The golden wheat fields of Daudhali village were still enveloped in darkness, as were the mango trees that ringed St Andrew’s Church. The white building glowed in the dim light of bulbs. It was not yet 5 am on Sunday, but Yuhanna Adam was already in the thick of an early Easter service.
“We owe our faith to the doubt of Thomas,” said the 48-year-old pastor, as he strode across the pulpit, narrating the biblical story of how Jesus Christ rose from the dead and quelled the doubts of Saint Thomas by asking him to touch his wounds. Adam’s pitch rose in cascades, before it abruptly dropped – as the story ended, he said, rousingly, “Hallelujah”.
“Hallelujah” responded the congregation with gusto.
About 70 men, women and children squatted on the floor of the church located in Maharajganj, an Uttar Pradesh district that borders Bihar and Nepal. Among them was Basant Lal, a school teacher who had cycled 12 km to get here, railway porters Shiv Kumari and her husband Ram Lochan who had travelled by train, and college student Khushboo and her family who had come on motorcycles from the nearby town of Siswa Bazaar.
Yet attendance was thin – about ten days before, the police had barged into a Friday service on the complaint of the Hindu Yuva Vahini, an organisation founded by Adityanath, the member of Parliament for the area who took oath as the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh less than a month ago. The police went away without finding anything amiss, but leaving many church-goers too terrified to come back.
“They say mashihat came to India with the British,” Adam told the congregation. “They are wrong.” He went on to declare that the religion had landed in South India with Christ’s disciple, Thomas, just under 2,000 years ago. Outside, light had begun to break through the inky blue sky. Adam continued: “History tells us that if Christians are disturbed, Christianity does not shrink, it grows…”
A mid-morning call
On April 7, around 10.30 in the morning, station officer Anand Kumar Gupta got a call from his boss, Maharajganj’s superintendent of police. “He told me he has been informed – he did not say by whom – that foreigners have come to the Daudhali church and were converting people by force.”
When Gupta arrived at the church with policemen, he found journalists were already waiting at the campus gate. So were activists of the Hindu Yuva Vahini led by the district coordinator, a stocky man in his thirties, Krishnandan Puri, better known as Pappu Puri.
As Gupta stepped into the church, a large congregation of about 150 people were singing hymns led by Adam. Sitting on chairs by the side were a few white people – one was standing at the altar, playing the mouth organ. Gupta stopped the prayer service and asked everyone to step out.
The documents of nine foreign nationals were checked – seven men were US citizens, two women were from Ukraine. One was not carrying her passport. She said she had left it behind in a hotel room in Delhi, but managed to get a copy on email soon. All the foreigners had tourist visas and had arrived in India at different times. Their guide, a man called Devraj Gowda, told the police that he had brought them to Daudhali that morning because they were interested in seeing old churches.
The police also noted down the names and addresses of the Indians attending the service. Uttar Pradesh does not have an anti-conversion law on the lines of other states that have legislated against religious conversions by “fraud, allurement, inducement”. But flipping through an old tattered book on the Indian Penal Code at the police station, Gupta explained the police can easily act against forcible conversions under Section 295A of the IPC, which relates to offending religious sentiments.
But there was no such evidence in Daudhali, he said. “Everybody told us they had come of their free will,” said Gupta. “Not a single person said they were being converted.”
The only objectionable fact was that the pastor had not informed the police of the presence of foreign visitors, he said. Under the law, the Indian host of foreign visitors must inform local authorities within 24 hours of their arrival. A notice was issued to Adam by the office of the police superintendent.
In his response, Adam said the foreigners had arrived in a tourist bus on the morning of April 7 itself. “When prayers are taking place in the church, anyone who has faith is free to join,” he said. “At such a time, I cannot ask for a copy of their passports or identity documents…If the foreigners had stayed for the night, I would have definitely informed you…”
Usha Devi and her daughter were in the church when the police arrived. Devi had wrapped up the day’s cooking before coming to church. Her husband was the cashier of a bank in Siswa Bazaar, the main town abutting Daudhali. Her son, 19-year-old Rahul, and her daughter, 17-year-old Kajal, were enrolled in college. That day, Rahul was caught up with exams. Kajal had come for the service with her mother and a group of neighbours.
For five hours, they were held captive on the campus.
“Whatever the police asked, we answered,” said Kajal. She told them her family had started coming to the church three years ago. A cousin was tormented by a dusht atma or evil soul. “We took her to the pandit [Brahmin priest], to the ojha [traditional healer], nothing helped. An aunty in our neighbourhood who is a vishwaasi [believer] asked us to pray to Yesu Masih. My cousin was cured.”
Everybody had a similar story – of getting rid off illness, evil spirits, bad fortune, and becoming “changa” or well, after they started praying to Christ.
