Cameraperson: Shiv Kumar Maurya
Video Editor: Purnendu Pritam
Ever so often, pastor Nandu Nathaniel Singh, 40, would get calls from local Azamgarh residents requesting him to conduct a prayer service at their homes. The reasons would vary from death in the family, to illness, to financial instability, or some other difficulty.
Pastor Nathaniel, as he is commonly known in Uttar Pradesh’s Azamgarh, where he has been residing for the last 15 years, would visit people’s homes and lead a prayer service as requested.
He started doing the same at Bahadur Maurya’s home every Sunday on his request in 2021. Maurya had converted to Christianity at least a decade before he met pastor Nathaniel.
“We were having a lot of difficulties; our children would fall sick often. So, we thought we need weekly prayers at our home for God’s constant blessings,” Maurya said.
As pastor Nathaniel began holding prayers at Maurya’s home, other Christians from nearby localities also started to attend.
But on 3 October that year, after a few months of holding the weekly prayer sessions, pastor Nathaniel was suddenly arrested by the Azamgarh police and charged with forceful religious conversion.
“I had no idea what was happening. Everyone who would attend my prayer services was already a believing Christian, so who was I forcefully converting? Who filed the complaint against me? I was confused,” said pastor Nathaniel. He spent the next five months in jail.
As it turned out, the complaint against the pastor wasn’t filed by any of the attendees of the prayer service, but by a neighbor of Bahadur Maurya. The neighbour, Sudhir Gupta, lives barely 100 feet from Maurya’s home and is a local BJP leader. There was just one problem with Gupta being the complainant in the FIR that led to Nathaniel’s arrest. As per the law, he can't be the complainant.
'Only Aggrieved or Family Member Can Complain': UP Anti-Conversion Law
The Uttar Pradesh Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Act was passed as an ordinance in November 2020 and then assented as an Act in March 2021. Section 4 of the Act states: “Any aggrieved person, his/her parents, brother, sister, or any other person who is related to him/her by blood, marriage or adoption may lodge a First Information Report of such conversion...”
The section, thus, makes it clear that the complainant in a case of forceful or fraudulent conversion, can either be the one who has been coerced into conversion or their blood relative or family member.
In this case, Gupta doesn’t fit into any of these categories. Moreover, Gupta hadn’t even once attended the prayer services where he alleges the forceful conversion was taking place.
Speaking to The Quint at his residence, Gupta, who is BJP Kisan Morcha’s Azamgarh district president, said that he had been noticing a significant footfall at Maurya’s residence every Sunday for the past few months.
“At first, I thought this is some pooja-path (Hindu prayer) going on. But then I wondered which pooja takes place every Sunday. I got curious but since I am a neighbour, I couldn’t go in as it would create a scene. I am also a member of the Bajrang Dal so I called up a fellow member and asked him to go and see what is happening,” Gupta told The Quint.
The Bajrang Dal member went in and began recording the prayer. Pastor Nathaniel says he immediately grew suspicious as the man’s face was covered, and he was wearing shorts, not what most of his attendees would usually wear during prayers. “When I asked the man who he is and why he is recording, he immediately ran out. A few minutes later, the police was at the doorstep,” Nathaniel recalls.
Maurya says there was a “massive crowd” outside his residence by then, and they were all “acting on the instructions of Sudhir Gupta.”
Complainant Denies Being Forcefully Converted
When The Quint asked Gupta if he ever witnessed the alleged forceful conversion with his own eyes, he said no. When The Quint asked if Gupta was himself subject to the alleged forceful conversion by Pastor Nathaniel, he answered in the negative. “No, no one tried to forcefully convert me,” he said. “It’s just that this was happening nearby.”
The FIR filed in the case states that Pastor Nathaniel and his wife were trying to lure people into Christianity and “when we opposed this, Nandu Nathaniel, his wife and Bahadur Maurya’s son started abusing and threatening us.” Nowhere does the FIR state that attempts to convert Gupta were made.
