Chandigarh: The emaciated man on a wheelchair throws his head back and contorts his face, his arms flailing, legs shaking. All eyes, though, are not on him but on ‘Prophet’ Bajinder Singh, or just ‘prophetji’, minister at the Church of Glory and Wisdom in Punjab.
In his late 30s to early 40s, and dressed in jeans and a blazer, Bajinder looks like a corporate executive on casual Friday, except that his self-assigned job that day is to banish the “evil spirit” that has supposedly taken away the man’s ability to walk.
“Do you believe you will be healed here? Do you believe?” Bajinder prods the man’s weeping wife. “Yes, I believe,” she sobs. Bajinder then whips around to the spellbound audience gathered at the venue. “Everyone, raise your hands and let the Holy Spirit work,” he urges. The crowd complies and Bajinder focuses his attention back on the wheelchair-bound man.
“Jesus, touch him!” Bajinder exclaims, and the man screams loudly. “Get up!” Bajinder commands the man. “Jesussssssss.”
The man rises.
The crowd explodes into rapturous hallelujahs, and right on cue, the band and singers waiting onstage launch into an upbeat devotional song. The catchy rhythm is too much to resist. So effective has the so-called healing been that the “patient” joins the pastor in a few bhangra-style steps to the thumping music and even does a little jog down the stage.
Scenes like the one described above are not uncommon in the promotional videos shared on YouTube by Punjab’s controversial new crop of Christian ministries, run in private churches by self-styled ‘pastors’, ‘apostles’, and even a ‘prophet’.
These ministries, all of which promise miracle cures, are usually helmed by charismatic young men and women, most of whom are converted Christians who have retained their Hindu or Sikh names, albeit prefixed with a religious title.
The names of their establishments follow a template: Prophet Bajinder Singh Ministries, Apostle Ankur Yoseph Narula Ministries, Pastor Harpreet Deol Khojewala Ministries, Pastor Amrit Sandhu Ministries, Pastor Harjit Singh Ministries, Pastor Manish Gill Ministries, Pastor Kanchan Mittal Ministries, Pastor Davinder Singh Ministries, Pastor Raman Hans Ministries, and so on.
These pastors, looked upon as conduits of God, claim they can heal every possible disease and disability, exorcise ghosts, and even bring the dead to life. Their divine influence, according to them, also extends to helping people procure a visa, bag a job, find a spouse, have a baby, get a better political post.
There is no shortage of believers. At least half a dozen of these new ministries have a significant following, and their “healing and prayer” sessions draw crowds by the thousands. Some have branches in almost all the large cities and towns in the state.
This may be part of a larger trend. An earlier in-depth report by ThePrint detailed how Christianity is growing in Punjab, with many Dalits belonging to the Mazhabi Sikh and Valmiki Hindu communities choosing to convert in order to escape the oppressions of the caste system. In Punjab’s border areas, like Gurdaspur, small churches are even cropping up on rooftops. These developments have led the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, which manages gurdwaras across Punjab and several other states, to launch a drive to ‘counter’ Christian conversions. Giani Harpreet Singh, jathedar (ordained leader) of the Akal Takht, the highest temporal seat of Sikhism, has even alleged that Christians are using both money and force to convert Sikhs.
The new faith-healing ministries claim they don’t want to convert people but only to cure them, but they too offer a sense of community and recourse from painful realities.
A sign of their growing influence is that in the run-up to the assembly polls, some of Punjab’s top politicians have visited these ministries’ churches for ‘blessings’ that they perhaps hope will convert into votes. Over the last couple of months, Deputy Chief Minister Sukhjinder Randhawa, state Congress chief Navjot Sidhu, cabinet ministers Rana Gurjit Singh and Pargat Singh, and a host of MLAs have registered their presence at congregational events.
