In Karnataka Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai’s home district Haveri, a Dalit Christian preacher Chandrakanth B Komalapu, 51, is faced with an ironic crisis. While Chandrakanth has not been able to convince his son, 23-year-old Moses Sandesh, who is a practising Hindu, to adopt Christianity, he was attacked in November 2021, for ‘converting’ 30 local Hindus to to Christianity.
Chandrakanth told The Quint, “I have never asked anyone, including my son, to follow my faith because that is someone’s personal choice. I only preach what I believe in and those who accept the preaching come for worship.”
On 7 November, 25 local vigilantes allegedly disrupted Chandrakanth’s prayer gathering at Jeevadayaka Suvartha Madira, a makeshift prayer hall set up in Aladakatti of Haveri, and manhandled him.
Practice and propagation of one’s religion is a guaranteed right under Article 25 of the Indian Constitution.
However, like pastor Chandrakanth whose parents were daily wage workers, a good number of those who have been at the receiving end of the alleged attacks on Christians in Karnataka are first-generation preachers who hail from historically marginalised groups, including Dalits and Adivasis.
Moreover, such attacks affect communities which have over the years resorted to religious conversion as a way of emancipation from the caste system. The architect of Indian constitution Dr B R Ambedkar on 14 October 1956 had embraced Buddhism along with over three lakh other Dalits.
Evangelists Record Alleged Attacks on the Marginalised
In a report which was released on 13 December, the Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI) has documented 37 alleged attacks that took place between January and December 2021 on the Christian community in Karnataka.
Speaking to The Quint, General Secretary of EFI Vijayesh Lal said, “While we have not done an enumeration based on caste, my understanding is that a majority of those who have been attacked in the past one year in Karnataka are those from the oppressed categories.”
In another report published on 6 December, by the United Christian Forum (UCF), Association for Protection of Civil Rights, and United Against Hate, it was found that Karnataka is ranked third among the states that have reported the highest number of attacks on Christians. Among the south Indian states, Karnataka ranks first in such attacks, the report reads.
The UCF report, based on calls received on the forum's helpline, indicates that a total of 1,331 women, 588 Adivasis, and 513 Dalits were injured in the attacks. A chunk of these cases were reported from Karnataka, the report read.
The attacks which were orchestrated by both Hindu right wing groups and local vigilantes have been on the rise since September 2021, as Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders, including CM Bommai, announced that an ‘anti-conversion’ bill to check religious conversions will be promulgated in the state.
In Karnataka Legislative Assembly’s winter session, which began in Belagavi on 13 December, the anti-conversion bill is expected to be tabled.
Meanwhile, preachers said that a number of attacks were orchestrated by individuals from dominant caste groups.
“I identified nine of the men who attacked me. All of them were from Lingayat caste,” Chandrakanth said. Lingayats are a dominant caste in Karnataka. While Haveri police have not arrested anyone in connection with the alleged assault, Chandrakanth is now booked under Section 107 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) on the charges of abetment of religious conversion.
In Koppal district, another preacher Devendrappa Lamani, an Adivasi Christian, told The Quint, “I was beaten up for going to a nearby village to lead a prayer gathering. Even my wife and eight-year-old son were not spared in the violence.” Lamani claims those who attacked him in January 2021 were local Adivasis who have links with Hindutva outfits. Police have booked the accused for assault after Lamani lodged a complaint.
Why Are Dalits, Adivasi Christians Affected the Most?
In several cases, a large number of Dalit and Adivasi preachers work in rural Karnataka where new churches of younger denominations, including the Pentecostal mission and Jehovah’s Witnesses, have come up.
Even in the case of older denominations, including the Catholic church, Church of South India, Methodist and Lutheran churches, “the preachers are ordinary persons who belong to the marginalised groups or those who are poor,” a Catholic community leader based in Bengaluru said, on the condition of anonymity.
While some of the newer missions do not establish churches because resources are scarce, some denominations like the Jehovah’s Witnesses insist on holding community worship only in prayer halls.
Against this backdrop, the most affected by recent attacks are those who hold prayer meetings in homes, temporary sheds, and community function halls. “We managed to buy the land where the shed stands for Rs 8.40 lakh in 2016. There was no money left to build a hall so we set up two sheds,” explained Chadrakanth. Pastor Lamani said he still holds prayer meetings in homes where he gets invited.
Meanwhile, the number of believers attending their prayer meetings has dwindled ever since the attacks they allegedly faced. “From 100 people who used to follow my prayer service the numbers have gone down by half, 40 persons,” he said.
EFI General Secretary Lal said, “This is an organised effort to curtail religious freedom.”
While in Belagavi, persons affiliated with the Bajrang Dal were accused of disrupting Christian religious events, in most districts the alleged attacks are spearheaded by local vigilantes, the preachers said.
In some cases, the attacks can also be considered caste violence, preachers said, adding in some cases the attackers even showered casteist slurs on them.
'Police Mute Spectators'
In Belagavi district, where the Assembly session is currently underway, a Dalit Christian and 44-year-old preacher of New India Church of God Prabhakar Sathnapally was attacked in March 2021. He still wants the police to answer why he was thrown in the lock-up for hours on the day of the incident, even as the attackers were allowed to roam free.
"About 40 people walked into the church and dragged me out. They verbally abused women who were gathered in the prayer hall," Sathnapally said. The Belagavi police, however, put him and nine other men behind bars to "contain the situation," he accused. "Those who came to the church were from influential castes. They were people who had money and political influence," he said.
When The Quint reached out to the Belagavi police, officials said no case has been booked around the incident.
Among the slurs were casteist slurs that targeted both men and women in the congregation. "Among the believers who were present at our prayer hall were people from different castes," he said, adding the casteist slurs were primarily aimed at him.
Sathnapally is a fourth-generation Christian even though the alleged attackers identified him as a Dalit. Caste does not stop to haunt even after religious conversion. Dalit Christians are not protected under the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989.
In Belagavi's neighbouring district Dharwad, Somappa Aviradi, a dominant caste Christian and preacher, however, said, caste alone is not the factor that triggers attacks. "I was attacked because I am a Christian," he said. His Jesus the King AG Church was attacked in October 2021, Aviradi added. The attackers burnt Bibles in the church and beat him, he accused.
According to EFI's Vijayesh Lal, "The attacks show that the state police are also supporting the attackers. Moreover, it shows that Christian preaching will not be tolerated." However, Dalit Christians have been demanding inclusion within the Scheduled Castes (SC) category. Karnataka anti-conversion law, however, plans to deny Backward Classes (BC) and SC reservation to Christian converts, reports say.
In Karnataka, the state government had ordered three church 'surveys', including an Intelligence wing operation, to identify "authorised and unauthorised churches."