MUMBAI – Two separate incidents of harassment in mid-January, just 48 hours apart, offered vivid reminders of the threats faced by India’s small but vibrant Christian minority, which increasingly finds itself menaced by a strong nationalist wave within the country’s Hindu majority.
That Hindu nationalist current is often viewed as part of the electoral base of the country’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, and allied with his BJP political party.
In both recent cases, Catholic clergy and laity were accused of violating Indian’s controversial anti-conversion laws, which critics say are often used to intimidate and marginalize minority groups.
Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Mumbai, the country’s leading Catholic prelate and a close advisor to Pope Francis, said the incidents reflect “the danger of any conversion law.”
On Jan. 18, a Catholic priest named Father Joseph Amuthkani, co-pastor of a local parish, was detained by police in Thandla in the northeast of India after he had traveled to a small nearby settlement to celebrate Mass. According to Father Peter Kharadi, a local church official, a cluster of fundamentalist Hindus began accusing Amuthkani of illicit missionary activity under the terms of India’s anti-conversion laws.
Kharadi said that police took Amuthkani along with a religious sister, a catechist and their driver to the station. They quickly released the others, but asked Amuthkani to remain. As time passed, Kharadi, both local Christians and Hindu fundamentalists began gathering outside the police station.
As Kharadi describes the scene, the Hindu group demanded that Amuthkani be charged with a criminal offense under the anti-conversion law, while the Christian contingent insisted upon the priest’s release. After several hours and confusing indications from police officials, Amuthkani eventually was released in the early evening – according to Kharadi, he was carried to the local parish on their shoulders amid songs of thanksgiving.
“I was detained for around seven hours,” Amuthkani told Crux. “Thousands of [Christians] were outside the police station, asking for my release, and there were around 25 right-wing elements also there.”
“All the time I was praying for peace, that they may not fight each other,” Amuthkani said. “The situation was very tense and people on both sides were agitated.”
Just two days earlier, roughly 40 staff members belonging to a Jesuit NGO called “Vishwa Mandal Sevashram,” dedicated to socio-economic development, were assaulted on a train as they arrived in Sangli in southeastern India. Right-wing Hindu activists attacked the group, with a teacher sustaining head wounds and several other staff members sustaining light injuries.
Accusing the group of having come to convert tribals, meaning members of India’s indigenous communities, members of militant Hindu groups filed a complaint with local police seeking an investigation. Fearing an escalation of tensions, police ordered the group the next morning to return to their base of operations in the city of Sirpur, almost 700 miles away.
A member of the group, which has been serving under-developed tribal communities in the area for more than 50 years, and who was among those who suffered injuries in the melee, described the scene.
“When the train reached Sangli station at around 9.30 p.m., about 15 men barged inside the [coach] and started abusing and assaulting us, stating that we are on a conversion tour,” said Gunilal Resla Pawara, a 42-year-old teacher.
“They were not in the mood of listening. Even though we told them that we are on an educational tour, they kept on beating us. One of them hit me with his steel ring on my head, after which I started bleeding. This went on for over 20 minutes, and when the police entered the compartment, the assailants escaped,” Gunilal told the Belgaum Mirror.
Father Consti Constancio Rodrigues, a Jesuit priest who’s been associated with the non-profit group since 2018, described the incident as a “well-planned attack.”
“We’re serving the locals themselves, for their uplift and development and empowerment,” Rodrigues said. “It’s very unfortunate, but our mission continues.”
Rodrigues later sent a letter to the Superintendent of Police offering additional background.
“At present we have run 40 supplementary classes in 40 hamlets,” he wrote. “In order to render quality education for the village primary children, we conduct regular monthly training programs to develop teaching skills. As a part of this educational project, we organized a exposure trip to another educational NGO and thereafter a picnic.”
“On Jan. 16, 2023, 42 village teachers boarded the [train]. At Sangli station at night, a group of young people entered their compartment, pulled down the teachers who were sleeping in their berths and started hitting them with a stick and a steel bracelet. One handicapped teacher’s walking stick was thrown out of the train, leaving him in a helpless condition. A few teachers were pulled out of the train, and while most succeed in getting back on, one teacher remained at Sangli station,” Rodrigues wrote.
“The group continued their journey with fear, tension and anxiety, wondering about the sudden attack and fearing for their safety and their lives,” he said.
Initially, Rodrigues said, the group was promised police protection to finish its program, but several hours later were ordered to leave the area entirely.
Referring to the detention of Amuthkani on Jan. 18, Gracias expressed gratitude for the support shown to the priest by non-Catholic Christians.
“I am very happy that Christians of every denomination stood together, helped each other and were in solidarity and support of Fr. Joseph,” Gracias said. “This is the Christian unity octave, and this is a visible witness of Christian unity. It is important that all the disciples of Jesus stand together.”
As for the Jesuit NGO, Gracias praised its work, saying it’s been “tirelessly working for educational and social development of the Tribals [of the area] for the last 53 years. They’re not doing anything illegal or criminal, they’re serving the poor and marginalized Tribal community.”
“It’s very unfortunate that at the railway station, the staff not only were falsely accused of fabricated conversions allegations, but they were suffered physical violence as well,” he said.
In both cases, Gracias thanked police officials for intervening and preventing greater harm, saying, “the police did a good job, and were on the side of the law.”
Gracias rejected the charge that the Catholic Church in India engages in untoward proselytism.
“The Catholic Church is completely against forced conversions,” he said. “Any forced conversion is not licit and not a conversion at all. Our entire thinking and philosophy is clear, that we want to give witness to Christ and would never, in any way, force or pressure anyone.”