However, several of these churches are mired in controversy, not just because of their outlandish — and potentially dangerous — claims and ‘healing’ practices, but because of alleged irregularities in their financial dealings, as well as concerns about the personal conduct of some prominent figures, one of whom, Bajinder Singh, is currently undergoing trial in a rape case.
Also Read: How Christianity is growing among Mazhabi Sikhs & Valmiki Hindus in Punjab’s villages
‘Healing’, ‘exorcism’, baptism, prophecies
While these ministries claim that they are not trying to convert their followers to Christianity, and only “transforming their lives”, the prayer, healing, exorcism, baptism, and prophecy sessions are carried out in the name of the Holy Spirit in tune with Pentecostal church traditions.
All congregations are carried out in the name of Yeshu Masih (Jesus Christ), and everyone present is exhorted to join in with hallelujahs. The pastors deliver sermons from the Bible and sessions held outside the location of their church are called “crusades”.
Ministries also offer “babtisma (baptism)”, in which followers are made to take a dip in holy water.
The prominent ministries hold weekly, bi-weekly, and in some cases even daily prayer and healing sessions. These are heavily advertised through hoardings, banners, posters, pamphlets, and social media. Phone lines, called “prayer towers”, run round the clock to register those who will attend the sessions.
The sessions themselves are extravagant affairs, usually held under enormous tents or in acres of open grounds that quickly get filled up with men, women, and children, many of them poor and seeking help for health and other problems. The sharply dressed and well-groomed pastor presides over the crowd from a stage (for the most part), usually accompanied by his wife, who can sometimes do a bit of “healing” herself.
These events typically begin with a choir singing Punjabi carols and dancing to a live band. The stirring music often arouses a high degree of emotion, rapture even, among the people gathered. Whatever the pastor commands them to do, they do: They wave their arms above their head, they fall to the ground, they shake, they writhe. It’s a display of complete surrender.
The big-ticket item of these spectacles, however, is when the pastor demonstrates “miracle healing” on the spot.
The YouTube channels of the ministries show pastors ostensibly restoring sight to the blind, liberating the wheelchair-bound, and making short work of cancers, cysts, and stones in the body. There are also mass “healings” through laying hands on people’s heads or spraying them with holy water.
‘Resurrecting the dead’ is another speciality. In one clip, Prophet Bajinder Singh claimed to bring a three-year-old child back from death. As singers chanted “Jehovah, Jehovah, Jehovah” to a crescendo, Bajinder lifted up the inert toddler and revived her with a few good splashes of water from a plastic bottle.
Apostle Ankur Narula trumped even this when he claimed to have reversed a miscarriage and brought a baby back to life in a woman’s womb. He told the audience that a rich mother would not have taken such a rewarding gamble on faith and would have instead wasted time in hospitals.
Also popular are exorcisms of various hues, including oils that supposedly banish evil spirits once you rub them on your body and say “holy ghost fire”, preferably in a trance-like state. More disturbing spectacles include the pastor grappling with “possessed” people, including children, to drive out demonic forces.
When a pastor casts out or “arrests” a spirit, rejoicing and frenzied dancing follows amid cries of “praise the Lord” and “hallelujah”.
Gawahi (testimonies) by those who have been “healed” or whose wishes have come true are also a big part of these sessions. Occasionally, the benefits of sowing the seed (donating) are also shared by people claiming to have received high returns in the form of a well-paid job or other successes.
There are also prophecy sessions, where pastors make predictions about the future or claim credit for events that they say they foresaw, including the misfortunes of Bollywood stars or natural disasters.
Every minute of every event is carefully orchestrated, with hundreds of volunteers and ministry employees managing the crowds and the stage.
Multiple cameras capture every miracle, with the videos later uploaded on the ministries’ social media handles. The top ministries have lakhs of followers on YouTube and Facebook, and some sessions, particularly those of faith healing, gather millions of views (here, for example).
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When ‘healing’ goes wrong
There have been reports about these so-called miracle healers asking patients to leave their ongoing treatment, sometimes resulting in worsening of their condition or even death, but very few complaints have reached the police.
