A village caught between a tiny church and VHP’s holy water

From the outside, the modest structure is no different from homesteads in its hilly, forested neighbourhood. It has a steeply sloping tiled roof and wooden beams like the rest, but it does not wear a saffron flag. The resemblance ends inside. The son of a village pastor quietly unlocks the doors for us.

A tiny skylight lets the sun in, on a bench with three pictures of Jesus. A speaker and a microphone are covered up in a corner. On the dung walls, paper streamers are cut and pasted in the shape of the cross. There are stickers, posters of Joseph, Jesus and Mary, and plastic flowers. It’s a two-year-old mini church, a community prarthana room for Hindu converts to Christianity. Here Sakruben Kashiyabai — once a Hindu in Pimpri village where Hindu homes are identified by saffron flags — clutches her Gujarati bible and prays: ‘‘Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah.’’ The rest of the prarthana is Gujarati. ‘‘I cannot write my name, but I can read the Bible,’’ she says.

A nervous crowd gathers, and pastor Gulabhai arrives, in a torn vest. He angrily scolds his following for speaking to a reporter. His son had told this reporter, ‘‘My father was a Hindu but some years ago when he was very sick, the missionaries performed a chamatkar. Now we are Christians.’’

Gulabhai conducts his service every Friday and Sunday. The wooden rafters of a church under construction are going up nearby, close to homes with images of Hindu Gods on their walls.

On the face of it, the cluster of Christians live amicably with their Hindu neighbours. But the coming elections — with the prospect that Christians will not vote for the BJP — has made the hostilities more apparent and the focus on conversions more intense.

The saffron combine is nervous about The Dangs, with its 93.96 per cent tribal population. ‘‘We’ve identified 40-45 villages that are very difficult for us. So many converted Hindus, they are all Congress-types,’’ admits BJP’s district general-secretary, Girish Modi. This may not seem much, considering that the district has 311 villages, but in a close election, this could tilt the scales.

Sitting in his hardware shop with a list of the district’s voting centres in his hand, he can identify every village where conversions have been taking place. The district, under Valsad parliamentary constituency, has three-time BJP MP Manibhai Choudhary as its representative.

So Modi reveals a counter-strategy: Hot baths.

When VHP finds Christians who want to convert back to Hinduism, they put five or ten of them in a bus and take them to Unai Mata temple for a thorough dunking in the holy hot water spring, he says.. ‘‘One hot bath, and we accept them back as Hindus,’’ he adds. But he does not have figures on how many have reconverted. And he does not explain why the tribals should reconvert, other than to avoid the cold gaze of their neighbours.

Meanwhile, there are dark whispers about how the missionaries are luring more tribals to their fold.

‘‘Parents give first preference to the missionary schools,’’ admits Yeshwantrao Bagul, headmaster of a private ashram school. Apart from an English-medium education, the missionaries have also made healthcare available.

It may not seem like much, but it offers parents at least some hope that their chiildren will have a better life.

In contrast, primary education officer N M Patel cannot even tell The Indian Express what is the enrolment rate for the district’s schools. As the nodal officer for the elections, he is busy with other arrangements, he says.

He summons another officer for help. Between them, they leap from one file to another for 30 minutes but cannot find the enrolment rate. Then Patel cheerfully finds the drop-out rate: 13.53 per cent.

Elsewhere, the Christains are sending their children to missionary schools. A small shadow passes over Modi’s face. He is looking to a hot spring for salvation.