It was night by the time our weary and dusty band of travellers in Karwan e Mohabbat reached the seminary near Satna, Madhya Pradesh, where young prospective Catholic priests spend several years studying theology. In 2017, more than 40 seminarians had spent a harrowing winter night on the cold floor of a police station for the “crime” of singing carols. We felt we must offer these young men solidarity, hence our journey to the seminary even though the hour was late.

Their rector, Father Joseph, met us at the gate of the seminary, the St Ephrem’s Theological College, established in 1992 by the Syro Malabar Rite of the Catholic Church headquartered in Kerala. “After 9 pm is the time of mandatory silence for the students,” the rector said, amidst the singing of crickets in the dark night, explaining why they could not meet us at that hour. But he spoke at length about their trauma of seven months earlier. “This is a theology college,” he said. “However, we believe the studies of prospective priests are incomplete if our students don’t contribute to the society in which they are located.” The bishop who established the seminary had chosen this place because it was in the heart of one of India’s most impoverished rural backwoods. The seminary had adopted 30 impoverished villages, and its key social contribution was running after-school classes for the local children which were quite popular. These were managed by local “animators”, the rector said, with the prospective priests visiting every Saturday.

Around Christmas, the priests would travel as a team to some of these tuition centres, wherever the local people invited and hosted them, and organise carol singing. They would often invite the children to perform songs and dances as well. It was something everyone looked forward to. On December 14 last year, 32 seminarians and two senior priests sang carols during one such celebration at Bhoomkar village, about 15 km from the district headquarters of Satna. A little before the evening was to end, a group of men claiming to be workers of the Hindutva group Bajrang Dal stormed into the room, accusing the priests of converting the “innocent children” to the Christian faith. They forced the priests to conduct puja to the Hindu god Hanuman, and demanded they accompany them to the police station.

At the police station, a mob of around 100 Bajrang Dal workers had gathered. The angry workers roughed up the priests as they were rounded up by the police and made to sit on the floor of the lock-up. Meanwhile, hearing about what had happened, eight senior priests from the seminary drove to the police station, but the Bajrang Dal men would not allow them to enter. Instead, they slapped the priests around, and burnt their car. “The situation outside the police station was so hostile that we could not reach to the police station for helping our brothers and priests inside [sic]”,” Father M Rony, the social work director of the Satna diocese, recalled later. The Hindutva workers, he added, “virtually created a siege around the police station, denying us entry”.

After they were finally able to enter the police station, the senior priests asked that the violent attackers be arrested and the detained priests released. Instead, they were made to join the other priests on the cold floor, where they sat pressed together tensely for hours like criminals. Rector Joseph told us the policemen let loose a barrage of abuse. “Why don’t you go and settle down in Kashmir instead and convert the Muslims there?” he recalled a policeman taunting them. “Why are you converting innocent poor Hindus?” They would not listen to the priests’ protestations that they hadn’t converted anyone to Christianity since their theology school was established. Another policeman jeered, “This is no longer Sonia [Gandhi] Raj.”

Father Joseph, rector of St Ephrem’s Theological College, speaks to the Karwan e Mohabbat team. Photo courtesy John Dayal

‘We stand all alone’

Around midnight, a villager named Dharmendra Dohar arrived at the police station. He pointed to Father M George, a teacher at the St Ephrem’s Theological College, and alleged he had given him Rs 5,000 to “pray to Jesus” and convert to Christianity. George protested that he did not even known the man, but the police refused to listen and arrested him and five other priests under Madhya Pradesh’s Freedom of Religion Act, and sections of the Indian Penal Code related to outraging religious feelings and for making “imputations or assertions prejudicial to national integration”. George was released on bail the next day and no chargesheet has yet been filed against him.

The rest of the 42 priests were released from the police station the next morning. “Forty two people who were detained have been let off, but if there is any evidence against them, there will be proceedings against them,” BD Pandey, Satna’s chief superintendent of police, was quoted as saying by The Quint on 15 December.

Only one young man was arrested for torching the priests’ car, none for disrupting their carol singing in the village or for thrashing the priests in full view of policemen outside and inside the police station. Even this young man was found to be a minor, and freed. No one has been held for indulging in violence or stoking hatred against the priests.

The young priests have still not resumed their educational services in nearby villages eight months after the attack. The district collector and the superintendent of police have reportedly told them they can restart their work only if sarpanchs of the villages invite and authorise them in writing.

In Madhya Pradesh, ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party for the last 15 years, attacks on Christians and restraints on their religious freedom are not uncommon. In April 2017, for example, three Christians were arrested from a village in Khandwa district on charges of converting people. On October 23, 2017, Hindu Jagran Manch workers forced seven children off a train to Mumbai, where they were travelling for Bible classes, and took them to a police station along with the adults accompanying them. Madhya Pradesh, incidentally, was one of India’s first states to pass an anti-conversion law in 1968. In 2013, borrowing from the anti-conversion law enacted by Narendra Modi’s government in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh made its law more stringent, making it mandatory for people wishing to convert to inform the authorities through a formal notice, and enhancing the penalties.

In the wake of Satna attack, The Indian Express reported the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India denying allegations of forced conversion and describing the unprovoked violence against the priests as “shameful and deplorable”. “All right-thinking Indians will hang their heads in shame at these terrorists who have taken on the garb of ‘religious police’,” the organisation said. “We are absolutely sure that they do not speak in the name of our very broad minded and peace-loving Hindu brethren.”

We offered our sympathies to the victims of this brazen attack, in defiance of all constitutional guarantees, on religious freedom and peaceful religious celebrations. However, Joseph found it hard to keep the bitterness out of his voice. “We know you are sympathetic,” he said. “But we know that when such attacks actually occur, we stand all alone.”

This article is part of a series on Karwan e Mohabbat, a people’s campaign for solidarity, atonement and conscience that is reaching out to survivors of hate violence. In its first year, the Karwan has completed 21 journeys to 12 states.