Punjab has witnessed three major incidents involving Christian institutions in the past one week, sparking fears about their safety in the state.
In the intervening night of 30 and 31 August, Jesus and Mary statues were vandalised and a car owned by a church functionary was sat on fire in Patti in Punjab’s Tarn Taran district.
This came a day after Punjab Police booked Baba Major Singh and 150 others for disturbing a Christian religious program at Daduana village in Amritsar district.
Akal Takht Jathedar Giani Harpreet Singh came out in support of the people booked, many of them Nihangs, and demanded cancellation of the FIR.
On 31 August, a programme planned by Christians at Jandiala town in Amritsar district was not allowed by Punjab police as they didn’t have the permission for the event and a Sikh organisation had also lodged a complaint.
What Happened in Tarn Taran?
The vandalising of the statues of Jesus and Mary in Patti, Tarn Taran stands out among the three incidents. The incident took place on the intervening night of 30-31 August at the Infant Jesus Catholic Church in Thakarpura village, barely 3 kilometres from Patti town.
According to the church’s security guard Jagtar Singh, four unidentified intruders with their faces covered by a cloth, entered the church by climbing a wall.
Jagtar Singh claimed that one of the intruders held him at gunpoint and another one, carrying an axe, vandalised the statues of Mary and Jesus Christ.
After this, they set on fire a Bolero jeep belonging to a church official.
This incident of sacrilege and vandalism, sparked protests from the Christian community. The protest was lifted only after Punjab Police assured the Christian community that the perpetrators will be brought to justice.
The Punjab Police formed a three-member Special Investigation Team (SIT) to probe the matter.
Despite the desecration incident at the church, Thakarpura is relatively calm and there is no perceptible divide between Christians and Sikhs at the village.
A baptised Sikh woman told this reporter, “What happened at the church is wrong and should never have happened”.
72-year-old Amar Singh, a member of the local Gurdwara Committee, spoke to The Quint as he was coming back after getting his paddy fields sprayed.
“Sikhs and Christians live peacefully in our village. Majority of our villagers are Sikhs and there are a few Christians. Most Christians were Mazhabi (Dalit) Sikhs (before they converted),” he said.Amar Singh, Gurdwara Committee member in Thakarpura
“We respect Christians and they respect us too. We do not have any problem with them. My own grandchildren study in the Christian school,” he added.
Satveer Singh, son of the village Sarpanch, concurred, “There are around 2500 people in our village, out of which around 300 follow Christianity. All of us live here peacefully”.
“Christians have opened a school here which not only offers quality education to kids of our village but also to people of our area.”
Regarding allegations of forced religious conversion, Satveer Singh said, “Whoever adopts Christianity does so out of his own choice, no one forces anyone to change their religion”.
However, he does admit that the number of Christians have increased after the church came up in the village.
“It Is true that after the church was set up in our village, more people began embracing Christianity and their numbers are increasing. But people follow their heart in matters of religion.”Satveer Singh, resident of Thakarpura
Satveer Singh said that Sikh organisations need to learn from Christian organisations which provide quality education to poor kids.
'I Go to Gurudwara Sahib too but We Worship Only Jesus'
Belonging to the Balmiki Dalit community, 45-year-old Jeet Singh has converted to Christianity. He has a small one-room home in the village. The home is a basic one – the toilet doesn’t have a door.
Sitting on his cot wearing a white turban, Jeet Singh says, “I began worshipping Jesus on my own. No one forced me”.
“One of my daughters suffered from night blindness. We tried to get it cured but failed. Then we went to church and she got cured,” he claims.
“No one offered us money to follow the path of Christ..I am a rickshaw-puller and it has been eight years since I started following Christianity."Jeet Singh, a convert to Christianity
Interestingly, Jeet Singh continues to go to the Gurdwara.
“I go to Gurudwara Sahib as well but we worship only Jesus. My in-laws also follow Christianity. My father-in-law was suffering from health problems but he was also cured after converting.”
Such claims of ‘healing’ after conversion are not uncommon, though there may not be any direct causation between the two.
The recent vandalism incident has upset Jeet Singh.
“Those who vandalised the statues of Christ have committed a grave crime and it should not have been done. The Christian community lives peacefully with others. You can ask anyone in the village,” he said.
Church Responds to Allegations of Forcible Conversions
Established about 15 years ago, Infant Jesus Catholic Church is one of the biggest churches in Tarn Taran district. Father Thomas (40) is a Bishop and the in-charge of the church. It was his vehicle that was set on fire by the miscreants
Father Thomas said, “I moved to Punjab nearly 18 years ago. It has been four years since I became the in-charge of this church. We never faced any threat or witnessed any such incident (before this).”
On allegations of forceful religious conversions, Father Thomas said, “We are Catholics. We can’t even think about converting people. We only have about 300 church members (in the village).”
On being asked about the Akal Takht Jathedar’s statement on religious conversions and his support for the Nihangs arrested in connection with the incident in Amritsar district, Father Thomas said, “I can’t comment on what anyone has said. In fact, I am not aware of what happened somewhere else. The police are looking into the matter and that’s all.”
There is a convent school in the same compound as the church. Nearly a month ago, some students of the senior secondary had a quarrel with a teacher and beat him up.
The teacher filed a complaint with the police and the matter was amicably resolved with school issuing transfer certificates to some of the students responsible and telling them to leave. Father Thomas says that the teacher has now recovered.
Superintendent of Police, Tarn Taran, Vishaljeet Singh said, “We are investigating the matter and our teams are examining the issue from all angles. (Before this), we never heard of any such incident in this area. The police are also looking into the students who were given transfer certificates.”
The Punjab Police is also trying to look into the data of money transfers from abroad in the area.
Punjab CM Bhagwant Mann had tweeted on the incident, promising a thorough investigation. “No one will be allowed to break the brotherhood of Punjab. The Tarn Taran incident is very unfortunate. (The police will) investigate it and take strict action against the culprits.”
Allegations From Sikh Organisations
Balbir Singh Moochal, president of the Guru Granth Sahib Satkar committee had complained to the police about a Christian programme held annually at Jandiala Guru in Amritsar district.
The programme was subsequently cancelled.
“Christians try to fool people. When we got to know that they were organising a programme at government owned land, we informed the authorities. They intervened and got the programme cancelled as it was being held without any permission,” he said.
“Everyone is allowed to propagate their religion but no one should try to fool people. They promise miraculous treatment to those who are suffering from diseases. It is wrong.”Balbir Singh Moochal, President of Guru Granth Sahib Satkar Committee
Akal Takht Jathedar Giani Harpreet Singh has accused Christian missionaries of being funded by foreign forces and alleged that they target Sikhs and Hindus from vulnerable backgrounds, converting them using fraudulent means.
He also appealed to the Punjab government to cancel the FIR against 150 Sikhs for stopping a Christian program at Daduana village in Amritsar district. The Jathedar, who is the head of the highest temporal body of Sikhs, has called a meeting on this issue on 5 September at Anandpur Sahib.
Delhi BJP Leader Manjinder Sirsa too jumped into the controversy. He tweeted, “Hindu and Sikhs are being converted using money and the fear of cancer.”
Delhi Sikh Gurudwara Management Committee (DSGMC) President Harmeet Kalka had announced in last week of August that they brought back 12 families from Christianity to Sikhism.
DSGMC has opened its office in Amritsar and appointed Manjit Singh Bhoma as in-charge of Dharam Parchar (preaching) drivjjes.