In April 2021, however, a Mumbai family complained to police in Punjab that Prophet Bajinder Singh Ministries had charged them Rs 80,000 to treat a 17-year-old girl who was suffering from cancer. After she died, the ministry staff demanded more money offering to bring her back to life, the complaint alleged.
According to Sukhpal Singh Randhawa, deputy superintendent of police (DSP) in Kartarpur, investigations are still ongoing. “We are recording the statements of the complainants and gathering evidence,” the DSP told ThePrint.
There are concerns also that these faith-healing ministries are promoting superstition for profit at the cost of their followers’ wellbeing.
Megh Raj Mittar, the founder of the Tarksheel Society, a rationalist organisation, said it was regrettable that even politicians were encouraging such ministries.
“Superstition is being promoted to earn money. It suits everyone, including those who should be acting against them. The only way that people can be stopped from falling into these traps is to encourage rational thinking and scientific temper,” he said.
Hemraj Steno, the in-charge of the Punjab chapter of the Tarksheel Society, made similar points. “These healers are frauds. We will pay them Rs 5 lakh if they can bring a dead person to life or restore the eyesight of a blind person — provided we bring the body or person, and they perform the ‘miracle’ publicly,” he said, adding that it was a pity that the government was not bringing faith healers to task. “For politicians, these people become vote banks.”
Steno said superstitious beliefs abound across religions, and they all should be countered.
Murky funds, no regulatory mechanism
Many ministries claim that prayers are offered for free, but followers are encouraged during gatherings to “sow the seed in the church”, which means to donate. Donations are also openly solicited through the ministries’ buzzing social media accounts.
There are indications that at least some ministries are raking in the cash. According to an August 2021 Punjab intelligence report accessed by ThePrint, the two top ministries — Prophet Bajinder Singh Ministries and Apostle Ankur Yoseph Narula Ministries — both based in Jalandhar, collectively received over Rs 60 crore in their bank accounts in the past five years. Ankur Narula Ministries received Rs 36 crore and Bajinder Singh Ministries Rs 24.5 crore; Harpreet Deol Khojewala Ministries, the report added, received Rs 5.42 crore.
ThePrint made several attempts to contact Ankur Narula and Bajinder Singh through phone calls and text messages, but there was no response from them.
John Kotli, the president of the Pentecostal Masih Mahasabha (council of Pentecostal preachers), Punjab, who claims to be a close aide of Narula, said prayer meetings are generally attended by poor people who do not donate more than Rs 10 or 20 per head.
“Whatever donation is collected, and it could be Rs 36 crore as you have mentioned, is used to do a lot of social service,” he said.
Nevertheless, the top pastors flaunt a lavish lifestyle, complete with fancy clothes, big cars, and elaborate private security. According to the intelligence report, they are also buying property across the state to build more private churches for their ministries.
In November and December alone, new branches of top ministries opened in Jalandhar, Patiala, Pathankot, Mohali, Zirakpur, Nawanshahr, Nakodar, Rajpura, and Ludhiana.
These burgeoning ministries function independently and are not affiliated to either of the two mainline churches in the region: the Church of North India (CNI), which has under it the majority of Protestant churches in North India, and the Diocese of Jalandhar, under whose jurisdiction come Roman Catholic Churches in 15 out of 23 of Punjab’s districts, as well as four districts in Himachal Pradesh.
Dr Pradip Kumar Samantaroy, bishop of Amritsar Diocese (under CNI), told ThePrint that these “independent churches” are answerable to no one except themselves. He also compared them to deras — religious sects that operate outside mainstream Sikhism but have huge mass followings.
“They represent dera culture in Christianity. In the beginning, when wandering preachers and faith healers started out, they were driven by a genuine desire to serve and heal. But now what we see seems to be driven by commercial interests,” he said.
