Some months ago, Jagir Kaur, a poor widow in Bhikhiwind, a backward outpost just miles away from the Indo-Pak border in Punjab, fell and broke her leg. Christian missionaries from a Pentecostal planter church nearby came to assist, and just as they were putting her in a car to take her to hospital, Amarjit Singh, an RSS volunteer, stepped in to take her away from the missionaries. She was brought to the Guru Nanak Mission hospital in Amritsar where other Sangh organisations pitched in with money for her treatment. “If we had not intervened, they would have converted her in the coming months”, says Dinesh Sharma, programme head of Punjab’s Dharam Jagaran Samiti.
Jasbir Singh, who lives in Guru ki Wadali, Amritsar, ‘converted’ to Sikhism with the assistance of the RSS earlier this week. His house shares a wall with the Pentecostal church run by an independent pastor. The day after his re-conversion, he made SOS calls to the RSS activists as several pastors from the neighbourhood descended on his house and asked him to seek forgiveness from the Lord for “straying”.
In Bhikhiwind, RSS worker Bhola Singh keeps a lookout for any Christian claiming the 200 units of free electricity meant for Scheduled Castes by the Punjab government. “We have launched a campaign to expose Christians (designated backward class) claiming SC benefits. It helps us to re-convert them to Hinduism or Sikhism when they realise they are losing out on facilities they can get if they return,” he says.
The dalit bastis in Punjab’s border districts of Amritsar, Tarn Taran, Gurdaspur, Pathankot and Ferozepur are the scene of a battle for religious supremacy in which Christian missionaries and the RSS are locked in a tug of war of sorts even as the bewildered objects of their attention swap stories of what is on offer.
The poorest of the poor, who eke out a living on the margins of society, are the primary targets of conversion and re-conversion. If SC communities like the Mazhabi Sikhs and the Valmikis converted to Christianity in these parts to escape caste discrimination from upper-class Hindus and Sikhs, the cornerstone of the RSS’s campaign is to make it attractive for them to become SCs again. Here’s how.
All those who have done ghar wapsi in recent months are “guided” to first get an SC certificate made. “This enables them to get facilities such as BPL ration cards, scholarships for children, reservation in government jobs, free electricity. If we do not enable the new re-converts to get some benefits, they will go back to Christianity,” says Raj Kumar Cheeda, a one-time Christian pastor who ‘re-converted’ to Hinduism three years ago and is now a worker with the RSS’s Dharam Jagaran Samiti. He claims to have got many SC cards made for those who returned to Hinduism through him.
Gumtala, a labour basti on the outskirts of Amritsar, is an all-Christian colony of people who originally came from SC communities. It has three Pentecostal planter churches and one Orthodox Catholic church. The talk here is about how the surname Masih that most of them sport, deprives them of SC benefits. Says Charanjit Masih, “If we write Masih as our surname which the Church asks us to use instead of our original Singh, then we don’t get 200 units of free electricity or the BPL cards. We are poor people, the government should do something about this.” He reckons that those who have ‘re-converted’ to Sikhism and are now putting Singh against their name “have done so only because of they have been promised cheap wheat and daal.”
Reverend Bishop PK Joseph of the Anglican Church says only those “weak in faith” would fall for RSS’s sops for reconversion. But he does see it as a problem. “As a precaution, we are telling people wishing to embrace Christianity to get a self-declaration attested by an executive magistrate.”
The RSS’s ghar wapsi also requires ‘re-converts’ to affirm on affidavits that they have not been offered any allurement. “We are not offering any allurement, but only making people aware how their Christian status deprives them of facilities the government gives to SCs. What is wrong in that?” says Sharma.
A couple of years ago, the RSS stalled the regularisation of 225 safai karamcharis in the BJP-dominated Amritsar Municipal Corporation because the jobs were reserved for SCs. “We did their ghar wapsi. Only when they returned to their original faith did they get permanent employment,” says Cheeda.
Cheeda (then Bagga Masih) was an independent Pentecostal pastor for two decades during which he claims to have converted to Christianity several thousand people belonging to Scheduled Castes. Some three years ago, he did a ghar wapsi to Hinduism and is now the RSS’s “most valuable asset” in Amritsar. His brother Buta Masih continues to be a pastor of a Bangalore-based missionary society in Dinanagar in Gurdaspur. “Many of my relatives are Christian pastors and earn a good living. The church helped my brother build his house, bought a motorcycle for him and also gives him fuel. He is given a salary which rises according to the number of conversions he is able to do.”
Bira Joseph, a born Christian daily wager from Gumtala, points out that even though they are deprived of SC benefits as Christians, the missionaries help them in other ways. “Our children are given fee concessions in Christian schools and scholarships for college education. Some are sent abroad for Bible Study courses.”
With the RSS publicising its ghar wapsi and the buzz about SC benefits percolating to the impoverished border villages and slum colonies, pressure is mounting on Christian missionaries to counter. Christian organisations have begun petitioning the Punjab government to give the benefit of 200 units of free electricity to Christians.
Why I Converted
Three years ago, when I fell sick and vomited blood, a pastor called Amrik Singh came to my help. He prayed for me and I became well. I am a poor daily wager and my son had just finished his Class XII. The church offered to pay for his education in Bible studies. I agreed because I could not afford to send him to college. After he completed the three-year course in Chandigarh, the church offered to send him to the US on a 10-year visa. They asked me to pay for the ticket while they would sponsor his education, but I did not have the money. Jitender (his son) is now a pastor, my daughter is married to a pastor, and I too do the same work. By the grace of Christ, I have built a new house.
Despite the church’s help, I did not convert until four months ago. My son was a pastor before me. Now I live off the offerings given to me as a pastor. I have retained my surname, otherwise I would lose the benefits I have been getting as an SC. So, in that respect, I am not a Christian. I still go to my village gurdwara.
We are with the Church of Nazareth. I don’t know much about this organisation as I can’t read. My son has read the Bible and he knows.
I run a small catering outfit. I re-converted after the RSS convinced us about our original religion Sikhism. We were born to Christian parents, and though we have been worshipping Christ all these years, I don’t know much about the faith. We also go to gurdwaras and the church did not forbid us from going there. We were only forbidden from doing idol worship and bowing before Sikh gurus.
Now that we have become SCs again, we are looking forward to getting a BPL card and scholarship for our children. If returning to Sikhism helps our family out of poverty, it’s alright. We got nothing as Christians and were always told that you cannot get a BPL card because you have Masih in your name. We are also hoping for respect and acceptance from society. The RSS gave us the Sikh ‘gutka’ and a locket with the picture of Guru Gobind Singh on it, but I gave it away to some friends and will probably get another one.
My wife and I cannot read. Our three sons will read up about Sikhism and tell us. We will all take on Sikh names now, but it will be hard to forget Christ so soon. My house still has posters of Christ.