The Christians were mid-hymn when the mob kicked in the door. A swarm of men dressed in saffron poured inside. They jumped on stage and shouted Hindu supremacist slogans. They punched pastors in the head. They threw women to the ground, sending terrified children scuttling under their chairs.
“They kept beating us, pulling out hair,” said Manish David, one of the pastors who was assaulted. “They yelled, ‘What are you doing here? What songs are you singing? What are you trying to do?’”
The attack unfolded on the morning of January 26th at the Satprakashan Sanchar Kendra Christian centre in the city of Indore, India. The police soon arrived, but the officers did not touch the aggressors. Instead, they arrested and jailed the pastors and other church elders, who were still dizzy from getting punched in the head.
The Christians were charged with breaking a newly enforced law that targets religious conversions, one that mirrors at least a dozen other measures across the country that have prompted a surge in mob violence against Indian Christians.
David was not converting anyone, he said. But the organised assault against his church was propelled by a growing anti-Christian hysteria that is spreading across this vast nation, home to one of Asia’s oldest and largest Christian communities, with more than 30 million adherents.
Anti-Christian vigilantes are sweeping through villages, storming churches, burning Christian literature, attacking schools and assaulting worshippers. In many cases, the police and members of India’s governing party are helping them, government documents and dozens of interviews revealed. In church after church, the very act of worship has become dangerous despite constitutional protections for freedom of religion.
To many Hindu extremists, the attacks are justified – a means of preventing religious conversions. To them, the possibility that some Indians, even a relatively small number, would reject Hinduism for Christianity is a threat to their dream of turning India into a pure Hindu nation. Many Christians have become so frightened that they try to pass as Hindu to protect themselves.
“I just don’t get it,” said Abhishek Ninama, a Christian farmer, who stared dejectedly at a rural church stomped apart this year. “What is it that we do that makes them hate us so much?”
The pressure is greatest in central and northern India, where the governing party of prime minister Narendra Modi is firmly in control and where evangelical Christian groups are making inroads among lower-caste Hindus, albeit quietly. Pastors hold clandestine ceremonies at night. They conduct secret baptisms. They pass out audio Bibles that look like little transistor radios so that illiterate farmers can surreptitiously listen to the Scripture as they plough their fields.
Since its independence in 1947, India has been the world’s largest experiment in democracy. At times, communal violence, often between Hindus and Muslims, has tested its commitment to religious pluralism, but usually the authorities try, albeit sometimes too slowly, to tamp it down.
The issue of conversions to Christianity from Hinduism is an especially touchy subject, one that has vexed the country for years and even drew in Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, who fiercely guarded India’s secular ideals. In the past few years, Modi and his Hindu nationalist party have tugged India far to the right, away from what many Indians see as the multicultural foundation Nehru built. The rising attacks on Christians, who make up about 2 per cent of the population, are part of a broader shift in India in which minorities feel less safe.
Modi is facing increasing international pressure to rein in his supporters and stop the persecution of Muslims and Christians. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, a government body, recommended that India be put on its red list for “severe violations of religious freedom” – a charge the Modi administration strongly denied.
But across India, the anti-Christian forces are growing stronger by the day, and they have many faces, including a white-collar army of lawyers and clerks who file legal complaints against Christian organisations. They also devise devastating social boycotts against isolated Christians in remote villages. According to extensive interviews, Hindu nationalists have blocked Christians from community wells, barred them from visiting Hindu homes and ostracised villagers for believing in Jesus. Last year, in one town, they stopped people from gathering on Christmas.
“Christians are being suppressed, discriminated against and persecuted at rising levels like never before in India,” said Matias Perttula, the advocacy director at International Christian Concern, a leading anti-persecution group. “And the attackers run free, every time.”
‘They want to remove us from society’
Dilip Chouhan sits in an office behind a print shop in the small central Indian town of Alirajpur, meaty arms folded across his chest. Above him stretches a poster of a tribal warrior. Chouhan is part of a growing network of anti-Christian muscle.
Just the mention of Christians makes his face pucker, as if he licked a lemon. “These ‘believers,’” he said, using the term derisively, “they promise all kinds of stuff – motorcycles, TVs, fridges. They work off superstition. They mislead people.”
