In India’s BJP-Ruled States, Christians Under Attack For Alleged Forced Conversions

Naila Khan, an independent journalist based in New Delhi, reports.

Lokesh Kumari attends a Sunday prayer service in Meerut, Uttar Pradesh. Photo courtesy of Kumari.

(RU) NEW DELHI — Last month, Pastor Satish Kumar and his family were invited to a birthday celebration of a 6-year-old girl in the North Indian state Haryana. The joyous birthday celebration turned into a nightmare for him and his family. He was accused of forcing conversion to Christianity by a Bajrang Dal mob, a Hindu nationalist group associated with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.

“We had begun cutting the cake when a group of men barged into the house and started beating me,” Kumar said. “They took me out of the house and kept chanting slogans of Jai Shri Ram (hail Lord Ram). They snatched my Bible and burnt it in front of my eyes.”

A rise in state anti-conversion laws is leaving Indian Christians in BJP-ruled states at a higher risk of persecution. There have been targeted attacks on pastors and nuns, and churches and Christian schools have been vandalized.

Earlier this month, in the Supreme Court of India, the government denied that any “targeted” attacks on Christians have occurred and accused Christian organizations that filed a public interest litigation of harboring a hidden motive.

According to a study by United Christian Forum, a human rights organization that fights for the rights of the members of the Christian community, at least 127 cases of violence against Christians were documented in the first 103 days of 2022 in India, a count that could surpass last year’s record high before the end of the year. 2021 saw the highest number of physical attacks against Indian Christians on record — with 486 attacks, an 80% increase from 2020 — according to UCF, which collects the data from a phone helpline.

Ever since the attack on Kumar, his children have not been able to go back to school for fear of another attack.

“My family is afraid to step out of the house,” Kumar said. “The incident has left them traumatized. We are taking counseling at a nearby hospital. A slightest knock on our door scares us these days.”

The Himalayan state of Himachal Pradesh is 95% Hindu, 21% Muslim and 0.2% Christian.

Christians in India make up only 2.3% of the total population, but some Hindu fundamentalist groups consider them as a threat and symbol of foreign, colonial religion. While British missionaries helped spread Christianity in some parts of India, Christianity has existed in south India since the beginning of the faith in the first century, when according to tradition, the Apostle Thomas established churches in Kerala.

According to available census data, the size of the Christian community relative to the country’s population has either been static or declining since 1971. The 1971 census estimated that Christians accounted for 2.6% of India’s population. By 2001, this figure dropped to 2.3%. While the religious composition of 2011 census figures has never been released, leaked data has shown that there has been a further decline in the size of the community.

Apoorvanand Jha, a professor at Delhi University and a political commentator, calls the new mass conversion law introduced in Himachal Pradesh unconstitutional.

“There is nothing religious about these laws,” he said. “They are a political project of the Bharatiya Janata Party. They want to tell the Hindus that Christians and Muslims are their enemies and soon they will outnumber the Hindus.”

 In another recent attack, Pastor Kelom Kalyan Tete was tied to a pole and beaten in broad daylight in the middle of a street in the capital, New Delhi.

“These goons tied my hands and beat me up, accusing me of converting people,” Tete said. “While this was happening, not a single person came ahead to save me. Later, on the pretext of taking me to the police station, they put me in a car and dropped me at an isolated place. To this day, those culprits have not been arrested, and whenever I ask the police, they tell me that the matter is being investigated.”

The attack has left Tete fearful and scared for life.

“What if I get hit by a car? What if someone kidnaps me again? These scenarios keep coming to my mind,” he said. “Every day I hear news that a pastor has been attacked in the country.”

This month in Himachal Pradesh, the ruling Hindu-first BJP passed the Himachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Bill, 2022. Under this law, if two people convert at the same time, then it will be considered a “mass conversion.” The latest bill also increases the punishment for mass conversion to a maximum of 10 years from seven years in the past. Christian rights groups have challenged the bill in the high court.

A.C. Michael, a senior Catholic leader and coordinator of the United Christian Forum, which documents attacks on Christians, condemns these laws.

“This is an attack on our fundamental right — we have the right to propagate our religion,” he said. “I am not against such laws (against forced conversion) but new laws should be brought in when there is a need for it.  In India, Christians are not forcing Hindus to convert by any means. There is no evidence of someone being held at gunpoint to convert to Christianity.”

Himachal Pradesh is expected to hold local elections before the end of this year, which Michael believes is the reason for the new, more strict law against forced and mass conversion.

“The BJP wants the elections to look like majority versus minority,” he said. “They are sending a message to the people that minorities are forcing conversions.”

Other Indian states ruled by the BJP — including Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh — have introduced similar anti-conversion laws.

Apoorvanand believes that the BJP government is in denial of many attacks based on religion.

“In 2002, after the Gujarat riots — one of the worst communal clashes (between Hindus and Muslims) in India that left thousands dead — the then-chief minister of Gujarat and now the prime minister of India, Narendra Modi, participated in a rally where he said that nothing had happened in Gujarat,” he said. “For the BJP to remain in power, these attacks against Christians and Muslims will continue to be on the rise.”

This month, right-wing Hindu organizations released a 32-page draft constitution of a Hindu nation that aims to deny Muslims and Christians the right to vote.

Lokesh Kumari, a Christian woman, has traveled to remote villages around Uttar Pradesh’s Meerut to talk to people about her faith. But last year, while she was distributing some religious pamphlets in the Nangla Patu village of Meerut, she was met with resistance from the people of the village. They threatened her with physical assault. She alleges that the villagers manhandled her and snatched away her pamphlets.

“I had gone to propagate my religion,” she said. “I was visiting every house in the village, but at the house outside which we had parked our vehicle, they started protesting. They shouted, ‘What if we cut you into pieces? Will your Jesus come to save you?’”

by Naila Khan, Religion Unplugged