As carol singing wound down and darkness descended on the Rati Talai neighbourhood of south Rajasthan’s Banswara town on December 14, 2016, Stephen Rawat, a local priest, was getting ready to leave a parishioner’s house when he heard a noise.
Outside was a group of some 10 men, beating carol singers with sticks. When Rawat went outside, they attacked him too. “They said things like ‘Jai Shri Ram!’ They asked what are you doing, are you making people Christians?” he recalled, “In the whole area, any activity Christians do they consider as conversion activity.”
This incident is among three similar attacks in Rajasthan that are recorded in Hate Crime Watch, a database of religious identity-based hate crimes across India from 2009 to 2019, maintained by FactChecker. Each followed a pattern: a Christmas event, an allegation of conversion, an attack. A fourth incident recorded involved a dispute between neighbours hosting their respective religious functions, a Christmas event and a bhajan (Hindu hymn) programme.
Violence against Christians is not new to Rajasthan, and anecdotal evidence suggests violence has flared up under both Bharatiya Janata Party and Congress governments, although no cases have been reported in the English language media prior to or since the last BJP government’s tenure from 2013 to 2018. (This excludes the period before 2009, the start point of Hate Crime Watch.)
The factors fuelling such attacks include opposition of majority Hindus against Christian conversion, and a history of Christian missionary activity that is now matched by Hindu reconversion activity in the largely tribal pockets of the state.
In the Banswara attack on Rawat, the police registered a first information report against unknown assailants for wrongful restraint and causing hurt. The case was eventually closed, though the police undertook surveillance against those opposed to conversion activities in general, according to the police’s final report.
A second incident, also in December 2016, involved a pastor in Salpura village in Alwar district and hewed to the same formula, though no police complaint was filed either against alleged conversion or for assault.
A year later and 90 km away, a similar event unfolded in Pratapgarh town, metres away from the District Collector’s office. A few hundred guests, mostly tribals from nearby villages, had gathered for dinner following a two-day Christmas event at a community hall on December 20, 2017.
Around 9 pm, a group of men entered the premises along with the police, alleging this was a conversion event designed to trap hapless tribals. They roughed up some guests, destroyed property and shouted slogans, some purported victims and eyewitnesses told FactChecker. No complaint was lodged against the organisers on the allegation of conversion, but eventually three of the alleged intruders were charged under Section 296 of the Indian Penal Code related to disturbing a religious assembly.
In a fourth case in Sabalpura village in Banswara district, a Christmas gathering at a home-church was attacked by a Hindu group, including a few neighbours, over “volume levels”.
FactChecker has copies of all the FIRs, chargesheets and closure reports in each case, wherever filed.
Conversion of tribals to Christianity
Christians form 0.14% of the population of Rajasthan, and tend to be concentrated in the south where there is a larger tribal population. Banswara district’s population itself is 76.4.% tribal – much higher than the state’s figure of 13.5% – and 1.24% Christian.
The earliest missionary activity in Rajasthan was in Banswara; by some accounts, as early as 1841, with the establishment of the Mewar Bhil Corps, a British military unit. As the tribal population comprised some of the least developed and economically marginalised groups, continuing missionary activity over time brought succour by way of health and development services.
The police say poverty is a major factor that propels conversion. Hindu activists say tribals are naive and misguided, easy prey for missionaries.
“They do ‘miracles’ by mixing painkillers in their food and saying God is curing you,” said Himmat Jain, the Pratapgarh zilla mantri (district head) of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a Hindu right-wing nationalist organisation. “That is how they gain their trust.”
First-generation converts, on the other hand, spoke the language of revelation, one in which “Yeshu Masih” (Jesus) had saved them in their hour of need. Laxman Meena tells such a story at his home in Kachi Basti in Pratapgarh, where tarpaulin roofs and makeshift structures stand over a mud floor. “When I was in difficulty and sickness and didn’t get any relief, I took to the faith and the bad spirit left,” said Meena, a member of the Masih Sakti Samiti, an interdenominational Christian group that helped organise the Pratapgarh event. “There was no force at all. No one gave me money. It’s not true the way [certain Hindu groups] are presenting things.”
Devchand Bhuriya and his wife Risham – whose home-church in Sabalpura, Banswara district was attacked – started believing in Christ 16 years ago after recovering from an illness.