Chouhan lives in the central state of Madhya Pradesh, which this year passed an anti-conversion law that carries prison sentences of up to 10 years for any person found guilty of leading illegal conversions, which are vaguely defined. Energised by this law, Chouhan (35) and scores of other young Hindu nationalists have stormed a string of churches. Some of the raids were broadcast on the news, including footage of Chouhan barging into one church with a shotgun on his back.
He said he wore the gun on his back simply out of “fashion”, and a senior police officer in that area said there would be no charges. Instead, as happened with the Indore episode, several pastors in the ransacked churches were jailed on charges of illegal conversions. Police officials declined to share their evidence.
Chouhan said his group, which uses WhatsApp to plan its raids on upcoming church services, has 5,000 members. It is part of a constellation of Hindu nationalist organisations across the country, including the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS, as well as many members of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, or the BJP.
“The BJP is really into this issue, big time,” said Gaurav Tiwari, a party youth leader in Madhya Pradesh.
His BJP comrades in the neighbouring state of Chhattisgarh recently conducted several anti-Christian marches during which they belted out, “Converters! Let’s beat them with shoes!” In September, they did exactly that: A throng of young BJP workers from the same chapter barged into a Chhattisgarh police station and hurled shoes at two pastors and beat them up – right in front of police officers.
“I slapped that pastor five or six times,” bragged Rahul Rao, a 34-year-old contractor and officer holder of the BJP youth cell. “It was immensely satisfying.”
In this case, police officers have charged Rao, who was bailed out by other BJP members. But in many cases, authorities take the mob’s side. A recently leaked letter, from a top police official in Chhattisgarh to his underlings, reads, “Keep a constant vigil on the activities of Christian missionaries.”
Another leaked document, from a district administrator in Baghpat, in the state of Uttar Pradesh, last year denied Christians the right to celebrate Christmas at a church. And just a few weeks ago, an esteemed Hindu priest presented, in public, with BJP leaders sharing a stage with him, his remedy for those who try to convert others: beheading.
Christians in states such as Kerala and Goa, which have large historic Christian communities, face much less persecution, if any at all. But in tradition-bound rural areas where Christians are a tiny minority and community means everything, the pressure is intense.
Village elders in Bilawar Kalan, a cluster of small houses and squiggly roads in Madhya Pradesh, recently instituted the equivalent of a €115 fine for any family that allows Christians in their home. At the same time, they are trying to force the few Christian families to convert to Hinduism, warning that otherwise no one will marry their children, attend their funerals or sell them anything at the market.
“They want to remove us from society,” said Sukh Lal Kumre, a threadbare farmer and a Christian, who sat on a dry log in a field just outside the village.
When asked about the social boycott, elders in Bilawar Kalan were not evasive or apologetic at all. “We are doing this to coerce them back to society,” explained Mesh Lal Chanchal, who is also one of the village’s top BJP members. “If we didn’t intervene, they would have converted this whole area by now.”
‘Irreligious, anti-national and hostile’
In 1936, the royal court of Raigarh, a small princely state in what is now Chhattisgarh, passed India’s first known anti-conversion law, requiring anyone who wanted to change religions to obtain government permission. The concern then, like today, was the rapid spread of Christianity, which was considered a threat to the old order.
Missionaries of that era targeted the bottom tiers of society, including lower-caste Hindus and Indigenous people known as Tribals, teaching them how to read and write and encouraging them to question the caste system. This infuriated the landlords and maharajahs who presided over a feudal hierarchy that relied on exploiting lower-caste labour.
Around the same time, the leaders of the RSS, a Hindu nationalist group founded in the 1920s, began to articulate their dream of making India a Hindu Rashtra, or a Hindu nation, pushing Christians and Muslims to the side. The RSS is widely considered the ideological fountainhead for Modi’s party.
MS Golwalkar, one of the RSS’s early leaders, wrote of Christians, “Their activities are not merely irreligious, they are also anti-national.” He went on: “They will remain here as hostiles and will have to be treated as such.”
