The road that leads to the sleepy village of Kesalingayapalli in Mydukur mandal, located 35 kms from Kadapa district in Andhra Pradesh, has been making front page news. The saffron flags planted on either side of the road loudly proclaim the religious beliefs of the residents to any visitor entering the village.
Around 250 families live in Kesalingayapalli and they have declared their village to be 'Hindu only’. Not just that, they have also explicitly warned people of other faiths, particularly the Christian evangelists, from entering their village and propagating their faith.
The residents have erected saffron-coloured ‘caution’ boards on either side of the village, aimed at deterring the evangelicals from entering their space.
The board reads: “In this village, everyone is a Hindu, hence people of other religions cannot propagate their religion here. If someone violates this warning, stern action will be taken against them—By: People of Kesalingayapalli.” The caption below reads: “If you convert to a different religion, it is akin to changing your own mother.”
Though this board was erected two years ago, in 2016, during the Hindu festival of Ram Navami, it is only now that people outside the village have taken notice.
Not just the saffron 'caution' board, houses and tea-shops, too, have erected saffron flags with 'Om' written on them, in a bid to make the atmosphere even more hostile to people of other faiths.
As I proceed towards the village and state my purpose of visit, Venkata Ramana, a staunch Ram devotee, asks me to hop on to his two-wheeler. He says, “Let me call the villagers.”
He takes me to Ramalayam (Lord Ram temple), which is about 20 meters away from the village. He then announces in the microphone, “Jai Sri Ram! A journalist has come to our village, hence I request everyone to gather in the temple.”
Within a few minutes, many residents, all of them men and all of them staunch devotees of Ram, gather. They know the drill. They want to be photographed, and are more than willing to speak. The recent attention from the media has prepared them for what is to follow.
The ‘menace’ of Christianity
Venkata Ramana, who is the brain behind the 'caution' board, says, “Over the past few years, the Christians have entered our village and lured our people with money and medicine. We (Hindus) never did that. They were brainwashing our people and taking them into their fold. To stop the menace, we confronted them a couple of times and shooed them away. But as they continued to come, we decided to erect a warning board.”
He adds, “Once, despite the board being erected, they came to the village. Then our youth and villagers did dehashudhi (physical attack) to them.”
Mallikarjuna, a youth, joins in the conversation and adds, “They fool our people with some stupid oil. For even serious ailments, they give some oil. It is ridiculous. Their sole aim is conversion by offering unscientific treatment.”
According to the residents, the evangelists offer medical help and take the sick to Gooty, a mandal in Anantpur district, which is approximately 160 kms from their village. This is where, they allege, the Christians "brainwash" the Hindus and slowly convert them.
The residents also claim that they allow people of other faiths to visit their village, but that they cannot allow them to propagate their faith. However, after declaring themselves to be a 'Hindus only' village, people of other faiths are wary about entering Kesalingayapalli.
According to KV Prasad, a farmer, three families belonging to the Scheduled Tribes community, were "influenced" by the evangelists and taken to Gooty when they suffered from stomach ache and other ailments.
However, the families were supposedly reprimanded and "rescued" by the residents.
The residents don’t divulge further details about who the families are and turn hostile. They claim that speaking to the ST families directly would distress them.
Ramana intervenes: “They didn’t convert. They just went for treatment, but after we enlightened them, they stopped going. And we have been vigilant enough not to allow those evangelists again.”
What explains the saffron spread in Kesalingayapalli?
Kesalingayapalli is a village dominated by Balijas (previously classified as Other Backward Castes and currently as BCs), followed by BCs and STs. Strangely, it doesn’t have any SC - Mala, Madiga - families.
The village has two big temples, Gangamma Devalayam and Ramalayam, both of which required restoration at one point. While the Gangamma Devalayam is right opposite the main road, the Ramalayam is situated 20 meters away from the main road, surrounded by tiny houses in the village.
The village also has a Bhajanamandali (music troupe which sings bhajans) with 50 people, including musicians. The troupe frequents Tirupati,and participates in Bhajanamandali competitions. Their frequent visits have made them close to members of the Aikya Hindu Vedika, an organisation, associated with Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam. The organisation helps restore temples and propagate the Hindu religion.
The Vedika allegedly offered huge sums to restore both the temples and asked the residents to save Hinduism from becoming "extinct".
The Vedika is also said to have distributed Bhagavad Gita copies for the purpose. As a result, all the children in the village compulsorily read the Gita in the temple for one and a half hours, usually from 8.30 to 10 pm regularly.
Beaming with pride, Ramana says, “Without fail, every day, all of them gather in Ramalayam to practice bhajans and read Bhagavad Gita in the evening.”
“We don’t have any RSS, VHP or BJP links. We are guided by the Hindu Vedika," he adds.
It is learnt that the Vedika, apart from distributing copies of the Bhagavad Gita, has also been spreading videos which claim that Hinduism is the oldest religion and that everyone is born a Hindu.
The residents of Kesalingayapalli recently vowed to take up organic farming on a small-scale, where 10 farmers would cultivate different crops using only cowdung as manure, as suggested by the Vedika.
A resident, Biyyaram Venkata Ramana, who has taken up organic farming says, “We have forgotten our old Hindu traditions. We need to revive them. We will spread this message to others, too.”
'Role model' for neighbouring villages
Pleased by the actions of the residents of Kesalingayapalli, who have succeeded in preventing evangelists from entering their village and enforcing rules such as making all children read the Gita, the Vedika has given them lakhs of copies of the holy book to be distributed to neighbouring villages.
They found plenty of volunteers for this activity, residents who were willing to distribute the Gita to Bhoomayapalli, Thimayapalli, Gangavaram and other adjoining villages.
The saffron flags hoisted in houses at Bhoomayapalli suggest that these villages, too, have come under the influence of Kesalingayapalli.
Although the neighbouring villages haven't as yet put up 'caution' boards warning evangelicals from entering their village, local reporters say that several villages surrounding Kesalingayapalli like Thippireddypalli, Masannayapalli, Mittamaanupalli, Harijanawada and others have taken the 'Hindu only' village as a 'model village'.
Is the district administration ignoring the issue?
Despite the 'caution' board and 'Hindu only' declaration, which are against the spirit of democracy, the local administration has taken no action.
By their own admission, the residents have said that they attacked evangelists when they visited their village. However, no action seems to have been taken against them, probably since the victims didn’t file a police complaint.
The village councilor’s brother-in-law, K C Yadaiah, who speaks on behalf of the councilor, Venkata Lakshamma, claims that the previous incidents of religious conversions, have "forced" them to take up such extreme measures.
The board erected in 2016 may not have made a big enough splash to catch the eye of the authorities. However, two leading Telugu newspapers - Eenadu and Andhra Jyothi - recently published the news on their front page. Yet, no action has been taken.
When asked if the tahsildar, police or any other authority visited the village and objected to the boards for defying the law, Ramana is amused by the question. He asks, “Why will they object? It is our collective decision as the dwellers of Kesalingayapalli that we don’t want people of other faiths in our village. How is that a problem?”