In 2008, the Rajasthan state assembly passed the Dharma Swatantrata Bill to prevent forced conversions, but the bill was not cleared by the president (after having been approved by the state governor). The proposed punishment includes a prison term of between two and five years. Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Arunachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand already have similar laws in place.
In two of the three cases in Hate Crime Watch where conversion was alleged, the purported attackers said they were acting in good faith, that they had received information that people needed to be rescued. “If they want to go on their own it’s fine but if it is under pressure, then we complain,” said Jitendra Saini, who was allegedly involved in the attack on a pastor from the neighbouring Salpura village, Suresh Chand. “We went to the cops. They made him understand.”
Saini said the villagers previously had good relations with Chand, and insisted that no violence had taken place. Chand alleged that he was roughed up and threatened, and that subsequently, some unknown men encircled his house and opened fire.
“What is wrong in celebrating Christmas?” asked Saini. “The wrong thing was he said don’t celebrate Diwali, put away Hindu gods’ pictures. Then we felt we had to complain.”
His brother Mahindra said they joined the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh – the right-wing, Hindu nationalist parent organisation of the BJP, currently in power at the Centre – a few years ago. “We learned if everyone converts [to Christianity] then Hindus are over, our traditions are over,” he said.
Hindu groups increasingly active
In Pratapgarh district, members of the RSS, VHP and Bajrang Dal – a religious militant organisation that forms the youth wing of the VHP – spoke to FactChecker about the threat of changing demographics.
“We are trying to teach people Hindu values, to educate them,” said Himmat Jain, one of three persons charged in the Pratapgarh Christmas function attack of December 2017, “We work to awaken the public. These people are very poor and are pressured or induced with money. If people are converting of their own will it is fine, but otherwise it is not allowed.”
Jain denied that any violence had taken place, and said he was a scapegoat. “Even Bhagat Singh was booked,” he said. “I feel it is my responsibility to save Hindu society. It is in danger. In this belt Christians are very active. At least Muslims one can fight face-to-face, but Christians do it covertly.”
Jain’s speech was full of sinister insinuation: he claims the Christians bribed the police and suppressed the matter, even though their “scheme was exposed” and they did not have permission for conducting their event. The Christians said that contrary to paying off people, they had incurred a loss of Rs 19,000 from the destruction of property and premature closure of the event. They claimed they had permission.
In all three “conversion” cases, a suspicion or unverified information seemed to have set off the incident. “They were making allegations and there was no proof,” the pastor Chand said. “A whole tempo [passenger vehicle] of people from the village came to support me.”
Rawat said any activity, whether prayer or singing or mass, can be misunderstood and conflated with conversion.
In none of the cases did the police book the Christians accused of forcibly converting people.
Christian groups said their goal is service, not proselytisation. “Jesus said help the poor and needy, serve your neighbour, help your enemy. You will try to do that as a Christian,” said Shibu Thomas, founder of Persecution International, an inter-denominational Christian organisation. “I don’t deny there are those who do it for personal gain, but that percentage is small.”
“The concept of conversion is not the proper way to explain the relationship between the tribals and the Church, as most of these people do not formally convert,” said Sarbeswar Sahoo, an associate professor at IIT-Delhi’s department of humanities and social sciences and the author of the book Pentecostalism and Politics of Conversion in India. “But they do visit the church and participate in prayer meetings and activities. They feel attracted to the idea of Christ. The shamanic/bhopa [traditional healers or priests who perform rituals to appease deities] system is expensive and exploitative… Practically [the church] becomes a better option.”
Bhuriya, whose home-church in Banswara was attacked, has a nephew who said he is Hindu, but that he attended the prayer services at his uncle’s home-church. Laxman Meena of Pratapgarh also said he did not consider himself Christian, but believed in Christ.
“Once you convert it is difficult as a scheduled caste or scheduled tribe person to access the benefits of the reservation system,” Sahoo said. “That’s one reason why people don’t convert formally or legally. The other is that there is a stigma attached to conversion. Because then some communities take different kinds of action through ex-communication or by cutting social ties with the converts.”
Besides Christians, there are Hindu groups active in the tribal region.
In 1978, the Vanvasi Kalyan Parishad, affiliated to the RSS, opened a wing in Rajasthan. They have 335 educational institutes and also provide other development services.
“One reason why Christian missionary activities have been around and are increasing in different parts of India especially Rajasthan is that the post-colonial developmental state hasn’t been able to reach the poorest sections of society, especially in terms of providing basic education, health and other developmental benefits,” said Sahoo, who has studied tribal Christianity, poverty and violence in Rajasthan. “And because of the lack of schools and medical facilities, both Christian missionaries and Hindu groups are coming in and filling that development gap. The VKP from the 1970s and the Christians going back much earlier, more than a 100 years ago.”
