With the Bharatiya Janata Party pushing for a national anti-conversion law, it might be instructive to see how existing state laws are used (or not). Last week, Scroll reported on a ghar wapsi event in Gujarat’s Valsad district where Vishwa Hindu Parishad activists announced to the media that they had converted 400-500 Christian tribals to Hinduism. Under Gujarat’s law, those holding or participating in religious conversion ceremonies must seek permission from the district authorities. No permission was sought by the VHP and yet the policemen present at the event felt no need to act against the organisers.

In stark contrast is the neighbouring state of Madhya Pradesh, where in the last two weeks, at least three cases have been registered by the police under the state’s anti-conversion law – all against Christians. Scroll travelled to the state and investigated two of them.

The case in Ratlam

On the outskirts of Ratlam, amidst wheat fields, next to a slum, stands the Emmanuel Mission School run by pastor Jose Mathew. Home to poor workers and beggars, the slum looks like the perfect catchment area for any evangelising mission. But the people in the slum complained that the “private” school did not admit their children. As for the pastor, “we would happily attend the prayers if he came and asked us to,” said Pappu Maharaj, a middle-aged man who sat heating his hands over a bonfire, “but he does not.”

Born and raised in Kerala, 49-year-old Jose Mathew came to Madhya Pradesh in 1990. For the last seven years, he and his wife, Ruby Jose, have been at the helm of the school established with the support of Emmanuel Ministries, which calls itself a Christian humanitarian organisation and is headquartered in Kota, Rajasthan.

Mathew is also the head of the United Christian Council in Ratlam. In that capacity, he said he helped the Indian Pentecostal Church organise a two-day spiritual meeting on December 11-12. He found them a venue – the Lion’s Club hall in the centre of the town – and took permissions from local authorities. A week before the meeting, pamphlets were distributed at local churches announcing the “Ratlam Christian Spiritual Conference”.

The meeting was publicised through pamphlets.

On the morning of December 11, people started pouring in. Many came from nearby villages. “A large number of tribal people work in Ratlam as labourers,” said Mathew. “They must have heard there is a prayer meeting, they must have spread the word.” His wife, Ruby, added, “The poor people must have thought khana bhi milega, bimaari bhi changa hoga” (we will get food and we will also be cured of our ailments).

People came of their own volition, Mathew emphasised, no one went to the villages to call them. “Jesus said if anyone comes, you feed them,” he said. “So we cooked for them. They slept in the hall at night. It was an open meeting. Anyone could attend.”

On the second day, in the afternoon, Mathew was translating from English to Hindi the sermon of a senior priest who had come from Bhopal, when the sub-divisional magistrate of Ratlam arrived with the police. A crowd had gathered outside the hall. Media teams had begun to make their way inside. The magistrate took him aside and requested him to call off the meeting. “He said he understands we are not doing anything wrong, but there is a Muslim festival going on in Jawra [a nearby village]. ‘Our entire police force is stationed there,’ he said. ‘We can’t take a risk.’” Those attending the meeting dispersed. Mathew and the other preachers were escorted to a safe place by the police.

A week later, Mathew was heading back from a meeting in Kota, four hours from Ratlam, when he started getting calls from his friends. “They said TV channels are saying that a case has been filed against Jose Mathew.” A reporter dropped by his house and spoke with his wife. The next morning, when he picked up the local newspaper from his doorstep, he felt disoriented as he read, “Pastor Mathew farar” (Pastor Mathew has gone missing).

Jose Mathew outside the Emmanuel Mission School

RSS and friends

Unbeknownst to Mathew, not far from the Lion’s Club hall was the office of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. “Our swayamsevaks were passing by,” said Dr Ratnadeep Nigam, the regional head of the publicity wing of the RSS, “and they noticed that our vanvasi brothers were gathering at the hall. They wondered what sort of programme was this, a government programme or what, until they saw the board which raised doubts that conversions were taking place here. We checked with our brothers who work in vanvasi areas and they confirmed that people had been called for a changai sabha (faith healing meeting). As soon as we got the information, we reached the spot and invited the media. Once the media came, the police and administration followed. As the media began to interview people inside, it was proven that what was taking place inside was indeed religious conversion.”

