Christian leaders say they are increasingly viewed with suspicion after a rise in allegations that they are involved in coercive religious conversions.
They say they were attacked over the Christmas and New Year period and have been targeted by the prominent Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Bajrang Dal groups.
Reports of attacks emerged from the Khargone, Khandwa and Burhanpur districts. In Khandwa district 16 Christians, including men, women and their young children, were arrested on charges of religious conversion.
“Police arrest Christians on the false complaint of Hindu organizations, while we may in fact be just offering prayers. We always fear violence and persecution. We’re not free to practice our religion," says Kiran Bhadole, a Christian who was attacked, in 2007, alongside two colleagues. "There is a sense of insecurity among Christians as they always dread attack by zealot Hindus. They portray us as the ones only interested in converting people, thus belittling all the good work we do for the poor.”
Bhadole was attacked when he went to lead prayers at a village in the Khargone district but was himself arrested, accused of converting people to Christianity by offering money. It was only in 2013 that he was acquitted.
“We’ve repeatedly been targeted by Hindu extremists. We feel intimidated as religious intolerance and hostility against Christians is increasing. We’ve been frequently accused of religious conversion," he said, claiming that the police are often involved. "Forced conversions are a myth to divide people and an easy way to pester Christians and frame them in false cases.”
Director General of Madhya Pradesh Police, Surendra Sinh, denies that the police are involved in anti-Christian discrimination.
“We’re not partisan and don’t take sides. Whenever such a complaint is received, we get the matter thoroughly and fairly investigated. We don’t support any particular group,” said Sinh.
Several Christian leaders say discrimination since Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power with his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.
“Attacks were taking place earlier as well. But after the formation of Modi Government there has been an upsurge in anti-Christian ire,” said Indira Iyengar, President of the Madhya Pradesh Christian Association.
“We have been ostracized. Things have come to such a pass that our religious leaders fear anything can happen to them anytime. Attacks during the prayer sessions are common and the churches have been vandalized in the state. At some places, churches have been forcibly shut down,” she said.
A local state leader in the Hindu nationalist organization Bajrang Dal, Kamlesh Thakur, accuses Christian leaders of exploiting the poor by converting.
“These people lure the poor to convert to Christianity. How can this be tolerated?” he said.
Hindus demand law against conversion
Thakur is among those who want the Indian government to pass a law that prevents conversions.
"Hindus never convert the religion of people belonging to other communities. But Christian missionaries have been doing this for years,” he said.
Despite Thakur's claim a group linked to the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh claimed to "reconvert" more than 100 Muslims in December.
Fr. Anand Mutungal of the MP Christian Association dismisses Thakur's accusation.
“No one will change his or her religion for the sake of money or favours. Anti-conversion law will only be misused to persecute the minorities," he says. "We’ve seen it in states where such laws exist. We only believe in serving humankind and making life better for other people; we don’t believe in any other thing.”
Currently five Indian states, including Madhya Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh and Odisha have anti-conversion legislation. There has been a proposal to enact such legislation at the national level however minority communities are opposed to it.
The anti-conversion law in Madhya Pradesh was made more stringent in 2013 through the Religious Freedom (Amendment) Act 2013.
It requires anyone involved in conversions to inform authorities at least one month prior to conversion and bans any conversions without official approval. The maximum jail time was also increased to four years.