After India’s independence from Britain, Christian leaders helped persuade the framers of India’s constitution to include protections for religious freedom, even as Hindu nationalists kept trying to pass anti-conversion laws. When the debate landed in parliament in 1955, Nehru, India’s iconic prime minister, argued against such anti-conversion laws, presciently predicting that they “might very well be the cause of great harassment”.
In the decades that followed, Hindu nationalists tried to restrict conversions. Secularists within Nehru’s Congress Party tried to check them. A few states, including Madhya Pradesh, where Hindu nationalists have long enjoyed broad support, passed their own anti-conversion laws, but enforcement was limited and desultory.
In 2014, all that changed. Modi swept into power. Part of his appeal were his promises of economic reform and a more powerful India on the global stage. But many Indians were also attracted to Modi’s deep roots in Hindu nationalist groups such as the RSS.
The first victims of the Modi era were Muslims. Dozens were publicly lynched by Hindu extremists claiming to protect cows, which many Hindus consider sacred. Then attacks against Christians started ticking up; the Evangelical Fellowship of India says anti-Christian hate crimes have doubled since 2014.
So, too, have economic pincer movements. Hindu nationalist lawyers and activists have filed scores of complaints against Christian charities through an organisation called the Legal Rights Observatory, starving them of funds and shutting many down.
A few years ago, after Catholic churches in New Delhi, the capital, had been vandalised, Christian leaders pleaded with Modi for help. He was uninterested, mocking them and never addressing the attacks, according to three clergymen who attended an important meeting at the prime minister’s residence in December 2014.
“He acted like a don,” said the Rev Dominic Emmanuel, a former official with the Delhi Catholic Church who now lives in Vienna.
When asked about the meeting, a spokesperson for Modi said these were “unsubstantiated allegations” and pointed to a speech in which Modi said he would “not allow any religious group, belonging to the majority or the minority, to incite hatred against others” and that his government would be one “that gives equal respect to all religions”.
In October, Modi met Pope Francis at the Vatican and invited him to visit India. Some analysts saw that as progress. Others dismissed it as a cynical ploy for Catholic votes.
Emmanuel does not believe a papal visit will change much. Attacks have shot up over the past few months and have spread to the southern state of Karnataka. The extremists say they are acting to stop illegal conversions. Christian leaders say that is just an excuse to stir up a mob.
“Just like they have terrorism to beat the Muslims with,” Emmanuel said, “they have conversions to beat the Christians with.” He added, “I’m worried and very sad that in this beautiful country, with a lovely culture, where we have lived together for centuries, majoritarianism is gaining the upper hand, and people are being put against one another based on religion.”
‘Everybody in this village is against us’
David, who was beaten up and arrested inside the Indore Christian centre, said his first night in jail was terrifying. He was interrogated repeatedly and denied food, water and a lawyer. He and eight other Protestant elders spent two months in jail and still face serious charges. “The cops seemed to have ears only for one side,” he said.
Santosh Dudhi, a senior police officer in Indore, said his officers had acted on a complaint by a young woman who accused her parents and church leaders of forcing Christianity on her. When tracked down at her home on Indore’s outskirts, though, the young woman, Shalini Kaushal, denied the police account. “I never said my parents were forcibly trying to convert me,” she said.
Trumped-up charges are common, Christian leaders say. Human rights groups estimate that more than 100 Christians have been falsely arrested this year. And the Christians have few allies. The anti-conversion laws are popular, part of the BJP’s playbook to use religion as a force to polarise the masses and win votes from the Hindu majority, who make up about 80 per cent of the population. And even though top BJP officials have denied any broad anti-Christian bias, some seemed quite suspicious of evangelical activity.
“If somebody wants to convert, no problem,” said Sudhanshu Trivedi, a spokesman for Modi’s party. “But why is it that only the most illiterate and poor convert? Can you tell me that someone who cannot even write the ‘J’ of Jesus begins to believe in it? How so?”
At least a dozen Indian states, with a combined population of more than 700 million people – half of the country’s population – have either passed laws, handed down court orders or are entertaining measures that restrict religious conversions. These measures are also being used to persecute Muslims, to a lesser degree. Several dozen Muslim men have been jailed on charges that they forced their wives to convert to Islam.
