Even before tabling an ‘anti-conversion’ bill in the Karnataka Legislative Assembly, the state’s Bharatiya Janata Party government has undertaken a massive intelligence gathering exercise that targets churches and Christian congregations across the state.
On 16 October, the state’s Intelligence Department issued an order to top police and intelligence officials to gather information about “authorised and unauthorised” churches in Karnataka, The Quint has learnt, after accessing a key document issued by Additional Director General of Police, State Intelligence Department.
This goes against claims of the Karnataka government that the State’s Minorities Welfare Department is “surveying” churches in the state.
Instead, the state intelligence wing had swung into action just a day after the Legislative Committee on Welfare of Backward Classes announced that “district authorities” are to collect information on churches.
Going by the order, of which The Quint has a copy, it was not just the district collectors but also police officers who were assigned the task of collecting information on the minority religious places and congregations.
As per the order copy, classified as “most confidential”, all churches – those built on church property and government property – and their religious heads, are under the scanner. Intelligence on “churches and prayer halls built in houses and other places” too are to be probed, the order states.
Sleuths Probe Heads of Churches
The order issued to all Deputy Superintendents of Police (DySPs), Police Inspectors of all departments and DySPs of State Intelligence Bureau, explicitly states that the location (district and taluk) of each of the churches should be identified.
In the case of churches that are built on church or government properties, details of the “head of the church”, which would mean a priest, should be furnished. The order also states that details of owners of houses where churches or prayer halls function, should be gathered. Names and mobile numbers should be collected, says the order.
The order asks the police to specifically gather intelligence on the religious denomination of each of the churches. That is, churches should be classified as Protestant or Catholic.
Viewed in its totality, the intelligence wing has aimed to identify people who practice or preach Christianity in all places of their worship—from established churches that have stood for centuries, to newer churches of younger Christian denominations, and even homes were community prayer gatherings are held.
This even though, Article 25 of the Indian constitution guarantees the right to “propagate, practice and profess” one’s religion.
Most importantly, the order specifically states that the information should be relayed to the state’s intelligence wing by 18 October. This, in effect, means that, unlike what has so far been projected, the “survey” of churches is not a fledgling project. In fact, going by the order, the intelligence wing would have already gathered preliminary information on church authorities across Karnataka by 1 pm on 18 October.
Christians form 1.87 percent of Karnataka’s population.
Attempt to Classify Some Churches as Illegal?
According to two senior bureaucrats, who spoke to The Quint on the condition of anonymity, Karnataka Intelligence wing’s order could be a first, where a state asked its intelligence wing to gather detailed information on religious institutions of a section of the population “without citing a law and order crisis”.
“Usually, intelligence on religious institutions and their functionaries, is gathered when there is a law and order crisis, like a communal riot. Gathering information, that too enumerating minute details of specific sub-religious beliefs (like Protestantism or Catholicism) means that the State government has specific requirements,” one bureaucrat said.
Another civil service officer said, “It is some sort of a precursor to the Bill that aims to ban ‘forceful’ religious conversions. The government could draw from the Intelligence report and cite cases, however dubious may they be, of Christian preachers who have done wrongful conversions.”
Moreover, gathering intelligence on churches also exposes one of BJP government’s dubious assumptions – that unscrupulous or illegal activities happen in churches.
Earlier this month, Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai had said, “There are forced conversions in the state. This will be regulated completely.”
Is there a plan to rein in the Christian preachers of Karnataka?
The BJP had included promulgation of an anti-conversion law in its election manifesto, but the party spokesperson denies any such plan. “We want only those people, who are indulging in forceful conversions to be penalised. We are not targeting prayer halls and churches,” he said. Evidence, however, points to the contrary.
Right-wing organisations including Bajrang Dal and Viswa Hindu Parishad have been clamouring for an anti-conversion law even as attacks on churches and prayer halls have multiplied.
On 19 October Vishwa Hindu Parishad workers barged into a Christian prayer hall in Huballi to sing bhajans. In an earlier reported instance, on 10 September Hindu Jagaran Vedike workers disrupted a prayer meeting that was underway in a church in Karkala, Karnataka.
BJP MLA Triggers Conversion Controversy
On 21 September 2021, Karnataka Home Minister Araga Jnanendra announced in Legislative Assembly that the state is planning to introduce a new law to curb religious conversions. This was in response to allegations of ‘forceful conversions’ raised by BJP and Janata Dal (Secular) MLAs
The current surge of attacks on Christian places of worship, however, started when on 24 September BJP’s Hosadurga MLA Gulihatti Shekar said that his mother was forcefully converted to Christianity.
The MLA made the unverified claim in the Legislative Assembly. Within a month, on 15 October, Shekar, who is also a member of Legislative Committee on Welfare of Minorities and Backward Classes, announced to the media that the committee will “survey” legal and illegal churches in the state.
However, the key detail that went unshared was that the intelligence wing had been asked to look into the functioning of churches. When The Quint contacted Shekar for comment, he was unresponsive.
Will the bogey of ‘forced conversions’ be used to police and interfere with the functioning of Karnataka's churches, thereby targeting the state's small Christian community?