Aligarh, India – Growing unease about the “mass conversions” by Hindu far-right groups of religious minorities cast a distinctly non-festive shadow over Christmas celebrations in India.
Right-wing Hindu groups have held a series of such ceremonies with an organisation in the northern Uttar Pradesh state announcing plans to conduct mass-conversions on Christmas Day.
Although the event in Aligarh was postponed before Christmas, and no new date has been set for it, the plans touched a raw nerve among minorities in a country prone to intercommunal violence.
India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has so far remained silent about the mass conversions – prompting opposition lawmakers to demand that he makes a statement to parliament.
“People are nervous about the new government at the centre as they feel such activities will be condoned,” said Osmond Charles, a lawyer and prominent member of the Christian community in Aligarh – a city known for its lock industry and famous Aligarh Muslim University.
Sense of devotion
Despite the plans to conduct a mass conversion by Dharam Jagran Manch – a group linked to the Hindu nationalist umbrella organisation Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) – a sense of devotion and relaxation marked a foggy Christmas Day in Aligarh’s churches.
What is the meaning of this 'homecoming'? We are already in our home.
About 50 Christians flocked to early morning service at the small but beautifully restored Christ Church, which was established in 1835. Among their number were Navneet Kedar and his family, who said: “There was no question of staying at home – it’s a day to celebrate.”
The musician has been attending mass at the church since childhood. When it was renovated in 2004, he was at the forefront of efforts to increase the strength of the congregation.
“My wife and I both missed having music as part of the service, so we organised a choir here.”
At the larger Church of Ascension in the city, worshippers such as pensioner Prem Taj Masih mingled with people from other faiths.
“We are welcoming people to the church,” he said. “My forebears have been coming to this church since it was established in 1868. There is no sense of fear from the Hindu masses.”
Outside the church, the brightly dressed crowd exchanging greetings and taking photographs included people of other faiths such as college students Subi Bansal and Yashi Jain.
“We went to convent schools and wanted to revisit the fun we had at Christmas there with our friends,” said Jain. The pair felt at ease in the congregation, and had enjoyed singing hymns with the choir.
“We go to all kinds of religious ceremonies,” said Bansal. “It’s good to respect all faiths.”
Businessman Anil Jacob says such mingling of faith groups is not unusual.
“Each Sunday, people come here to show their devotion. Often there are more people from different religions here than Christians. So why all this talk of dividing us?”
The Dharam Jagran Manch (DJM) announced that it had chosen December 25 for its act of conversion, which it calls “ghar wapsi”, or literally “homecoming”, a few weeks ago.
Satyaprakash Navman, convener of the event, told Al Jazeera that what they were doing was “different from conversion. We are simply taking back what is ours, by reconverting people to Hinduism”.
He said the organisation had selected December 25 because “Christian converts are taken to church that day to be inducted to the faith. We wanted to use the day to bring home our own people”.
The district administration cancelled the event and put in place extra security measures in the city. On Christmas Day, police officers and security vans were posted outside Aligarh’s churches.
Despite postponing the event, Navman remains defiant. “It was our internal decision to put off the event, but our work is going on,” he said. “It will continue in its own way.”
Similar mass conversions elsewhere in India have been generating unease, and in Agra, another city in the Uttar Pradesh state, the conversion of 200 Muslims earlier in December caused an outcry.
The BJP has distanced itself from the events, while maintaining that it is against forced conversions. But since Modi’s election, hardliners have become increasingly vocal about transforming the country into a Hindu nation.
Earlier this month it was estimated by one Christian group that there were as many as 71 attacks, arrests, incidents of arson, damage, disruptions, burglaries and landgrabs directed against members of the faith in the first 200 days of the new BJP government. On December 1, a suspected arson attack destroyed St Sebastian’s Church in New Delhi.
In early December, Foreign Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj said that the Bhagwad Gita, Hinduism’s sacred text, be declared a “national scripture”, even though India is constitutionally a secular republic.
Modi, a longtime member of the RSS, has fuelled unease by remaining tight-lipped about conversions, despite repeated demands in parliament by opposition lawmakers that the prime minister clarify his position.
Parliament’s upper house was repeatedly adjourned before Christmas after descending into shouting matches over the issue, paralysing action on key legislations.
Existing Indian legislation outlaws conversion by fraud or force, but scores of Muslims, who were converted in Agra, have reportedly said they changed their faith only out of fear.
Christians make up around 2 percent of India’s 1.2 billion population. In Aligarh the community is small but well entrenched, and has long mingled with other faiths, said Charles.
“We face all the normal problems of citizens of this country,” he said. “We have problems of education. There are problems of employment and basic living conditions.”
These issues are being sidelined behind identity politics, Charles said. He talked of his own rich heritage that had reflected all forms of worship.
“My grandfather was a Pashtun originally from Kohat,” he said. “My ancestry includes Muslims and Hindus. In my family, there was a beautiful mix of all kinds of culture.”
At that time, he said, “there was no hullabaloo over such marriages and conversions. Why bring it up now?”
While some Christians are growing nervous, others feel it is too early to judge. Network engineer Sachin Sahay said: “So far, I don’t feel insecure, but we should be free to follow our own faith.”
One Christian woman, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said: “Politicians have no religion but self-gain, they are the ones who stir up trouble.”
Representatives of Muslims and Christians had both met local politicians to seek assistance following DJM’s announcement.
“We are grateful for the support from the administration,” said Father Sunil Luke, pastor of the Church of Ascension and Christ Church. “They came forward to reassure us and the day went off safely thanks to their efforts.”
For younger Christians, however, the issue seemed to be a distraction from celebrating the biggest day of the year – often with members of other faiths.
“My friends join in my choir practise and always want to know what we are doing for Christmas,” said Ghanishka Kedar, 12, who sang at Christ Church. “We never talk about such issues in school.”
The Christian family of Abraham Varghese, 25, like many in Aligarh, prepares Christmas goodies without rum or wine so Muslim friends can share them freely.
“What is the meaning of this ‘homecoming’?” he asked. “We are already in our home.”