The VKP covers 32 blocks and 2,000 villages and has many activities listed among its goals including providing schools, water, welfare, medicine and “cultural development”. “Cultural development includes to “protect their identity, beliefs, religious faith and culture” and “fight against any kind of anti-national activity like conversion of one religion into another”.
In MS Golwalkar’s tract Bunch of Thoughts, Christians are identified as one of three “internal threats” for undertaking “anti-national” and “irreligious” activities in the country. In 1996, VHP leader Giriraj Kishore spoke of making Banswara “issai mukt” (Christian-free) by 2000, according to reports.
“Our main goal was to stop the work of missionaries,” said Mukesh Saraf, treasurer of the Jan Seva Samiti which oversees the Bharat Mata Mandir Nyas’ chain of ‘Vidyaniketan’ schools across four districts, on why they set up their schools. “We think we have succeeded or the whole belt would have changed.” He said there was no violence any more, but in earlier years, Christians would attack, and they would respond.
The first of 346 Vidyaniketans was set up in Mokhampura village in the 1990s, directly opposite a church.
Bharat Mata Mandir holds monthly bhajan (hymn singing) programmes and havans (a Hindu ritual involving offerings to the fire) in the villages where it works, where local workers talk to families seen to be susceptible to conversion.
Through their schools, the organisation emphasises the problematic argument that tribals are essentially Hindu. “Only if the people talking to them are from their society will they listen,” said Saraf.
A Bhil Hindu man who did not wish to give his name spoke of studying in a Bharat Mata Mandir school before he started working with the organisation. He said he had seen people switch from Hinduism to Christianity and back again. “Others made them understand,” he said. “They realised this is not our true religion.”
Are tribals historically Hindu? Hindu groups believe they are. Some tribals say they are, others say they are animist nature-worshippers.
“In our area tribals are animated by the Sangh that they are Hindus and they shouldn’t go to Christianity or other religions,” said Rawat, the priest. Rawat is a Bhil tribal who was born into the faith as a fifth-generation Christian. He believes the men who attacked his carolling group were tribals, though no one was ever arrested.
Both Hindu and Christian groups detect pecuniary motivations and a grand design in each other’s efforts. “They are using adivasi [tribal] people. People I know say they are getting benefits from these organisations if they reconvert a Christian person to Hinduism,” said Sunny Maida, a pastor and secretary of Masih Sakti Samiti, an umbrella body for various Christian groups.
“[Christians] have people in charge of every few villages, and the person gets a salary,” said Jain, one of the VHP functionaries.
Tension between neighbours
On Christmas Day in 2016, 11 days after the carol team was beaten up in Banswara town, Devchand Bhuriya and others were praying at their home-church when a group of men, including some neighbours, arrived and started pelting stones at them, they claimed.
“They just came and attacked us, we don’t know why, we never had any quarrel with them,” said Bhuriya, adding that his wife was one of eight people injured and had to be taken to a hospital. Karan Singh, their son-in-law who was also present that day, said the attackers questioned their beliefs while leaving.
The police charge-sheet notes the dispute to have been about sound levels. It notes that the volume was not lowered, following which the Hindu neighbours attacked the gathering.
The Hindus claim the Christian group first attacked them when they requested them to lower the volume in keeping with an agreement in the village against playing loud music, and had no other contention with them.
However, a strand of religious tension was visible in the first information report filed by the Hindus: “In the name of religious propaganda, they call unknown people from afar to disrupt the communal harmony of the village…”
The police closed this first information report, finding this version of events untrue, and charged eight people for attacking Bhuriya’s function under sections related to trespass, rioting and causing hurt. But, they said, this could not be construed as a dispute related to religion.
Christian activists said there are more attacks than get reported in the media or taken to the police. Persecution Relief has recorded 447 incidents across the country in 2018 in its report, which it says is not a full inventory of every incident. “Some people don’t go out of fear of the legal process or of going against the village, and mentally they may get demoralised,” said Shibu Thomas, founder of Persecution Relief, adding, “My request is that the prime minister and chief ministers speak up about these attacks.”
This is the second of a four-part investigation into 14 hate crimes reported from Rajasthan. You can read the first part here.
This article first appeared on FactChecker.