“I have been the moderator of the CNI, which has 27 dioceses with it across almost three-fourths of India, but nowhere else have I seen this scale (of operations) of independent churches (as in Punjab),” added the bishop.
Samantaroy said he is concerned about the fact that the ministries seem to be “seeking money in the name of healing”. That is why, he said, he thinks of the ministries as “fake healers not faith healers”.
A regulatory mechanism to monitor the functioning of these ministries is the need of the hour, the bishop said.
“There are two aspects to this. First is the religion, the faith, its teachings and practice. Second is the system or discipline or order which should be both transparent and accountable. All church orders should come together and create a mechanism to regulate the functioning of these ministries,” he said.
Father Peter Kavumpuram, public relations officer of the Roman Catholic Jalandhar Diocese, told ThePrint that these ministries worked independently and had no ties to the diocese. “We do not interfere with their work; we are concerned only with our own churches,” he said.
“If they (the ministries) do anything fundamentally against the doctrine of the church or the dogma or the faith, naturally they will be countered. Until then, what they are doing is for their conscience to (guide). They are answerable to those who believe in them,” Kavumpuram added.
In 2019, the state’s Christian community made an attempt to regulate the functioning of these ministries with the setting up of the Shiromani Church Parbandhak Committee (SCPC), but it was short-lived.
Albert Dua, president of the Christian United Federation, Punjab, was instrumental in creating the SCPC, but told ThePrint that the body is currently “non-functional” because “no consensual decision could be taken” due to differences among the members.
“We are aware of what these ministries are doing and we receive a lot of complaints as well, but there is nothing much that we can do until we have the authority to take action,” he said.
Dua believes the state government should collaborate with churches and Christian bodies to set up a regulatory body to monitor the ministries, but he does not have high expectations.
“We are observing that instead of strengthening mainline churches or traditional Christian bodies, government representatives are patronising these ministries,” Dua said.
Currently, the closest thing there is to a monitoring body is the Pentecostal Church Parbandhak Committee (PCPC), set up in November 2021 by the Pastor Harpreet Deol Khojewala Ministries. The aim of this body is to help self-regulate the ministries.
“If anyone has any complaint to give about anyone, please let us know,” Khojewala announced during the launch of the PCPC.
Kuldip Mathew, senior pastor at Church of Hope in Ferozepur and a member of the executive of the PCPC, told ThePrint that 980 organisations have already registered with the body. “If there is a complaint against anyone, we conduct an inquiry into the matter and then discuss the issue with other members. If there is need for any action to be taken, we do that,” Mathew said.
Transparency, though, is a long way away.
Very little is known about the functioning of these ministries other than what they choose to share on their websites and social media accounts.
In addition to Bajinder Singh and Ankur Narula, ThePrint tried to contact all the other popular pastors — including Harpreet Deol, Amrit Sandhu, Manish Deol, Kanchan Mittal, Raman Hans, Davinder Singh, and Harjit Singh — through calls and messages, but no one responded.
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Top ministries, some controversial leaders
Apostle Ankur Narula Ministries, on its website, claims to be the “biggest and the fastest growing church ministry in Punjab”. With its home base in the Church of Signs and Wonders in Khambra village, Jalandhar, it claims to have almost three lakh members.
Its leader, Ankur Narula, comes from a Hindu Khatri business family, and professes to be a recovered drug addict. According to his website, Narula “came to know about Lord Jesus Christ at suicide point frustrated from intoxications and sickness. He surrendered himself to God for the gospel and started his ministry with 3 people in the church in the year 2008…”
The site further declares that Narula now “preaches the good news of Jesus Christ to a congregation of more than 100,000 people every week in the Church of Signs and Wonders”.
It adds that “through miracle services, conferences, TV broadcasts, the Internet, printed page (Masihi Sansar), and audio-video recordings”, Narula’s message now inspires “thousands of people around the globe”. Narula’s was one of the first ministries in Punjab to command a significant following.
