Following Shivraj Singh Chouhan's return to power after nearly two dozen Congress MLAs crossed over to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in March 2020, Madhya Pradesh has reportedly witnessed a surge in the number of violent attacks on Christian missionaries.
Apart from facing right-wing vigilantism, several of them have been booked for alleged offences related to fraudulent conversions and running illegal institutions.
And this spike has been even more dramatic after the Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act was passed by the Assembly in March 2021. In the 62 cases registered under the provisions of this Act, eight are against people belonging to the Christian community.
Talking to the media, Rajesh Rajora, additional chief secretary (home), recently said,
“There have been a total of 62 cases registered since the Madhya Pradesh Freedom to Religion Act came to force. Most of the cases carry incidents of fake identity, elopement, and even rape followed with an attempt at religious conversion.”
Another stark data was shared in a letter written by the United Christian Forum (UCF) to the National Commission for Minorities in October 2021. It recorded more than 30 cases of violence against Christians in the state between January and October 2021, representing a significant uptick from recent years.
"These numbers have increased surprisingly from 13 attacks last year, and four in 2019, to 36 in 2021 till November," said AC Michael, national coordinator of the UCF.
The most recent of these attacks on Christian missionaries took place in Ganj Basoda, in Vidisha district, where right-wing miscreants vandalised a catholic school. The principal had alleged police inaction, saying they failed to provide security even though the school had asked for protection a day earlier.
Not One But a Series of Attacks on Christians in MP
Before Vidisha, six Christian pastors were arrested in Jhabua’s Ranapur police station two days after they had met the district collector and submitted a memorandum to him, saying they were being targeted and cases of false conversion were being filed against them.
Earlier in October this year, 25 Hindutva radicals allegedly gave an ultimatum to a Catholic school in Satna district to install an idol of goddess Saraswati.
VHP and Bajrang Dal members also staged a ‘dharna’, burnt tyres and organised a chakka jam in front of the Kolgawan police station, in Satna. They reportedly injured a pregnant constable, following which the police resorted to ‘lathi charge’. The police department took action against four policemen over the incident.
Even as the vandalisation and attacks continue over alleged religious conversions, the authorities are seemingly complicit in this drive against Christian missionaries.
In Jhabua, the district administration even cancelled the affiliation of seven Catholic schools that collectively cater to the education of nearly 8,000 tribal students, citing “unavailability of subject-wise teachers and land records.”
Another church in Jhabua has asked for protection after they heard of messages on social media claiming ‘Church to be razed like Babri Masjid’.
According to media reports, as many as 21 people have been booked by the state police over claims of ‘illegal conversions’.
BJP Attempts to Recover Lost Popularity Among Tribals
The right-wing is also targeting their Scheduled Tribe reservation status in the tribal-dominated areas.
A local Christian leader, requesting anonymity, said, “This spurt in incidents is coming at a time when the BJP has launched a massive tribal-outreach programme in the state. This is clearly being done to divert tribal votes to the BJP.”
In Jhabua, a member of the VHP wrote a letter to the sub-divisional officer, revenue, seeking cancellation of ST status of 55 Christian fathers and a complete ban on prayer meetings that allegedly encourage conversions. On 11 November, the sub-divisional officer wrote to the tehsildar of the district to take action against such prayer meetings.
Some Christians of Jhabua also alleged that pastors have been asked to take permission before going to any village, which they say has never happened before.
“We are being targeted after Shivraj Singh Chouhan took office for the fourth time in 2020. This wasn’t the case before.”Maria Stephen, a community leader
Although the attacks against the Christian missionaries have risen in the state, the underlying concerns of the government aren't new. The state government had passed a law – called the Madhya Pradesh Dharma Swatantrya Adhiniyam – in 1968 to prohibit conversion from one religion to another by the use of force or allurement or by fraudulent means.
It was later repealed – the Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, which is a more stringent law, was passed and implemented in March 2021.
The BJP’s interest in tribal-dominated areas is evidently significant.
In 2013, the BJP had won 31 out of 47 ST seats in the state. However, five years later, in the 2018 state elections, the BJP’s tally dropped to 16 seats.
The tribal communities' population in MP is over 1.5 crore, accounting for nearly 21 percent of the total population. This was a major factor for the overthrow of the BJP government in 2018.
There is also perception at play. Churches and Christian institutions have been providing education and health facilities in areas where the governments of the day, no matter how powerful, have failed to do so.
But What is Boosting the Morale of Right-Wing Radical?
The Quint spoke to journalists and political experts in the state to try and understand the trend. The answer appears to be in the impunity provided because of political reasons.
“The fact that the VHP and the Bajrang Dal are able to carry out violent protests constantly points to the morale of the cadre and support from top leaders," explained a journalist requesting anonymous. "The sense of escaping severe punishment or jail time post such incidents has been intangibly conveyed to the groups by their leaders.”
They further add that the chief minister and the administration are vulnerable to pressure from the RSS and its on-ground affiliates aka the VHP and the Bajrang Dal.
According to Deepak Tiwari, a journalist who analyses state politics,
"Shivraj didn’t return to power on his own this time. He was given a government to run by ‘Delhi’ and this has put him under tremendous pressure. Moreover, Shivraj and those in the government know that they do not have any moral authority in the government. Hence, everyone is trying to get their pound of flesh while it lasts."
The journalist, who spoke on conditions on anonymity, pointed to the rising influence of local leaders like state Home Minister Narottam Mishra, who has been vocal on many communal issues.
“With the rise of multiple power centres among the second-rung leaders like Narottam Mishra and Bhupendra Singh who are trying to score points from the top brass in the RSS, hooligans are being given a get-out-of-jail free card on many occasions,” they added.
There is a visible dissonance between Shivraj Singh Chouhan's old image and his current aggressive stance on issues like the mafia on the one hand, and his silence on the targeting of Christians on the other.
When it came to the mafia groups, which are known to engage in violence, the chief minister has made strong public statements on several occasions, saying, “Madhya Pradesh chhod do warna zameen mein gaad doonga (leave MP else I will bury you in the ground)". However, he has taken no such public stance on the violence being perpetrated by RSS-backed groups.
"Shivraj Singh was one leader in the BJP who was considered next to Atal Bihari Bajpayee when it came to his liberal image. But in the last two years, Shivraj now wants to be a copy of Modi and Yogi, pushing him towards a more radical Hindutva-centered Chief Minister," argued Deepak Tiwari.