Belgaum, Karnataka: Sitting in a crowded restaurant, 39-year-old Sudhir Byadgi* furtively glances at other tables, and whispers, "They took a rod and hit my head, kicked me on my face, and slapped me hard multiple times."
"All because of my faith. Because I pray to a different God than theirs," he said.
Byadgi* (name changed to protect identity), a pastor in Belgaum district of Karnataka, was narrating the incident in April 2021 when he and his wife were dragged out of their relatives' house in Vadgaon village of the district and beaten up by local villagers, some of them he went to school with. They accused Byadgi of "forcefully converting people to Christianity".
The incident left him with memories of fear, humiliation and a hearing loss of more than 40 percent.
"Does any God preach violence to its followers? Then how did their faith allow them to hit me?" the pastor asked.
It was on Easter Sunday, he remembers the mob of 25 people, armed with rods and sticks, asking him, "Neena kristu eevaga baralva? (Will your Christ not come now?)"
His wife, too, was beaten by the mob, forced to perform Hindu rituals and chant Jai Shri Ram. "They pulled my wife's hair and asked her where is her kumkuma (red vermillion powder applied by married Hindu women). Before she could reply or say anything, they took a bag full of kumkuma and smeared it on her forehead. They then turned to me and did the same," Byadgi said, still whispering.
The Karnataka Assembly on Thursday passed the Karnataka Protection of Right to Freedom of Religion Bill even as the opposition Congress protested calling it "anti people", "inhuman", and "anti-constitutional". The bill, popular as the 'Anti Conversion Bill', proposes imprisonment of three to five years, a fine of Rs 25,000 for instances where there is 'forced' conversion. The bill has jail term for converting a minor, woman or a person from the Schedule Caste/Scheduled Tribe, those found to be involved in instances of mass conversion will face a jail term of 3-10 years and a fine of Rs 1 lakh.
Byadgi is one of the nearly 16 pastors who have been attacked in 2021 in Belgaum district according to members of the community. Pastor JS Sudhakar said that attacks on many other pastors have gone unreported because they fear "severe repercussions".
"I know of 16 pastors who were attacked but did not receive any help from the police. There are FIRs only in three cases. The police have in turn asked us to stop conducting prayers in rented places or public halls," Pastor JS Sudhakar said.
Byadgi, who has been a Protestant Christian since he was 10, decided to become a pastor when he turned 22.
The mob that had attacked him weren't strangers. "I grew up with these people, went to school with them. They would come to our house during Christmas..." Byadgi said.
On the allegations of giving money for religious conversion, he said, "We don't get a salary to be a pastor. We pray and hold meetings only because of our faith and to follow Lord Jesus's words. In my family, my wife is the earning member from the mill she works at. When I don't bring in any money to the house, how will I have money to pay people to convert?"
The mob dragged Byadgi around the village for more than 45 minutes as they claimed he had forcefully converted a local villager.
The group had received a complaint from the person's mother who did not approve of her son's decision to convert to Christianity.
"The person they were talking about also rushed to the scene where they beating me up and told the assaulters that I had not forced him and he had decided to convert of his own will. But they did not listen to him and even beat him up," he said.
Stopping mid-sentence, Byadgi's eyes get fixed on the two men sitting at the opposite table. "I am scared to talk about this. Earlier when attending a phone call, I would greet the other person with 'May the lord be with you' but now I am scared to cry out Jesus even when I am in pain, in any public place."
The attacks are not new.
The Pastor Who Has Been Attacked 4 Times
The first time Basavaraj Dawli was threatened was in 2012 when his house in Shindoli village was robbed. The second attack happened in October 2012 when he was beaten by a youngster. "I was meeting a member from my parish when someone came up to me and started abusing me. He didn't look more than 25-years-old. He alleged that I had forcefully converted his mother and was now trying to do it the person I was speaking to too."
While Dawli tried to reason with him, the man whipped out a chain from his pocket and hit him on his face with it. When he started to bleed, he hit one more time before fleeing from the place. "I registered a complaint with the local police station but the person is yet to be arrested," said Dawli.
