22 april 2012The arrest of pastor Victor Babu of the Pentecostal Church in Bangalore on charges of forcible conversion could well turn out to be yet another case of the state’s Hindutva forces to provoke communal passions. Babu was arrested on Friday 20 April by the Karnataka Police on charges of “forcible conversion of children” attending summer classes. The arrest came after a Hindutva group led by a local BJP leader handed over the priest to the local police. The church represented by Babu has called his incarceration as politically motivated.
Babu (45), a priest at the Hebron Pentecostal Church in Marthahalli, conducts the Vacation Bible School (VBS) classes. (During summer, churches conduct programmes for children of all religion. It includes play, and teaching of biblical stories and also imparting life values. Many children belonging to other faiths attend these summer classes as part of wider understanding of religion). On Thursday 19 April morning Babu was arrested while he was on his way to the VBS classes when he was stopped by a group of villagers led by Rajshekhar Reddy, a local BJP leader. Babu was accompanied by 23 children who were on their way to attend the classes, when he was taken to the Mahadevpura police station. Babu was arrested and charged under section 295 (a) of the Indian Penal Code for “outraging religious feelings”. Babu was later remanded to judicial custody.
“Only two or three children in the group of 23 are not Christian. However, all the parents were aware that the children were being taken to a church for Vacation Bible School,” said a pastor of the Hebron church on condition of anonymity. The parents of most of the children in the group were were members of the Hebron church.
One of the BJP workers, identified as S Nagaraj who had intercepted the bus, said that the children were taken at 7 am by the church authorities and dropped back home by 4 pm. Nagaraj said Babu was taking children for Bible classes for the past three days in the same bus before it was intercepted.
When questioned why they were sending their children to the classes, the parents said that the children were being given food and books by the church authorities. Only one parent, Prakash contended that he did not know that his child was being taken to the church. When asked how did he not notice the child’s absence all day, Prakash said, “I do not know, ask Rajashekhar Reddy.”
When contacted, Rajashekhar Reddy a local BJP leader said, he took up this issue, as he was a local community leader and could not “bear to watch innocent children being brain washed”.
Advocate Noah Bethania, representing Babu, said, “The police complaint has been filed by Rajashekhar Reddy and not the parents.” He also pointed out that in his complaint Reddy has said that the children were being taken without parental consent. “If that is true, then a case of abduction or illegal confinement should be filed. On what basis was a case filed under section 295 (A)?” asked Bethania.
Pericho Prabhu, secretary general of the United Christian Federation for Justice, says, “This incident is part of a well-thought-out strategy on the part of the Hindutva forces.” In September 2008, churches were attacked all over the state, and it was said to be a “reaction to stop the forcible conversions”. “However, they could not point out even a single police case registered in the state alleging forcible conversions. Since then the BJP and the state government have been using the police to file cases against missionaries under section 295 (a),” added Pericho.
When contacted state BJP media in charge Prakash said, “Forcible conversion is prohibited. So what’s wrong in filing cases? We condemn any act of conversion.”
PUCL member and author of several books on communalism Suresh Bhat sees a pan Indian design of filing cases against Christian priests: especially in BJP ruled states. Talking to Tehelka over phone from Mangalore, Bhat said that in Madhya Pradesh, the police department has even issued a circular to keep an eye on Christian missionaries. “The department has particularly asked its officers to keep an eye on evangelical groups like New Life and Pentecostal. They have excluded the Roman Catholic groups from it,’’ he adds.
Bhat says the same group is spreading allegations all over the country of forcible conversions irrespective of the fact that conversions as such is not a crime in India.
A recently published report of Global Council of Indian Christians has rated Karnataka as the worst place for minorities. The report stated that, with 47 incidents of church attacks Karnataka topped the list. Orissa came second with 25 cases of reported incidents of church attacks.
“Karnataka has been an open society, and it is only recently that there has been attacks on Christians, and their religious places. If you observe closely most of the trouble has been created by political leaders; not the religious mutts. It looks like for their narrow political gains the issue of conversion has been raked by them. Not by the religious class,” says Vincent Rajkumar, Director, Christian Institute for the study of Religion and Society. “I agree that there are conservative fundamentalist groups. But not all church activities are for religious conversion,’’ he adds.
Imran Khan is a Senior Correspondent with Tehelka.com.