While Gupta didn’t attend any of Pastor Nathaniel’s prayer sessions, Shyam Sunder Sonkar, an Azamgarh resident, had been a regular attendee. The Quint met with Sonkar, who confirmed that there was “no talk of conversion” at the prayer. “My family and I had begun believing in Christianity a long while before we started attending Pastor Nathaniel’s prayer. Everyone who would attend was already a Christian, he didn’t convert anyone there,” Sonkar told The Quint.
Nathaniel got out on bail in February 2022 after his lawyer Girish Chandra Maurya argued in the Allahabad High Court that the complainant has no locus standi to be filing the FIR. “He (the complainant) doesn’t fall in any of the categories deemed fit to file the complaint and those he is alleging were forcefully converted aren’t levelling any such allegations either,” he told The Quint.
But the Azamgarh police, which arrested Nathaniel continued to be unaware about the provisions of the Act. Speaking to The Quint, Inspector Raj Kumar Singh, in charge of station Kotwali where the FIR against Nathaniel was filed, insisted that “anyone can be a complainant.” “The complaint can be filed by anyone, not necessarily the aggrieved,” he said.
Notably, Gupta doesn’t believe it is just forceful conversion that should be penalised, but all religious conversion. “Religious conversion is completely wrong. Whether there is force involved or not. People should stick to the religions they were born in,” says Gupta. But he added a caveat: “Hindus who have switched to another faith can be converted back.” He cited the example of self-styled Godman Dhirendra Shastri, also known as Bageshwar Dham Sarkar, who in February reportedly converted over 200 Christians “back” to Hinduism.
While the UP law prohibits only forceful or fraudulent conversion, Article 25 of the Indian Constitution allows citizens the freedom to profess, practice and propagate religion to others.
Complainant a Third Party — Pattern Across Districts
Nathaniel’s case is only one among the several cases registered in Uttar Pradesh under the anti-forceful religious conversion Act in which the complainant is not in accordance with the sections of the very Act. As of November 2022, two years since the Act came into place, 507 accused had been arrested under the law in 291 cases.
In Varanasi, Pastor Neel Durai was arrested in August 2021 after a prayer service he was conducting was interrupted by Gaurish Singh, secretary of the Hindu Jagran Manch for Azamgarh and adjoining districts.
In videos from the incident, Gaurish can be seen taking out the Bible from Pastor Neel Durai’s bag and asking him why he is carrying it around. In the FIR too, the presence of religious scripture is cited.
“Just carrying religious scripture cannot be cited as proof of forceful conversion,” Pastor Neel said.
The Quint met with Gaurish Singh who narrated how he interrupted the event. “I got some information that conversion is taking place there. I reached there and found that yes, that man indulges in conversion. Because we found the cross and other conversion literature there,” Singh said.
Like in Nathaniel and Sudhir Gupta's case, here too the FIR doesn't say that the complainant (Singh) had been subjected to forceful conversion.
When asked if he was himself subjected to forceful conversion, Singh said no, but claimed that some locals were forcefully converted. But none of the supposed locals registered any complaint against pastor Neel. “Our police have become so scary that the common person doesn’t want to go to a police station to file a complaint anymore,” Singh explained.
Interestingly, Singh is a staunch supporter of Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, whose administration has often made claims of strict and prompt police action. Asked if he thought that wasn’t the case, Singh quickly corrected himself. “A lot has improved since Modi ji (Prime Minister Narendra Modi) and Yogi ji have come to power. However, a few things are yet to be fixed,” he added.
Speaking to The Quint, police in-charge of Varanasi's Phulpur police station, where this FIR was registered, said that “anyone can file a complaint. But we inquire if the complaint is based on evidence or not.”
