislodged for 15 months by the Congress’s Kamal Nath.
AC Michael, national convenor of the United Christian Forum, said the BJP government returned to power with an agenda to polarise Adivasi communities in the state. “There was an understanding that the BJP had lost power in the state because the tribals were not voting for them,” he said. “So ever since they returned to power in 2020, they have been aggressively trying to woo the tribal vote back” by polarising the community along religious lines, he alleged.
According to pastors in Jhabua, the current spate of ant-Christian mobilisations began in November 2020, when a Hindutva mob attacked a local prayer hall. “The police reached the spot and ensured protection for us then,” said Bhabhor.
But what was taken to be an isolated incident turned into a routine, with rallies every month.
On July 27, there was a massive rally in Kalyanpura, about three kilometres from the prayer hall run by Bhabhor. Since then, Bhabhor said, prayer services have been cut short. “I do not allow anyone to stay for too long. When people congregate to pray, the mob raises false allegations against us,” Bhabhor said.
‘Pressured to withdraw complaints’
According to clergymen, officials of the district administration had failed to provide the Christian community with adequate protection.
“See, we won’t deny that they have provided security initially,” said Auxiliary Bishop Paul Muniya, who heads the Protestant Shalom Church in Jhabua district. But there had been no action against hateful content posted by Hindutva groups online, even though church members had complained repeatedly, he added.
Several times, Muniya said, they had tried to go to police to file a complaint against Hindutva mobs but were “pressured and asked to leave the police station instead”.
Muniya shared letters that have been addressed to and received by the Jhabhua district collector and superintendent of police between September and November.
In a letter from September, seen by Scroll.in, Muniya alleges that Adivasi groups had been targeting Christians with fake cases and threats. “We named Prem Singh Damor and said that a case should be registered against him. We also attached a video of him making objectionable threats in this complaint.”
Letters from November, also seen by Scroll.in, say that complaints made by Church groups were not being investigated and that the station house officers of the Kalyanpura and Patol police stations had pressured them to take their complaints back. “I also write how they were being threatened with false cases,” Muniya pointed out.
Both Jhabua district collector Somesh Mishra and Superintendent of Police Ashutosh Gupta claimed they had received no complaints from Church groups. “When we receive a complaint in writing we will take action,” said Gupta.
Scroll.in asked Mishra why the district administration had not acted of its own accord against hateful online content and threatening slogans by Hindutva mobs. “I will take a look at it,” he replied.
Muniya said the strategy of Hindutva mobs had changed over the course of the year. It started with rallies and slogans, then moved to writing complaints to the administration. Now, he said, members of the mob had started claiming they were part of the congregation and had been forced to convert. Since November 10, at least three FIRs filed under Madhya Pradesh’s new anti-conversion law follow this script.
This steady stream of harassment, apparently supported by the local administration, has led to fears around the new law in the Christian community. Informing the district administration about conversion plans, they feel, would only endanger their life and religious freedoms further.
Despite the pressures, all the pastors that Scroll.in spoke to said they did not want to reconvert to Hinduism. “We were all issued notices from the administration,” said 43-year-old Mangal Singh Vasunia, who lives in Jhabua’s Chalakya village, adding that his family supported his prayer meetings. “We will not leave our religion or this area. There is unity here within the Christian community and we support each other.”
‘Respected in society’
Most Christians in Jhabua felt their lives improved after they converted. Bhabhor found solace in the Church after a series of family tragedies.
“There were evil spirits in my home,” he said. “All the cattle would die of diseases. Two of my younger brothers died, my elder brother’s wife died, his daughter also died. We did black magic, got medicines, visited gods and goddesses, but nothing happened. Eventually my father went to a local church with my sister, then I went there. Since that day no one has died at home. This was in 2001.”
Most others said converting to Christianity brought social and economic stability, leading them out of lives of petty crime and alcoholism. Titiya Vasuniya, a pastor from Amipathar villagein Jhabhua, fished out a picture of himself from 10 years ago. “This is how I looked,” he said, holding up the picture, which shows his emaciated younger self. “I used to drink all the time, steal from people to survive and keep getting into fights.”
He continued: “I was unwell for five years. I could not work, I used to feel a burning sensation all over my body. I would keep pouring water over myself for hours. Only then would I get any sleep. The doctor also said I had only two years to live.”
