An Indian policeman looks at damaged windows at a house in Madhya Pradesh state capital of Bhopal in this 2006 file photo. (Photo by STR/AFP)
Twelve people were arrested and jailed, accused of violating a law restricting religious conversions in central Indian Madhya Pradesh state.
They were arrested late Jan. 14 in Dahar village of the state's Dhar district and sent to jail the next day.
Those imprisoned included a blind man, and a mother with her 3-year-old child. Seven people were released on bail Jan. 17, according to Janu Bai, 35, one of the arrested.
"We did not know why we were arrested and sent to jail," Bai told ucanews.com after being released from the jail.
She said the group follows the teachings of Jesus but have not converted to Christianity and had gathered at the home of Shankar Singh to celebrate the Hindu harvest festival of Makarsankrati.
Singh said he suspects a "conspiracy" to trap him and his friends who came there by invitation. "There was no conversion activity and no attempt to convert anyone," Singh said.
Madhya Pradesh state law restricts religious conversions and makes it a criminal offense for anyone to change religion through force, allurement or through fraudulent means. Changing one's religion without informing the government is also a punishable offense, according to the law.
Singh said he does not belong to any Christian denomination. Yet Hindu activists gathered outside his house, accusing him of conversion. "They also informed the police, who arrived and booked us," Singh said.
"I have faith in Jesus and regularly pray to him," Singh told ucanews.com, explaining that he led an unhappy and alcoholic life "before experiencing the love of God" through the help of some ministers. "Later I began to follow Jesus but am not a member of any church," he said.
Anar Jamre, pastor of the Florida Fellowship Church who helps the group, said Singh and those arrested "shared same faith and prayed together."
"There is tremendous pressure on us that we cannot go and meet our people in the villages," he said.
Richard James, public relations officer for the Rashtriya Isai Mahasangh, a Christian forum in the state, said "police were hand in glove with the right-wing Hindu activists."
Together, they "have been unleashing a reign of terror against minority groups, especially Christians" ever since the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party government came to power in the state 12 years ago, he said.