- Imran Qureshi
- BBC Hindi, Bangalore
One Sunday last October, Pastor Somu Avaradhi was surprised when he walked into his church in the city of Hubballi in the southern Indian state of Karnataka.
“There were people sitting inside singing Hindu religious songs and shouting slogans,” he told the BBC.
The pastor called the police, but when they arrived the protesters accused him of abusing a Hindu and forcing him to convert to Christianity.
The pastor was arrested – on charges of “insulting religious sentiments of any kind” – and spent 12 days in prison before being released on bail.
This is not an isolated incident: a report by the Evangelical Community of India (EFI) listed 39 cases of threats or violence against Christians from January to November this year in Karnataka.
The incidents include alleged attacks on pastors by members of right-wing Hindu groups, and even cases in which these groups reportedly physically prevented religious from holding services in their churches.
Christians are a small minority compared to overwhelming Hindu majority in India.
Christian representatives claim that the frequency of attacks has increased since October, when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is in power in Karnataka and at the national level, announced that it was working on a “strong” law against religious conversion in the condition.
Critics have described the current draft of the bill as “draconian”: it includes jail terms of up to 10 years for those found guilty of converting others by “force,“ fraudulent methods, or marriage. ”Denying state benefits to those who convert from one religion to another is also contemplated.
Each case will be scrutinized. Those who decide to convert must notify local officials two months in advance who will investigate the reasons for the change before allowing it.
Christian leaders fear the new bill will further embolden Hindu radicals. Fear is exacerbated, according to observers, by an increasingly polarized environment under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP in which minority communities feel attacked and threatened.
“Once the bill is passed there will be more persecution and more difficulties,” Peter Machado, Archbishop of Bangalore, told the BBC Hindi Service.
The bill is based on a law introduced last year in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, also governed by the BJP. There, the law aimed against the so-called “love jihad”, a popular conspiracy by the Hindu right wing that Muslim men attract Hindu women and propose to them to convert them.
Since the law was passed in Uttar Pradesh, the state police have registered more than 100 cases of alleged forced conversion, news website Print reported in November.
The Rev Vijayesh Lal, general secretary of EFI, which runs 65,000 churches in India, claimed that the pattern in Karnataka was similar to what happened in Uttar Pradesh before the law was introduced.
“They pressure the community, present false accusations of conversion, and then introduce a law that is unconstitutional“, he claimed.
Religious conversion is a controversial issue in India. Right-wing groups have long accused Christian missionaries of forcibly converting poor Hindus by offering them money or other support such as bribes, an allegation they deny.
But historically Dalits (formerly called “untouchables”) have been known to have converted to Christianity to escape a rigid Hindu caste hierarchy. Despite the laws that protect it, this community is often the victim not only of discrimination but also of violence.
The tensions have often resulted in violence on the ground: in 1999, a series of attacks against Christian institutions in the eastern state of Orissa (also known as Odisha) was followed by the murders of an Australian missionary and his two young children while they slept in a jeep.
Karnataka’s Christian pastors and priests say they fear for the future. Initially, the attacks were limited to a few foci in the state, but now 21 out of 31 districts have reported at least one violent incident.
“I have been here for 40 years and I really don’t know why these conversion accusations are happening now. We have many friends here among the Hindu community,” said Reverend Thomas T, president of the Pastors’ Association in the Belagavi district.
Thomas noted that in November local police informally told the Christian community not to hold prayer meetings. to avoid attacks by right-wing groups.
A police officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told the BBC that while individual police stations have advised priests to be careful, there is no “state policy” on the matter.
Father Francis D’Souza, a priest of a local church in Belagavi, alleged last week that a man with a sword tried to attack him. The case is being investigated and senior police officials have assured Father D’Souza that he will be protected.
“But fear is still present in me,” said the priest.
Representatives of the Christian community have questioned the need for a law against conversion, noting that India’s constitution gives everyone the right to “spread religion”.
There is no national law restricting religious conversion, and past attempts to introduce such bills in parliament have failed. But several states have enacted laws over the years to regulate religious conversion.
BJP legislator Arvind Bellad, who led a massive protest against Pastor Somu, asked “why only Christians are concerned about the new bill“.
“The interesting aspect is that other minority communities such as Muslims, Sikhs or Jains are not concerned about this new law,” he added.
The state’s chief minister, Basvaraj Bommai, noted that only those who try to entice people to convert to a different religion should fear the law.
But Archbishop Machado assures that the attacks and the speech surrounding the bill they are clearly aimed at Christians.
“What the government is doing to us is not good at all,” he said.
Retired military man SG Vombatkere said that people should not take justice into their own hands.
“If I have a complaint against you, I can’t go hit you,” he said. “I have no right to attack you, whatever you have done. But the unusual is becoming the usual these days“.
Now you can receive notifications from BBC Mundo. Download the new version of our app and activate them so you don’t miss out on our best content.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.