Hindus in India Scheme against Conversions

December 03, 2015

At a village in Jharkhand state, a woman prays for salvation in Christ.
At a village in Jharkhand state, a woman prays for salvation in Christ.

An evangelist in northern India has to watch out for more than just violent Hindu extremists. The government is increasingly hostile toward Christian conversion, and hard-line Hindus constantly set legal traps for him.

In the northern city of Chandigarh, an evangelist who directs a regional ministry and oversees churches, Kanak Chauhan*, said he receives an average of one call a week from Hindus trying to trick him into making statements that would open him to accusations of coercing or luring people to convert; often the callers are recording the conversations.

"I received a call from this lady who said, 'I have read about Christ, and I want to change my religion,'" he said. "She was pushing me to say something like, 'I will help you to change your religion,' and once I say that, it can become a problem in India."

The pastor, who heads an indigenous ministry that has planted more than two dozen fellowships, said he responds to such calls with prudence.

"We try to use wise words, so instead of 'changing religion,' we say it's not about religion, it's about the heart," he said. "We have to be very careful. I will not say what they're trying to get me to say. I will say, 'Okay, we can talk about this, just come to meet us, and we can sit and we can talk.' If they are genuine, they will come and meet me. They never show up. They try a lot of these techniques and tricks."

India's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leads a coalition considering legislation in parliament to criminalize forcible and unapproved religious conversions, creating an atmosphere in which Hindu vigilantes feel further entitled to attack evangelists and new converts. While India has yet to pass a law banning coerced or induced conversion, national laws already exist against criminal intimidation, and attempts to force a person to convert to another religion could be prosecuted under these and other provisions.

Thus, although Chandigarh does not belong to any of the five states that have laws against coerced or induced religious conversion, antagonistic Hindus could use the national criminal intimidation laws to try to trap evangelists with false accusations of conversions by force or allurement.

"There are some who will take baptism, and after they're baptized, they'll accuse you, saying, 'This pastor baptized me, and he offered me this much money,'" Pastor Chauhan said. "They will just make these false statements."

Evangelistic event in northern India.
Hindus who put their trust in Christ tend to be strong believers, according to the director of a ministry that stages evangelistic events such as this one in northern India.

Two BJP members have introduced bills in parliament outlawing religious conversion not pre-approved by the government and punishing forced and induced (by "allurement") conversions. "Force" would include threat of injury, including "threat of divine displeasure," thus outlawing Christian doctrines of salvation, heaven and hell. "Allurement" could be interpreted as any relief aid for the poor that Christians might offer.

Such legislation would further create an atmosphere of intolerance in India, where the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has begun monitoring non-Hindu charitable organizations in search of legal pretexts for withdrawing their legal status as non-profits, according to native Christian leaders based in the country.

"The government is watching all organizations and the kind of work they do, especially those very active in spiritual activities," Pastor Chauhan said. "They've started targeting them and started closing their non-profit accounts, so that's why it's important to have a balance between programs meeting physical needs and spiritual needs. It helps us to attain a good name inside the government."

In Chandigarh, a union territory city that serves as the capital of Haryana and Punjab states, Pastor Chauhan and his team have established 11 churches, as well as six fellowships in Uttarakhand state, and seven in Punjab state. The ministry also provides food to the poor, including parents who work hard but don't earn enough to feed their families. A children's program sometimes provides food, along with clothing and toys. Ministry team members distribute food during regular hospital visits, and a literacy mission helps educate poor children and adults.

The ministry seeks financial support ($200 a month each) for 22 of the 30 team members who are still working on a volunteer basis. As indigenous missionaries, many of them former Hindus like Pastor Chauhan, the team members have knowledge of local languages and religious customs that have helped them plant churches. The fellowships have formed primarily as a result of team members sharing the gospel with friends, but the ministry also organizes evangelistic events, he said.

"Evangelistic campaign events are the riskiest thing now, but risk is the other name of faith, so we have to do that," he said. "Evangelistic events require a lot of resources and finances, but we get big results; 3,000 people attended a campaign in Punjab recently, and around 250 repented the first day."

While such events provide large, easily identifiable targets for attacks, Hindu extremists increasingly strike smaller, private gatherings. Earlier this year in a village slum in Punjab, the pastor of one of the ministry's churches was praying with Hindus who had visited worship services. They were gathered in front of the family's hut when a mob of Hindu extremists descended upon them.

"He was just praying for some people, and suddenly a group of people came all prepared with rods, chains, and stones, and they kept beating him until he was unconscious," Pastor Chauhan said. "When he came to his senses, he was in jail with all kinds of false allegations against him, for example, that he destroyed their religious idols and religious books."

The ministry was able to get the pastor released with the help of political connections, but he was badly injured and couldn't hear out of his left ear for 45 days, Pastor Chauhan said. The assailants also heavily slapped an elderly woman in the attack.

While leveling such false allegations at Christians, Hindu extremists are conducting mass Ghar Wapsi ("homecoming") events designed to coerce people to "reconvert" to Hinduism, he said.

"They are literally threatening people to come back to Hinduism, and no one says anything about it," the pastor said.

In a country whose estimated population of 1.3 billion is said to be about 74 percent Hindu and 6 percent Christian (4.2 percent evangelical), Pastor Chauhan was born in a town in Uttarakhand state where there were no Christians. He was an ardent worshipper of the monkey-faced god Hanuman.

"For Hindus, he's like Superman – he can fly, he has a tail that can grow to any extent, he can be of any size, and he has a he-man kind of body," the pastor said. "There are 330 million gods in Hinduism, so mostly people will say, 'Jesus is okay,' and they will just add one more to the 330 million. They will not hate Jesus. But my experience is that people in India are hungry for God, and once they find out who the true God is, they just follow Him with all their heart."

* (name changed for security reasons)