Hindu Nationalists Hit Indian Christians With Anti-Conversion ‘Christmas Whammy’

On Dec. 21 the Hindu nationalist government of the Indian state of Karnataka introduced harsh legislation intended to prevent conversions from Hinduism to other faiths.

Christians, Muslims and secular groups protest the ‘Karnataka Protection of Right to Freedom of Religion Bill’ in Banga
lore, India, on Wednesday.
Christians, Muslims and secular groups protest the ‘Karnataka Protection of Right to Freedom of Religion Bill’ in Banga lore, India, on Wednesday. (photo: KP Sasi / National Catholic Register)

Some Christians in India are having nightmarish times ahead of this Christmas. 

Alongside brazen attacks on Christian targets in several states and a Missionaries of Charity home in Gujarat state charged with “conversion,” the conversion issue has escalated with an anti-conversion bill presented Dec. 21 in the legislature of southern Karnataka state.

“This is a Christmas whammy for us,” Archbishop Peter Machado of Bangalore, head of the Catholic Church in Karnataka, told the Register.

“Wherever the BJP is in power, they are pushing this [anti-conversion] law to polarize the Hindus against minorities,” said Archbishop Machado.

“The Karnataka Protection of Right to Freedom of Religion Bill 2021” has several stringent provisions including 10-year imprisonment for conversion by “fraud or inducement,” and mandates prior permission from senior government officials for anyone intending to change their faith.

Eight Indian states, most of them ruled by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), have enacted anti-conversion legislation, which is euphemistically called “Freedom of Religion” legislation. The BJP is also India’s ruling party at the national level.

Archbishop Machado, who is the president of Karnataka Catholic Bishops’ Council, joined public protests after Hindu nationalist groups carried out several attacks on churches and Sunday Christian gatherings accusing them of “conversion.”

“There is a clear political agenda behind this move to divide the people on the basis of religion using the bogey of conversion. It has been raised in a big way here to prepare ground for this bill, with a survey of churches and attacks,” said Archbishop Machado. 

“The recent investigative report has brought it out very clearly,” said Archbishop Machado referring to the report of the People’s Union Civil Libertiesthat documented 39 incidents of hate crimes against Christians in Karnataka undertaken with police collusion.

“This legislation would make the Christians more vulnerable to harassment with the connivance of the state. Those who use halls and houses for regular prayers will be in more danger,” warned Archbishop Machado.

Archbishop Machado also spoke out publicly against the bill at a Dec. 22 protest against the legislation in Bangalore, organized by a coalition of groups representing minorities, youth, women and human rights organizations.

“We request you not to humiliate the community with this Bill, which potentially criminalises the practice of faith,” he said at the protest, The Hindunewspaper reported. We are happy that other sections of society have also come out against it,” he said.


‘Weapons to Intimidate’

Christian leaders say that the tabling of the draconian bill in the Karnataka Assembly, only days before Christmas, shows that the meeting in September of the state’s 15 Catholic bishops with Karnataka’s Chief Minister Basavaraj Somappa Bommai has not had any impact on the anti-Christian agenda of the ruling BJP government.

Contrary to vociferous Hindu nationalist claims of massive conversions, the percentage of Indians who are Christian has been on a slight but steady decline for decades, according to the decennial national census. 1971, the Christian share of the population stood at 2.6% while in 1981, it was 2.44%. It declined to 2.34% in 1991, to 2.32% in 2001, and declined further to 2.3% in 2011.

“The conversion hype is all around the country. See what they are doing to the Missionaries of Charity nuns here in Gujarat,” Jesuit Father Cedric Prakash, who has published a syndicated article on ”Bashing Christians in India,” told the Register from Gujarat Dec 21.

“Christians are being beaten up, their institutions are attacked, Christian literature is burnt, undemocratic demands are made on the Christians, false charges framed, anti-conversion laws are made weapons to intimidate and harass,” Father Prakash lamented.

The recent targets include a Catholic school at Satna in BJP-ruled Madhya Pradesh state in central India, where Hindu activists issued an ultimatum in late October demanding the installation of a Hindu deity at the school.
“All these instances are a part of BJP’s national strategy to prepare the ground for a national anti-conversion law for the whole country,” said Father Prakash.

Government officials visited a Missionaries of Charity home in Vadodara on Dec. 9 and charged the nuns with conversion under Gujarat’s ‘Freedom of Religion’ Act, citing the finding of Bibles in the home for orphan girls. 

“Conversion has become an easy tool to demonize the Christians. The MCs are the prime icons of the Catholic Church. … The BJP and its various wings go after the MCs as they are admired and supported by Hindus. A concerted and systematic vilification of the Christian community is going on in the country,” said the outspoken Jesuit priest.

A popular school run by the Malabar Missionary Brothers at Ganj Basoda in Vidisha district of Madhya Pradesh state also had a taste of the ”conversion assault” early December.

“As examination was going on hundreds [of Hindu nationalists] entered our campus, created mayhem and broke glass panes of the building on Dec. 6. We were accused of organizing a ‘conversion’ of children,” Brother Antony Pynumkal, principal of the St Joseph’s School, told the Register.

The video the fundamentalist leaders circulated as the ‘proof of conversion’ justifying the attack on the school, was First Holy Communion ceremony of eight Catholic children held at the parish church a mile away, on Oct. 31, Brother Antony recounted.

“We have only four Christians among the 1,500 students in the school. Running our institutions is becoming very challenging,” said Brother Antony. 


Endemic Problem

In fact, conversion-related harassment of Christians has become endemic since the BJP assumed power nationally in 2014, under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. 

The steady rise in the number of incidents of anti-Christian violence crossed the one per day mark this year, with Christian groups reporting over 300 such instances in the first nine months of 2021 across 21 states, particularly in north India. 

Leading this tally was populous Uttar Pradesh state, whose 240 million residents are governed by a stridently nationalist BJP regime. 

Two Ursuline Franciscan nuns waiting at a bus stop in Uttar Pradesh in early October were stopped by Hindu fundamentalists and forcibly taken to a police station. The nuns were picked up along with a group of evangelical Christians, who had been accused of conversion for holding a routine Sunday prayer meeting.

Police also sometimes charge Christians with “conversions” if they refuse pay a bribe.

A senior priest in Varanasi, in Uttar Pradesh state, recounted to the Register the experience of a young pastor who was asked by police for a bribe of 5,000 rupees ($70) which he refused to pay. Though his father later paid it under continued coercion, police arrested the young pastor and broke his legs and hands by beating him with iron rods, according to the senior priest.

The Alliance for Defending Freedom has collected accounts of 69 incidents of harassment of Christians in Uttar Pradesh this year through October.