Many other upcoming ministries of pastors like Amrit Sandhu, Harjit Singh, Pankaj Randhawa, and Pawan Chohan have declared that Narula is their spiritual father and that they are following in his footsteps.
This January, Narula will also start a mentorship programme for pastors.
According to Yunus Masih, a pastor working with the Ankur Narula Ministries, the church works purely for “charity”.
“We give rations, help in marriages of the poor — every penny is accounted for. We work solely on voluntary donations. There is no fee for healing or other services. And there is no conversion of anyone’s religion,” Masih told ThePrint.
As mentioned earlier, Apostle Ankur Narula Ministries has come under the scanner about its funds, and it has also faced backlash from Hindu Right-wing organisations.
In November 2020, the Legal Rights Observatory, an RSS-affiliated group, claimed in a Twitter thread that it had lodged a complaint with the Union home ministry against Narula for alleged violations of the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA).
The group alleged that Narula had created a shell company in the UK for ten days and then dissolved it with a view to set up a “money laundering network”.
Shell company Ankur Narula Ministries (UK) Ltd with
Co No: 11066154 registered at address: 27 Old Gloucester Street, London , WC1N 3AX on Nov 2017 n DISSOLVED at 23 Apr 2017 after creating money laundering network to pump money in India, @dir_ed @IncomeTaxIndia inquiry needed+ pic.twitter.com/gADUj4mW9t
— Legal Rights Observatory- LRO (@LegalLro) November 8, 2020
On 23 November, Narula opened a Delhi branch of his church, which was allegedly vandalised by members of the Bajrang Dal a week later, and has stayed shut since then. While an FIR was lodged against the miscreants, the ministry’s staff were also booked for violating the requirements of the Disaster Management Act by holding large gatherings without social distancing.
Prophet Bajinder Singh Ministries has enjoyed a meteoric rise and is giving tough competition to Narula. Bajinder Singh, a relative newcomer to the scene, has built up quite a fan base. For what it’s worth, he has 13.5 lakh followers on YouTube while Narula has 6.83 lakh.
Bajinder Singh has revealed little about himself on his social media accounts, but according to a Punjab Police intelligence report, he comes from a Hindu Jat family from Yamunanagar, Haryana, and has a degree in mechanical engineering.
The report claims that Bajinder was arrested for his involvement in a murder case while he was in his 20s and his family abandoned him. ThePrint contacted Kamaldeep Goyal, the superintendent of police (SP) of Yamunanagar to inquire about the murder case, but he said the information was not immediately at hand and that he would search for it (this report will be updated once these details are conveyed).
What is known, according to the Punjab Police report, is that Bajinder apparently started leaning towards Christianity while he was arrested, and decided to spread the word upon his release. He converted in 2008 and, by 2012, started holding small gatherings to “heal” people.
“Initially, he was a pastor of a church in Jalandhar district but, in 2015, he moved to Chandigarh, and later, went on to become the president of The Church of Glory and Wisdom, Chandigarh,” the report says, detailing how Bajinder’s fortunes changed. He allegedly amassed over Rs 24 crore between 2017 and August 2021, and also married and had three children during this period.
However, it has not all been smooth sailing. In April 2018, a church volunteer accused Bajinder of raping her at his residence in Mohali. He was arrested in July from Delhi airport before he could board a flight to London. While Bajinder spent only two months in jail and is out on bail, he is currently undergoing trial for the alleged rape in Mohali. The case is at an advanced stage of trial with the prosecution evidence having almost ended; the last hearing took place on 22 December. Bajinder has claimed in sermons that the charges against him are false.
In September 2021, Bajinder also got in trouble with the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) after a complaint was lodged against him for using children in proselytising. The complaint was closed after the family of the child deposed in favour of the ministry.
