New Delhi: Two churches in Kanpur were recently targeted by right-wing Hindutva groups, accusing members of the Christian community of forceful conversions.
On Saturday, March 4, Abhijeet and several other people from the Christian community were praying in the World Mission Society, Church of God in Kanpur’s Shyam Nagar. A group of men, who were from Bajrang Dal and Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP), interrupted the prayer at 11:30 am, claiming that Abhijeet, Rajat, Jeevan, Shivansh, Sheetal, and Rana were “converting people to Christianity”.
Location: Shyam Nagar, Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh
Vishwa Hindu Parishad members forced their entry into a house and accused the Christian occupants of “forced religious conversions.”
Police took six people in custody. pic.twitter.com/oj3i6sOJyU
— HindutvaWatch (@HindutvaWatchIn) March 6, 2023
Six people were detained from the church on Saturday, out of which two are in judicial custody. The remaining four were allegedly “illegally detained” in the police station of Chakeri in Kanpur on Saturday and released on Monday night, according to advocate Chanchal, who is handling the matter.
“Abhijeet and Rajat are in judicial custody. Rana and the others were illegally detained on Saturday and released on the night of Monday,” advocate Chanchal said.
According to locals, minors aged between 9 and 12 were taken to the police station. Some of the devices were also taken by the police, they said.
The SHO of Chakeri denies the allegations that people were detained illegally. However, the lawyer Chanchal said if the police station has CCTV cameras, the truth will come out.
The attacks come at a time when civil society members have sounded the alarm over a “climate of fear” among the Christian community, which they said was being targeted by using the bogey of “forced conversion”.
Uttar Pradesh is one of several BJP-ruled states with stringent anti-conversion laws, which critics say can be used to target interfaith couples and infringes on people’s right to convert. Advocate Chanchal told The Wire that the UP Police is misusing the law.
The World Mission Society, Church of God, was started in Kanpur in 2010. According to their advocate, no past complaints have been registered against the church.
The Wire accessed the FIR registered on the basis of a complaint filed by the VHP and Bajrang Dal members, which invokes Section 295A (Deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC).
Libu, the church’s legal officer and an eyewitness who was present in the church on Saturday, told The Wire that the community was having a get-together when a group suddenly arrived with the police. “We thought the police came, so there would be no issue, but they started shouting at us. Neither the police nor the Bajrang Dal listened to us. The police were standing there silently while the Bajrang Dal members questioned us, as if the law was in their hands,” he said.
“I don’t think this country is livable for us anymore,” he added.
Hemant Sanger, a VHP leader and one of the complainants, told The Wire over the phone that his organisation received a call from a local person stating that school-going students were being converted in that church. When asked on what basis he was making this accusation, he said, “We found laptops, computers, and books in different languages, which we recovered from them. The police is now investigating the issue.” Asked how the recovery of books and laptops backed up the claim of converting people, he said, “Ask these questions to the police,” and hung up.
Abhijeet is a tutor for middle school children and has never received any complaints from his students’ parents in the past. Some of them, in fact, said there was a “conspiracy” to send Abhijeet to jail.
Abhijeet’s mother said the UP police had made false accusations and taken six innocent people to the police station. She urged the police to release them immediately.
“My son became a father just 15 days ago. He is a loving family man, and I strongly disagree with the allegations against him,” she added.
The four people who were detained by the UP Police refused to talk to The Wire for fear of police torture. Their lawyer Chanchal said that they were tortured from Saturday until Monday night, during their detention.
Another church attacked
On March 5, another church, the Hind Masih Mandali in Shiv Katra, Lal Bangla, Chakeri in Kanpur, was reportedly attacked by members of the Bajrang Dal. This church was also accused of carrying out “forced religious conversions.” The pastor and other members of the church were taken into police custody but were later released on the night of March 5.
A viral video, purportedly of the incident, showed police and a group of men entering the church while people, including women, were praying. No female police officer was present during the police operation.
Location: Ramadevi, Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh
On March 5, members of Hindu far-right groups, along with police, entered a house and accused the Christian occupants of “forced religious conversions.”
They had gathered to offer prayers. pic.twitter.com/8I17sTotW9
— HindutvaWatch (@HindutvaWatchIn) March 7, 2023
The head of the Pastors’ Association Uttar Pradesh, Jitendra, expressed deep concern for the future of Christians in the state, saying that targeted attacks are increasing by the day. Jitendra said he is living in constant fear because he has received “warnings” from right-wing groups many times.
He told The Wire that a BJP member had surrounded his church, the New India Church of God, with hundreds of men and levelled accusations of converting people to Christianity. “The BJP leader later demanded money from me, claiming that Christians get a lot of money from outside,” Jitendra said.
He lodged a complaint with the police against the BJP leader, but an FIR was never registered. He said Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s slogan of ‘Sabka sath, sabka vikas’ [Everyone together, everyone’s development] is not being implemented in the country.
Christians are also disappointed with the local media’s coverage as they are declaring Abhijeet, Rajat and others as guilty.
On March 4, former civil servants wrote to Prime Minister Modi about attacks against the Christian community, noting that incidents of violence have risen sharply in the past few years. “All violence can be stopped immediately with just a word from the top leaders of the BJP, the Union government and of each state government,” they wrote.