The new laws do not mention Christianity or Islam explicitly, but they have clearly been written to target people converting to a religion other than Hinduism while exempting people who “reconvert” to Hinduism. The measures outlaw conversions done with force, fraud or inducements. Some states mandate that anyone seeking to convert must apply for government permission 60 days in advance. And the laws are often so vaguely written that almost any church activity could be considered illegal.
“You could get thrown in jail for giving someone ice cream,” grumbled one Christian, who did not want to be identified for safety reasons.
This has made it dangerous for many pastors. One evangelical preacher in Uttar Pradesh who, like many other Indians, goes by one name – Balram – said he and a relative were arrested in August 2020 on suspicion of unauthorised conversions. Balram said all they were doing at the time of their arrest was having tea.
At the police station, he said, the officers punched him in the groin, smacked him with wooden poles and yanked out clumps of his hair. He said one officer wore a heavy metal bangle and kept thumping his relative on the head. “His head still hurts,” Balram said.
A police official, Sunil Kumar Singh, confirmed the broad outlines of the case but denied any abuse, instead putting the blame on Balram. “He was doing conversions and trying to disturb communal harmony,” Singh said, without providing any evidence.
A Pentecostal pastor was bludgeoned to death in June in the small northern town of Sangohi. Police officers arrested one man who they said had grown enraged at the pastor and accused him of having an affair. The pastor’s family strenuously rejected that.
“It was a planned murder,” said his wife, Sunita Rani. “Everybody in this village is against us.”
‘Everyone will hate you because of me’
Vinod Patil, a Pentecostal preacher in Madhya Pradesh, is not giving up. Just as Hindu extremists believe it is their duty to stop conversions out of Hinduism, Patil believes his religious duty is to spread Christianity. These days, he operates like a secret agent.
He leaves his house quietly and never in a group. He jumps on a small Honda motorbike and putters past little towns and scratchy wheat fields, Bible tucked inside his jacket. He constantly checks his mirrors to make sure he is not tailed. “The constitution gives us the right to preach openly,” he said. “Still, you got to be careful.”
Hindu extremists have warned Patil that they will kill him if they catch him preaching. So last year he shut down his Living Hope Pentecostal Church, which he said used to have 400 members, and shifted to small clandestine services, usually at night.
He knows the vigilantes are looking for him. But he insists that he is following the law and that everyone who comes to his meetings does so voluntarily. “Before, when we had a problem, we’d go to the police,” he said. “Now the anti-Christians have the government with them. The anti-Christians are everywhere.”
Secrecy puts many Indian Christians in a bind. They believe deeply in the teachings of Jesus; “You get this energy just thinking about his name,” Patil said. But they know publicly expressing their beliefs is risky.
Muttur Devi, a lower-caste woman who works on a farm in the impoverished state of Bihar, adopted Christianity two years ago. Still, each morning, she affixes a bindi, a small circular sticker, to her forehead, and paints a vermilion stripe on her scalp. These are visible Hindu marks that she says help disguise her departure from Hinduism.
“If I take this off,” she said, touching her bindi, “the whole village will harass me.”
One cold night this past winter, Patil drove to a secret prayer session in an unmarked farmhouse. He quickly stepped inside. On a dusty carpet that smelled like sheep, two dozen Pentecostal Christians waited for him. Most were lower-caste farmers. When a dog barked outside, one woman whipped around and whispered, “What’s that?”
Patil reassured the woman that she was doing nothing wrong and that God was watching over. He cracked open his weathered, Hindi-language Bible and rested his finger on Luke 21, an apt passage for his beleaguered flock.
“They will seize you and persecute you,” he read, voice trembling. “You will be betrayed even by parents, brothers, sisters, relatives and friends,” he went on, tracing the passages with his finger. “They will put some of you to death. Everyone will hate you because of me.”
The farmers sitting on the floor, some holding sleeping babies, watched him closely. They also checked the windows to make sure no one was coming. – This article originally appeared in The New York Times