A Hindu nationalist mob this month beat three pastors and manhandled an officer at a police station in the capital of central India’s Chhattisgarh state, sources said.
Police disrupted the worship of New Life Fellowship Ministry in Raipur on Sept. 5 and summoned pastor Harish Sahu to the Purani Basti police station. The officers arrived in a police van with eight to 10 Hindu nationalists, Pastor Sahu said.
“I was conducting the worship when they arrived,” Pastor Sahu told Morning Star News. “The policemen asked me what I was doing, and I said that I was sharing the Word of God from the Holy Book.”
The Hindu extremists in the police van tried to enter the church building, he said.
“The Hindu mob tried to enter the church while I was preaching, and I saw that the police blocked the entrance of the door and refused to let them in,” he said. “Then a police officer entered the church, filmed the service for few minutes, clicked some pictures and went outside and showed the video and pictures to the extremists.”
Police told Pastor Sahu to come to the police station, and he said he would come after the service. He showed up at the police station at noon and was waiting for two other pastors, Ankush Bariyekar, general secretary of the Chhattisgarh Christian Forum, and Prakash Masih, while some 200 Hindu extremists stood outside shouting anti-Christian slogans, he said.
After police began questioning the pastors, the Hindu mob stormed into the station shouting obscenities and anti-Christian chants, a video of the attack on social media shows.
“Beat the [obscenity deleted] with shoes who carry out religious conversion,” the assailants shouted as they made their way to the office where police were questioning the pastors, the video shows. The Hindu extremists then pounced on the three pastors and assaulted them with their shoes and sandals, the 42-year-old Pastor Sahu said.
Pastors Bariyekar and Masih were in front and were badly beaten, Pastor Sahu said, adding, “I was at the back, so I was relatively safe, and only a few blows landed on me.”
A police officer tried to control the assailants and push them out of the chamber, but they would not listen, said Pradeep Dubey, a member of Pastor Bariyekar’s church who accompanied him to the police station and recorded video of the assault.
The mob manhandled Station House Officer Yadumani Sidar as he tried to keep them from hitting the Christians and ordered them to leave, and two other officers arrived and helped push the assailants out of the office, Dubey said.
“Force was deployed outside as the situation outside was quite tense,” Pastor Sahu told Morning Star News. “The right-wing Hindu mob outside had multiplied during the time we were inside the chamber. The forces were ready with their batons to charge against the mob, but thankfully the need did not arise.”
Police kept the three pastors at the police station until 5 p.m. and filed a First Information Report (FIR No. 234/21) against 10 Hindu nationalists, Investigating Officer Nitish Singh Thakur said. Those named were charged under Indian Penal Code sections for obscene acts and songs, voluntarily causing hurt, criminal intimidation, voluntarily obstructing any public servant in the discharge of his public functions, using criminal force and rioting.
Police arrested two of the accused on Sept. 6 and another on Sept. 7, Thakur said.
“All the others are absconding, and search is on,” he told Morning Star News.
Call for Protest against Police
Local media quoted police as saying there had been a verbal scuffle between the Hindu extremists and the pastors waiting outside the officers’ office, but Thakur and Pastor Sahu denied it.
“There was no scuffle between the Hindu mob and the Christians waiting outside,” said Thakur. “The Hindu mob had gathered outside the police station, and they were shouting slogans while the pastors were waiting to be called in for talks.”
Police initially had no intention of taking action against the Hindu extremists, said a source who requested anonymity.
“It was only after the video went viral on social media that these non-bailable sections were later added to the FIR,” the source said.
Thakur confirmed that initially the FIR contained less serious grievous offenses against the Hindu extremists.
“After police staff’s statements were recorded and it was told that they had manhandled the police staff as well, then non-bailable sections were added the same day,” he said.
Leading national newspaper the Hindustan Times reported that the two people arrested on Sept. 6 belonged to the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha (BJYM), youth wing of the Hindu extremist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
“Manish Sahu and Sanjay Singh were arrested from different locations in Raipur and were presented before the court,” Raipur Sperintendent of Police Ajay Yadav told media.
Saying officers sided with the Christians, BJYM Chhattisgarh President Amit Sahu reportedly called for state-wide protests against police.
“We are trying to contain forceful religious conversion in the state,” Amit Sahu reportedly said. “Our people went to Purani Basti police station with a complaint against those pastors, but police welcomed them, which led to a brawl. Manish Sahu is a division president of BJYM, while Singh is a member.”
Police Station In-Charge Yadumani Sidar was temporarily taken off duty on the evening of Sept. 5, and Thakur took charge that night.
Pastor Sahu roundly denied the allegations of forceful conversion.
“We do not allure anybody nor promise them materialistic gains in any way,” he told Morning Star News. “We practice and profess our faith, just as the other religions are free to do.”
Hindu nationalists staged protests after the arrests. BJYM members and supporters on Sept. 8 tried to surround the Purani Basti police station, demanding the release of the two BJYM members arrested on Sept. 6. Protestors broke through a police barricade, resulting in altercations with officers.
The BJP organized a huge, silent protest on Sept. 11 against conversion away from Hinduism that included key leaders, including ex-Chief Minister Raman Singh, and submitted a memorandum to Gov. Anusuiya Uike complaining of a rise in religious conversions in the state.
About 700 workers were detained briefly as they marched towards Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel’s official residence on Tuesday (Sept. 28), demanding the release of the three suspects arrested in the attack on the pastors. Srichand Sudnarani, chief of BJP’s Raipur unit, told media that 8,000 workers from 16 administrative units of the party participated in the protest.
Increase in Attacks
Since COVID-19 lockdown restrictions were eased and churches began to open again, attacks on Sunday worship have been reported every week from various places in the state, Pastor Sahu said.
“This is a pattern that they [Hindu extremists] are following in all the churches in and around Raipur,” he said. “They are going to various churches and targeting them.”
He said he has heard of attacks in Rajnandgaon District, Kawardha and Pandariya in Kabirdham District, Kota in Bilaspur District, and others.
“They vandalize church property, shout slogans and in some situations were handled at the intervention of the police,” he said. “No complaints were filed in any of the cases.”
Pastor Sahu said the constitution of India gives Christians the right to worship God with full independence.
“With what is happening, we are not able to freely worship,” he said. “We only want that the authorities would make sure that we are able to worship our God freely, without any fear or hesitation.”
The hostile tone of the National Democratic Alliance government, led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, against non-Hindus, has emboldened Hindu extremists in several parts of the country to attack Christians since Prime Minister Narendra Modi took power in May 2014, religious rights advocates say.
India ranked 10th on Christian support organization Open Doors’ 2021 World Watch List of the countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian, as it was in 2020. The country was 31st in 2013, but its position worsened after Modi came to power.