Fear of violence at a 2 million-strong Hindu gathering in Madhya Pradesh

Bhopal, India – Christian communities in Madhya Pradesh have called on the government for protection ahead of the Narmada Samajik Kumbh, a huge Hindu gathering expected to attract some two million people in Jabalpur tomorrow. The meeting was preceded by a powerful media campaign against “forced conversions” by Christians. It also includes the planned “reconversion” of Tribals to Hinduism.

Mgr Leo Cornelius, archbishop of Bhopal and president of the Bishops’ Conference of Madhya Pradesh, said that Hindu propaganda on forced conversion is false and driven by “political interests”. For the prelate, the extremist gathering is “a deliberate attempt to stir up problems” and could “harm the image of a tolerant India.”

For his party Congress Secretary General Digvijay Singh criticised the state government of Madhya Pradesh for spending a billion rupees (US$ 22 million) on the event, which he describes as “a disinformation campaign against Christians.”

The Narmada Samajik Kumbh was organised by the Sangh Parivar, an umbrella organisation that includes many Hindu extremists groups. The event is scheduled for 10-12 February. The entire leadership of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh are among the invited guests, as are other leaders from a number of armed militant groups, as well as government leaders from Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.

The goal of the meeting is to free the region from Christian missionaries, whom they accuse of converting large number of mostly ethnic Mandla and Gond Tribals.

Christian priests and leaders in Madhya Pradesh sent a memorandum to the government, slamming the ghar wapasi or ‘back to the fold’ ceremony in which Christian Tribals are brought back to Hinduism. They want the authorities to provide security for religious minorities and places of worship.

For several days, flyers have been handed out accusing Christians of forcing Tribals to convert. Fill-out forms have also appeared for Tribals who want to go back to Hinduism,

“This is a deliberate attempt to create problems for people,” Mgr Cornelius told AsiaNews. For this reason, “we have called on the authorities to provide protection.”

“No one knows the source of these pamphlets, including the forms for tribals who want to reconvert to Hinduism,” the bishop said. “It’s all false and erroneous. These people are Tribals and Tribals are not Hindus. There cannot be any ‘return to fold’ because the Tribals were never Hindus.”

“Extremists are engaged in propaganda to advance political or personal interests. They view Christianity as a threat because Christians, through schools and healthcare, have selflessly empowered the poorest of the poor, Tribals and Dalits, who are marginalised and despised. These people have been suppressed and exploited by the upper classes who took advantage of their ignorance, illiteracy and poverty. Now, after decades of missionary service, Dalits and Tribals feel more self-respect and greater dignity. And this is not accepted by those who can no longer exploit or suppress them.”

“India has always been known for its tolerance,” the prelate said. “Now, as anti-minority violence mounts, and false propaganda against the Christian missions unfolds, we run the risk that this image of tolerance may be tarnished.”

Anti-Christian groups are minority, the bishop is quick to note. “Those with hidden interests, who want to gain or retain power, sow distrust and suspicion, creating an atmosphere of intolerance. Accusations of forced conversion levelled at Christianity are completely baseless. The government census itself shows that the Christian population of India is minuscule, just 2.3 per cent of the population.”

“Most Indians are secular minded and are aware of the contributions made by Christian missions in building the nation,” Bishop Cornelius said. “They are also more interested in the nation’s progress and development as well as peace and coexistence in our society.”