Bengaluru, India – Just days before Christmas, as Pastor Peter Benjamin prepared to address a prayer meeting and assessed the crowd in front of him at India’s tech hub of Bengaluru in the southern state of Karnataka, his heart skipped a beat. What if a mob suddenly walked in and started attacking everyone around, he thought to himself.
On December 23, his fears came true, albeit at a place around 160km (100 miles) away. A Hindu vigilante mob barged into a convent school in Karnataka’s Mandya district and disrupted a small Christmas celebration taking place. They shouted at the teachers and ordered them to stop the celebration, accusing them of “converting” Hindu children to Christianity.
On the same day, the Karnataka state assembly passed a new anti-conversion legislation, called the Karnataka Protection of Right to Freedom of Religion Bill, 2021. The bill now awaits its passage in the state legislative council to become a law.
“There is immense fear among the Christians,” the pastor told Al Jazeera, referring to a spate of recent attacks against the community and their places of worship across Karnataka, a state governed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Karnataka will be the 10th state in India to enact the so-called “Freedom of Religion” law. The legislation bars religious conversions, except when a person “reconverts to his immediate previous religion” – a clause that critics say is aimed at enabling India’s many Hindu supremacist groups to convert Muslims and Christians into Hindus.
Moreover, marriages conducted with the intention of conversion can be cancelled and those found guilty can be jailed for up to 10 years, according to the bill.
The ruling BJP claims the bill aims to stop “the illegal and large-scale conversion of Hindus to Christianity” – an allegation the party has yet to prove. Opposition parties and civil society groups have termed the proposed law “unconstitutional and undemocratic”.
At least 42 attacks this year: Reports
According to the 2011 census, Christians constitute about 2.3 percent of India’s 1.3 billion people. The Hindu-majority country is home to Asia’s second largest number of Catholic Christians after the Philippines.
According to a fact-finding report by the United Christian Forum, Association for Protection of Civil Rights and United Against Hate civil society groups, India witnessed 305 attacks on the Christian community and their places of worship in the nine months until September 2021. Of the 305 incidents, 66 took place in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh and 47 in Chhattisgarh.
The attacks intensified during the Christmas weekend when celebrations were disrupted by right-wing Hindu mobs. In a related development on Monday, India’s home ministry blocked foreign funding for Missionaries of Charity, a prominent charity founded by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mother Teresa in 1950.
In Karnataka, the community has faced increasing harassment for years, but this year saw a notable surge as at least 42 attacks on Christians and their religious places were documented. Three of those incidents – vandalising a church in Chikkaballapur, disrupting a naming ceremony in Hubli, and a mob forcibly entering a convent school in Mandya – were reported just hours before and after the passage of the anti-conversion bill.
Rights activists fear the actual numbers could be more as some cases of atrocities against the community, which forms 1.87 percent of Karnataka’s 64 million population, go unreported.
Community leaders and activists said the hate and violence against Christians were reminiscent of 2008, when at least 20 churches were vandalised by Hindu groups in Karnataka. Just as it does now, Karnataka had a BJP government in the state in 2008 as well.
But activists say the number of hate crimes against Christians in the state saw a marked rise in 2021.
One such attack happened at a small church run by Benjamin in Bengaluru on March 18. He recalled a series of “unsavoury” incidents that took place immediately before the attack that proved to be “ominous”.
“On several occasions, dog faeces and garbage were thrown on the church premises. Some miscreants peed on the church walls. Once they locked the bathroom door while users were inside,” he told Al Jazeera.
On the day of the attack, three men, one of them his neighbour, came inside the church during prayers. “They threatened to burn the church, rape my wife and kill us. They accused us of making a lot of noise and causing disturbance in the neighbourhood.”
But according to Benjamin, his church had been soundproofed. “There was no way that our hymns and prayers could cross the church walls,” he said.
The next day, before Benjamin could file a First Information Report (FIR) with police, his attackers instead registered one against him. The pastor was booked under various sections of the Indian penal code, including criminal intimidation, deliberate and malicious intention of outraging a person’s religious feelings and even public nuisance. He secured bail to save himself from arrest.
“We were not allowed to pray in that hall any more and had to find another place. There were women and children in the prayer hall on the day of the attack. Now, they feel vulnerable,” Benjamin told Al Jazeera.
A similar pattern runs in most of the attacks across Karnataka – often violent – against Christians and their places of worship by suspected members of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the far-right ideological mentor of the BJP; Bajrang Dal, its armed wing; and local Hindu vigilante groups such as Hindu Jagaran Vedike (HJV) and Banjara Nigama.
A recent report by rights group, the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), said in such attacks, carried out on the pretext of stopping the “illegal conversion” of Hindus into Christianity, “the police were either mute spectators or helped the Hindu vigilantes”.
In many instances, such as ones in Belagavi and Bengaluru, the police and local administration asked Christians to stop conducting prayer meetings to avoid attacks from the Hindu groups.
“The main allegation of Hindutva vigilante groups is conversion (either by force or allurement) of Hindus to Christianity. Their modus operandi is always the same. The attackers enter the places of worship and verbally abuse the pastors. During these attacks, the Hindutva (Hindu supremacist) groups beat up people and hurl casteist slurs. They don’t even spare women and children. The attackers also sexually abuse women,” PUCL official Shujayathulla, who goes by his first name only, told Al Jazeera, citing the report.
