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In MP, Hindutva Groups, Pliant Cops and a Sympathetic Govt Have Driven Christians to a Corner

In the last two months, Christians in Madhya Pradesh have come under various degrees of attack from Hindutva groups over allegations of 'illegal conversions' backed by zero evidence.
A March 25, 2015 photo shows a protest against anti-Christian violence in the country. Photo: Reuters
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Bhopal: Videos of the recent attack on a missionary school in Madhya Pradesh may have gone viral, but this is only the latest in a long line of assaults on Christian missionary institutions led by right-wing Hindutva groups.

In the last two months alone, the following has taken place in Madhya Pradesh.

  • The Shivraj Singh Chauhan government has refused to renew the license of seven missionary schools run by the Catholic Diocese of Jhabua, citing “unavailability of subject-wise teachers and land records.”
  • The reconstruction work of a century-old Catholic church built by Jhabua King Udai Singh was halted on December 8, 2021.
  • As many as 21 people allegedly associated with the Christian community have been booked over claims that they have done “illegal conversions”.
  • VHP and Bajrang Dal activists held protests at missionary schools demanding that a statue of the Hindu deity Saraswati be installed on the premises. Across the state, 10 such incidents have been reported.

In addition to this, the Jhabua district administration issued an order in September asking priests to submit details of churches and certificates of those who have accepted Christianity – to “ensure legal conversions.”

On Monday, December 6, following the circulation of a video containing fake claims on a conversion racket in St. Joseph School, VHP and Bajrang Dal members barged into the school premises and attacked and vandalised it while students were answering the Class 10 board examinations. They pelted stones at the building and chanted ‘Jai Shree Ram’.

The school in Ganj Basoda of the Vidisha district is run by Christian Catholic missionaries.

According to police, members of VHP and Bajrang Dal had announced their decision to hold a protest against what they claimed was the “conversion” of eight children at St. Joseph School. On Monday morning, they handed over a memorandum to Roshan Rai, sub-divisional magistrate, Ganj Basoda, and later a mob of over 100 men attacked the school and pelted stones.

Two police constables, who were sent by the nearest police station after the school administration had demanded protection sensing trouble from VHP and Bajrang Dal workers, failed to nab any of the attackers.

Also read: Missionary School in MP Vandalised by Hindu Right Groups, Principal Alleges Police Inaction

The Vidisha Police registered an FIR against four identified VHP men and 50 unidentified Bajrang Dal men under sections 147 (rioting), 148 (rioting armed with a deadly weapon) and 427 (mischief causing damage to the amount of Rs 50) of the Indian Penal Code only after the video of the incident went viral on social media.

The accused were granted bail within 24 hours of the incident.

Demanding stern action against those responsible for the attack in Ganj Basoda and ongoing targeting of the Christian community in the state, Archbishop Sebastian Durairaj met state home minister Narottam Mishra on Wednesday, December 8.

Archbishop Sebastian Durairaj with home minister Narottam Mishra. Photo: By arrangement.

In a memorandum to the minister, the Archbishop said, “Christian community always works in the field of education, health and social work. But, in the garb of cracking down on alleged conversion, right-wing groups have been targeting Christians and their institutions for the last couple of months. We are deeply saddened and feeling unsafe.”

The letter also highlighted the recent attack on Christian institutions in the state.

The letter alleged that on November 3, 2021, National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) chairperson Priyank Kanoongo had visited a Catholic missionary school and a hostel located in Intkhedi of Raisen district and found Bibles in the bags of five Christian students out of total nine students. Soon after, social media was flooded with claims of ongoing conversion in the school. Since then, the school administration has been harassed in the name of inspection by the district officials, and has been receiving threats from the right-wing groups, the letter noted.

“I briefed Home Minister Mishra about the recent attacks on the Christian community in MP including Ganj Basoda and sought the protection of Christians and their institutions. The minister assured his help,” said Archbishop Sebastian Durairaj in a video.

Taking a dig at this meeting, former chief minister and Congress veteran Digvijaya Singh tweeted that Mishra was the “chief instigator”.

Targeting of Christians

Christians are the second largest minority community in Madhya Pradesh after Muslims with a population of 2.13 lakh as per the 2011 Census. They are widely found in the tribal pockets of the state. In the tribal-dominated Jhabua district, there is a sizeable population of Christians with over 35,000 Catholic and Protestant voters. With over 24 churches mostly built in the pre-Independence days, Jhabua has over 20 missionary schools as well.

