MUMBAI, India – a Catholic bishop in India is accusing a local government of trying to “harass Catholics” after it closed a student hostel for members of the country’s marginalized tribal community.
The administration of the Guna district in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh closed the decades-old institution, citing a discrepancy over its title to the property, and amid accusations the school was trying to convert its residents to Christianity.
Father Siljo Kidangan told Matters India on September 19 that the district administration sealed the building and moved the students to a government boarding on September 12, “ignoring our pleas against such a move.”
The hostel was established in 1997 to help members of the tribal community, who often have no access to education.
“We have been offering hostel facilities for students from poor families who study in a nearby government school. Among them brilliant students were picked up and admitted to good schools for better education,” Kidangan said. “But now the administration, under mounting pressure from the right-wing Hindu groups, sealed the hostel and shifted the boys on the ground that our land record missed a signature from the district collector.”
The priest said the government took advantage of a clerical error in the property filing, and used it to confiscate the property, and that they are appealing the decision in court.
Madhya Pradesh has been ruled by the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) since 2003. The party has strong links to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a militant Hindu nationalist organization. In 2014, the BJP won the national poll, and is currently the ruling party in India.
Madhya Pradesh is one of a handful of states which has an anti-conversion law, despite India’s constitutional guarantees for religious freedom. Christian leaders accuse the government of using the law to target religious minorities.
Over 90 percent of the state’s 72 million people are Hindu, while only 0.3 percent are Christian.
Bishop Anthony Chirayath of the Syro-Malabar Diocese of Sagar said the closing of the hostel in the Guna district is just another case of persecution against the minuscule Christian minority.
“This is only persecution of the minorities, the groups want to chase away Catholics from the area, additionally they want to close down the hostel. The police investigated the allegations that 200 people were converted, and the police have concluded that the conversion allegations are completely false,” he told Crux. “Secondly, the hostel land belongs to us. All the hostel documents are valid and legal and this too has been verified by the police after investigations.”
Chirayath said local officials are harassing the local Catholics, which number only three families.
“Yesterday, one Catholic family told me that they are being threatened and are living in fear. This is harassment and persecution of the minorities,” the bishop said.
Incidents of harassment against Christians have increased over the past few months across India, with various Christians being detained or arrested for “attempted conversion,” and places of worship being vandalized.
More recently, a spate of killings related to “cow vigilantism” have happened around the country. The slaughter of cows – which are sacred in Hinduism – is illegal in most parts of India, although beef is often eaten by some Dalits (low-caste Hindus previously called “untouchables”) and members of some religious minorities, such as Muslims and Christians.
Members of “cow vigilante” groups often attack people accused of slaughtering cows, and several people – predominantly Muslims – have been killed over the past year.