MUMBAI, India – Hindu nationalists held a rally outside a Catholic school in the northern Indian state of Madhya Pradesh on Jan. 15, after the school suspended around 20 students for “disrespecting” a patriotic slogan on Thursday.

The demonstration took place outside St. Joseph Convent school in the town of Namli.

The suspended students had been chanting “Bharat mata ki jai” after the school’s morning assembly. The chant is a nationalist slogan which also has Hindu religious connotations.

School officials said the parents were notified, and apologized for the behavior of their children.

The incident happened less than two weeks after Hindu nationalists protested outside St. Mary’s Post Graduate College in the city of Vidisha, which is near Bhopal, the state capital of Madhya Pradesh.

The Jan. 4 incident happened after the school refused to allow them to perform Bharat Mata Aarti on the school grounds.

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Aarti is a Hindu religious ritual to a deity involving the burning of a special candle, accompanied by songs of praise. Bharat Mata is a Hindu “mother goddess” which is the personification of the nation of India, and plays a significant role in Indian nationalism.

Other activists had threatened to come again to St. Mary’s on Jan. 16.

“There are more than 300 police deployed outside the college,” said Father Shaju Devassy, the director of St. Mary’s.

While the Jan. 4 incident was committed by members of Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the Jan. 16 threat has been made by the Vishwa Sanatan Sangh.

The ABVP is affiliated with the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which is also affiliated with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.

The Vishwa Sanatan Sangh is an independent Hindu nationalist organization that made news in December when a mob it organized in support of a Hindu who murdered a Muslim rioted in the northwestern Indian state of Rajasthan. Over 40 people, including dozens of police officers, were injured in the incident.

Devassy said the group’s leader, Updesh Rana Thakur, has threated to personally perform the Hindu ritual at St. Mary’s.

Meanwhile, the Madhya Pradesh Catholic Diocesan Schools’ Association has petitioned the state’s High Court to protect the Catholic educational institutions in the state.

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.

The state is over 90 percent Hindu, and less than 1 percent Christian.

Bishop Theodore Mascarenhas, the new General Secretary of the Indian Bishops’ Conference Mascarenhas, said Catholic educational institutions were being increasingly targeted by Hindu nationalist student groups.

Catholic schools in Madhya Pradesh are open to people of all faiths, and the majority of the students are Hindus.

In July, Catholic bishops in India hosted a group of spiritual leaders and intellectuals to discuss fears the country’s secular nature might be at risk.

The meeting agreed on a five-point program of action:

  • The ideology of hate is a reality and needs to be challenged by government, political parties, civil society activists, the criminal justice system, and religious communities in a concerted manner.
  • Religious leadership must act at the grassroots to assert the inherent unity of the people. This will help restore public confidence and remove the mutual suspicion that had started growing.
  • The leadership must generate literature as well as content for traditional, mainstream, and social media to challenge falsehood and hatred.
  • Community leaders must come together at various levels so that tensions can be diffused and trust restored and strengthened. Similarly, national institutions including the National and State Minorities Commissions and other structures must be encouraged to actively work in restoring peace and help strengthen the rule of law.
  • A National Inter-Faith and Civil society convention will be held as soon as possible to discuss the developments and the measures that the government needs to take at the national and state levels.

The leaders called upon the people to “seek strength from India’s deep spiritual reservoirs to end the increasing environment of hate, violence and disregard for the rule of law.”