Since the death of a woman who was allegedly forcibly converted to Christianity triggered violence here in January, nearly 45 Christian families of this village and neighbouring ones in Rajouri district of Jammu have converted to Hinduism — in a process that local BJP MLA Ravinder Raina calls “ghar wapasi”.
The four Christian families in Sehyal that refused to convert, and are now being guarded by a police post and 17 personnel, have alleged social boycott — with their shops being targeted and their children reportedly unable to give exams or to report to work, for fear of being attacked.
Denying there is any boycott, Raina blames those “converting poor people through force and deceit”. “I had arranged a meeting and now all the villagers are living together amicably. Ab sab theek hai… Sab log ghar wapas aa gaye hain (Everything is okay now… All those who converted have returned ‘home’),” he says.
Additional Superintendent of Police, Nowshera, Master Popsy too denies any member of the minority community at Sehyal is facing any ostracisation. “We have deployed police force to ensure law and order,” he adds.However, Priya, 18, and her elder brother Kala Ram say they are scared to leave home. The government higher secondary school where Priya studies is located at Bajabain, 8 km away. “How I can travel such a long distance daily to attend classes, especially when almost all the people in the area are hostile to us?” Priya says. “I did not even collect my roll number slip from school to appear in the Class 12 exams.”
Kala Ram, who fears Priya may be “abducted on way to school”, says he hasn’t plied his auto between Beri Pattan and Sunderbani, earning Rs 200-300 daily, for days. “No one in the village talks to us,” he says.
Kala Ram and Priya are the youngest children of Baldev Raj and Beero Devi. Of their five other children, one is in the CRPF. Trouble erupted on January 15 following the death of a newly wed, Seema Devi. Her husband Rinku Kumar had taken her to a church in Jalandhar for “spiritual healing” following deterioration of her health after their marriage. Tempers rose when Rinku sought to perform Seema’s last rites as per Christian religion.
Thousands of villagers gathered from nearby Kangri, Bajabain and other areas and set ablaze a prayer hall used by Christians to hold Sunday prayers. The prayer hall had been opened in two shops owned by Baldev’s family.
The mob then seized control of Seema’s body and cremated it forcibly, in the process setting ablaze two other shops owned by Baldev and his family, which stood adjacent. Agricultural appliances, including a tractor, kept in the shops were destroyed.
Police registered a case of arson. But while no one has been arrested so far for it, Rinku was held by police on a complaint from Seema’s parents, alleging cheating and forcible conversion of their daughter to Christianity.
A predominantly Hindu village of around 300 households, Sehyal has seen 40-50 Vasith families convert to Christianity over the past decade. Vasiths are Scheduled Castes, with those well-off among them now calling themselves Vasith Rajputs, says Vidhi Chand, a retired Zonal Education Officer and general secretary of the Vasith Sabha in Rajouri district.
Kala Ram says they the mob targeted their shops as Rinku and his family live in the same neighbourhood. He adds that the crowd also accused them of having had a hand in “inducing” Rinku into Christianity.
The villagers claim they knew of only Baldev Raj and Beero Devi’s family being Christians, and the fact that Rinku and others had converted too was revealed only after Seema’s death. However, an ex-serviceman running a kirana shop in the village, who didn’t want to be named, says Seema knew her in-laws were Christians when they married.
Another ex-serviceman, Som Raj, says the 40-50 families that converted in the area had done so “discreetly”. “They would go to Nowshera and other places to attend Sunday prayers,” he claims.
Rinku’s younger brother Vinod Kumar denies this. “We have been attending Sunday prayers and participating in church activities for four-five years,” he says.
Som Raj adds that after the violence in January, community elders held sittings at Sehyal and Kangri to discuss their “ghar wapsi”. The families were asked to go to Hardwar and take a dip in the Ganga and perform yagna to convert, he says, with the warning that they would be ostracised otherwise. All the families except the four “returned to the community”, Som Raj says.
Vidhi Chand too confirms this, saying nearly 40 families living at Kangri village have returned to “their community fold”.
Jaggar Singh, 45, of Nimke village, who is among those who have reconverted to Vasith, says they did so out of fear, after community leaders threatened social boycott. “Unhoney kaha ki hum log bhristh ho gaye hein, shuddhikaran karna padega (They said we had become impure, we would have to be purified),” Jaggar says, adding they were taken to a temple in Janipur area.
Jaggar adds that even after this temple visit, “our boycott continues”.
Kala Ram says his family is determined to hold out despite the pressure. “We want to know our fault. It is our right to profess the religion of our choice,” he says.