In July 2021, there was reportedly a violent altercation between the ministry’s staff and farmers in village Boothgarh in New Chandigarh, where Bajinder has rented a large piece of land to run prayer sessions. “He asked his staff to tell the farmers to stop using their tractors in the field as long as he was on the stage sermonising. The farmers objected to this and this led to a violent fight between Bajinder’s men and farmers. The matter was resolved later in the police station,” a resident of the village told ThePrint on the condition of anonymity.
The resident further claimed that Bajinder’s sessions were shrouded in “secrecy” and most visitors were not from the area. “They keep coming to us in the village looking for a place to stay for the night. We have also come to know that the people who are allowed inside are told to leave their mobile phones behind so that they do not make videos about a failed healing experience or someone speaking out about having paid money for the healing,” said the Boothgarh resident.
As mentioned earlier, neither Bajinder Singh nor his representatives responded to ThePrint’s calls and messages for an interview.
Pastor Harpreet Deol Khojewala Ministries is one of the oldest such establishments in Punjab. Harpreet’s father Harbhajan Singh, who converted from Sikhism, started the Open Door Church in Khojewala village, Kapurthala, in 1991.
“My father had shifted to Australia in the 1980s where he fell sick and was treated by a Christian priest. He converted to Christianity and came back to India to spread the word of Jesus Christ and heal people,” Harpreet Deol said in an interview in 2020. He said in the interview that he was at first reluctant to work in the ministry but that some “extraordinary experiences” changed his mind.
Harpreet Deol’s wife Gursharan Kaur works with him and also delivers sermons and conducts healing sessions. Deol’s ministry is currently constructing a huge church building in his village.
Politicians seek ‘blessings’
With state polls around the corner, several top politicians in Punjab have showed up at fervid ‘prayer and healing’ sessions, branch-opening ceremonies, and pre-Christmas functions of leading ministries as part of their political outreach efforts.
On 14 December, Deputy CM Sukhjinder Randhawa, who also holds the home portfolio, attended a special session at Apostle Ankur Yoseph Narula Ministries at Kalanaur in Gurdaspur (which is part of Randhawa’s constituency, Dera Baba Nanak). Before a crowd numbering in the thousands, Narula “blessed” Randhawa who responded with enthusiastic hallelujahs and bowed his head in gratitude.
The video of the proceedings, available on Randhawa’s public Facebook page, shows Narula conjuring up a “special prayer” meant for men in power while the deputy CM stands with folded hands.
On 20 November, Randhawa, accompanied by state Congress president Navjot Sidhu, also attended the opening of the Amritsar branch of Prophet Bajinder Singh Ministries.
Randhawa has something of a history with Bajinder Singh Ministries. In July 2019, when he was a cabinet minister, he received blessings from Bajinder Singh, who made sure to take credit when Randhawa was promoted to deputy CM in September 2021.
ThePrint tried to reach Randhawa through multiple calls and text messages for a comment on his participation in these programmes, but there was no response by the time of publishing this report.
On 30 November, cabinet minister and MLA from Kapurthala Rana Gurjeet Singh attended the “grand opening ceremony” of the Pentecostal Christian Parbandhak Committee (PCPC), organised by Pastor Harpreet Singh Deol Khojewala Ministries.
“I have spent over two hours with Pastor Deol and let me tell you there is something special about him. I too am slowly becoming his fan. All religions lead to one God, whatever path one chooses,” Rana, addressing a huge crowd, said.
Emanual Nahar, chairman of the State Minorities Commission, was there too. “There has never been a Christian MLA or MP in Punjab. That needs to change. We need to be represented better,” he said.
Other notable visits of leaders at these ministries include a 10 December appearance by Jalalabad MLA Raminder Singh Awla and former Congress MP from Ferozepur Sher Singh Gubaya at a ‘healing session’ of Bajinder Singh at Fazilka, and Punjab Education Minister Pargat Singh’s Christmas courtesy call to a tracksuit-clad Ankur Narula.
(Edited by Asavari Singh)
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