According to Father Inabanathan Duraisamy, principal of Catholic Mission Higher Secondary School, Jhabua, Christians in Jhabua have been ill-at-ease ever since the state government failed to renew the licenses of seven schools, halted the renovation of a century-old Catholic church and arrested a number of Christians over charges of “illegal conversion.”

Also read: Over 300 Instances of Violence Against Christians Were Reported in Nine Months of 2021: Report

“As per the government guidelines, schools have to renew their licenses every five years. Out of 20 schools, 12 had filled the application. But the application of seven schools have been denied on flimsy grounds,” he alleged, adding that those schools whose applications were rejected were decades-old and educated thousands of tribals.

The Indore division of the school education department rejected the applications of seven schools on November 28 either citing unavailability of subject-wise teachers in the said schools or pointing to issues with schools’ land records.

“We have permission to run the school [Catholic Mission Higher Secondary School, Jhabua] till March 30, 2022. If the government rejects our first appeal, we will be forced to shut the school and move court. But we will not give up easily,” said Father Inabanathan.

Not only schools, on December 8, the district administration also stopped the rennovation of a century-old Catholic church located in Jhabua city, citing the commercial use of land and the fact that the revamp would mean that the height of the church would go beyond the permissible limit of 65 feet.

Notice from the Jhauba district administration against renovation work being carried out at a Catholic church located in the city.

The revamp work of the church has also drawn the attention of members of right-wing groups such as Adivasi Samaj Sudharak Sangh, which is associated with VHP, who first threatened to demolish it in September and is now threatening to destroy it on December 24, Christmas Eve.

Amidst threats, Archbishop Sebastian Durairaj dashed off letters to President Ramnath Kovind and Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan seeking protection for the community.

Rocky Shah, media in-charge of the Jhabua Catholic community, said, “We feel threatened as a community. In Jhabua, not only right-wing groups but the district administration has also become the enemy of Christians. Now, members of right-wing groups are raiding churches during Sunday prayers on the pretext of checking conversion. As a result, six members of the Christian community were arrested on December 5 (Sunday) for alleged conversion on a complaint of right-wing group men.”

Indeed, on December 5, 2021, an FIR was registered against six tribal people of the Christian community for allegedly converting tribal people. Ranapur police arrested all six accused under sections 3 (prohibition of unlawful conversion from one religion to another) and 5 (punishment for contravention of provisions of Section 3) of the Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act 2021.

On Wednesday, December 8, the lower court denied them bail.

Satna

In Satna, which is over 800 kms from Jhabua, VHP and Bajrang Dal men barged into the Church of God located in Siddharth Nagar of the district during Sunday prayers alleging “illegal conversion” on November 1, 2021.

When the police refused to register an FIR, the right-wing men blocked the National Highway passing through Satna. When police resorted to lathicharge, half a dozen Bajrang Dal men were injured. Hours later, police registered two FIRs in the Kolgaon police station of Satna district under sections 3 and 5 of MP Freedom of Religion Act against Father Biju Thomas, Santosh Thomas and three others, and took action against four policemen for thrashing Bajrang Dal men.

In a separate incident, on October 24, over 30 members of VHP and Bajrang Dal workers wrote a letter to Christ Jyoti School management demanding the installation of an idol of the deity Saraswati on the school premises.

Christ Jyoti School management’s letter to district collector on threats from Hindu groups.

“They left the school with a warning to come back in 15 days in case the school failed to comply with their demands. But they didn’t show up after we reported it to the district administration,” said Father Augustine.

Datia

On October 10, 2021, in Datia district, police booked 10 people and arrested eight after activists from Hindutva outfits spotted them allegedly distributing Christian religious material outside a missionary school.

In another incident, a group of 10 people, including five women, were handed over to police by Hindu groups after they were allegedly seen distributing Christian literature on a Sunday near Holy Cross School.

Distributing Christian literature is not illegal.

“After the prima-facie investigation, a case has been registered under section 505(2) (statements creating or promoting enmity, hatred, or ill-will between classes) of the Indian Penal Code against 10 persons, two of whom are unidentified,” Kotwali police station in charge Ravindra Sharma said.

Mandla

In the tribal-dominated Mandla district, some men allegedly belonging to ABVP barged into the Bharat Jyoti Uchchatar Middle School, a missionary institution, on October 27, accusing the school management of carrying out “illegal conversions.”

A week later, in Nayanpur tehsil of the district, VHP men demanded an idol of Saraswati be installed on the school premises. “We reported both the matter before the district collector and SP,” Father Sebi of Catholic Church and incharge of Jabalpur division said.

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