The Quint found that this trend isn’t limited to one city or district but is a pattern across several districts. In Jaunpur, Dinesh Maurya was arrested for holding a prayer service at his home, based on the complaint of Pramod Sharma, president of a group called ‘Akhil Bhartiya Hindu Gaurav Mahasabha’.
“That day, a brother of mine was sent there, he was giving me all the information. He was told to convert,” Sharma told The Quint. Sharma accepts that he was not subjected to forceful conversion. The FIR doesn't claim so either.
The Jaunpur police, however, maintained that “anyone can file a complaint.”
“Anyone who thinks something wrong is happening can file a complaint,” Kuldeep Gupta, Jaunpur DSP said.
'Such Arrests are Illegal': Lawyers
Lawyers say that such arrests are, in fact, illegal.
Speaking to The Quint, Supreme Court advocate Vrinda Grover said, “The UP law specifies who can be the complainant in the case of a forceful or fraudulent conversion. When the statute specifies who can lodge the complaint, it is then not open for the FIR or complaint to be lodged by anyone outside that category.”
“Therefore, if a legal process of arrest and interrogation commences on the basis of a complaint that is not permitted by that statute, the entire process is unlawful, illegal, and without the authority of the law. The entire legal process of arrest based on a complainant who is not recognised by that statute would be lacking the authority of law and therefore, the arrest would be illegal,” Grover added.
The lawyers of the accused mentioned above said that they are considering approaching higher courts to quash the FIR on the grounds that they are not abiding by the law.
Notably, unlike the UP anti-forceful religious conversion Act, the Haryana Prevention of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Act, passed in 2022, has a section that states that the complainant in such cases can be the aggrieved, their family or by “an officer authorised by the Government”.
FIR Against a Deceased Man On Conversion Allegations
The police’s negligence also shows up in other ways.
In a village in Azamgarh’s Gobraha, an FIR under the anti-forceful conversion Act was filed against a man called Harku Ram in November 2022. The Quint traced Harku Ram’s family and found that he has been dead for nearly two decades.
“He passed away in 2005, and they registered a case against him accusing him of forceful conversion in 2022,” said Chandresh Kumar, Harku Ram’s grandson.
Harku Ram’s death certificate, accessed by The Quint, shows that he passed away in 2010, not 2005. But the point remains the same - how can a person commit a crime 12 years after his death?
When it was discovered that Harku Ram was dead, the police added Chandresh’s name in the FIR and arrested him instead.
But Chandresh, who later got out on bail, says that he wasn’t present at their home when the prayer was going on. “The women of our family are believing Christians and they were holding the prayer service. I wasn’t even present at our home at the time. I am not a believing Christian; in fact, I don’t believe in any God. And they have accused me of forcefully converting others,” he said.
Lawyer Rajiv Singh, who worked on the case, said that the police registered an FIR without due diligence.
“Out of pressure from the informant/complainant, the police simply filed an FIR against Harku Ram because he was the owner of the house. They should have inquired before filing the FIR and naming him as an accused,” he said.
Birth of 'Serial Complainants'
Not adhering to the provisions of the law has also led to the creation of certain ‘serial complainants’ who now devote themselves to “busting” Christian events.
Like Jitu Sonkar, who is a fruit seller in Azamgarh, but has been getting Christian events “raided” as a “side hustle” for the last two years.
Describing how he goes about this, Sonkar said, “I go there (to any Christian event) for a few weeks or months, pretending to be a mad man. Once I get the full details, I call the police and get their place raided.”
Sonkar is a complainant in two FIRs of forceful religious conversion in Azamgarh, and says he is “in the process of getting 5-7 other events raided.”
But much of what motivates Sonkar in his endeavor, is factually incorrect. “I am doing this to fight the reduction of Hindu population... The government taxes Hindu temples but doesn’t tax Muslim and Christian places of worship,” he said.
The Quint reached out to UP DGP for a response on the application of the anti-conversion law, but hasn't received one yet. The report will be updated if and when there is a response.