Gurudev, 36, has spent every Christmas in the last 18 years celebrating with his family and friends — hosting lunches, dressing up as Santa, and enjoying the festivities with song and dance.
Born in Kaithal district of Haryana, Gurudev moved to Kurukshetra a few years ago, where he works as a pastor in a local Church.
A Dalit, he stumbled upon the teachings of Jesus Christ some time during his teens and soon turned towards Christianity along with the rest of his family. But Gurudev insists he isn’t associated with any organised form of religion. He identifies himself as a follower of “Ishu” or “Isa Masih” - as Christ is called in Hindi.
But 25 December 2021 was a very different Christmas from the ones gone by as a function organised Gurudev and his family for the neighbors and children of the locality came under what he calls an “unprecedented attack” by vigilantes.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine something like this would happen in the India I have grown up in,” he told The Quint.
This was only one of the many attacks that took place on Christians in Haryana around Christmas.
These attacks also come at a time when controversial anti-conversion bills have been passed in 10 states, and one such bill is reportedly being drafted in Haryana as well.
The Quint visited Kurukshetra, Pataudi and Ambala, where these incidents occurred, to understand the pattern behind the attacks.
'NEXT TIME, WE WON'T SPARE YOU': CHRISTMAS EVENT DISRUPTED IN KURUKSHETRA
The event organised by Gurudev and others was a Christmas celebration at a local party hall called ‘Shine Avenue’. It included dance performances by children, followed by what was supposed to be a simple aloo–poori meal.
Half an hour into the event, just as the children began performing, a group of men allegedly from the Bajrang Dal barged in, stomped on to the stage and began yelling ‘Jai Sri Ram’ and ‘Har Har Mahadev’.
The children, aged between 6 to 12 years of age, stood there in a state of shock, unsure of what was happening. All of this was recorded on camera. In the videos of the incident that subsequently went viral, the crowd can be seen bewildered and hapless, as the men on the stage burst balloons and vandalised the decoration.
“We had to quickly pull the children down (from the stage), we were terrified that they would get hurt,” said Sonia Mehra, one of the attendees whose child was on the stage.
Before anyone from the organising team could ask what this was about, the men stopped the music, and began playing the Hanuman Chalisa instead.
Later, a man called Rakesh Kumar, the Kurukshetra convenor of Bajrang Dal, released a video of himself, explaining the incident.
In the video, he alleged that the event wasn’t a mere Christmas celebration, but an attempt at “mass conversion.”
“Christian missionaries there were trying to manipulate our Hindu brothers, and tempt them with benefits, to convert them to Christianity," he alleged.
In the video, Kumar further claims, "We reached the spot and tried to explain to them that they should be celebrating Shaheedi Diwas…Why are they staying away from Hindu traditions and festival....but when they did not understand, there was a little scuffle between us and them. So, we played Hanuman Chalisa for shudhikaran (purification).”
Kumar ended his statement with a threat: “Consider this Bajrang Dal’s warning in clear words, if something like this is attempted again, we will deal with you properly. This time, we didn’t say anything to you, but next time, we won’t spare you.”
Speaking to The Quint, Gurudev and his family dismissed all claims of any mass conversion taking place at their behest.
“It was simply an opportunity for our children to get together, and sing and dance. Moreover, everyone attending the event was already a follower of Ishu (Christ), so where is the question of a conversion?” Gurudev said.
The parents who were present there say the children have been left 'traumatised' after the incident.
“They started screaming, and asked everyone to stop the dance, it was very scary,” 8-year-old Samarth Mehra said.
The Kurukshetra police, too, denied that there was any evidence of a religious conversion. “We probed into it, even went through all the CCTV footage from the day. It’s clear there was no religious conversion aspect at all,” Devender Kumar, SHO of the Kurukshetra Sector 5 police chowki told The Quint.
However, there has been no complaint registered against the Bajrang Dal for disrupting the event. “The organisers don’t want to file a complaint, so what can we do? Neither of the two sides has registered any complaint,” he said.
'IF YOU HAVE AN EVENT ON CHRIST, WE'LL ENSURE IT ENDS WITH JAI SRI RAM'
Much like Kurukshetra, a Christmas celebration of children performing skits and dances was disrupted in Pataudi’s SBD School– a private school that has been running for the last 21 years.
