Neel Madhav and Alishan Jafri
In late October, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi met and invited Pope Francis to India, the country with the second-largest Christian population in Asia.
However, in a speech about two weeks earlier, Mohan Bhagwat, head of the far-right Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological mentor of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), warned Hindus about religious conversions and alleged “demographic changes” in India’s northeastern states, which have a large Christian population.
In his annual speech on October 14 to mark the Hindu festival of Dussehra (also known as Durga Puja), Bhagwat said: “Rising population and demographic imbalance need to be addressed and population policy is to be redesigned. And that policy should be applicable to all irrespective of caste and creed. Illegal immigration in bordering districts and conversions in [the] northeast have changed the demographics further.”
The RSS aims to create an ethnic Hindu state out of India. As the head of Sangh Parivar, the umbrella group of Hindu nationalist organisations including the BJP, Bhagwat’s Dussehra speech is considered an agenda-setter for the year.
Rise in attacks on Christians across India
As things later unfolded, Bhagwat’s speech was supplemented with violent attacks on Christians and churches in different parts of India, with mobs making open calls to “behead” them and stop alleged conversions of Hindus.
Three days after the speech, Rameshwar Sharma, a BJP legislator in Madhya Pradesh, called for a “Chadar Mukt, Father Mukt Bharat” (an India free of veil-wearing Muslims and Christian priests) while addressing a crowd.
On Sunday, in southern Karnataka’s Belur town, alleged members of Bajrang Dal, a far-right Hindu group behind numerous attacks on minorities, disrupted a Christian prayer meeting, accusing the community of conversion.
On the same day in New Delhi, a warehouse turned into a church was allegedly vandalised and Sunday mass was disrupted by the same group, whose members were seen shouting “shoot the traitors” in a video accessed by Al Jazeera.
On October 3, a mob of nearly 250 Hindu vigilantes armed with iron rods ransacked a church in Roorkee in the northern state of Uttarakhand, which is governed by the BJP. Witnesses told Al Jazeera only about a dozen people were in the church when the attack occurred.
Pearl Lance, the daughter of the church’s pastor, was allegedly molested by men, abused and attacked by women, and her phone snatched. Rajat Kumar, a staff member at the church, was hit with iron rods multiple times on his head, resulting in serious injuries.
“They dragged me by my neck to the ground floor while raining blows on my face and back. I became unconscious after I was hit with a rod on my head,” Kumar told Al Jazeera, his right eye badly bruised and swollen.
Eva Lance, the pastor’s elder daughter, said the family had reported suspicious activity to the police at least four times before the attack. “We received hateful anti-Christian threats by unknown men who followed us before the attack. They accused us of conversion and threatened violence. I had sent an email, visited the police station, and registered a formal complaint on October 2,” she told Al Jazeera.
She also alleged a late police response when the attack happened. “We were assured of security by the police but no help came. Even on the day of the attack, we kept calling the police but they only came an hour after the mob had done the damage,” she added.
Police even filed a report against the pastor’s family, alleging forced conversions, promoting religious disharmony, criminal conspiracy, and even robbery.
Chhattisgarh ‘new laboratory’ for anti-Christian hatred
According to a report by human rights groups in October, more than 300 attacks on Christians took place in the first nine months of this year, including at least 32 in Karnataka.
The report found that of the total 305 incidents of anti-Christian violence, four north Indian states registered as many as 169 of them: 66 in BJP-ruled Uttar Pradesh, 47 in Congress-ruled Chhattisgarh, 30 in tribal-dominated Jharkhand, and 30 in BJP-ruled Madhya Pradesh.
At least nine Indian states have planned anti-conversion laws, including Chhattisgarh, which, activists say, has emerged as a “new laboratory” for anti-Christian hatred in India.
On October 1, more than 1,000 people gathered in the Surguja district of Chhattisgarh for a “Band Karo Dharmantran” (Stop Religious Conversions) rally – one in a series of events organised in the garb of anti-conversion protests in the central Indian state.
