St Joseph Parish, Ganj Basoda, in Madhya Pradesh’s Vidisha district, organized its first holy communion, a religious ceremony, for eight Christian catholic children at a local Church on October 31. But the organisers were not aware that publication of the event in a local Christian magazine would irk local Hindu groups so much that they would attack and vandalise the school where the function was held.
On December 6, police said a group of people affiliated to the Hindu groups such as Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and Bajrang Dal, forcefully entered St Joseph School, attacked the staff and vandalised classrooms. School authorities alleged that the attack was the culmination of a series of attacks by Hindu groups since November 25.
“On Sunday (December 5), they (Hindu groups) threatened the school administration with dire consequences. We asked for police protection and only two constables were deployed the next day. On December 6, more than 200 people reached the school shouting ‘Jai Shri Ram’ and ‘Dharma ki raksha kaun karega hum karenge hum karenge’ (Who will protect religion? We will, we will) and started vandalizing,” said school principal Brother John Anthony.
VHP’s Vidisha district president, Nileesh Agrawal, accused the school of not giving them names of eight children whose communion was organised. “We met school authorities at least thrice. We just wanted to verify the claim that communion was for Christian children,” he said. He refuted that VHP was behind the attack.
After the incident, the police arrested 11 people and registered a case against 50 unidentified people for rioting and causing damage to property. Vidisha superintendent of police, Monika Shukla, said, “The school principal gave names of all the eight children, who are Catholic. Of the 11 arrested, three have been sent to jail while eight have been released on bail.”
Not in isolation
Christian community leaders claim the incident is the latest in a series of attacks on Christian priests, religious places and schools in the past few months. According to Christian body, United Christian Forum (UCF), 70 incidents, including 32 violent attacks, have been reported from Madhya Pradesh after the MP Freedom of Religion Act came into force in January 2021 while 22 incidents were reported from MP in 2020. “We would verify whether this number is correct,” said MP home minister Narottam Mishra.
According to the state home department, 17 FIRs have been registered against Christians under the MP Freedom of Religion Act and 75 people, including 10 women, have been arrested. The department has no district-wise data on cases for assault or vandalisation.
UCF national coordinator, AC Michael, said, “The right-wing activists are fiercely attacking our churches, prayer halls, schools and now even family gatherings just because they suspect conversion.”
The UCF report also mentions that on November 11 in Jhabua, sub-divisional magistrate Anil Bhana cited VHP functionary Kamal Maharaj’s memorandum to issue an order banning any Christian events without permission of the district administration. The order, issued to police stations in the district, said there was a complete ban on “mass conversion” of tribals to Christianity without permission of the district magistrate and that “if any such event takes place under your jurisdiction, then take necessary action immediately.”
After this order, local Christians claimed all Sunday prayers have been discontinued because Hindu group activists would interrupt and harass pastors and fathers. In October, the district administration stopped construction of a church after protests by Hindu groups. District collector Somesh Mishra said, “Construction was put on hold as we have sought land papers from the Church. They are yet to submit papers.” In Sagar, two nuns reportedly working with HIV infected children were arrested under anti-conversion law after some locals suspected them of converting the children to Christianity, Michael said.
A local police officer, who was not willing to be named, said the nuns were arrested on complaints of local Hindu groups and have been released on bail.
MP Catholic Church Association public relations officer, Maria Stephen, said, these groups “are getting the support of police, district administration and even ministers of state government.” Mishra refuted the claim and said he has assured Archbishop Rev Dr Sebatian Durairaj that churches would be protected provided they are running as per law.
Home department data shows three educational institutions — St. Joseph School, Vidisha, Catholic Hostel, Raisen and Christ Jyothi School, Satna –have been attacked since October.
In October, Hindu groups asked authorities in Christ Jyoti Senior Secondary School in Satna district, to place an idol of Goddess Saraswati in the school, according to Father Augustine Chittuparambil, school principal, who claimed to be “living under fear” after the incident and have appointed more security personnel.
In Raisen district, a girl’s hostel being run by a Christian missionary organization was closed after National Commission for Protection of Child Rights chairperson Priyank Kanoongo in an inspection on November 11 claimed a Bible was found in possession of Hindu girls. Following this, the hostel was closed, said local officials.
On December 2, Kanoongo forwarded complaints by local Hindu group leaders to Vidisha collector against St Joseph School, alleging conversions. On December 8, he asked the Sagar police to investigate a complaint against Sevadham Ashram alleging that children were forced to eat beef and recite Bible. “NCPCR is taking cognizance of fake complaints. It is a national organisation and should behave sensitively,” said Stephen.
Kanoongo said the NCPCR was doing its job. “If school and administration run by Christian communities have any issues, they can approach us,” he said. “They (Christian schools) should be transparent in holding prayers and issues related to conversion.”
According to Christian bodies, missionary schools, especially in tribal areas, are under attack.
They also claim applications for renewal of registration of seven missionary schools in Indore division have been refused. School education joint director of Indore division Hansa Arya rejected the applications on the ground that there was no clarity over land ownership. Arya refused to comment.
Home minister Narottam Mishra refuted the allegation that he was supporting VHP and Bajrang Dal activists. “It’s my duty to save my culture and tradition. It is wrong to say that I am bearing Hindutva flag,” he said, adding that action will be taken against VHP and Bajrang Dal activists if they were found responsible.
The minister said in MP the minority communities are not under fear and only those who are involved in wrong practices are scared.
Hindu group functionaries such as Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh’s Dharm Jagran Smapark president, Omkaar Singh, said, “New schools, churches and hostels of Christian missionaries have come up to take advantage of the poor condition of people. This has been going on in the tribal districts of Jhabua and Alirapur for long.”
The two pre-dominantly tribal districts are among the poorest in the country. In Jabhua, 68.86% of population is below poverty line and in Alirajpur, 71.31% is poor.