Sometime in 1996, the redoubtable Giriraj Kishore, a prominent leader of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, and his colleagues in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh announced that they would make Banswara district in Rajasthan free of Christians by 2000 AD. Isai mukt, as he said.

Banswara, south of Udaipur, is an important staging area for the Bhil tribe-dominated region at the tri-junction of the states of Gujarat, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. The Bhils once formed the army of the legendary Rana Pratap of Udaipur in his fights with fellow Rajput chieftains and the battalions of Mughal emperor Akbar. A homogenous ethnic and cultural group, they have long been talking of a separate state, on the pattern of Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh.

Kishore’s call almost went unnoticed, recorded for posterity by local newspapers and an emerging Christian human rights group.

This was three years before Australian Christian missionary Graham Stuart Staines and his young sons Timothy and Philip were burnt alive by a mob led by another Sangh activist, Dara Singh of the Bajrang Dal, as they slept in their jeep in a forest in faraway Manouharpur in Odisha. Their lynching shocked the western world. The Bajrang Dal, the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, which is the Sangh’s tribal affairs wing, and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh came under the spotlight. The period also saw a round of dialogue between the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Catholic Bishops Conference. The Sangh delegation was led by its general secretary, Kuppahalli Sudershan, now dead, and a man called Narendrabhai Damodardas Modi, his junior associate.

Nothing came of that meeting other than both Sudershan and Modi berating the Catholic bishops for not giving up on converting people to Christianity.

Giriraj Kishore could not purge Banswara of its Christian population, which seems to be thriving as became apparent in two tours of the region in the last two years.

But the Sangh seems committed to continue the mission given it in the Bunch of Thoughts, one of its founding texts. In the manifesto, its author Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar identified three major “Internal Threats – I: The Muslims; II: The Christians; III: The Communists”. A long chapter impugns the patriotism of these groups, speaking darkly of their “future aggressive designs on our country”, as The Hindu noted in a cover story in its Sunday magazine.

Purification and ghar wapsi

The Shudhikaran (purification) movement to abolish untouchability and bring non-Hindus to Hinduism – a precursor to ghar wapsi (homecoming) – was launched at the turn of the 20th century by Swami Dayanand, but the Arya Samaj leader would not have imagined the shape it would take when given a heavy dose of nationalism by Golwalkar.

Under Golwalkar’s successors, the Sangh has called for a national law against religious conversions. This subtly targets Christians as it is believed that Muslims do not proselytise – even if they are accused of radicalising youth – but Christians work assiduously among Dalits and indigenous people, focusing on the tribal and forest belt from Gujarat to Jharkhand. This area is rather comprehensively covered by a bunch of anti-conversion laws, ironically called Freedom of Religion Acts. Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Gujarat have these Acts in the statute books. So do Arunachal Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh in the northern hills.

The Sangh placed some of its best missionaries to counter Christians in these areas: Aseemanand in the Dangs in Gujarat, Lakshmananda Sarasvati in Kandhamal in Odisha, and a local princeling, Dilip Singh Judeo of Jashpur, in Chhattisgarh. Sarasvati was shot dead by Maoists in 2008, and Aseemanand was in jail on charges of conspiracy and murder in connection with terrorism cases but was released a fortnight ago.

Judeo, who died in 2013, was the first one to organise a “ghar wapsi” or homecoming of people in the villages of his fiefdom, washing their feet and garlanding them after purification rites performed under the watchful eyes of his private army.

A member of Parliament, he towered over most people by a foot or more, and was a colourful person, flaunting a waxed moustache, fond of books on parakeets and love birds, and sworn to eject missionaries from his kingdom and bring back all those who had become Christians. Many, apparently, were persuaded by his troops to do a ghar wapsi, but there was no blatant mass violence.

Aseemanand and Lakshmananda had no such qualms. Aseemanand is said to have masterminded the destruction of about three dozen village prayer houses on Christmas eve of 1998. Lakshmananda and his men were also involved in Christmas-eve violence in 2007 in Bamanigaon, a village in Odisha’s Kandhamal. Many houses were destroyed, a few men killed, women molested and possibly raped, and the emerging businesses of Christians wiped out.

Eight months later, Lakshmananda was shot dead in the bathroom of his ashram by a group of Maoists. In the aftermath of his death, mobs aroused by the funeral oration of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s Praveen Togadia and a horde of Sangh leaders from Gujarat and other states unleashed violence that devastated the district. Even official records speak of over 50 deaths, at least two women raped, one of them a Catholic nun, about 6,000 houses and 300 churches burnt, and 60,000 or more displaced, some living in forests for months, and about 30,000 sheltered in government camps.

There are still Christians in Kandhamal despite the attempted cleansing. Over 15,000 gathered to celebrate at a church some months ago. But Christmas and Easter are observed under the shadow of guns of platoons of armed police. Justice, or the lack of it, is another matter.

There are still Christians in Odisha's Kandhamal after the targeted violence in 2007 and 2008. (Photo credit: Reuters)

RSS campaign in Jharkhand

Compared to the Dangs, Kandhamal and Jashpur, what happened in Jharkhand on April 7 – when 53 Christian families living in the villages of Sindri panchayat “returned to the Hindu fold” – seems to be a puny effort. It is not known what faith these people followed before they became Christians.

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh has taken credit for the “homecoming”, calling it the beginning of its crusade to make Arki a “Christianity-free” block. In an add-on to its campaign, the Sangh sanyojak (organiser) there, Laxman Singh Munda, has said they are also taking back control of the region’s mineral wealth, which has been “hijacked by Christian missionaries” in years past. Munda is also the Bharatiya Janata Party deputy president of the state’s Khunti district.

The Shuddhikarans, purification drives and ghar wapsi do not bother the Church too much. Church leaders, especially of the evangelical and Pentecostal groups, are convinced that personalised prayer groups, or healing ministries, are creating a body of people who may not be formally Christians in the Census department’s definition of the religion, but who are eager to hear the message of Jesus Christ.

What does worry them is the impunity with which groups opposed to Christians act. Christian rights groups, including the Evangelical Fellowship of India, have often accused the police and administration of turning a blind eye to coercion and incidents of violence, if not actually colluding with the Sangh activists. The states that are impacted – Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand – are ruled by the BJP, and it was a powerful member of the ruling Biju Janata Dal-led coalition when Kandhamal exploded in targeted violence. The region may never be Isai-mukt, but the threat of violence continues to loom over the Church.