Seven months ago, distribution of Bible in a dalit Hindu basti in Ambedkar Nagar of Uttar Pradesh became a flashpoint.
When Chandrika Prasad, a social activist and a political worker, came to know of an event where Christian missionaries were disseminating Bibles to a Dalit settlement in his vicinity, he alerted the local authorities.
Prasad is himself a dalit.
Officers from Jalalpur police station swiftly responded, confiscating the religious texts in question.
After preliminary investigation, a first information report (FIR) was filed on the statement of Prasad. The complaint said that two “outsiders”, named Jose Papachen and Sheeja, had been regularly visiting a Dalit basti in village Shahpur Firojpur for three months, and coercing residents to convert to Christianity through various enticements (FIR number 31 filed on 24 January, 2023, at Jalalpur police station).
The two suspects were booked under Section 3 and 5 (1) of Uttar Pradesh Prohibition of Conversion of Religion Act, 2021 and Section 3 (1) of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989.
Section 3 of the Uttar Pradesh Prohibition of Conversion of Religion Act, which came into force in the state in November 2020, prohibits conversion by misrepresentation, force, fraud, undue influence, coercion and allurement.
Section 5(1) of the Act says if the target of conversion through such means is a person from a scheduled caste or tribe, then punishment is double — a minimum jail term of two years that can extend to ten years.
Subsequent to the FIR, the suspects were arrested. In March, their bail request was rejected by a Special Judge hearing offences under the SC/ST Act, prompting them to seek redress from the High Court.
The bail hearing in the Allahabad high court came up two days ago, that is on 6 September. Single-judge Justice Shamim Ahmad granted them bail.
His comments, suggesting that merely distributing Bibles did not constitute coercive conversion tactics, have ignited a whirlwind of debate across social media platforms.
The Judge said he found merit in the arguments of the lawyers representing the accused that they were only providing good teachings while distributing copies of Bible. Distributing Bible do not amount to allurement for religious conversion, Judge Ahmad said.
In a candid conversation with this publication, complainant Prasad expressed his reluctance to critique the court's ruling, but voiced skepticism over the judge's observation.
He posed a question: “If their intention was purely to offer virtuous teachings or educate the dalits, why did they opt for the Bible and not Gita, that would resonate more with the residents who are Hindus?”
He further said, “Why not a copy of the Constitution? That could help them land a job or empower them with civic knowledge.”
Prasad, who introduced himself as Zila Mantri of the Bharatiya Janata Party in Ambedkar Nagar district, a segment of the Ayodhya division, recounted the events that led to his formal police report.
On 23 January, he visited a basti inhabited by the ‘Lona’ jaati who, he said, is considered ‘mahadalit’, and its members have traditionally begged for alms for a living. They follow Hinduism, he said.
He found a group of about 20 “outsiders” addressing a gathering of the basti dwellers, led by Jose Papachen and Sheeja. Copies of Bible had been given to them, and a ‘bhandara’ was underway.
Notably, the Ambedkar Nagar district was carved out in 1995 by then chief minister Mayawati from a portion of Faizabad. It was named Ambedkar Nagar after Dalit icon BR Ambedkar. About a quarter of the district’s population comes under scheduled castes.
Prasad said that while he respected the court’s decision to give the accused bail on grounds that a chargesheet had been filed and a trial was on, the observation regarding the distribution of Bible evoked several questions in his mind.
“It makes me wonder: Would the court say the same if missionaries distributed Bibles in mosques or Muslim areas?"
Prasad said that he also wondered what if the tables were turned and he distributed Bhagvad Gita in predominantly Christian and Muslim colonies. "Would that be freely allowed? Let's also bear in mind that while Bibles sold in India typically have an oath of allegiance to Christianity, Bhagvad Gita texts do not," he said.
The case has come at a time when UP is increasingly witnessing communal tensions over religious conversions by Christian missionaries and Muslim Dawah groups, and a conclusion is keenly awaited.
Swati Goel Sharma is a senior editor at Swarajya. She tweets at @swati_gs.
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