Hindu devotees take a holy dip in the Narmada River on Makar Sankranti, a day considered to be of great religious significance in Hindu mythology, at Tilwara Ghat in Jabalpur in Madhya Pradesh on Jan. 14. (Photo: AFP)
A right-wing Hindu group has demanded an immediate shutdown of all churches built in tribal areas of the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh and action against Christian priests and pastors involved in alleged religious conversion.
However, church leaders denied the conversion allegations and termed the demands an attempt to terrorize and defame them by taking advantage of the newly enacted anti-conversion law in the state.
Azad Prem Singh, a local leader of Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) or World Hindu Council, said that in the past 70 years Christian missionaries had converted "gullible indigenous people into Christianity and built churches specifically on protected tribal land."
"All the illegally built churches should be shut down immediately, and action should be taken against all priests and pastors involved in the process," said Singh, who is based in the state's Jhabua district.
Along with his hundreds of supporters, including some indigenous people, he marched through Jhabua city on Jan. 11 and handed over a memorandum detailing their demands to the district collector, the highest government officer in Jhabua.
It accused indigenous pastors and priests, including some from the Catholic Church, of illegal conversions of tribal people.
The government should record the conversion activities of priests and pastors and block all social welfare benefits meant for indigenous people, which the converted Christians continue to enjoy, Singh told media after submitting the memorandum.
"As per the special provisions of the Indian constitution, the traditions, cultures, languages and other practices of the indigenous people are bound to be protected and nobody from outside is allowed to change them," he said.
Based on the constitutional guarantee to protect tribal culture, "there is no scope for building churches in tribal areas. The functioning Christian churches should be stopped immediately."
The Hindu leader issued a 30-day ultimatum to the government and threatened to initiate violence to stop the church activities.
Although Singh focuses on Jhabua and surrounding tribal-dominated districts, the move could have repercussions across the country, particularly in states like Madhya Pradesh where the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is in control, church leaders say.
Tribal people form some 21 percent of Madhya Pradesh's 72 million people, while across the country they number some 104 million or close to 9 percent of 1.3 billion Indians.
Father Rockey Shah, public relations officer of Jhabua Catholic Diocese, said Christians are "the victims of persecution for helping poor tribal people."
Father Shah, himself an indigenous priest, told UCA News on Jan. 14 that right-wing Hindu groups are trying to take advantage of the newly implemented law to check religious conversion.
The state government on Jan. 9 replaced its more than 50-year-old anti-conversion law with a new and more stringent one that provides for up to 10 years in jail for converting people using allurement, force or fraudulent means.
However, the law allows reconversion from other religions to Hinduism, the country's majority religion. Radical Hindus argue Hindusim is the original religion of all Indians, while Christianity and Islam are foreign religions that spread in India by converting Hindus.
Therefore, reconversion of Christians and Muslims to Hinduism is not a crime but rather leads to their homecoming (ghar wapasi), they argue.
Father Shah also disapproved of the allegation that churches were built illegally. "We have proper documents for all our churches," he said. Besides, he said, the Catholic Church has never been involved in any illegal conversions.
"We are not frightened by the threat. As we are law-abiding citizens, we will follow the law and continue our works for the poor and needy," the priest said.
Right-wing Hindu groups opposed to Christianity say the charitable works of Christian missionaries is a facade to attract poor and tribal people to Christianity and convert them.