Almost 600 Dalit Christians 'reconverted' to Hinduism in Orissa
Bijepur (AsiaNews) Almost 600 Dalit Christians were 'reconverted' back to Hinduism in the north-eastern state of Orissa. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) organised a yagna (or ritual ceremony carried out by Hindu religious men) in a school in the city of Bijepur in which 120 Christian Dalit families 'embraced' Hinduism once again. The VHP is the fundamentalist wing of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which controls the state government.
Under the Orissa Freedom of Religion Act anyone who wants to change religion must inform the authorities. According to VHP sources, the 'converts' signed affidavits backing their choice. Local authorities have confirmed receiving 700 such papers.
The event went off without a hitch, but to ensure everything was peacefully, two groups of armed policemen and five public security officers were deployed..
Dharma Narayan Sharma, VHP national secretary, and Satyanarayan Panda, VHP vice-president for Orissa, attended the ceremony.
Mgr Lucas Kerketta, Bishop of Sambalpur, a diocese in Orissa, slammed Hindu extremists who are taking advantage of poverty and desperation among Dalit Christians.
"These people are poor and uneducated and work for the most part as farm hands. Every day, the VHP tries to entice them with offers of money and clothes," he said.
"When this tactic does not work," he added, "they get heavy handed and use intimidation and violence, threatening people with job loss if they continue to practice Christianity." For him, it is above all a social problem.
"Threats and discrimination are the work of the majority," the Bishop laments. However, Hindu extremists are not the only ones targeting Dalit Christians. Bishop Kerketta's finger also points at Pentecostals who, unlike other Protestant denominations, do not shy away from such tactics.
"Often Pentecostal Church activists offer people clothes, food and money;" he explains. "They give Bibles and religious brochures away, and organise Gospel reading sessions in which they promise a land free from disease and poverty".
"Dalits are so poor and oppressed," the Bishop insists, "that they are drawn to any hope, however false it may be".
According to Bishop Kerketta, It is this type of attitude that leads others to accuse the Church of proselytising.
"These Pentecostals," he said, "are all over the state, even in the forested areas. Hindu fundamentalists, on the other hand, want the Dalits to remain poor and uneducated so that they can best use and exploit them".
"In fact, every time the Pentecostals hold their meetings, [Hindu] extremists mobilise to carry out 're-conversions', accusing the Church of proselytising."
John Dayal, secretary general of the All India Christian Council and president of the All India Catholic Union, explains that there are no 'real re-conversions', because Dalits were never Hindu in the first place. For Christian activists, "these conversions are carried out by force" and with the complicity of the authorities.
"In some Indian states," Dayal points out, "there are anti-conversion laws, but the police, who are overzealous when it comes to stopping Christian clergymen, are very shy when it comes to enforcing the law against the VHP and Hindutva Parivar".
The Catholic activist suspects that the Hindutva Parivar has an agenda that includes an all out assault against the Christian community.
"I have informed the central and state governments to be en garde against illegal and provocative activities. We must have freedom of religion, but for everyone, not only for one community."