In regions most affected by aggressive Christian proselytization, a wave of civil unrest has recently surged.
Villagers have confronted the conversion activities; reports indicate that new churches have been the targets of vandalism, and groups involved in fostering conversions have faced both physical and social opposition.
Such occurrences have been documented in Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.
A village in Bihar's Sitamarhi district was the backdrop of such a confrontation two weeks ago. An assembly of villagers protested against a group that had come from outside, accusing them of attempting to convert locals to Christianity.
Police were summoned, and members of the group were asked to recite Hindu prayers such as Hanuman Chalisa and Gayatri Mantra as evidence of their claims of retaining Hindu identity.
Videos of the incident were widely circulated in the state. Local media covered it too.
Swarajya travelled to the site of the confrontation this week. In Hareram village, which falls under Majorganj police station and is around 24 kilometers from Sitamarhi railway station, the local sentiment was one of pride at the resistance offered to the “converters”.
One of the leaders of the agitation was Prem Ranjan Singh alias Bittu, 35. Narrating the events of 30 July, he said that one Renu Devi, who lives in an adjoining village, visited Hareram along with a group of unfamiliar women. She was about to proceed with a prayer meeting at the house of a resident named Rajendra Paswan when Prem Ranjan and 70-80 other villagers interrupted it. They had come with a policeman.
Prem Ranjan told Swarajya, “When Renu Devi denied our charges of conversion attempts and said he was still Hindu, we demanded she recites Gayatri Mantra and Hanuman Chalisa in front of everyone.”
The police officer tried to quell tensions even as verbal demands for Renu Devi’s arrest were made, and the prayer meeting was halted.
According to Prem Ranjan, the conversion trail in the village began with the daughter-in-law of Rajendra Paswan about a year ago after she made connections with a Christian center in Sitamarhi.
The villagers learnt about the conversion when Rajendra’s family deviated from Hindu customs at the funeral of his wife last year.
The daughter-in-law, Pinki, played a pivotal role in the conversion of around 20 families in Hareram village in the coming months, he said.
Rajendra, who is from a scheduled caste, denied the allegations of conversion. He insisted that he hadn't converted to any other religion. Instead, he had only started worshipping “Pita Parmeshwar”.
Surprisingly, he refuted claims of his conversion by repeatedly stressing that he had not adopted Islam. “Hum Musalman nahi bane hain [we have not become Muslim],” he said.
When the term 'Christianity' was mentioned, Rajendra drew a blank. Asked what he understood by the term ‘Pita Parmeshwar’, Rajendra said it referred to a higher soul that protects all lives like a father.
Pinki was reluctant to speak. Clad in sari and of a frail frame, she said her husband had been ill for several years but became healthy after she started attending a prayer centre in Sitamarhi.
Hareram is a small village of only about 1,500 people. The demography mainly comprises scheduled or ‘lower’ castes such as Paswans, Badhai, Kumhar, Jatav and Nai. The rest are Rajput families; about 25 families are Muslim.
Prem Ranjan believes the villagers being targeted for conversion are easily swayed due to their simple nature and poverty. He said they are so ignorant that they are unable to discern between Islam and Christianity or understand that they were being driven out of the Hindu fold.
“The term 'Pita Parmeshwar' is misleading. They don’t know it refers to Jesus Christ,” he said.
Inside Rajendra’s house, we did not find a picture of Jesus Christ. There were some pictures of Hindu deities, such as a Krishna pasted on the walls.
Prem Ranjan narrated the events leading to the agitation on 30 July.
Prem Ranjan and his allies then gathered women from their respective families and thronged the prayer meeting. They also snatched the religious book being used. Prem Ranjan showed the copy to Swarajya correspondent.
The event garnered attention after a video went viral, drawing the regional media's eye. Law enforcement intervened, and a team of policemen visited the Paswan family for questioning.
To “restore harmony”, Prem Ranjan and his allies organised a Satyanarayan path with the participation of those who had attended the prayer meeting.
“15 out of 20 newly converted families sat in our puja,” he said.
We talked to Dulari Devi, one of the attendees. She expressed her anguish at being “maligned” in public, saying that any issues should have been addressed directly with her and her husband Nandu Pandit.
“If they had any issue, they should have talked to us about it directly. What was the need to raise a ruckus and malign us in front of other villagers?”
She said her son was mentally ill, and Pinki told her that if she started worshipping Pita Parmeshwar, he would “recover”. Asked if her son was better, she said she has not worshipped Pita Parmeshwar enough.
She said that after attending the Satyanarayan puja, villagers who had stopped talking to her had resumed doing so and it was a relief to her. She however expressed her dismay at her son’s health, saying that all she wanted was him to be fine and normal.
She denied conversion ambitions in the first place and, like Rajendra, said that her family “had not become Musalman”.
Inside her house, too, no recognisable Christian symbols or imagery were found. There were however pictures of Hindu gods in a corner.
When shown a downloaded image of Christ on mobile phone, she failed to recognise him.
Prabhakar Singh, who is from the Rajput caste, said that the Christian centre at Sitamarhi lured poor, ignorant villagers by promising them miraculous healing from illnesses.
He said the core strategy of the “converters” was to first attract families to worship ‘Pita Parmeshwar’, then to detach them from Hindu worship, followed by the introduction of new rituals.
“Their aim is to make the families stop dhoop-batti puja immediately and remove the pictures of Hindu deities such as Ganesh and Devi Ma. Then comes the next step – different rituals for funeral and marriage.”
Drawing a parallel with referral marketing, he said that monetary incentives were given to for families who introduced others to Christian centers.
“One family that starts attending a Christian centre is given money to the tune of Rs 10,000 a month. They must bring at least five more families in the Christian fold to keep getting the money,” he said.
Asked about the source of his information, he said he relied on a network of informants across Bihar and that he had been monitoring such conversion activities for months. “After Rajendra’s family refused Hindu rites after his wife’s death, I became attentive towards the issue. Then slowly, after talking to my friends from other villages and other parts of Bihar, I learnt about the game,” he said.
Not only people from the ‘upper’ Rajput caste, but also those from 'lower' castes opposed the conversion event.
Subodh Paswan, the next-door neighbour of Rajendra, was among those who disrupted the event. Asked about his reasons for opposing it, Subodh said, “This is not good for the society. Once they convert, they start eating cow meat and pork.”
He said that families under influence of “converters” remove pictures of Hindu gods, “insult Sanatana Dharma” and “become different”. “This is not good for the village,” he argued.
Post the Hareram incident, Prem Ranjan said he was approached by a nearby village, Mubarakpur, to thwart similar activities. He and his group reached there and disrupted a prayer sabha.
He said he planned to do it in other villages too, provided it was Sunday. “Usually Thursdays and Sundays are chosen for such events, but I can go only on Sundays,” he said.
All three – Prem Ranjan, Prabhakar and Subodh – said they were not affiliated with any Hindu nationalist group, but identified as “proud and aware Hindus”.
(Note: The ground visit was made by Prabhat Kumar, an intern with Swarajya. The report has been written by Swati Goel Sharma based on his inputs and telephonic conversations with villagers.)
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