New Delhi: Some revenue department officials on October 11 (Wednesday) demolished a Christian prayer centre in Uttar Pradesh’s Jaunpur district, claiming it was built on “illegal” land.
Over the last two weeks, the police have arrested at least 18 persons, including some pastors, associated with the centre, under charges of attempt to murder and criminal conspiracy, for allegedly attacking the police and revenue officials when they had gone to survey the site, officials told The Wire.
This prayer centre had been in the crosshairs of right-wing groups for several years.
On October 11, bulldozers razed to the ground the two-storey building and boundary walls of the Jeevan Jyoti Satsang Prathna Kendra, in Bhulandih village in Jaunpur, in the presence of a team of revenue department officials and heavy police force from three police stations.
Deputy superintendent of police (DSP) Gaurav Sharma, the circle officer of Kerakat, under which the said village is located, said that revenue officials from the tehsil removed the “illegal encroachment” with the support of police.
In September, the local administration had lodged three first information reports (FIRs) against the managers of the prayer centre. One of the FIRs was filed on the complaint of a revenue official, who alleged that the campus of the prayer centre included land that had been “illegally occupied”. The official claimed that it was originally a gram sabha land, allotted for a burial ground used by some Dalit communities (called a samadhi place), as well as barren land tracts.
DSP Sharma told The Wire that the demolished site measured around 11 biswa, which is equal to around 15,000 square feet or 0.14 hectares. The officer, however, clarified that not all of the land was illegal. “The portion which was found to be legal and privately owned ‘was not touched,'” he said.
The prayer centre had been operating from the past 15 years.
When asked what prompted the police to launch an investigation about the centre, DSP Sharma said that they had received complaints on the state’s online grievance registration portal, Integrated Grievance Registration and Monitoring System.
The prayer centre
The idea for the prayer centre was conceived when Durga Prasad Yadav met Sebastian Martin, a self-proclaimed controversial divine healer, in Mumbai.
Yadav, who was then a migrant belonging to a Hindu backward caste community, started personally attending Martin’s sessions, on the suggestion of a neighbour’s mother.
He had contracted a chronic skin disease while working as an operator in a printing press in Bhopal. Desperate to heal, he travelled across the country, from Varanasi to Kolkata, and tried different kinds of treatments. He even spent a year in an ashram, surviving on boiled bael [a plant] for a year.
Then he moved to Mumbai and started working as a security guard in a hotel.
In Mumbai, he was diagnosed with hydrocele.That’s when he started watching Martin’s healing sessions on television, and later, as mentioned earlier, even personally attended his sessions.
His family claimed he got miraculously cured in three weeks, though their claims were not verified or backed by any scientific evidence.
Following that, he started his own prayer service and gradually relocated to his native village, Bhulandih.
On Christmas in 2010, Yadav, now a pastor, started his first prayer service, known as ‘changai prathna’.
He initially conducted the prayer service from his residence. Later, he built the prayer centre on his ancestral land.
The compound, surrounded by lush fields away from the dense habitat of the village, bustled with visitors and devotees every Tuesday and Sunday. They came to listen to sermons on Jesus Christ and receive ‘divine healing’. People came from nearby villages, as well as neighbouring districts of Purvanchal – Azamgarh, Ghazipur, Mau, and Varanasi.
He claimed that he could cure all kinds of illnesses, including cancer, tuberculosis, and epilepsy, through prayers and touch.
His house was decorated with photo frames of Jesus Christ and the cross – the most definite markers of Christianity. He believed in the ten commandments but insisted that they had not formally converted to Christianity and retained their Hindu OBC (Other Backward Class) identity and culture.
A bael tree and a tulsi plant, both considered auspicious by Hindus, were planted in the compound of his house.
Since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) assumed power in the state, the Christian prayer centre has been on the radar of local dominant caste and Hindutva groups. They have accused its managers, particularly chief pastor Yadav, of luring impoverished individuals to convert to Christianity and spreading misinformation about the Hindu religion.
In September, the United Christian Forum had identified Jaunpur as among the 13 districts in India where “practising Christianity is becoming dangerous”. Jaunpur recorded 13 cases of violence against Christians – the fourth worst in the country this year, after Bastar and Kondagaon in Chhattisgarh, and its neighbouring district of Azamgarh in Uttar Pradesh, according to the UCF.
Troubles brewed for the prayer centre since the BJP came to power in UP
In 2018, an FIR was lodged against Yadav and 270 others, including many of his associate pastors, based on the complaint of a Hindu Jagran Manch activist. He alleged that Yadav tried to lure poor people to convert them to Christianity. The FIR was lodged on the orders of a court.
Back then, UP did not have a law against unlawful conversion.
They were booked under various penal offences, including giving dangerous drugs and other banned substances under the garb of medicine, cheating, defiling a place of worship, inducing people to believe they will attract divine displeasure, hurting by poison, and criminal conspiracy,
Though the administration barred prayers at the centre, Yadav evaded arrest and eventually got a stay in his favour from the Allahabad high court. The organisers of the centre had also denied charges of forced conversion.
On September 29, an FIR was lodged against 12 persons, including Yadav’s brother, daughter, son, and nephew, and 15-20 other unknown persons, for allegedly pelting stones at and attacking the police force and revenue officials who had come to survey the land. The officials were allegedly hit with lathis and rods.
Hussain Ahmad, naib tehsildar, a key officer in the revenue administration, in his complaint claimed that they [the pastor and his family and associates] wanted to teach the officials “a lesson” for investigating the legality of the land.
Three tehsil officials and four policemen got injured while an official SUV was damaged in the violence, alleged Ahmad.
The FIR invokes more than a dozen charges, including attempt to murder, criminal conspiracy, and rioting.
On October 1, another FIR was lodged against Yadav under Sections 3 and 5 of the Prevention of Damage to Public Property Act, 1984, after a revenue team concluded that apart from having private land, the prayer centre had “illegally” occupied the gram sabha and samadhi land and merged it into the compound.
A third FIR was lodged on the same day under Section 3 (2) (va) of the stringent SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, on the complaint of a Dalit man, Dharamraj, who alleged that Yadav had “illegally” transferred samadhi land to the prayer centre 10 to 12 years ago, through intimidation.
Yadav, his wife Leela, and brother Jai Prakash were named in the FIR and were accused of criminal conspiracy.
On October 9, police arrested Yadav, his wife, son Manish, and associates, pastor Sanjay Masih of Mirzapur and Manoj Jacob, UP president of the Christian forum, Rashtriya Isai Mahasangh.
The police have also lodged a case against Yadav under the UP Prevention of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Act, 2021.
Sarvesh Singh, secretary of the caste outfit Akhil Bharatiya Kshatriya Mahasabha Yuva, who was leading the campaign against the prayer centre, said: “I want to save my dharma. All those who were there at the centre were Hindus. Nobody was a Christian. There were attempts to convert them.”
Singh has filed several complaints against Yadav in the past.
Most of the people associated with the now-demolished centre are either in jail or absconding. Therefore, it was difficult to get their comments on the allegations levelled against them.
A source close to them told The Wire, on the condition of anonymity, that even if a portion of the centre included the gram sabha land due to the land consolidation reforms of the late 1970s, the administration could have exchanged it with the additional land owned by Yadav outside the compound.
The source said it was unfair on part of the administration to demolish a structure which existed for such a long time. “There are many things illegal in these parts [or areas]. Do they go and check the land registry of every temple and mosque to see if it was built on illegal land,” he asked.
As the administration removes the rubble from the site, Yadav and his associates are considering their next legal step. A district court is scheduled to hear their bail pleas next week.