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Hindu reconversion drive troubles church leaders in southern India

Move aims to gain a political foothold in Andhra Pradesh for the pro-Hindu BJP, Christian leaders say

ucanews reporter, Kurnool

ucanews reporter, Kurnool

Updated: October 24, 2019 09:39 AM GMT
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Hindu reconversion drive troubles church leaders in southern India

Catholics pray at the Christ the King festival in New Delhi on Nov. 20, 2017. (Photo by Bijay Kumar Minj/ucanews)

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Hindu groups have launched their reconversion movement targeting Christians in India's Andhra Pradesh state, which church leaders say is a troubling move aimed at political gain.

Hindu seers and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders conducted massive prayers and rituals on Oct. 20 at the popular Hindu temple in Srisailam town of Kurnool district in the southern state.

They later visited areas of socially poor Dalit and tribal people and made some 500 poor Christians take an oath to follow Hinduism, local reports said.

“It is a warning sign for all of us here as well as in other southern Indian states,” said Father Anthoniraj Thumma, who heads the Federation of Telugu Churches.

The reconversion movement started some three decades ago in central India, said Father Thumma, whose federation also covers neighboring Telangana state.

The movement, which is called Ghar Vapasi (homecoming), spread to most of the northern states. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad, which championed it, explained it as a movement to welcome back those who have left their Hindu home.

“Unlike in northern India, it was not much heard of in this area. But we have to see what is happening and need to be careful,” said Father Thumma, also director of ecumenism and interreligious dialogue in Hyderabad Archdiocese.

The priest said claims of reconversions in Andhra Pradesh were unverified. “They claim hundreds of reconversions. There may be few. The way they publicized them has no weight,” he said.

Father Thumma said the movement is part of a “publicity stunt” to popularize the BJP in the state, projecting the party as champions of the Hindu cause.

“It is their hidden agenda to push for the Hindu nation,” he said, noting that the BJP has no political acumen in the southern states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.

'Hindu gurus creating confusion'

Sajan K. George, president of the Global Council of Indian Christians, views the reconversion movement as part of an “agenda of the upper caste to perpetuate the caste system and deny the aspirations of young Dalits to break the yokes of servitude imposed upon them.”

He explained that the movement only targets Christians and Muslims from socially and economically weak Dalit groups.

“The Hindu gurus were trying to create confusion and conflicts among the peace-loving Christian community in Srisailam and the neighborhood," George said. 

“If the self-styled reconversion gurus want emancipation of Dalits, they should focus on the hundreds of Dalit people undergoing severe persecution in the BJP-ruled northern states.” 

John Dayal, a Catholic human rights activist, said: “It becomes problematic when the BJP and their supporters forcibly convert Christians and Muslims to Hinduism, especially in rural areas. A level of muscle coercion and a large dollop of state impunity are also involved.”

He said the Indian constitution and the Supreme Court “have refused to define Hinduism, and its core, Hindutva, is called a way of life. So how can anyone be converted to a way of life?” asked Dayal, also a Catholic lay leader.

Dayal noted that movement does not force such conversions on Sikhs and Dalit people who joined Buddhism. It projects Christianity and Islam as foreign religions as opposed to the Hindu way of life.

Christian and Muslim leaders say India has been witnessing increased religious polarization since the BJP came to power in New Delhi in 2014. Its political victory has bolstered Hindu groups to accelerate their action to turn India into a Hindu-only nation.

Hindu activists often storm into northern villages and conduct reconversion ceremonies that force Christians to perform Hindu rituals.

Laws restricting change of religion are in force in at least eight Indian states. They require a person officiating an act of conversion to seek the permission of state officials ahead of the ceremony. But Hindu groups are not known to be following such laws, Christian leaders say.

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