But unlike Kurukshetra, in this case the disruption wasn’t led by a group of men unknown to the organisers, but one man living right opposite the school.
In the video of the incident, a group can be seen interrupting women on the stage, and shouting ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’.
RP Pandey, the man who led the charge, is convenor of the Haryana-based Dharm Jagriti Mission. The Quint met Pandey at his house, which also serves as his office where he meets his 'clients'. He is an astrologer by profession.
“I have no qualms in saying that I was the one who led the charge against those missionaries. These people come here from other states and lure Dalit families with food and money,” Pandey said.
On being asked if he has any proof of mass conversions taking place at the event, Pandey said he didn’t make any recordings. “But I saw with my own eyes how they were yelling ‘Hallelujah’ and doing ‘jaadu tona’ (magic). They can’t dress up in different costumes and sing praises for Jesus. We respect Jesus but this is the land of Lord Ram,” he said.
Interestingly, Pandey’s outfit, the Dharm Jagriti Mission, claims to work to “spread knowledge about Hinduism and its various facets”, as per his own description. Asked then why can others not spread the message of other religions, Pandey dismissed the comparison.
“How is this a comparison? You can’t compare Ram, who is an Indian historical icon, to anyone else. If you start an event with Christ’s name, we will make sure it ends with Jai Sri Ram,” he said.
Ravi Kumar, the co-organiser of the event, denied the allegations of mass conversion. “This is completely fake news being spread to create an atmosphere of dread. We were merely celebrating a universal festival,” he said.
The owner of the school, Srikant, too denied there being any mass conversion taking place at the event.
“I got a request from the organisers and I agreed to rent out the school for 2 hours in the evening, purely out of goodwill. It had nothing to do with the school, its staff or students. But now they are trying to defame the school by levelling such allegations,” he said.
Besides Pandey, another prominent local figure who had barged into the school premises was Narendra Pahari, a former BJP member.
Pahari, who is reportedly associated with the Sangh Parivar, had contested the previous Haryana assembly polls as an independent candidate after being denied a ticket by the BJP. He secured about 24,000 votes losing to the BJP candidate. The party subsequently suspended him for six years.
Speaking to The Quint, Pahari alleged that there is a “deep rooted controversy to convert Dalits into Christianity.”
“I am a Dalit myself. I can tell you how the Christian missionaries try to tempt Dalits using money and food to convert them into their religion,” he claimed.
“At the event, they had promised just one meal and so many people showed up. Now imagine if those people are promised money. Of course they will convert then,” he added.
As per the Pataudi police, so far no complaint has been registered in this case.
CHRIST STATUE VANDALISED IN AMBALA, CHURCH ALLEGES A CONSPIRACY
The morning after Christmas, Haryana woke up to another such disturbing incident.
Ambala's Holy Redeemer Church, which was built in 1843, is known for its massive idol of Jesus Christ right at its entrance. Many passersby would often light a candle at the idol and pay their respects.
On Sunday morning, when the head priests came to the Church, they saw the glass box that enclosed the idol was broken, and the idol itself was smashed into pieces. On reviewing the CCTV footage, it was learnt that two men entered the Church past midnight, urinated inside the church premises and vandalised the idol while leaving at 1:40 am.
Two days later, the Ambala police arrested two men, who were reportedly under the influence of alcohol when they committed the crime. The police, however, have said this didn’t seem to be a “hate crime” on initial probe, but are still investigating the case.
The Church, however, believes that there is more to it than meets the eye. “There seems to be a greater conspiracy in attacking the revered idol of Christ on Christmas night. This can’t be a coincidence. Clearly, they were being directed by someone,” alleged Father Patrus Mundu, the parish priest of the Church.
The Church is located in the Ambala Cantonment and given how cantonment areas are known for tight security, the Church says the vandalism will send out a “terrifying signal".
“If a Christ idol is not safe in a cantonment area, where is it safe?” Mundu asked.
According to a statement released by the United Christian Forum, 2021 was the “most violent year for Christians” in India, where crimes against the community rose by 75 per cent– from 279 in 2020 to 486 in 2021.
“Seen in the context of the anti-conversion bill, and the massive havoc it has wreaked across the country, these concerted attacks on Christians are particularly scary and will make the community feel very vulnerable,” said Anastasia Gill, activist and former member of the Delhi Minorities Commission.