Steadfast in their faith, the women were unfazed by the police interrogation – or the menace of the Vahini activists, who reportedly threatened to burn down the vehicle that the foreigners were travelling in. “They taunted us saying cows are being slaughtered and you are being fed beef in the church,” said Rajkali, a neighbour of Usha Devi. “Zabardasti Hindu se Christian banaya jaa raha hai.” [You are being forcibly converted from Hindus to Christians].
The women shot back: “Yahan dharma parivartan nahi, mann parivartan ho raha hai.” [It isn’t a change of religion, but a change of faith.]
What would they tell census enumerators when asked about their religion? Usha Devi and her family said they would self-identify as Christians. “We have removed all images and idols [of Hindu gods and goddesses] from our house.”
Rajkali, who belongs to the Chamar community, however, cannot afford to officially change her religious status from Hindu to Christian, because she would lose all the government benefits linked to being a member of a Scheduled Caste. Only Hindu Dalits are recognised as Scheduled Castes.
‘It’s our government’
The day the BJP announced that Adityanath would be the chief minister, Pappu Puri and four of his colleagues abandoned the celebrations in Siswa Bazaar, and drove straight to Lucknow. “Passes had been arranged for us to attend Maharaj ji’s oath ceremony,” he said, showing a photograph of the invite issued in the name of the governor Ram Naik.
Puri said he was delighted that the mukhiya of his organisation has become the mukhya mantri of Uttar Pradesh, but expressed concern that henceforth it would be difficult to get his attention.
“We are hopeful of getting Maharaj ji’s time on April 19 to explain the case of Daudhali,” he said.
Puri claimed the matter came to the Vahini’s attention when foreigners were spotted over several days in the local market, riding e-rickshaws. “We heard they were staying in the church, and that a big conversion ceremony had been planned,” he said.
In the past, the Vahini had stormed into the prayer meetings and beaten up people. But this time they chose to inform the administration – Puri claims the Vahini’s district head called the Maharajganj district collector and the superintendent of police. “Humari sarkar hai,” Puri explained. It is our government. Besides, they had been asked to be careful. “Every worker has been told to avoid taking a single step that can be used to defame Maharaj ji.”
What followed left Puri disappointed.
“The police let the foreigners go,” he said. “Even the woman who was not carrying her passport.”
According to Puri, it wasn’t enough for the police to issue a notice to Yuhanna Adam. It should have investigated the journey details of the foreigners. “Why doesn’t the police check hotel registers? There are only 18 e-rickshaws in Siswa. Why don’t they call and question the drivers?” He also wants the police to investigate the church’s source of funds. “Where does all the money come from?” he asked.
A conversation on conversions
“If we had so much money, would we have not repaired this building?” asked Adam, as he supervised the preparation of milk-less tea in a dilapidated mess building, after the Easter service had ended.
Born and raised in a pentecostal family in Deoria, his father employed in the railways, Adam went to Bible School in Hardoi and became a preacher at an early age. In 2004, the principal of St Andrew’s College in Gorakhpur told him about an abandoned church in Daudhali village. When he came here, he found crumbling buildings surrounded by wilderness.
Adam said he did not know the history of the church, but pointed to bricks that had 1909 engraved on them. There was a graveyard on one side, and a row of dilapidated rooms on the other, which had served as a hostel, Adam had heard.
“I prayed by myself,” he said. “I did not go anywhere to make followers. Gradually, people started coming to the church on their own…” Many were returning migrant workers who had been introduced to the faith in Mumbai and Pune, and were looking for a church to attend locally. The majority were Dalits.
Things were mostly peaceful. Adam divided time between Daudhali and Gorakhpur, where his wife and four daughters lived. Once, many years ago, about 20 activists of the Hindu Yuva Vahini came to the church. “They started questioning me, how many people’s religion have you changed. I said what do you mean by religion. They said we mean how many Hindus have you turned into Christians.”
“I told them the term Christian does not stand for religion,” he said. “Isai ka matlab hota hai Isa ke anuyayi. It refers to a follower of Christ. As far as religion is concerned, there’s only one religion – manav dharm, or service to humanity.”
The activists responded by saying that a change in faith amounted to a change in nation: “Vichar parivartit hoga humara desh ghulam ho jayega” [If the beliefs change, our country will become a slave]. Adam said: “If that is the case, why do you send your children to English-medium schools, why not send them to Sanskrit schools, why do you wear trousers, why not continue wearing dhotis and walking barefoot?”
His parting shot to the Vahini activists: “I told them you can keep your product in the market, and so can I. People are free to choose. If your product isn’t selling in the market, work on improving it, don’t pick up fights with others.”
Since then, the Vahini stayed away from the church, until they showed up with the police this month. “They were clearly saying ‘Humari satta hai, humare hisaab se chalega,’” said Adam. It is our government, our writ will run.
On his part, the pastor has written a letter to the prime minister and chief minister, protesting against what happened, and informing them that his faith has been hurt. “I am not hopeful of getting a response,” he said. “But I did it because others should not have to go through this.”