In 2013, Dawli was pelted with stones and beaten up by a mob of hundred who forcefully entered the prayer hall. "They kept saying I had converted people forcibly. They called themselves members of the local Sri Ram Sene and even said the police were in support of them so nobody could do anything to them. I filed a complaint but the police did not register an FIR saying I must be doing illegal things and that's why I got beaten up," said Dawli.
Following this attack, within a few weeks, Dawli with his wife and two children left Shindoli village and moved to Naisargi village in Bailhongal taluk. "I was scared for my family."
But in a year again in 2014, there was another attack in Naisargi. The family of one of the members who had converted gathered some Hindutva group activists and barged in Dawli's house — which he was using as a prayer hall. "They broke chairs, attacked vehicles of the members and beat up my wife. They even threatened my children," Dawli said.
Dawli filed a police complaint after the local police station refused to register an FIR.
Scared for his life, Dawli shifted to Belgaum city and joined Vishranti Nilaya in Sulge, a large camping center with prayer halls. "I was an independent pastor all these years but with the increasing threats and attacks, I joined the Vishranti Nilaya so I have some security. I don't think I will ever go back to practicing independently even though that is what I wish to do," he said.
In 2019, Pastor Prassana* (name changed to protect identity) who spoke to us over the phone said he was attacked by a group who he did not wish to name. Prassana said the group beat him up with rods accusing him of forceful conversions. "They accused me of hypnotising people and brainwashing them." He clarified that all the members who pray with him do so voluntarily and that there is no money involved. Prassana refused to disclose where he is settled or where he holds prayer meetings.
"I don't want to die. We don't have government support or help from the police. I just want to practice my faith and live in peace," he said.
The question of whether practicing one's faith is a crime is on the minds of most protestant Christians in Belgaum. BOOM met with several pastors from the community who said that they were 'extremely scared' of Hindu right-wing organisations, specifically of Sri Ram Sene Hindustan and local leaders who claim to be with the Bharatiya Janata Party.
On November 7, pastor Lema Cherian was locked up in a community hall along with all the attendees by members of the Sri Ram Sene Hindustan who alleged that a mass conversion activity was underway. The Hindutva organisation threatened to beat up the pastor and those attending.
The situation was brought under control only after the Belgaum police intervened. However, the police filed an FIR against pastor Cherian at the behest of the Hindutva activists.
"Pastor Cherian was arrested claiming he was conducting forceful mass conversion and had to apply for bail," said advocate Ramesh M who is representing many of the pastors in Belgaum. Pastor Cherian has since left Belgaum and returned to his house in Kerala fearing a threat to his life.
"He is not answering our calls and refuses to return. He is a 70-years-old and the incident has scarred him greatly," he added.
BOOM spoke to a person who had been locked up inside the hall. Not wishing to be named, the member said that the Sri Ram Sene hurled dirty abuses even at the women and children. The member said there were about 250 members inside the hall, one they visited every Sunday to pray. "That day, just as we had reached, some people chanting Jai Shri Ram slogans barged in, started saying there is forced conversion happening here and then locked us in. Some of the people attending tried to escape but were beaten up and pushed back in."
Inside the locked hall, the member said the mob armed with rods and cricket bats, continued to chant slogans and hurled abuses.
"They used derogatory terms for Lord Jesus and asked offensive questions to the women who were present insinuating that they were doing sexual favours for the pastor," he said.
Following the incident, the police allegedly told pastors to not conduct meeting in rental spaces and to hold prayers only in church buildings.
Speaking to BOOM, Pastor T Thomas, said the police personally called up some pastors in Camp, Tilak Wadi areas and asked them to conduct prayers only in Churches and not in rented halls. "They said there is a fear that there will be attacks and hence we should not hold prayers in spaces which is not a Church building," said Thomas. He says it is frustrating that instead of warning the Hindutva groups and protecting them, they are asking christians to stop practising their faith wherever they want.
Meanwhile, gathered in an isolated farm near the Belgaum-Pune highway, members of the Sri Ram Sene Hindustan discuss their next move: How to protest against the arrest of their founder leader Ramakant Konduskar. Konduskar was arrested on Tuesday after he and his followers vandalised public properties to protest against the desecration of the statue of Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaj in Bengaluru.
