MUMBAI, India – Clashes took place outside of a Catholic college in India, after members of a Hindu-nationalist student association tried to force the school to allow them to perform a Hindu religious ritual at the facility.
Police had to be called when the members of the by Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) refused to leave when their demand was denied, and some members of the group scuffled with the officers.
“The ABVP youth wing trespassed St. Mary’s Post Graduate College – which is a private, unaided institution – on December 30 and they threatened that they would perform Bharat Mata Aarti forcefully on January 4, 2018,” said Father Maria Stephen, the public relations officer for the Catholic Church in the state of Madhya Pradesh.
“The activists were demanding that they perform a Hindu ritual inside the premises,” he told Crux.
Aarti is a Hindu religious ritual to a deity involving the burning of a special candle, accompanied by songs of praise. Bharat Mata is an Hindu “mother goddess” which is the personification of the nation of India, and plays a significant role in Indian nationalism.
The ABVP is affiliated with the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which is also affiliated with the ruling the Bharatiya Janata Party.
The incident took place in the city of Vidisha, in the central state of Madhya Pradesh, near the state capital, Bhopal.
The state is over 90 percent Hindu, and less than 1 percent Christian.
Father Shaju Devassy, the director of St. Mary’s, told the police members of the Hindu group began arguing with school administrators after they were refused permission to perform the ritual, which is when the police arrived.
The members of the ABVP continued arguing, and threatened to force their way into the school to perform the ritual.
“The ABVP members are provoking the people of Vidisha against this institution through social media and other means due to which the reputation of this institution is deformed. Moreover, we are emotionally harassed. The students of the institution are feeling insecure due to these violent procedures,” the priest said.
Bishop Anthony Chirayath of the Syro-Malabar Diocese of Sagar, which oversees the institution, told Crux he was “in great anxiety” over the threats by “right wing forces” to conduct Hindu worship services in Catholic institutions of learning.
“We do not even conduct Mass or any Christian prayers in our College and we will not allow any puja [Hindu ritual] to take place,” he said.
“Significantly, our educational institution provides quality education to around two thousand students, the majority of whom belong to the dominant community,” the bishop said. “Our Educational Apostolate is open to all, without discrimination. Many of our priests of the Sagar Diocese have gone to Vidisha to be in prayerful and physical solidarity with Father Shaju Devassy,” the bishop continued.
“There is a heavy police deployment around the college. The local church has also submitted a memorandum to the administration asking for protection and security,” Chirayath said.
Madhya Pradesh, which has been ruled by the BJP party since 2003, has been a center of anti-Christian harassment.
In December, several priests and seminarians were assaulted in the city of Satna as they were singing Christmas carols.
In September, Hindu nationalists falsely accused the Church of the forced conversion of nearly 200 persons at a hostel for students belonging to the marginalized tribal community. Police investigations that followed said the allegations were baseless.
In June, a religious sister in Madhya Pradesh was charged with human trafficking after being arrested by the Railway Police because she was accompanying four young women on a train to Bhopal.
Numerous other Christians have also been arrested on trains in the state and charged with forced conversion as they tried to travel to religious meetings around the country.
“It is an act of humiliation against the sacred constitution of India,” said Cardinal Baselios Cleemis, the president of India’s bishops’ conference, after the latest incident at St. Mary’s in Vidisha.
“The Indian constitution provides a dignified space and atmosphere for the practice of each one’s beliefs and faiths, and to force a Catholic priest to bow down before a deity, and to compel him to worship another religious faith is a humiliation against our sacred Constitution,” the cardinal told Crux.
“This also goes against the very humanitarian aspect of our country. I grieve that this is taking place. We are increasing the anxiety of our people who are being threatened by these groups. How irresponsible these groups are, who create animosity and division among the people of our country,” Cleemis said.
“I do not believe that these groups are doing any benevolence to the larger Hindu community. On the contrary, such groups are acting against the true spirit of the Hindu community, who are very helpful to our community,” he said.