Around 12.40 am on August 31, Father Thomas Poochalli was woken up by the security guard stationed at the church in Punjab’s Takkarpura village.
“He was weeping, he kept saying there was violence and I should run away to save my life,” recounted the 39-year-old Catholic priest. He dashed to the door of his bedroom, which is in the church compound, and made for the main church entrance.
That was when he saw the evidence of the violence – the desecrated idols of Mary and Jesus Christ in the church and his car set ablaze outside. “I had never seen anything like that,” said Poochalli. “I called the police.”
Footage from closed circuit television cameras shows four masked men entering the Infant Jesus Catholic Church in Tarn Taran district, which lies along the border with Pakistan. The men hold a gun to the guard’s head and tie him up before two of them go on to strike at the statues.
This was not the first time church property was attacked. About a month ago, a banner bearing the church’s name had been torn down, again by unknown people. “We gave the police a written complaint, but they took no action,” said a local priest who did not want to be identified.
Tarn Taran Superintendent of Police Vishaljit Singh acknowledged that a written complaint had been submitted at the nearby Patti police station and that no first information report had been registered. “Now, we are probing that link, too, in this case,” he told Scroll.in.
There is, however, an FIR against unknown persons at the Patti police station for the August 31 attack. The accused have been booked for “outraging religious feelings”, “mischief causing damage” and acting together based on a predetermined plan. Vishaljit Singh said they had vital clues to who might be responsible for the attack but no one has been arrested yet. Tarn Taran Senior Superintendent of Police RS Dhillon said they said they had vital clues to who might be responsible for the attack. No one has been arrested yet, Singh said.
Forcing a law?
Politicians across the spectrum in Punjab have condemned the attack – from Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann of the Aam Aadmi Party to the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress. In a tweet on Thursday, Mann said no one should be allowed to “break the brotherhood of Punjab” and directed senior police officials to probe the incident.
Despite the political condemnation, there have been a string of attacks on Christians – or at least attempts to intimidate them – in the last few weeks.
On August 29, there were at least two incidents of violence and intimidation reported in Punjab. In Amritsar district, Nihangs, blue-clad members of a Sikh order of warriors, disrupted a Christian prayer meeting, alleging forced conversion. The Akal Takht – the highest centre of authority in Sikhism – later demanded that the first information report on the incident be withdrawn and the arrested Nihangs be released. In Ludhiana, a pastor was forced to bow to a Hindu idol.
In Patiala on the same day, the neighbours of a pastor complained to the police about him – meetings organised at his home were disturbing the peace, they claimed
Earlier, on July 19, a pastor in Ludhiana was attacked in his car. The FIR registered at a local police station booked the accused for attempt to murder and rioting while armed with deadly weapon.
In many states, such as Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, stringent anti-conversion laws have been used to target Christian communities. Punjab does not have such a law, although there is growing pressure from sections of the Sikh clergy and from Hindutva groups for one.
On August 30, Giani Harpreet Singh, the jathedar, or head, of the Akal Takht had alleged forced conversions in Punjab on a Facebook Live session. “So-called Christian missionaries have been forcibly converting Sikhs by adopting miracle cures and fraudulent practices,” he claimed.
He told The Indian Express that Sikhs had been filing police complaints for the last six months against alleged forced conversions. “It is time to demand an anti-conversion law in the state,” he said.
A village united
Tarn Taran district is no stranger to violence against Christians. In 2020, a pastor and his family were reportedly attacked with swords here. But in Takkarpura village, many are pushing back against anti-Christian rhetoric.
As news of the violence spread, Christians from neighbouring districts poured into Takkarpura and protested on August 31. “Protection must be given to minorities, the police officials must get involved,” said Poochalli, the priest at the Infant Jesus Catholic Church. “All of us have our own faith. All religions must be respected.”
The Infant Jesus Catholic Church was constructed 12 years ago, on the site of an older Christian prayer hall.
The village, located around 30 kilometres from the border, had a population of 2130 people according to the 2011 Census. It now has about 2,500 people, according to local estimates. Local residents also said over 50% are Dalits. Poochalli said about 300 people in the village were Christians – all of them very poor and many from Dalit communities.
The violence this week had come as a shock to the community, Poochalli said. “It is not like someone from the village has had a problem with us,” he said. “I am certain this is not their work.”
Sikh residents of Takkarpura spoke warmly of the Christian community. Sahib Singh, a local social worker, said the church had opened a good school in the village and almost all parents sent their children there. “They are good people,” he said. “All these things about religion are very personal. People convert when they find a connection.”
Satbir Singh, the former village sarpanch, said the education offered by the school had improved the lot of people in Takkarpura. “They are good people who always help people,” he said. “I am not a Christian, but one has to respect them for their religion. These are simple people.”
Aman Kaur, who runs an eatery in the village, said there was a furore in the village as residents were summoned to the police station. “What has happened is wrong and the police must find them [the vandals],” she said. “This cannot go unpunished.”
Residents said the police had also confiscated the phones of some people from the village for investigation. Satbir Singh described Takkarpura as a multi-faith village, with mosques, gurudwaras, temples as well as churches.
Sahib Singh had heard about the demands of the Akal Takht but did not agree with them. “Everyone will have their own opinions, but I have never seen these people force anyone to convert,” he said. “Everyone should be allowed to live the way they want.”