A report documented that police in Karnataka filed cases against at least 13 Christian believers in the months leading up to the anti-conversion Bill being passed in the state Assembly.

Even before anti-conversion Bill Christians faced arrests at Karnataka prayer meetings
news Anti-Conversion Bill Monday, January 03, 2022 - 18:04

Even as the BJP in Karnataka talked up a law against forceful conversions, at least 13 Christian believers in Karnataka were booked by the state police in 2021, as per a report by People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL). The police also filed 11 cases against mobs disrupting prayer meetings but while eight of the Christian believers accused of ‘outraging religious feelings’ were arrested and faced jail time, the members of the mob did not face police action.

Somu Avaradhi, one such Christian believer from Hubballi in Dharwad, was arrested in October this year after a mob of men from Hindutva groups disrupted a prayer meeting in which he was preparing to deliver a sermon. For 40-year-old Somu, who works around the clock running a business cleaning water tanks, the Sunday prayer meeting was a moment of solace in his week for the last five years. He was often joined by a group of Christian believers from his neighbourhood in Bairadevarakoppa on the outskirts of Hubballi in Dharwad district of Karnataka.

But on October 17, a swarm of 40 men, some wearing saffron, stood outside the prayer hall chanting ‘Jai Shri Ram’ and refused to allow the prayer meeting to begin. They hit the believers who had gathered and questioned them how much they had been paid to attend the prayer meeting. "They asked the women why they were not wearing kumkum or flowers in their hair. They hit us, even the women, and threatened us that we should not do conversions," recalls Somu.

Somu turned to the police for help but though the officers arrived at the prayer hall, they did not touch the aggressors. Instead, they whisked Somu away to the police station to interrogate him. Here, unknown to Somu, the mob of men outside grew from 40 to around 100 with BJP MLA Arvind Bellad among the people demanding immediate action against Somu.

The police eventually arrested and jailed Somu for allegedly "outraging religious feelings''. He spent 10 days in jail before he was released on bail. The prayer meetings he used to cherish have since stopped in Bairadevarakoppa.

Somu's case is among a number of cases in Karnataka in 2021 that follows a pattern of attacks by Hindutva groups on Christian believers during prayer meetings. The faces and names change but the underlying pattern remains eerily similar. The Christian believers were charged by the police in many of the cases under IPC section 295A (outraging religious feelings), and in some cases, the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. Those who were arrested spent at least 10-14 days in jail before they were given bail.

These cases were a precursor to the anti-conversion Bill that was introduced in Karnataka. The ruling BJP government recently passed an anti-conversion Bill in the state Assembly on December 23. The law, when enacted, gives greater powers to the police to act on “unlawful conversions” from one religion to another. It also enlists a lengthy process to formally convert from one religion to another. The punishment under this law is more stringent than similar laws passed in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat.

Similar attacks across the state

On the same day Somu Avaradhi was targeted in Hubballi, another pastor's prayer meeting in Kodagu district was disrupted by the Hindutva group Hindu Jagrana Vedike. Pastor Manjunath, who hails from Shanivarsanthe in Kodagu, was holding prayer meetings for the last seven years, but says this is the first time he has landed in trouble for it. "When the prayer meeting began, a group of men knocked on the door. They had phone cameras filming us and there was a police officer with them. The police and the mob asked us to stop the meeting and leave," says Manjunath.

The mob of men complained that Manjunath was converting people from Scheduled Tribes in his village, a charge he and the people in the prayer meeting denied.The police arrested Manjunath and kept him in jail for two weeks before he was released on bail.

The report by PUCL, which documented 39 attacks on Christians and Christian believers across Karnataka in 2021, found that the police, and sometimes even the media, worked with Hindutva mobs to target Christian prayer meetings. It stated that police often overlooked the actions of the attackers who were from Hindutva groups and allied to the ruling BJP while Christians holding sermons were targeted and jailed under section 295A of the Indian Penal Code as well as sections of the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Act 2015. This is despite the fact that voluntary religious conversion or propagating one's religious tenets is guaranteed under Article 25 of the Constitution.

Police questioned why I believe in Jesus

What is clear from the police’s handling of the series of attacks is that there is little understanding about people like Somu Avaradhi, who are Hindu on-paper and practise Christian beliefs.

In his case, Somu says that the police asked him why he believed in Jesus and gave his child a Christian name. "I was interrogated for five hours and in this time they asked me why I followed Christianity and gave my child a Christian name. They also asked how many people I had converted to Christianity," Somu says.

This was a line of questioning by the police that came up in the investigations of attacks on Christian prayer halls across Karnataka. It is partly due to the fact that many Christian believers, even those who embraced Christianity two decades ago such as Somu, have not formally sought government certificates that record a change in their religion. "It did not seem like a necessity to record this change officially. But this does not change the fact that we believe in Jesus and the Bible," says Somu Avaradhi.

Somu Avaradhi from Dharwad was imprisoned for ten days.

In some cases, though the police did not arrest Christian believers, they were extensively questioned by the police. In one case in Bengaluru, police went to the extent of questioning the residents living near a prayer hall asking whether the pastor was holding prayer meetings to convert people to Christianity. "The police came around this area to question people just days after one of our prayer meetings was disrupted by Punith Kerehalli, who is a local Hindutva leader," Samuel Narayanswamy, a pastor from Byadarahalli in Bengaluru says.

A prayer meeting held by Samuel was disrupted on September 26 by Punith Kerehalli, a Hindutva activist from the Rashtra Rakshana Pade, who has a history of disrupting prayer meetings. Two days after this incident, the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) issued a notice to Samuel asking him to stop prayer meetings as COVID-19 appropriate behaviour was not followed.

In all of the cases documented, the Christian believers were released on bail after spending a few days in jail. But though they are out on bail, their prayer meetings have not restarted. "We want to restart our weekly prayers and come back to normalcy but the police and BBMP have not yet allowed us to do this. We want to explain to the RSS supporters who disrupt our prayer meetings that we are not here to convert people. We get together to pray and thank the Lord for getting us through the week. When the new law is in place, it will become even tougher for us to hold our prayer meetings," says Samuel Narayanswamy.