Tribal people protest against a controversial land bill passed by Jharkhand state in March 2016. (Photo: Bijay Kumar Minj/UCA News)
A right-wing Hindu group in the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand has claimed that religious conversion by missionaries has increased during the nationwide coronavirus lockdown.
Virendra Vimal, state president of Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), accused Jharkhand's government of deliberately turning a blind eye to conversions.
Speaking on June 14 to the media at VHP's headquarters in state capital Ranchi, Vimal claimed that churches are involved in forceful conversions of tribal people in the state.
“We have received several reports that conversions have gone up during the lockdown. We are collecting evidence in each of the cases,” he said without elaborating.
He accused Hemant Soren, the state's chief minister and president of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha party, of failing to take action against conversions as per the 2017 anti-conversion law in the state.
“If the government does not take action, we will launch a massive movement,” Vimal added.
His allegations were denied by a Catholic priest and a spokesman for a tribal group in Jharkhand.
"The Church has always been at the service of the poor and downtrodden and it took extra efforts as the country is fighting the global pandemic. Some people did not like our work helping the poor and accused us of religious conversion,” Father Anand David Xalxo, an Oraon tribal priest, told UCA News.
“The group accusing us of conversion has no proof to back their allegation. Since they failed to help the poor during this difficult time, they are offended when the Church is involved with relief work wholeheartedly.
“The Catholic Church in Jharkhand does not promote or propagate religious conversion. As the VHP claims that it does, then let them prove it. Instead of false accusations, they should work at the grassroots level.
“We can’t help it if they feel jealous of our work. We are doing our duty very faithfully and sincerely and are sure of our good work, which is helping many people in need, especially when people are fighting hunger and disease.”
Ratan Tirkey, a member of the Tribes Advisory Committee of Jharkhand, told UCA News that it would have been better for groups like the VHP if they engaged in helping the poor.
"It is not the time to blame others who are already rendering their service for free,” he said.
“We should not be worried about the allegation because from time to time these groups try to confuse people. We should be careful about our work and do our duty selflessly.”
The anti-conversion law passed in Jharkhand in 2017 stipulates that conversion by force or allurement carries a prison sentence of up to three years and a fine of 50,000 rupees (US$800).
According to the law, if anyone wishes to convert, they need to inform the top district official of their reasons and the place of conversion or face prosecution.
There are more severe punishments for using "force" to convert minors and women as well as members of tribal minorities and lower castes.
Hindu nationalists often accuse Christians of using force and surreptitious tactics in pursuing conversions, often storming villages and leading “reconversion” ceremonies in which Christians are compelled to perform Hindu rituals.
Uttarakhand became the ninth state to enact a religious conversion law in 2018. The other states are Arunachal Pradesh, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand and Tamil Nadu.
Jharkhand has 1.4 million Christians out of a population of 33 million, mostly tribal people.