Indian authorities in Madhya Pradesh state have arrested and jailed 12 individuals, charging them with having converted to Christianity in violation of laws forbidding religious conversions.
The 12, who included a blind couple—Balu Saste and his wife Bhuri—with their 3-year-old child, were arrested on January 14 in Dahar village and sent to jail the following day. On Jan. 17, seven of the prisoners were subsequently released on bail while the others continue to serve their sentences.
Police Chief Inspector Umesh Chandra Tiwari said that Saste was “already accused in another three-year-old conversion case.”
“We did not know why we were arrested and sent to jail,” said another of the group, 35-year-old Janu Bai, after being released from prison.
Bai said that the group had gathered at the home of one of the group, Shankar Singh, to celebrate the Hindu harvest festival of Makarsankrati.
“I have faith in Jesus and regularly pray to him,” said Singh, who claims to have led an unhappy life and struggled with alcoholism “before experiencing the love of God” with the assistance of some ministers.
“Later I began to follow Jesus but am not a member of any church,” he said.
They twelve were charged with “promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, etc, and doing acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony” and also with trying to convert Hindus to Christianity, allegedly through “allurement,” police said.
In 2013, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) passed legislation tightening existing measures against religious conversion in Madhya Pradesh state, aimed especially at Christians. The law requires that a person who wishes to change religion must first inform the district magistrate of his decision. Moreover, any priest or minister who presides over a “conversion ceremony” must inform the government a month earlier, providing the exact date, time and place in which the conversion will take place, or suffer legal penalties if he fails to do this.
Singh said that he suspects a “conspiracy” in the group’s arrest. Hindu activists had gathered outside his house, he said, accusing him of converting to Christianity.
“They also informed the police, who arrived and booked us,” Singh said.
A spokesman of the local Catholic Church, Father Maria Stephen, denounced the arrests, saying that such incidents “will lead to disunity in the country and impede its progress.”
“Our churches and houses are being attacked,” he said, despite the ideal of religious freedom enshrined in the Constitution.
The pastor who assists the group, Rev. Anar Jamre of the Florida Fellowship Church, said that Singh and those arrested “shared the same faith and prayed together.”
“There is tremendous pressure on us that we cannot go and meet our people in the villages,” he said.
Richard James, public relations officer for a Christian forum called Rashtriya Isai Mahasangh, accused the BJP government of “unleashing a reign of terror” against minority groups, especially Christians, ever since coming to power.
Local police are also to blame, he said, because they work “hand in glove with the right-wing Hindu activists.”
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome