On October 17, members of the Bajrang Dal and Vishwa Hindu Parishad gathered inside a makeshift church in Hubbali district of Karnataka and started singing bhajans. They alleged that pastor Somu Avaradhi was forcefully converting people, and a man named Vishwanath Budur, who belongs to a Scheduled Caste community, had filed a complaint alleging forced conversion. Pastor Somu has been arrested, after right wing groups along with BJP MLA Arvind Bellad — a business management graduate from INSEAD in France who was touted to take over from BS Yediyurappa as Karnataka CM — blocked roads demanding the arrest.
On September 10, Members of Hindu Jagrana Vedike (HJV), a Hindutva group, barged into Pragathi Church in Udupi, Karnataka, alleging that 35 people were being illegally converted to Christianity by pastor Benedict. During the scuffle, HJV members allegedly misbehaved with a few women and a case was registered against them.
In the past few weeks, right wing groups have attacked at least seven Christian prayer halls, including the two incidents quoted above. Attacks have been reported from Kodagu, Belagavi, Chikballapur, Kanakapura and Arsikere. To a lay observer, these attacks may seem random or even sporadic, but that is not the truth. TNM’s investigation has revealed that these attacks and the high pitch narrative against churches — supported by the BJP — are part of a well thought out plan for achieving two goals: introduce a stringent anti-conversion law in Karnataka, and prevent Scheduled Caste persons who convert to Christianity from availing reservation benefits.
TNM spoke to members of several right wing organisations who admitted openly that the reason behind the increasing ‘raids’ on Christian prayer halls is to highlight the issue of conversion in the state. The intent is to create an atmosphere against conversions and capitalise on it to push for an anti-conversion law on the same lines as those in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat. In fact, a memorandum with key demands has been drafted, and the Chief Minister has reportedly granted an appointment.
Speaking to TNM, Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) zonal secretary Sharan Pumpwell says that several right wing organisations together have been drafting a memorandum with key points on what the anti-conversion law should entail. “We have an appointment with the CM Bommai before the end of this week. We are going to demand that the Bill should be immediately passed through an Ordinance, the government should not wait till the Assembly session,” Pumpwell tells TNM.
But even before the meeting with the CM, they intend to step up pressure on the government. With several Hindu mutts already on their side, this group of Hindutva organisations plan to petition District Collectors to push for an anti-conversion law at the earliest. “On October 21, through religious heads across the state, cutting across caste lines, we plan to give our demand in writing to DCs in all districts. We have already spoken to the head of the Puttur mutt, Pejawar Sri and Balagangadhara Swamy to join us. The government also is drafting a Bill but we have our own demands,” Pumpwell adds.
Their demand is that the Cabinet pass an Ordinance against conversion, and then have it passed in the Assembly during the next session.
Right-wing activists say that an atmosphere has been created over the last few weeks and the sentiments of the general public has been carefully crafted against conversions. They want to strike when the iron is hot. “Despite so many cases of ‘love jihad’ and conversions, people have been silent for so long. Now because of our campaigns, people are coming out and speaking more openly,” says Sharan Pumpwell. “There is an atmosphere created against conversions. So we do not want to waste any time which is why we are pushing for an Ordinance at the earliest. We are worried that the government will not bring in a law if we wait. We have already seen Christian groups objecting to the survey,” he adds.
TNM has exclusively accessed the draft memorandum to be submitted to the CM later this week. The letter alleges that in several places in Karnataka, people are being converted by luring them with money, education, and on health grounds, and that this is being “portrayed as voluntary conversions.” The letter urges the government to bring in a law immediately, with these points included:
— Preaching except for religious reasons should be banned. For example, religious preaching with promises of education, healthcare and financial motivations should be banned.
— Preaching by foreigners or those with support of funds from abroad should be regulated. Any such activity should have prior permission.
— Those who preach saying a particular religion is better than other religions so one should convert, or that scriptures of one religion are better than others and that any religion is higher than others, should be banned.
— The religion of every single citizen should be easily identifiable in documents. To facilitate this, a religion certificate should be given to everybody and birth certificate should also reflect if there is any religious conversion. Documentation after religious conversion should be made mandatory.
— A very strong “freedom of religion” law to ban conversion should be brought in immediately.
Jagadish Shenava, an advocate earlier with the VHP and currently with the BJP, says that their demand is that the anti-conversion law should stipulate that once a person gets converted, then whatever reservation and other benefits they would get previously should cease to exist. “For example, if you belong to an SC or OBC community, then once you become a Christian, you do not get any benefits,” Shenava tells TNM.
He says that another issue they will take up with the government is that of conversion of children. “We are demanding that minors should not be allowed to be converted. After they turn 18, they can decide what religion they want,” he says.
“Anyone from the group of people being converted can file a complaint that they are all being forcibly converted. This apart, the immediate family members, like parents, can file complaints. In case the person being converted is an adult, then it cannot be considered a forced conversion,” Shenava adds.
In March 2021, Kannada news channel Suvarna News, run by the Asianet News Network, ran a series of stories on Goolihatti Shekar, the Hosadurga MLA. The headlines screamed: “How Christian Missionaries Converted MLA Goolihatti Shekar's Mother Puttamma”; “MLA Goolihatti Shekar Helpless Over His Mother Puttama’s Conversion To Christianity.” These stories explored how the MLA was shocked that his mother would not step into his house as it had Hindu idols.
The mother meanwhile tells the channel that she is happy she converted and that she chose to convert when she was feeling helpless after one of her sons died. Other channels, too, covered the story of how the MLA was “helpless” as the evangelists influenced his (adult) mother.
Cut to September 21, and Goolihatti Shekar makes an emotional speech in the Karnataka Assembly informing his colleagues that his mother converted to Christianity. Less than a month later, on October 11, Suvarna news did a story claiming that Goolihatti Shekar’s mother has done a ‘Ghar Wapsi’ and has re-converted to Hinduism. A triumphant MLA is heard telling the channel that his mother is back home and four other families too have re-converted.
Two days later, on October 13, Goolihatti Shekar chaired a meeting of the Legislative committee on Backward Classes and Minorities Welfare in the absence of the committee chairperson and BJP MLA Dinakar Keshav Shetty. The Committee took a few important decisions. It decided to recommend to the government to enact a tough anti-conversion law.
It also decided to order a survey on Christian missionary work in the state and to identify “unauthorised” people. Shekhar told the media that churches, prayer halls and Bible societies were mushrooming in the state and they were being used as centres for conversion.
The third important decision by the committee was to look into persons from Scheduled Caste communities being converted to Christianity. The MLA cited the example of a woman from the Bovi community who has converted to Christianity and contested in a reserved ticket in the panchayat polls. “You cannot avail the benefit of SC and also a minority. You can have only one," Shekhar said.
Rev Peter Machado, Archbishop of Bengaluru, in a statement issued on Friday, expressed concern over the survey ordered by the committee. “In the background of the conversion bogey and anti-religious feelings that are being whipped up, it is dangerous to make such surveys. With this, our community places of worship as also pastors and sisters will be identified and may be unfairly targeted. We are already hearing of such sporadic incidents in Karnataka….Further laws will only be tools in the hands of a few to hound and persecute the innocent,” he said.
Reminding that the Constitution had guaranteed rights to profess, propagate and practice any religion, he questioned the need of an anti-conversion law given enough safeguards have been enshrined in the Constitution.