"Konduskar sir is the most knowledgable about the forced conversions issues," said Sachin Patil, Taluka Vibhag chief of the Sri Ram Sene Hindustan group. Patil, 35, said that he joined the group a few years ago after he "saw how Hindus were being insulted and our culture was in danger." When asked about the attacks on pastors, a 23-year-old member present in the group angrily said, "If they will force their religion down everyone's throats, we have to be ready to cut off their voice."
Patil said that they act only when someone complains about a conversion. He said that most times a family member of a converted person approaches them. They get details and go to question them. They only get violent when the pastors "don't listen to them".
Sri Ram Sene Hindustan in Belgaum has been at the forefront of several attacks on pastors in the area. The group was the one who locked up Pastor Cherian and his followers in a community hall.
BOOM spoke to several members of the Hindutva groups in who said violence was needed in the current times, as Christianity was becoming a threat to Hindus. "Why do these people (Christian pastors) only convert Hindus and those from the lower caste? Why don't they try and convert a Muslim person or a rich Hindu? Because they know it is easier to hypnotise and brainwash by illegal means those who are poor. Hindus are being attacked everywhere in the country. So there is nothing wrong in us trying to protect our religion and culture by any means necessary," says Chandrakant Konduskar, brother of Ramakant.
Maruti Sutar, who was with the Sri Ram Sene Hindustan for many years and is now the head for the local BJP wing for Protection of Slaughter of Cows, told BOOM that he has been stopping forceful conversions for over 15 years. Calling himself a kattar Hindu (staunch Hindu) he said that he will stop every forceful conversion happening in Belgaum. Sutar said it is his "mission and duty" to preserve Hinduism, a job he calls, "extremely crucial".
"Congress ruined our rich Hindu culture by giving a free reign to the Christian missionaries. But under the BJP rule, Hindutva groups, local ones and national ones have started getting power. We have a voice now and are not scared to use it. The party stands beside us," Sutar said.
Posing in a black kurta with a big red vermillion dot on his forehead, Sutar dismissed the attacks on pastors as rare instances. He, in turn, accused the pastors of lying and exaggerating the attack and added that most times the Hindutva groups were falsely blamed.
Justifying the violent attacks on pastors, Sutar said, "We ask these Christian pastors and missionary groups politely to stop converting our Hindus, but they don't listen to us. When someone doesn't listen, you are bound to get angry. If someone got beaten up, they deserved it. And if anybody dares insults Hinduism or threatens to reduce the number of Hindus, we will take action."
Sutar and his followers told BOOM that Hinduism is the "oldest religion" in the world and everyone globally is a born Hindu. "You see so many foreigners now accepting Hinduism. That is not conversion by us. They are doing it voluntarily because each person's DNA is a Hindu DNA, it is a ghar wapsi for them into Hindutva," he said.
He further adds that Christian missionaries, "target" those from the Dalit and the SC/ST communities because they are poor. When asked if that was the case, should the government not focus on uplifting the poorer communities, Sutar says claims the BJP government was working towards the same and that most forceful conversions are in states ruled by Congress.
Belgaum district is in Karnataka ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party with Basavaraj Bommai as the Chief Minister.
Sutar supported the anti-conversion bill saying it "protects the Hindu culture". "The missionaries will now have to face not just us but also the police. The bill allows for any family members to complain against the person who has converted and we offer our full support to them," he added.
Advocate Ramesh who is defending many attacked pastors says there is no escaping from the bill now and the community has to study the implications. Giving his own example, he said that when he converted from a Hindu Brahmin 2004, he did so voluntarily and followed the legal process. But this, he said, is rare in the community. "Most people who have converted, are from poorer uneducated backgrounds and do not follow the legal process. For them, faith is personal, as it should be, but now the Anti conversion bill will make scapegoats out of them."
Ramesh said there is a "plus point" to the bill though. "It will show the authorities that there is no conversion by force or by illegal means." But he remains skeptical and hopes there is proper implementation. "If the police let the Hindutva activists get away with threatening and assaulting those who want to convert and pastors then what is the purpose of the bill?"
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