After “trying everything else”, he went to a prayer hall. Here, he found he was able to sit on a chair for hours without any pain. It paved the way for a new life.
When this reporter met him, Titiya Vasuniya was dressed in a crisp pink shirt and brown trousers, with a belt and formal shoes. “Today I am respected in society,” he said. He is a full-time pastor these days, having given up drinking and adopting more healthy habits.
Mangal Singh Vasunia had a similar story – he had been an alcoholic, involved in petty thievery to make ends meet, and unwell for about eight years. “I would have a headache for 24 hours,” he said. “I would keep crying. I went to one doctor after another, took all the medicines but did not get better.”
He said he went to ojhas, practitioners of black magic, offered alcohol and sacrificed chickens as well as goats, as is the Bhil custom, visited temples and dargahs, but nothing seemed to help.
“Doctors would tell me that I had no disease. I decided to have poison and die,” he recalled. Then he was advised to pray to Jesus. “Days later, all my pain disappeared,” Vasunia said. “This happened in 1989. Today I am doing well and so is my family.”
‘This breeds insecurity’
Like the Adivasi group that Damor had formed, the Church also advocated against drinking alcohol. Over time, many of those initiated into the Church and its activities would spend less money on alcohol and more time at home. “There is more money at home, there is food at home, among other things,” explained 25-year-old David Bhuriya.
There are other ways in which the Church networks have paved the way to better opportunities. Church groups help get the children of those who converted into Christian schools. They also create awareness about welfare schemes and programmes such as those launched under the Right to Education Act of 2009. Under the Act, all children aged between six and 14 are to get free and compulsory education in government schools. Private schools are required to offer at least 25% of their seats to children from economically weaker sections and disadvantaged groups without charging a fee.
“We create awareness about these schemes as people do not know, and as a result the kids get an education,” said Muniya.
The relative prosperity and education among Christians in Jhabua has created resentments among those who have not converted. “They think that we are doing well. This breeds insecurity as a complex develops,” Bhuriya explained.
It is not just about social status. Economic interests are also at stake, said a lawyer in Jhabua district who is arguing in one of the cases filed under the new Freedom of Religion law.
“See, all this is driven by money,” he said. “The local shop owners selling coconuts and oil – things used in Adivasi traditions – feel that their customers are dwindling so they get angry. The local people who sell alcohol feel that fewer people are frequenting their shops. So they start harbouring a grudge against those who convert.”
Resentments against those who converted often started with such shop owners. As Shah put it, “Before the tribals turn against the Church, the market does.”
In the local temples, priests worry that footfalls may decrease. Take Moga Vasunia, a pandit at a Shiva temple in Padalva village, who has been able to build a bigger temple over decades by collecting money from village residents. He now complains that people go to the prayer halls instead of his temple. “They go there and give money, the poor people are manipulated into giving money,” he claimed. “Over the years, fewer and fewer people are coming to my temple.”
As reported earlier, Moga Vasunia was purportedly the complainant in the police case against one of the petitioners challenging the Jhabua administration’s notices to Christians. Pastor Ramesh, the petitioner, was booked under the new Freedom of Religion law and arrested on the basis of the complaint. Vasunia has since denied making the allegations featured in the complaint. Ramesh has been in jail since December 5, refused bail twice.
Prem Singh Damor echoed the 70-year-old pandit: “Adivasi people generally give money and other things to our deities, but the Church people say that they should not come here and give them money instead.”
The old and the new
While Damor claims conversions had eroded Adivasi culture, pastors claim otherwise. “If not drinking, being a thief like I used to be is changing my culture then I am,” said Titiya Vaaniya. But they also point to the many other Adivasi rituals that had been absorbed into the local Christian practice.
Chickens and goats are still sacrificed. The Bible is in Bhili, the local Adivasi language. Songs are sung and prayers are also said in Bhili.
“We follow the ceremony of nukta – a feast that is given to all the friends and relatives of the deceased,” explained Rockey Shah. Traditional wedding rituals have also continued, he said. “The elders of the family conduct the marriage, pheras [turns around a ritual fire] also take place, and yes, the addition is that the priest gives his blessings.”
He also explained how Christians still followed the Adivasi custom of jatar – where the new harvest is offered at temples and prayers are said before it is taken home. “Nieces and nephews are called and given the first bite of the [food cooked from the] harvest. This is a tribal custom,” he said.