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Compass Direct (04/12/06) – Hindu leaders attending a centenary celebration of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) last weekend converted at least 344 tribal Christians to Hinduism. Although police were present, they took no action to enforce Orissa state anti-conversion laws that require official permission for such events.

The so-called “reconversions” took place on Sunday (April 9), as key Hindu dignitaries encouraged village Christians to blow conch shells and recite Hindu scriptures in a symbolic “return” to Hinduism – though most tribal people are traditionally animist, not Hindu.

The RSS had set a target of reconverting over 10,000 people by Monday evening. Observers said intense media scrutiny lowered conversion numbers.

Almost 500,000 Hindus gathered at Chakapad village in Phulbani district, Orissa, for the three-day event. RSS president K.S. Sudarshan and Ashok Singhal, international president of the World Hindu Council (VHP or Vishwa Hindu Parishad), were both present.

The state government assisted by providing infrastructure not usually available to the remote village. BSNL, a national telecommunications company, provided temporary mobile service to the village during the event.

The “Growing Menace”

Gopal Chandra Mohapatra, a senior leader of the Orissa chapter of the RSS, said the reconversions were a precursor to a renewed nationwide campaign against the “growing menace of religious conversions.”

The campaign was “meticulously designed to build social uniformity, irrespective of caste, creed and ideology,” Mohapatra told local journalists.

Jesuit Father Cedric Prakash, director of human rights organization Prashant, questioned the authenticity of “reconversion” ceremonies.

“The Christians are literally pushed into attending these events,” Prakash told Compass. “And if we are talking about ‘conversion,’ one wonders if the state anti-conversion law is not applicable to those who organize these events.”

The Rev. Pranaranjan Parrichha, president of the state chapter of the All India Christian Council (AICC), said the RSS should be held to account for the reconversions and for hate speeches made during the event.

“It is deplorable that whilst 20 police platoons and more than 100 Home Guards were deployed as part of the security arrangements, the reconversions went on brazenly,” he said. “Also, Ashok Singhal made extremely inflammatory speeches against Christianity and Christian missionaries.”

The Orissa Freedom of Religion Act, enforced in 1999 after several false starts, requires prior permission from local police and district magistrates before a conversion takes place. The Indian Penal Code also forbids hurting the sentiments of another religious group.

Several Christians have been charged with offenses under these laws. Most recently, officials of Emmanuel Mission International in Rajasthan state were arrested in connection with the distribution of a book on comparative religion that allegedly hurt the religious sentiments of Hindus.

Parrichha was grateful for the police presence in Phulbani, which ensured safety for churches and other Christian institutions in the district. But he was disappointed that “we could not protect the faith of our tribal brothers.”

Father Prasana Shing, a priest in Pongia, some 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) from Chakapad, said Christians stayed at home over the weekend, fearing communal riots. “While I have a good understanding and rapport with the local Hindu people, periodically they are misguided by hate propaganda against Christian missionaries,” Shing added.

As RSS members distributed propaganda in the lead-up to this weekend’s event, on April 1 a police station in Phulbani district was ransacked.

“The officer-in-charge, a Christian named Ashwin Naik, was nearly beaten to death,” said Shing. “All documents were destroyed, and files and records were burned. Extremists were involved, but as yet no arrests have been made.”

Ongoing Campaign

Dr. John Dayal, president of the All India Catholic Union and secretary of the AICC, said the event was yet another proof of the Hindu nationalist agenda promoted by the Sangh Parivar, or family of Hindu nationalist organizations.

“During their two stretches in power, from 1977 to 1979, and again from 1997 to 2004, the Bharatiya Janata Party government heightened tensions between Hindus and other religious groups,” he said. “The police, the administrative structure and various rungs of the criminal justice and judicial system, including the media, have been thoroughly penetrated and infiltrated by the RSS.”

Over the past 20 years, Dayal said, “we have seen the world’s biggest and most expansive evangelization program taking shape – not by the church or by Islam, but by Hinduism.”

India now has more than 20 Hindu television channels and almost every newspaper carries Hindu religious news on a daily basis, Dayal added.

“Under these circumstances, the RSS finds it not too difficult to carry on with its agenda,” he said, “even when the police are present.”