It was on November 26 last year that a section of church-going Christians in Karnataka’s Belagavi received a ‘friendly warning’ from the police, urging the faithful not to conduct prayer meetings because the “right wing groups may attack them, and the police will not be able to give them protection”. The police’s request was to avoid such meetings until the end of the Winter Session of the Karnataka Assembly, which was scheduled to be held from December 13 to 24 and expected to table the controversial anti-conversion Bill.
Less than a month later, on December 11, a Christian priest in the area was chased by a sword-wielding man, with the incident being caught on CCTV cameras and shared widely on social media. On December 28, a group of Hindutva vigilantes barged into a Dalit household in Tumakuru in a bid to stop them from celebrating Christmas, and on the very next day, another mob attacked a Dalit family residing in Tukkanatti village of Belagavi after accusing them of converting their neighbours to Christianity. On the night of January 23 this year, the Trinity Church in Ramanathapuram of Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu was vandalised by two people, who pelted stones at the building, shattered the glass and damaged a statue.
As many as 207 incidents of violent crimes allegedly targeting the Christian community have been registered in the country so far this year, according to a report released on June 13 by the United Christian Forum (UCF), a Christian rights protection body. The UCF recorded 40 such incidents in January, 35 in February, 33 in March, 40 in April, and 57 — the highest number yet this year — in May. Similar to last year, Uttar Pradesh tops the list with 48 incidents, followed by Chhattisgarh (44). Jharkhand recorded 23 such cases of violence, and Madhya Pradesh 14.
The report comes at a time when attacks on minority communities in India are on the rise, from the houses of Muslim families being torn down and men being beaten up for consuming beef, to conversion-related disputes and lynching. Besides the obvious violence against the Muslim community, the country has also been witnessing a sharp rise in attacks on churches, educational institutions, mass gatherings and against religious heads, furthering the strain on India’s secular fabric.
The UCF had come out with another report on April 15, which included the data up until April 13, stating that Christians were at the receiving end of at least 127 incidents of religious violence so far in the year. As per the report, 82 of these incidents comprised mob violence, 89 pastors were beaten for conducting prayers, and 68 churches were attacked. In a report in December last year, the Forum had referred to 2021 as the “most violent year” for the community, recording 486 such incidents. The reports are based on the information collected by the UCF helpline, a toll-free number that was launched in January 2015 to help people with legal remedies if they have been traumatised by incidents of religious disharmony.
Speaking to TNM, AC Micheal, former member of the Delhi Minorities Commission, pointed out that ever since the very first anti-conversion law was enacted in 1967, there has not been a single conviction against pastors or any Christians for forced and fraudulent conversion. “It has been more than 50 years now and no such forced conversions have been reported so far. But recently, there has been increased attacks on the Christian community over false allegations of forced religious conversion. A propaganda is underway to make it seem like several such conversions are happening in the country, based on which churches are being attacked, church houses being vandalised, and women and children being beaten up,” he says.
The first anti-conversion law ever to be passed in India was by Madhya Pradesh, with the Madhya Pradesh Dharma Swathanthra Adhiniyam, 1967, which banned conversion from one religion to another by the use of force, fraud, or allurement. This was followed by Odisha, which passed the Orissa Freedom of Religion Act, 1968. This Act too penalised conversion by use of force, fraud, allurement, or inducement in the state.
"Last week, the Delhi High Court observed that conversion, unless forced, is not prohibited. Rather, it is an individual choice guaranteed by our Constitution of India. While hearing the petition seeking directions to frame laws to prohibit religious conversions, the High Court bench had asked advocate Ashwini Kumar Upadhyay to come up with data to back the Hindutva groups’ claim that many forced and mass conversions were happening in the country. But this is not the case,” said Micheal, who has submitted a memorandum to the National Commission for Minorities highlighting the increased violence against Christians. "We have asked the Commission to look into the matter and direct the police to take these concerns seriously," he said.
When asked how southern India fared on this matter, Michael pointed out how Karnataka had also introduced the anti-conversion law, but no case has been registered under this legislation yet. “Unfortunately, incidents of violence against Christians have been going up in Tamil Nadu too,” he added. In fact, when it comes to numbers, Tamil Nadu was right next to Karnataka on the UCF list, recording 20 cases of violence against Christians. From 2014 to 2022, around 250 such incidents have been recorded through the UCF helpline in Tamil Nadu.