On December 6, while students of St Joseph High School in Ganjbasoda in Madhya Pradesh's Vidisha district were taking their class 12 exams, a mob of around 500 men attacked the campus. Armed with iron rods and stones, the mob who were from Hindu right wing organisations — the Bajrang Dal and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad —chanted 'Jai Shri Ram' while attacking the school, alleging 'religious conversion' of school children.
The attack was waiting to happen. And, it wasn't the first one.
A day before, on December 5, the Principal of the school Brother Antony Pynumkal had sought protection from the police after finding out that a photo of the Holy Communion published in diocese' monthly newsletter 'Sagar Voice' was circulated on social media connecting it with religious conversion of children.
The school had organised its first holy communion, a religious ceremony, for eight Christian catholic children at a local Church on October 31. A communion ceremony is a rite of initiation by a Catholic church usually for children at the age of 8-9 years.
"Some of the teachers told us about the photo that was viral on social media. The photo was portrayed as evidence of religious conversion," the Principal said. Local media picked it up and the claim found a place on popular YouTube channels too.
On December 4, the fundamentalist groups gave a memorandum to district authorities to register an FIR against St Joseph High School within seven days. They threatened that the 'Hindu' community will be forced to go on an 'intense protest' unless some action is taken against the school.
Two days after the threat, a group of over 500 people attacked, broke glasses and properties of the school and vandalised the premises. The protest was diffused after sub-divisional magistrate Roshan Rai gave assurance of inquiry into the matter.
Are These Targeted Attacks On Christians?
Last month, on November 15, Vinay Joshi, a resident of Ratnagiri in Maharashtra made a complaint to the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) against Sagar Catholic Diocese alleging religious conversion of children.
"The NCPCR sent notice to its counterpart in Madhya Pradesh, following which the Bajrang Dal and VHP started their protest in the state," said Father Maria Stephen, spokesperson of Bhopal diocese.
Here is the full text of the complaint letter to the NCPCR.
Father Stephen said that Christian churches and educational institutions are being "targeted strategically".
"One can easily see a pattern," he said.
"District administration and the police do not pay heed to our applications for security. On the contrary, they provide protection to Bajrang Dal and VHP people who take out rallies against us shouting provocative and derogatory slogans and damage our property," he alleged.
In another part of Madhya Pradesh, in the tribal district of Jhabua, officials of the school education department refused to extend the recognition to six schools run by Catholic missionaries. All these schools are more than 30-40 years old with more than 10,000 students.
"Members of the Christian community are being harassed on various pretexts. Officials of the school education department are not renewing recognition of our six schools citing frivolous grounds even though we submitted a complete set of documents," said Father Rocky Shah of Jhabua church.
In another development, Father Rocky Shah said that the district administration has stopped the construction of the cathedral in Jhabua that is in the last leg of completion.
'Demolish Church' And Other Hate Posts On Social Media
While there have been reports of attacks, BOOM found out that members of the right-wing groups have been sharing provocative posts on social media, some of them urging people to demolish the church.
In a Facebook post, Azad Prem Singh, a leader of VHP, Jhabua, started a conversation about a church that was being constructed in the district and why it shouldn't exist. In the comments, on the same Facebook post, there were calls to demolish Churches and close catholic schools.
Despite several complaints to the SP and the collector of the district, no action has been taken against any of them.
Worried over the attack on the school and a spate of other such incidents of attacks on Christian schools and churches, the archbishop of Bhopal archdiocese Sebastian Durairaj met the Home Minister Narottam Mishra.
Archbishop Durairaj released a video message saying "our people and educational institutions are being attacked and a section of their community is feeling threatened and unsafe", appealing to the home minister and Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan for protection.
The school administration told BOOM that about 4-5 police constables were sent to the school to control the mob that was vandalising the property. "The mob outnumbered the police. Additional police force came after an hour," one of the administrators told BOOM.
Since then, about six police personnel have been stationed in the St Joseph School premises.
"We got no protection when we demanded it and now the police personnel have been placed here for no reason. I have requested the officials to remove these police personnel," said Brother Antony.
An FIR has been filed against unknown people and a case registered under IPC Section 147 (rioting), 148 (rioting with deadly weapons) and 427 (mischief causing damage to the amount of Rs 50). "As many as 11 people were arrested out of which 3 have been sent to jail; others were granted bail, from the police station," SDOP, Ganjbasoda, Bharat Bhushan Sharma told BOOM.
Two days after the incident, the Principal of the school met Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan who was in Ganjbasoda and gave him a memorandum, requesting action against the people who vandalized the school and threatened the community members. "The CM assured us that action will be taken," Antony said.
The Arrests Under MP's Freedom Of Religion Act
A day before the attack on St Joseph school, six tribal people from the Christian community were arrested after an FIR under Sections 3 and 5 of the Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 2021, was lodged against them at Ranapur Police Station for allegedly converting the tribals.
"VHP and the Bajrang Dal men are now raiding our churches on Sundays on suspicion of conversion and falsely implicating members of the Christian community. The FIR registered against the six tribals on Sunday is one such incident," Father Inabanathan of Jhabua Catholic community said.
On October 31, in Satna district, VHP and Bajgrang Dal men attacked a church in Sidharth Nagar in Satna during Sunday prayers, alleging religious conversions. They also blocked the national highway after which police had to resort to lathicharge to clear the highway. Later, Satna Superintendent of Police suspended four police officials for using force against the Bajrang Dal and VHP members.
An FIR was filed against Father Biju Thomas, Santosh Thomas and three others under MP's Freedom of Religion Act.
The VHP in Satna sent a letter to the Principal of Christ Jyoti School asking the management to install a statue of Goddess Saraswati in the premises. In the letter, they said that if the orders are not followed, they will come and do it themselves.
Father Maria Stephen, spokesperson of Bhopal archdiocese, told BOOM that they have received several complaints from across the state about radicals interrupting prayers besides harassing the Christian community on pretext of religious conversions.
"Cases under the Act are being registered against Christians on behest of BJP and VHP leaders. Such attacks generally increase before Christmas," he added.
The Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Bill 2021 was passed by the state cabinet in December 2020. It was cleared as ordinance in January 2021 and passed by the state Assembly and made into law in March, 2021. Also known as the 'anti-Love Jihad' bill or 'anti-conversion' bill, the passed legislation has the provision of up to 10 years in jail and a fine of up to Rs 1 lakh as punishment for religious conversion through coercion, force, allurement and fraudulent means and misrepresentation, including marriages solemnized through fraudulent means.
Earlier this year, on January 7, a group of people from right-wing organisations met in Chhindwara, said Father Stephen to "openly denigrate the Christian faith". "They also forced the people for 'Ghar Wapsi'," he added. That month, attacks took place in Dhar, Balaghat and Indore — where prayers were interrupted by Hindu fundamentalists. "They have also started campaigns against our hostels," he said.
On January 27, Pastor Mahendra Nagadev and couple of others were arrested in Balaghat for alleged conversion. In a separate incident in Indore on January 30, as many as 11 Christians were taken from a prayer service to Bhawar Kuan police station and booked under the same Act.
Responding to a question of attack on St Joseph School in Vidisha, Home minister Narottam Mishra said that four people have been arrested but one should also look into the reasons as to what aroused the feelings of people against them. "As far as allegations of religious conversions are concerned, I reiterate that funds coming from foreign countries should be probed — if they are being used for conversions," he said.
Shahroz Afridi is a freelance journalist from Madhya Pradesh, who has worked for over two decades at Dainik Jagran and Hindustan Times.
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