A local journalist, who was accompanying Nigam when he came to meet me, pointed me to the video testimonies he had uploaded on YouTube.

The videos

Offered as clinching evidence for religious conversion, the videos turned out to be testimonies of what happens when poor people are deprived of access to healthcare.

This old woman said she had come to the meeting because her stomach ached and despite praying to all Hindu gods and goddesses, she did not feel better. Reporters asked her who had borne her travel expenses.  “Who will pay?” she shot back. “I came on my own to feel better.”

This old man speaks of how he was always short of breath and how prayer helped. He categorically states that no one brought him to the meeting, he came on his own will.

This young man says he had turned mad and even a visit to the paagalkhana did not help. Then, his mother took him to a prayer meeting and after he prayed to Jesus, he felt better. Reporters harangued him to admit that he gave up worshipping Hindu gods after turning to Christ, disregarding his assertion that his change of heart had taken place long before the meeting, as many as four or five years ago. 

In another video, the reporters interrogate a visibly frightened young man on whether he keeps an image of Ram at home. When he says he does, they ask, “If they give you a photo [of Christ], will you put it up?”

Of all the videos, only one contains an accusation that the organisers of the event offered jobs to entice people to pray to Christ. But this video is markedly different from the others: it has been recorded outside the hall, while the others have been recorded inside. Not only does the young man speak fluent Hindi, he displays a self-assurance missing in the other witnesses, and has nothing to say about why he had come to the meeting.

“It is common for the Hindutva organisations to plant false witnesses,” said Ashutosh Awasthi, the lawyer defending Jose Mathew. In 2008, the police had filed a similar case against a pastor and his wife under the anti-conversion law. “The witnesses did not show up in court during the trial and the case ended in an acquittal,” said Awasthi. “Their only aim is to create sensation.”

The superintendent of police in Ratlam, Dr Ashis, does not deny that the videos made by the media influenced his final decision to register an FIR. “If I come to another conclusion,” he said, “and media has some other evidence which they go on displaying, it becomes very difficult for us to give an answer.”

But does the statement of one person claiming that he was offered a job amount to evidence for allurement to change religion?

“No, the other witnesses too said that they were told that if they prayed, they would feel better,” he said. “The act defines allurement as gift or gratification in cash or kind.”

By that yardstick, couldn’t all preachers on television be booked for allurement, I asked.

“No, only when someone is alluring people from X religion to come to Y religion does it come under the act,” he said. “Basic issue is prima facie, this is sufficient ground for me to register a FIR. Not registering one when there is an existing act and I have this evidence on record would amount to not performing my legal duties properly.”

Different standards

The alacrity shown by Madhya Pradesh police in acting against a Christian preacher who has refuted the charge of religious conversion stands in sharp contrast with the reluctance shown by Gujarat police in acting against the activists of Vishwa Hindu Parishad who openly proclaimed that they had converted people.

Christian activists have long maintained that the anti-conversion law is a political instrument designed to terrorise them. But in reality, the law has not been used frequently in Madhya Pradesh. The recent spurt in cases, said James Chacko, a member of the Congress state committee, is aimed to buttress the case for a national law. “Book so many cases fatafat that Hindus say, yaar kitna gadbad kar rahe hai, and the government can push through the bill.”

Ratnadeep Nigam, the RSS spokesperson, had another view on the newfound responsiveness of the state police. “There was a similar case in 2004 at the time of the Manmohan Singh government, action replay as they say in cricket, but the police did not act because a call came from Delhi. But now there is no one in Delhi to call and interfere…”

But it is not just Hindutva organisations that are at the forefront of cases against Christians in Madhya Pradesh. In Khandwa district, a BJP leader and the husband of the local MLA, Naval Singh Borkar, took the lead in demanding that the police book a case under the anti-conversion law against a group of Christians. Among those who spent five nights in jail in the case were four women and three children, one of them just eight months old.

