Row over Hindu conversion of tribal Christians in India

Hindu group Sangh Parivar accused of divide-and-rule tactics in Gujarat
Row over Hindu conversion of tribal Christians in India

An Indian trader from Chota Udepur, a tribal-dominated region of Gujarat, arranges bows and arrows for sale outside the venue of a mass wedding for members of the Adivasi Bhil tribal community in Ahmedabad in February 2018. (Photo: AFP)

Church leaders and activists in India have criticized a Hindu group, which claims to have reconverted tribal Christians in Gujarat’s Dang district.

As many as 144 members of a tribal community who had embraced Christianity many years ago were converted back to Hinduism in Bhogadiya village of Waghai taluka, a religious leader said.

The event on Jan. 24 was organized by the Gujarat unit of Agniveer, a Hindu organization based in the district.

“The agenda of the Sangh Parivar (communal forces) has always been divisive and discriminatory and this is clearly visible in their so-called ghar wapasi (reconversion) program. For several weeks now, the Sanghis have been trying their best to vitiate the atmosphere in the area,” Father Cedric Prakash, a human rights activist, told UCA News.

Jesuit Father Prakash, who is based in state capital Ahmedabad, added: “Their game, as in the past, is to divide and rule, to spread rumors and falsehoods. A very convenient manipulative act of theirs is this so-called ghar wapasi program.

“No one is sure whether these [converted Christians] are locals or brought from outside or for that matter if these were actually Christians. Anyway, for those in the Catholic Church, we are convinced that the faith of the people is unflinching.”

Neha Patel, state president of Agniveer, told media that “we came to know that many tribals were converted to Christianity many years ago and many of them expressed interest to convert back to Hinduism, so we organized this program.”

He claimed that out of 144 people who converted to Hinduism, 60 were from Bhogadiya village while the rest were from neighboring villages.

“We have not forced anybody to change their religion. Since long ago, Christian missionaries have been converting Hindu tribals to Christianity. We will continue holding similar drives to bring more tribal Christians back to Hinduism,” Patel said.

Sajan K. George, president of the Global Council of Indian Christians, said that “no Hindu organization ever brought succor to the Dangs the way the Christian missions did. The Church came here a century ago when there was little but despair.

"Where were all these Hindu leaders when they were rotting in poverty? These preachers showed us the true path and gave us dignity.”

Dang district police superintendent Shweta Shrimali said officers had attended the conversion venue. “No complaints have been registered against anybody. We will probe if the conversion happened voluntarily,” she added.

Ramu Chaudhary, one of the tribals who converted to Hinduism, said: “I embraced Christianity around eight years ago. I was very sick at that time and the missionary people took good care of me. After I was cured, I converted to Christianity. Now I realize that since my ancestors were Hindu, why remain a Christian?”

India’s Freedom of Religion Acts or anti-conversion laws are state-level statutes that have been enacted to regulate religious conversions. The laws are in force in eight out of 29 states: Arunachal Pradesh, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand and Uttarakhand.

The laws seek to prevent any person from converting or attempting to convert, either directly or otherwise, another person through forcible or fraudulent means, or by allurement or inducement.

However, the anti-conversion laws in Rajasthan and Arunachal Pradesh appear to exclude reconversions to native or original faiths.

Penalties for breaching the laws are one to three years of imprisonment and fines from 5,000 to 50,000 Indian rupees (US$74 to US$735).

Some laws provide for stiffer penalties if women, children or members of scheduled castes or scheduled tribes are being converted.

Despite criticism of India’s anti-conversion laws, human rights bodies have acknowledged that these laws have resulted in few arrests and no convictions. However, some observers note that the laws create a hostile, and sometimes violent, environment for religious minority communities because they do not require any evidence to support accusations of wrongdoing.

India is home to a diversity of religious beliefs and practices. The subcontinent is the birthplace of four major world religions — Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and Jainism. According to 2011 census data, 80 percent of the population of India is Hindu, 14 percent Muslim, 2.3 percent Christian, 1.7 percent Sikh, 0.7 percent Buddhist and 0.4 percent Jain.

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