MUMBAI, India – Rightwing Hindu nationalists in India harassed a group of children as they were on their way to a Catholic school event on Monday.
The incident happened in the central state of Madhya Pradesh, which has seen a spate of anti-Christian activity over the past few years.
A vehicle was carrying a group of Tribal children to a program being organized at Saint Pius School in Khandwa, a city of around 200,000 people.
According to eyewitnesses, the Hindu nationalists belonging to Vishwa Hindu Parishad, (VHP) stopped the vehicle, alleging the children were being taken to the school for religious conversion.
The VHP is aligned with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) an umbrella Hindu nationalist organization that is also affiliated with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the ruling party at both the national level and in the state of Madhya Pradesh.
The VHP said the program at the school was being conducted without permission, and called the police to the area.
The priest in charge of the event said only Catholic children had been invited, and efforts to seek permission from the authorities were unsuccessful.
Police said they are investigating the incident.
Madhya Pradesh is over 90 percent Hindu, and Christians just make up 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 also ruled by the BJP – 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.
Father Babu Joseph, the former spokesperson for the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, called the latest accusations against Saint Pius School “ludicrous.”
“For one thing, the youth convention was meant only for Catholic boys and girls, and secondly, it was organized within the premises of a Catholic school, and thirdly information about the convention was provided to the local police,” he told Crux.
“The unprovoked agitation and blocking of the program by alleged VHP and Bajrang Dal [the youth wing of the VHP] workers under the guise of preventing religious conversion is nothing short of high handedness and lawlessness,” the priest continued.
“Just because [Hindu nationalists] belong to some organizations of the majority community do they possess any extra constitutional authority to prevent fellow citizens to exercise their personal and constitutional rights?” Joseph said.
“It is high time that the state law-and-order machinery show these lumpen elements their rightful place or else they have the potential to create serious social disharmony. Every Indian, whether belonging to a majority or minority religious community, has the fundamental right to worship and participate in a religious gathering organized by their religious authority,” he said.