The case in Khandwa

Forty kilometres from the town of Khandwa, a narrow road branches off the highway into undulating, barren hills, ending near a dam. Four decades ago, the people of a nomadic community called beldars were brought here to build the dam. They went on to stay, settling into a village called Sukta dam colony.

In this colony, on December 26, an old man called Shyamlal invited people of his community for a feast. “I had taken a mannat for my grandson’s recovery,” he said. “If he gets better, I had said I would sacrifice a goat and feed the priests in a dawaat.” Since the vow was taken in a church in Pune in neighbouring Maharashtra where Shyamlal and his family worked in a sugarcane factory, the old man reasoned the priests would have to be Christian. Through a chain of contacts, he sent an invite to Karunakar, a preacher with the Friends of Missionary Prayer Band, who lived in the town of Dhulkote, about 15 km away.

It was Christmas time. Karunakar, a native of Odisha, was busy hosting friends from Gujarat and Tamil Nadu. His wife, Gitanjali, suggested they take them along to Shyamlal’s house. “We thought we could give them a taste of local culture,” said Gitanjali, “and the children could enjoy a picnic at the dam.” Of the three children, Gitanjali’s daughter, Abhilasha, was the youngest – just eight months old.

When they arrived in the village, Shyamlal and his family garlanded them, presenting saris to the women and shawls to the men. “We were watching the village women make maize rotis,” said Gitanjali, “when some men arrived and started taking our pictures. They began making calls, saying ‘Come fast, the pastors are distributing saris in the village.’”

Realising that they were being ambushed by Hindutva activists, Karunakar and his friends tried to escape, seeking refuge in another hut. But a large crowd gathered and started pelting stones at the hut. “Thankfully, the police arrived soon.”

The feast had been organised outside Shyamlal’s hut.

In the police station, the group tried to explain that they were not the distributors but the recipients of the saris. But the local BJP leader Naval Singh arrived in with his supporters, demanding strict action against them. Eventually, the police charged them under section 295 A for insulting the religious sentiments of local people but in interviews to the press, the officer-in-charge PS Maravi maintained there was no evidence to show religious conversions had taken place.

That night, the shawls and saris that had brought them trouble, came to their help. “We used the saris as sheets to sleep on,” said Gitanjali, “and the shawls to keep the children warm.”

Flawed justice

The next day, the group appeared in front of a local magistrate. He refused them bail, showing no mercy even to the women who had pleaded that they be let out for the sake of their children. In his order, he noted that most of them were not locals and had come from far “to hurt the religious sentiments of people”, which showed the “seriousness of the crime”. On December 31, a judge granted them bail but added a charge under the anti-conversion law.

So what was the evidence that the police and lower judiciary had relied on? “We recorded the statements of two complainants, Mukesh More and Jaswant,” said P S Maravi, the police officer-in-charge. The judicial order summarises their testimony: “The accused gave them chocolate type of food, garlanded them and told them that Hindu gods and goddesses are demons, stop worshipping them, you have come to the protection of Jesus, you have become Christians.”

As it turns out, neither of the two complainants live in Sukta dam colony. In the village, the sarpanch, Gajaraj Singh, told me that people from outside had come and disrupted what was nothing but a thanksgiving feast.

But the most striking evidence in the case are the photographs that Gitanjali took in the village before the feast was disrupted. The images show village women presenting sarees to Gitanjali and her friends. And contrary to what the complaint alleges, it isn’t purported village converts who have been garlanded, but young children, one of whom came close to spending her first new year day in jail.

Gitanjali and her daughter, Abhilasha, accept garlands and a sari.

Zeephora, a guest from Gujarat, is presented a sari.

Jeevaratna, another guest, wearing a shawl presented in the village.

Rachel from Gujarat and Anjali from Tamil Nadu.