India: Ruling Party Lawmaker Presides over Mass Christian-to-Hindu Conversion

Hindu devotees celebrate Dev Deepawali, in Varanasi on November 30, 2020. (Photo by SANJAY KANOJIA / AFP) (Photo by SANJAY KANOJIA/AFP via Getty Images)
SANJAY KANOJIA/AFP via Getty Images

Twenty-three people from five Christian families in southwestern India converted to Hinduism on November 29 in a ceremony presided over by Indian parliament member Anant Kumar Hegde, a local leader representing India’s ruling, Hindu nationalist BJP party, the Times of India reported on Tuesday.

India’s Hindu nationalists describe such a ceremony, in which Christians or Muslims convert to Hinduism, as ghar wapsi or “homecoming” in Hindi. “These ceremonies are based on the view that all individuals born in India are Hindus by default, even if their communities have practiced other faiths for several generations,” the U.S. Commission on Interreligious Freedom (USCIRF) noted in 2017. Sunday’s ghar wapsi took place in the town of Haliyal Taluk, located in the Uttara Kannada district of India’s Karnataka state.

Suneel Hegde, a former BJP member of the Karnataka state legislature, “handed a saffron flag each to those who converted at Haliyal town on Sunday,” the Times of India reported.

“Most of these families are poor and have no knowledge of conversion to other religions. The conversion of the Dalits and tribals [lowest Indian castes] to Christianity will be opposed tooth and nail. … I request those who are converting Hindus to desist, else they will face the repercussions,” Suneel Hegde told reporters after the conversion ceremony.

He added that BJP parliament member Anant Kumar Hegde would continue to lead a campaign against the conversion of Hindus to Christianity and Islam in the local district of Uttara Kannada.

Karnataka legislative council member Shantaram Siddi on November 6 wrote a memorandum to the council’s president arguing that all members of the local Siddi minority ethnic group who have converted to faiths other than Hinduism “must be stripped of their ST status.”

ST is the initialism for Standard Tribe, a protected Indian minority group that receives federal government protection. STs are recognized by the Indian constitution along with members of the Scheduled Caste (SC), sometimes referred to as Dalit, which is the term Suneel Hegde used at the November 28 conversion ceremony.

Shantaram Siddi, himself a member of the Siddi ethnic group, considered an ST, claimed that New Delhi’s assistance programs benefitting minority groups have encouraged Siddis to convert to religions other than Hinduism to maintain their minority status and continue receiving federal aid. Hinduism is India’s majority religion; about 80.5 percent of the nation’s 1.4 billion people adhere to the faith. By contrast, Christians make up just 2.3 percent of India’s population.

“[India’s] department of minority welfare continues to grant ST certificate to Siddis who have converted to either the Muslim or the Christian faith, in addition to qualifying as a religious minority,” Shantaram Siddi pointed out.

By “qualifying as a religious minority,” Siddi Christian or Muslim converts gain an additional “minority” status in the eyes of the Indian government and qualify for extra federal benefits as a result.

“Siddi community members among the Hindus, however, only have the ST certificate,” Shantaram Siddi explained.

“Conditions for religious minorities have deteriorated over the last decade due to a multifaceted campaign by Hindu-nationalist groups like Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sang (RSS), Sangh Parivar, and Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) to alienate non-Hindus or lower-caste Hindus,” the USCIRF wrote in its 2017 report on religious freedom in India.

“The victims of this campaign include Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, and Jains, as well as Dalit Hindus, who belong to the lowest rung in the Hindu caste system. These groups face challenges ranging from acts of violence or intimidation to the loss of political power,” according to the U.S. federal government commission.

U.K. newspaper the Telegraph reported in February 2020 that India documented “a record number of violent attacks against Christians” across the country in 2019. This supported a March 2019 report showing a 57-percent increase in the number of recorded hate crimes and instances of targeted violence against Christians in India in the first quarter of 2019 over the same period in 2018. The report was published by the Religious Liberty Commission of the Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI).

The February 2020 Telegraph article included as an example of the violent attacks the story of an Indian Christian pastor named Jai Singh. A 300-strong Hindu mob surrounded a house in which Singh was leading Christian worship on January 5, 2020, in the village of Bichpari, located in northern India’s Haryana state.

“[A]bout 30 assailants burst into the home and began shouting at them [the worshippers] in foul language,” Singh told Morning Star News. “Then they held me by my collar and dragged me outside the home.”

Singh said the mob accused him “of being responsible for the growing number of people converting to Christianity [in the village]” before severely beating him.

The mob tried without success to force Singh “to falsely admit to luring Hindus to convert with money,” he explained.

Morning Star News said it interviewed “area Christians” who told the news service that many of the mob’s members belonged to Hindu nationalist groups, including “VHP [Vishva Hindu Parishad], Bajrang Dal [VHP’s militant youth wing] and the Hindu extremist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).”

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