Addressing the gathering, Parmatmanand Maharaj, a far-right Hindu leader, urged the people to “arm themselves with axes to teach Christians indulging in conversions a lesson”.
“Why do you keep an axe? Behead them,” he said, asking the crowd to follow a “Roko, toko, thoko” (Stop, warn and kill) dictum against the Christians.
Among his audience were BJP Parliamentarian Ramvichar Netam, former BJP Parliamentarian Nand Kumar Sai and Chhattisgarh state BJP spokesman Anurag Singh Deo.
Sushil Shukla, head of the communication department of the Congress party, which governs the state, accused the BJP of “running out of issues” and “stoking religious hatred”. He said the government will act against the organisers of the Surguja rally after an investigation.
T R Koshima, superintendent of police at Surguja, told Al Jazeera they are investigating the matter but no first information report (FIR) – a document prepared by police when they receive information about a cognisable offence – related to the rally has yet been filed.
“Though the investigation is ongoing, how much of the speech could be considered instigating since no violence took place thereafter in the district is to be seen,” he said.
However, it was not an isolated incident in Chhattisgarh in recent months.
On September 5, a Christian pastor was summoned by the police for questioning after complaints from right-wing outfits in the state’s capital of Raipur. Once he reached the police station, he was also allegedly assaulted by the same groups.
In the same month, a video clip of a woman – who runs a Hindu right-wing outfit – beating up a pastor in the presence of police constables in the Bhilai district went viral.
Jyoti Sharma, the woman accused of attacking the pastor, told Al Jazeera she did not do anything wrong. Though she accepted that an FIR has been filed against her, she called it an “intimidating tactic” and said it will not deter her from “doing ‘kutai’ and ‘thukai’” (attacking and assaulting).
In July this year, Sunil Sharma, superintendent of police in Chhattisgarh’s Sukma district, issued a circular asking his subordinates to increase surveillance over the “activities” of the Christian missionaries.
In Karnataka as well, a BJP-ruled state, attacks on Christians have escalated in recent years, according to William Michaels, president of the United Christian Front.
The government recently ordered a “survey” of churches in the state to check “forced conversions” and deployed intelligence officers to gather more information on them.
In October, a right-wing mob stormed a makeshift church in Hubballi and sang “bhajans” (Hindu prayer songs) in what they said was a protest against alleged conversions.
Several pastors and Christians in Belagavi said they have been given “friendly warnings” by the police against going to the church for prayers until the state assembly session begins in mid-December. In the session, an anti-conversion bill is likely to be proposed by the BJP.
Dharamlal Kaushik, BJP legislator and leader of the opposition in the Chhattisgarh assembly, told Al Jazeera his party “is not against any community but the Congress must stop vote-bank politics” – a reference to minority communities presumably acting as captive voters in India.
When asked about increasing attacks and hate speech against Christians, Kaushik instead questioned the Congress on “its silence on the issue of conversion” and blamed the opposition party for the alleged increase in “conversions of Hindus into Christianity”.
“In the recent past, the right-wing Hindu nationalist forces have intensified their attacks against the Christians,” a Christian rights activist who documents hate crimes against the community told Al Jazeera, on condition of anonymity.
“We can’t unsee the large mobilisations in Chhattisgarh, the attack on the church in Roorkee, the police order in Sukma, the ‘survey’ of churches in Karnataka, and Mohan Bhagwat’s talk on conversion as isolated events. Simply put, it’s Christians after Muslims. Not that these attacks are new but they want them to be more visible public spectacles.”
Apoorvanand, who teaches Hindi literature at Delhi University and regularly writes against religious violence in India, said the “normalisation of anti-Christian violence is deeply troubling”.
“This doesn’t get reported as much as it should be,” he said.
“By choosing a different target (apart from Muslims) for a supposedly different crime, the ‘Hindutva’ (Hindu supremacist) project in India is adding diversity and objectivity to its anti-minority hatred. To the followers, this makes anti-minority hate and vigilante justice look rational and more natural.”