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MUMBAI, India – Hindu activists targeted a Catholic school in India after it staged a street play on celebrating Diwali safely.
Diwali is the Hindu festival of lights, and is also celebrated by Sikhs and Jains. Culturally, the holiday is observed by most Indians, including Muslims and Christians.
St. Joseph’s Convent School is located in the Khandwa Diocese in the state of Madhya Pradesh. It staged its play on Oct. 21, the day before the five-day festival began.
Khandwa is a city of about 200,000 people.
The play was about environmental protection and celebrating Diwali safely. The holiday is known for its use of fireworks and experts have said their heavy use leads to extra pollutants in the air; in addition, hospitals see a marked increase of burn injuries during the days of the festival.
Hindu nationalists said the play was attacking the holiday, and on Oct. 25, protesters set off firecrackers in front of the school and threatened violent consequences if the school tried to “denigrate” another Hindu holiday.
Father Augustine Madathikunnel, the administrator of the Diocese of Khandwa, said the Hindu protesters had the “intention of provoking religious tension.”
“They gathered together bring along fire crackers and blasting it in front of the school, using slogans of abusive nature because the school children had plan to present a [street play] on bad effect of use of crackers,” he told Crux.
The school authorities denied the allegations that their children targeted the Hindu festival.
“We never intended to target anybody or any religion or its festival,” Sister Neha Mathew, the principal, told Matters India.
“The students had tried to communicate message of celebrating the Diwali festival safely and that there was nothing against Hindu religion or its traditions,” she said.
Father Jayan Alex, the spokesperson for the Khandwa Diocese, told Crux the local Catholic community “strongly appeals to all these anti-social elements who are behind in disturbing the peaceful atmosphere of the district to utilise their strength, energy, and enthusiasm for the development of the town and our district as we are still one of the aspirational districts of India.” India’s Aspirational Districts Program(ADP) was launched in 2018 to help growth and improvements in governance and administration in underdeveloped parts of the country.
Earlier this month, Hindu nationalists in the same district also harassed a group of children as they were on their way to a Catholic school event.
A vehicle was carrying a group of Tribal children to a program being organized at Saint Pius School in Khandwa.
Madhya Pradesh is over 90 percent Hindu, and Christians make up just 0.3 percent of the population, compared to 2.3 percent in the nation as a whole. The state passed a Religious Freedom Bill last year, which despite its name is an “anti-conversion” law aimed at keeping Hindus from joining other religions.
Under the provisions of the new law, a “forced” religious conversion could lead to a one-to-five-year jail term and a minimum fine of around $350. If the person converted was a minor, the jail term and fine could be doubled.
Madhya Pradesh – which is ruled by the Hindu nationalist BJP that also leads the national government – is one of several states in India to enact anti-conversion laws, despite the freedom of religion enshrined in India’s constitution.
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.
Often these ceremonies target Christian members of India’s most marginalized communities, such as low-caste Dalits and the indigenous Tribals, both of which are ostracized under Hinduism’s caste system.
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.