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Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Amidst BJP tribal push, Christian schools, churches feel the heat in MP

Since March this year, the Freedom to Religion Act, 2021, has been in force in the state, under which stringent punishment is provided for illegal conversions.

Written by Iram Siddique | Bhopal |
Updated: December 15, 2021 8:52:19 pm
Several members of the clergy have since been booked on the charge.

The recent incident of vandalism at a Catholic school in Vidisha follows several such attacks on Christian institutions in Madhya Pradesh in the past two months.

The affiliation of seven Catholic schools in Jhabua, with 8,000 tribal students on the rolls, has been cancelled, charges of illegal conversion have led to the arrest of at least eight people, including six Pastors and two Fathers and, facing similar charges, nuns running a girls’ hostel for tribal students in Raisen and Satna have moved court for protection. Another church in Jhabua has approached police over threats on social media saying it would be razed like the Babri Masjid.

The Vidisha St Joseph School saw an attack by nearly 300 men of right-wing Hindu groups on December 6, while the Class 12 CBSE exam for math was on. The principal told The Indian Express that police did not send personnel to ward off the mob on time. Police admitted the school had approached them, and that they had underestimated the threat.

The arrest of the six Pastors, in Jhabua’s Ranapur police station on December 5, came two days after they had submitted a memorandum to the Collector saying false conversion cases were being filed against them.

Earlier, on September 17, members of the Christian community had written to the Collector and Superintendent of Police, with a copy to the President of India, saying false cases were being filed against them and they were facing attacks from alleged workers of the VHP, Bajrang Dal, RSS, Adivasi Samajh Sudharak Sangh and Hindu Yuva Janjati. One of the people the letter named was Prem Singh Damor, who runs the Adivasi Samajh Sudharak Sangh.

Rockey Shah, PRO for the Catholic Diocese of Jhabua, who has been working in the district for 21 years, told The Indian Express there had been a rise in attacks since Shivraj Singh Chouhan returned to power in 2020, after the narrow loss of the 2018 elections. “Chouhan was the CM when I began but then the situation was never this bad,” he says.

He also claimed that for the first time, pastors have been asked to seek permission of the local Sub-Divisional Magistrate before entering any village. When asked about the matter, Jhabua District Collector Somesh Mishra said, “I will check with my SP and discuss the issue with him. We are not registering any conversion cases without adequate evidence.”

Since March this year, the Freedom to Religion Act, 2021, has been in force in the state, under which stringent punishment is provided for illegal conversions. Several members of the clergy have since been booked on the charge. A Christian community leader, Maria Stephen, called the law “a tool in the hands of fundamentalist to act against the minorities without any fear”.

Since the implementation of the Act, MP has recorded 62 cases of ‘illegal conversion’, of which eight involve those from the Christian community. Speaking to The Indian Express, Additional Chief Secretary (Home), Rajesh Rajora, said, “There are a total of 62 cases registered so far under the Freedom to Religion Act, 2021. The bulk of these cases are of those using fake identity, elopement and even rape followed with attempt of religious conversion.”

In a letter addressed to the Chairperson of National Commission for Minorities on November 12, A C Michel, national coordinator for United Christian Forum, said Madhya Pradesh has seen 32 instances of violence against Christians as of October this year.

Later, speaking to The Indian Express, he said these instances of attacks have gone up to 36 until November, a sharp rise from 13 attacks in 2020 and four in 2019.

In his letter, AC Michel stated, “In almost all incidents reported across the states, vigilante mobs composed of religious extremists have been seen to either barge into a prayer gathering or round up individuals that they believe are involved in forcible religious conversions. Such mobs criminally threaten and physically assault people before handing them over to the police on allegations of forcible conversions.”

He further pointed out that “often communal sloganeering is witnessed outside police stations, where the police stand as mute spectators. Sadly, this violence against the Christian community is compounded by the failure of the police to investigate and prosecute mobs and perpetrators.”

He said that of 382 instances of violence against Christians in the country, FIRs had been registered in only 34 cases.

Bhopal Archbishop Sebatian Durairaj, who met Home Minister Narottam Mishra after the Vidisha school attack, told The Indian Express they had conveyed their anxiety and had got an assurance from the minister. “We tried to meet the CM too but could not get time.”

When asked about the increased instances of attacks on minorities and allegation of police inaction, Home Minister Narottam Mishra said, “There is no targeting of any community in the state and as far these numbers of attacks are concerned, we are investigating the matter.”

The attacks and charges against the community coincide with the BJP’s tribal outreach programme for the 2023 Assembly elections. (While in the 2013 Assembly elections, the BJP had won 31 of the 47 reserved tribal seats, in 2018, its tally fell to 16.) The districts where the attacks have been concentrated, Jhabua and Mandla, are tribal. Satna and Raisen too have a sizable tribal population, with Madhya Pradesh accounting for the largest tribal population in the country (21.1% of total). With its hospitals and educational institutes, the Church provides to the tribals what the government has not been able to.

Talking about the attacks, leader of Opposition and former chief minister Kamal Nath said, “The BJP has lost its support amongst the people of the state and now in an attempt to use a Hindu card they have initiated attack on minorities in a desperate attempt to camouflage its unpopularity especially amongst the tribals of the state.”

Madhya Pradesh has seen similar charges against the Christian community in the past as well. Ahead of the 2003 Assembly elections, Uma Bharti had led BJP claims of tribal conversions in Jhabua and Alirajpur. It was in his first government, formed in 2005, that Chouhan initially tried to amend the Madhya Pradesh Freedom to Religion Act 1968, and make it more stringent.

Last month, addressing senior officials from across the state, Chouhan said NGOs getting foreign funding and helping conversions should be probed. “We will not allow them to stay here,” he said.

Rajesh Tiwari, ‘Kshetra Mantri’ for the VHP and Bajrang Dal, said the Vidisha incident, which happened while students (a large number of them non-Christians) were present, was wrong. However, he adds, “It is the failure of the police and administration who did not act in time despite various memorandums highlighting illegal conversion, which pushed us to carry out the protest.” He claimed “miscreants” and not their workers were behind the vandalism at the school.

About ‘ultimatums’ served on minority institutions, he said, “We are here to protect Indian culture, customs and traditions and we vehemently oppose all kinds of fraudulent conversion.” Tiwari added that after the Freedom to Religion Act, they were working with the government to stop conversions. “Only when the administration is lackadaisical that it leads to protest.”

Inspector General, Law and Order, Rakesh Gupta, said police couldn’t have done more in the Vidisha case. “The accused were arrested as per the law and got bail also as per provisions of the law and judiciary. Police take action against any of its personnel who are found lacking.” If during trial a complaint is found to be false, they also take action then, the IG said.

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