“After every attack, the police take the pastor and members of the minority group to the local police station and file cases against them,” he added.
Several videos of such anti-Christian attacks are available on social media. “The videos are circulated both as a ‘victory against the Christian forces’ and as a tool to instil fear in all those who dare to practise their religion, which is a fundamental right,” said Shujayathulla.
Robin Christopher, a lawyer representing several victims of hate attacks who have been booked by the police, said securing bail for them is difficult.
“It all depends on whether the victims have access to legal help and resources. The cases are taking a physical, financial and mental toll on them,” he told Al Jazeera.
Job losses and social boycott
The repeated assaults on Christians have also resulted in them facing social boycotts and threats to their livelihood. The fear is so strong that some victims do not even want to speak to the media. Many of those Al Jazeera spoke to preferred to remain anonymous.
Benjamin, the pastor, is the only victim of hate attacks who did not ask for his name to be changed for this report. “I am not afraid of anything,” he said.
Most of the attacks were reported in Karnataka’s small towns and villages.
On December 12, Christian religious books were burned by Hindu groups in Kolar district’s Srinivaspur. According to a rights activist from Kolar, once an individual becomes the target of a hate crime because of their religion or caste, neighbours, employers and even friends distance themselves from the victim.
“Nobody wants to be seen close to the victims because the attackers have the blessings of politicians in power,” said the activist who agreed to speak only on condition of anonymity.
Pastor Vinay (name changed) from Udupi district is facing a similar “social boycott”.
On September 10, a right-wing Hindu mob attacked while the pastor was conducting a prayer meeting in the district’s Nitte village. “The mob beat up and injured several devotees. They even ripped off a woman’s blouse,” he alleged.
Instead, in an FIR filed by the police after the incident, Vinay was accused of deliberately outraging the religious feelings of Hindus. He has since been evicted from two rental properties by landowners and forced to rent a house 37km (23 miles) from Nitte.
In a similar backlash, a garment worker from Karnataka’s Chikkaballapur district said she lost her job after a right-wing Hindu mob attacked the church she attended. At least four communal incidents have been reported from Chikkaballapur this year.
“Christians have been facing social boycott and continuous threats from schools, local businesses, panchayat (village council) members, landowners and employers. Their dignity is stripped bare for practising their fundamental right to a religion of their choice,” said the PUCL report.
The ‘bogey’ of religious conversion
The BJP’s allegation of “illegal and large-scale conversion of Hindus into Christianity” is not supported by statistics. As per the census of India data, between 1971-2021, the population of Christians decreased in Karnataka as well as in India.
In 1971, the Christian population in Karnataka was 2.09 percent and 2.60 percent in India. In 2011, the community was reduced to 1.87 percent in Karnataka and 2.3 percent in India.
“If large-scale conversion was taking place as alleged by the BJP, then the population would have increased. In reality, the numbers are decreasing,” Bengaluru Archbishop Reverend Peter Machado told Al Jazeera.
In the past few months, Machado wrote several letters to Karnataka Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai, asking “not to promote the undesirable and discriminatory” anti-conversion bill.
“The whole forced conversion theory is a bogey. The government has come up with a bill to further marginalise the minorities,” lawyer Manvi, who goes by one name, told Al Jazeera.
A common argument offered by BJP leaders and their supporters is that “if Christians are not converting Hindus, then they should not fear the bill”.
Bommai, the chief minister, said the legislation is supposed to protect “vulnerable sections like scheduled castes, scheduled tribes, other backward castes and poor” who he alleged “have been exploited through allurement” by Christian groups and institutions.
“We want to stop that,” Bommai said.
Lawyer Christopher argued that words such as “allurement” and “inducement” were vague. “Do they think the poor, women and Dalits (formerly known as “untouchables” in India’s caste system) have no agency over their lives? Do we not all have the right to choose our religion, food habits and partners? India is a democracy,” he told Al Jazeera.
The anti-conversion bill gained steam in the Karnataka assembly in September after BJP legislator Goolihatti Shekhar from Hosadurga, Chitradurga district claimed that a large number of forced conversions to Christianity had been taking place in his constituency including that of his own mother.
However, a survey conducted by officials in Hosadurga said “there was no forcible act of religious conversion”.
‘Karnataka the new Uttar Pradesh?’
Commenting on the situation in Karnataka during the release of the PUCL report, author and former head of Amnesty India Aakar Patel said, “The north is coming to the south.”
The Hindu right-wing’s “Hindutva” project, which aims to convert India into an ethnic Hindu state, is more dominant in northern India – often referred to as the Hindi belt. Most states in southern India, except Karnataka, have largely resisted the Hindu supremacist agenda.
At a protest against the anti-conversion bill in Bengaluru on December 22, many participants asked if “Karnataka is the new Uttar Pradesh.”
The northern state of Uttar Pradesh, also India’s most populous, is currently governed by a Hindu monk, Yogi Adityanath, known for his hate speech and policies targeting Muslims.
Political observers say Karnataka’s religious and hate politics have not been reported enough by the media.
“It’s unfortunate. But at the same time very intriguing. How could a progressive and developed state like Karnataka embrace hate politics?” asked Bengaluru-based activist Nagasimha Rao.