Dalit Christians protest for government benefits in Delhi in this file photo (Credit: ucanews.com)
At 66, Das says he is happy to have left his Christian religion to accept his great grandfather's Hindu faith.
“Our great grandparents were converted to Christianity. Now we decided to embrace Hinduism and live as Hindus,” the mason told ucanews.com, noting that he and his family changed their religion on Christmas Day.
“We were Catholics for the sake of the name alone. But we remained poor forever. The Church never took care of us as we were Dalits.”
India has been hit by a wave of conversions and re-conversions of poor Christians, orchestrated by hard-line Hindu groups in recent years.
Das, a former Latin Catholic, was reconverted along with 46 others at a function organized by Hindu Helpline at Ponkunnam temple in southern Indian Kerala state. He now calls himself Das and has abandoned his Christian given name Maria.
Das says his great grandparents, who were Dalits or "untouchables" a century ago, became Latin rite Catholics to avoid discrimination. But in the intervening decades, prejudice against Dalits within government and even the Church has persisted.
By reconverting, Das and his family will be eligible to receive government benefits such as education grants and reservations in jobs and universities, which are denied to Dailt Christians on the grounds that Christians do not recognize the caste system and therefore are not persecuted.
"We never received any help when we were Catholics,” said Das' wife Thankamma.
“Even the government aid for Dalits was denied to us as we were Christians. So we decided to convert back to the old faith.”
The elderly couple, who share their small home with their son, daughter-in-law and two grandchildren, said they have struggled without education and assistance. Their hope is that now their family will have better opportunities.
“If we are all listed as Hindus, at least our grandchildren will be eligible for state assistance in education and reservations in government jobs," Thankkamma said.
Das told ucanews.com that they have not been actively practicing Christians "for a long time" and becoming Hindu was "not a big issue" to him or his neighbors.
But the reconversion of 46 people at the Kerala Christmas Day event has raised controversy. Some Christian groups claim it was part of the Ghar Vapasi (homecoming) movement initiated by a right wing Hindu radical group some years ago. The program has intensified in the past year since pro-Hindu politician Narendra Modi became prime minister.
Catholic leaders such as retired Archbishop Joseph Powathil say these Ghar Vapasi events are intended to spread hatred and anger against Christianity. Many believe the movement uses threats and lures, and that such conversions should be considered "forced conversion".
“There is a constant attempt to establish some religion is superior to another religion and that India is for Hindus. Such views are aired to disrupt communal harmony,” said Archbishop Powthil.
Across India hundreds have been converted or reconverted from Christianity in simple ceremonies that include removing Christian symbols such as crucifixes and scapulars from their bodies and pouring water over them to symbolically clean off the "impurity" of Christianity. Attendees are also given Hindu names amid chants of sacred verses.
Hindu leaders organize most of these ceremonies and insist they are only helping those who want to "come back" to their original faith.
The synod of Syro-Malabar rite bishops in Kerala expressed serious concern last week about the "silence of Prime Minister Modi" on the ongoing conversion activities in the country.
In Kerala, Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP-world Hindu Council) and its affiliate Hindu Helpline organized the conversion programs.
Parameswaran Saburaj, 47, runs Hindu Helpline out of his own consultancy office in Kanjirappilly town. He along with VHP leaders have organized reconversions in Kottayam district but blame the media for raking up controversy over the program.
“When Hindus convert to become Christians and Muslims, the media is silent. But when converted Hindus return to their original faith, you allege a communal agenda behind it. It shows how biased you are,” he said.
According to Saburaj, the 46 people who returned to Hinduism last month in Kerala "had done so of their own free will”.
Saburaj has documents including applications signed by Christians seeking help to reconvert to the "original faith" of their ancestors. The applications also state that they are seeking conversion of their own free will and choice.
As India's secular constitution allows citizens to profess, practice and propagate a religion of choice, Saburaj says they are not breaking any law, and insists they are helping those in need.
Many of the reconverted in Kerala, all of them poor, support Saburaj's story. One of them is Philip Philipose, 57, who lives just four kilometers away from Das' Vazhoor village. Philipose, a rubber-tapper who suffers from a heart condition, lives with his wife in a tin roofed two-room shed.
“It was a conscious decision. We have been following Hindu rituals. I went to Sabarimala [the most popular Hindu pilgrim shrine in Kerala] twice and attended all temple festivals. We were more Hindu at heart,” Philipose told ucanew.com.
He also blamed the local Catholic community for driving them from the Catholic fold. “We were Dalits and converted to Christianity almost a century ago. But we remained outcasts all the while, even within the Church. There is no point in living such a life,” he said.
Philipose has not changed his name. “I’ve lived as Philip and now nearing my end. Now who will call me by a new name?” he asked.
But, he said, he intends to have a Hindu name inscribed in official records to help his heirs get government benefits.
Saburaj stressed they do not rush conversions. "We verify all applications and give them sufficient time to understand the Hindu faith and its traditions. We have converted only people who really wanted to live as Hindus,” Saburaj explained.
“We are getting several applications each day to convert to Hinduism. We are not luring them to our religion. If an adult wants to change his faith, who can stop him or her?” he asked.
The group is planning an even larger mass conversion next week, he added.
Federal Minister and senior BJP leader Venkaia Naidu told ucanews.com that the federal government has no position on conversions or reconversions.
“We have to nothing to do with it. It’s a personal decision of people who are changing their religion. If any wrong means are used, the state government can initiate action," Naidu said.
The state government, led by the Congress Party, has not initiated any investigation into the reconversions. But Chief Minister Oomman Chandy, an Orthodox Christian himself, told the media that he would launch an investigation if he receives any complaint.
However, even some Church members are downplaying the situation.
VC Sebastian, Laity Commission Secretary of the socially powerful Syro Malabar Church in Kerala, told ucanews.com that reconversions in Kerala should "not been seen as a big issue".
“If somebody wants to get some benefits by changing religion, that is their decision. Faith is not for material benefit,” he argued.