MUMBAI, India – A “false conversion” case involving a Hindu former teacher at a Catholic school in India is “unjust,” according to the Metropolitan archbishop.
Sister Bhagya, the principal of Sacred Heart Convent School in Khajuraho, in Madhya Pradesh state, was accused by Mrs. Ruby Singh of trying to force her to become a Christian.
The school is run by the Sisters of the Destitute and is considered one of the best in the region. It has about 1000 students.
Singh had been hired as an assistant teacher at the school in 2016 but was later moved to the role of office assistant after parents complained about her classroom demeaner.
The school insists Singh was kept on because her family was otherwise destitute, and the complaint came after a salary dispute, adding the plot was instigated by a senior teacher at the school, who is also Hindu.
“When there was delay of putting in the salary of January 2021, one. Mrs Usha, a senior Hindi teacher, reacted. Her audio recording is submitted at the police station. She only instigated and misguided Mrs. Ruby Singh to do all this” said Father Paul Varghese, the public relations officer for the Diocese of Satna.
He described the incident as a “revenge” by the two teachers.
The principal is being charged under the Madhya Pradesh Religious Freedom Ordinance of 2020, which despite its name is an “anti-conversion” law aimed at keeping Hindus from joining other religions.
Archbishop Leo Cornelio of Bhopal, the capital city of Madhya Pradesh told Crux there is no truth to the accusation.
“This is unjust,” he said. “They are trying to harass and intimidate. The administration [of the local government] is not objective.”
Madhya Pradesh is one of several states in India to enact anti-conversion laws, despite the freedom of religion enshrined in India’s constitution.
In a similar incident, 9 Christians were arrested on Jan. 27 in the city of Indore – also in Madhya Pradesh – a day after a mob of Hindu militants invaded a Pentecostal prayer meeting taking place at the Satprakashan Sanchar Kendra (Center for the Light of Truth), a media center owned by the Society of the Divine Word, a Catholic religious order that lets other Christian groups use the premises.
There were about 90 Pentecostal Christians at the prayer meeting, and one attendee claimed she was a Hindu whose family took her to the facility to try and convert her.
Divine Word Father Babu Joseph, the Director of the Satprakashan Sanchar Kendra, told Crux the incident at the Catholic school in Khajuraho was “distressing.”
The new ordinance of the Madhya Pradesh state government on religious freedom with its most stringent provisions to arrest people on allegations of religious conversion through allurements or force is being blatantly misused by the right-wing religious fanatics to harass the minority communities, especially the Christians whose services are availed by the majority community,” he said.
“This hurriedly promulgated ordinance purportedly to contain illegal religious convictions is bound to create disaffection in society in so far as it has the potential to suspect even the most genuine act of kindness and charity as possible allurements. Such insensitive and preposterous laws will serve no purpose other than to kill the humane spirit in society,” the priest added.
“Under such laws anyone who nurses a grouse against an individual or institution can drag them to litigation as it happened in the case of Sister Bhagya and her school. Laws are meant not to harass the honest citizens whether in minority or majority, rather they must ensure their right to live a dignified life and tender humanitarian service without fear of reprisals,” Joseph told Crux.
“Our civilized society would be better off if such frivolous laws are shown the door, and I firmly believe that our enlightened brethren from all religious persuasions will show magnanimity to denounce them,” he said.
Hindu nationalists often accuse Christians of using force and surreptitious tactics in pursuing conversions, often storming into villages and leading “reconversion” ceremonies in which Christians are compelled to perform Hindu rituals.
These pressures on Christians, which also affect Muslims and other religious minorities, are part of what observers describe as a broad program for the “saffronization” of India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, meaning an attempt to impose Hindu values and identity while squeezing out rival faiths.
Modi is a member of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has ruled India since 2014. The BJP is linked with the the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu nationalist group.
“India is a secular country, with constitutional guarantees. Article 25 [of India’s constitution] guarantees the freedom of conscience, the freedom to profess, practice and propagate religion to all citizens. But the rights of the citizens to exercise these freedoms have been curtailed,” Cornelio told Crux.
The archbishop called the “religious freedom” law “nothing “other than an anti-conversion bill, and an anti-religion bill,” and noted it came with fines and jail terms.
“Anti-social elements use this law to harass the minorities and this is against the constitutionally enshrined guarantees. The secular fabric of our beloved country is being eroded by these kinds of extremist outlooks,” he said.
Cornelio also pointed out that the vast Hindu majority had nothing to fear from the Christian population.
“The Census data shows a stagnation, if not a small decline, in India’s Christian population,” he said.
“The 2011 edition of the government’s census data revealed Christians as only 2.3 percent of the Indian population, and this disproves any need for the so-called Freedom of Religion Bill, this is just propaganda, which is fuelling suspicion and communal disharmony,” the archbishop said.
Christians make up an even smaller proportion of the population in Madhya Pradesh, where only 0.29 percent of the population is Christian.