New Delhi: It was just another Christmas Eve celebration, organised by a group of people in Gurugram’s Pataudi, for which they had rented the premises of a school in the area. There were dance performances and plays showcasing the life of Jesus Christ, and food for the gathering — much like how churches and Christian schools and institutions have been celebrating Christmas in the country all these years.
But that did not matter to a fringe Hindutva group, which chose to target the celebration by raising the bogey of religious conversion, stormed the “private” event, and disrupted the show shouting slogans of “Jai Shri Ram”.
When ThePrint visited the area Sunday everyone from the event organisers, to the management of the school, and local residents present at the event, denied any attempt at “conversion” at the 24 December event.
Joshua Anand, the event’s co-organiser, told ThePrint that invites for the programme held on the premises of the SBD Public School had been sent out only to “our own family friends”, and others from the area who attended the event came voluntarily.
He denied all allegations of religious conversion at the event, adding that the small gathering was only celebrating Christmas. Many of those who attended were members of the The House of Hope church in Gurugram like him, he said.
Ram Pradeep Pandey, leader of the Dharam Jagriti Mission group, which had raised the allegations, however, maintained his stand and claimed that children were being “brainwashed” about Jesus Christ through the plays put up at the event.
According to him, it was this that prompted him and his group members to raise slogans of “Jai Shri Ram” on stage. “Anything against Hindutva won’t be tolerated,” he said.
No complaint has been filed in this case so far by any one, according to the Station House Officer of Pataudi Police Station.
Allegations made by the Hindutva group
On Saturday, a video that showed Pandey disrupting a Christmas-eve event and chanting “Jai Shri Ram” went viral.
In the video, Pandey could be heard saying: “We are not disrespecting Christ, but we want to tell these children to remember him if they want and do it legally but don’t fall for attempts of religious conversion or destruction of Indian culture is guaranteed. You need to take a resolution to protect it, take that resolution and chant ‘Jai Shri Ram’.”
Pandey, 55, is originally a resident of Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh, and has been running the Dharam Jagriti Mission in Pataudi since 2006. He lives across the road from the SBD Public School.
“We have been hearing English music in this school for the last two months but nobody ever objected. Two-three women came to my house on 23 December to invite me to their Christmas function,” alleged Pandey. “On Friday, another teacher from a private school in Pataudi, Harsh Mudgal, came to my house to apprise me about the religious conversions taking place under the garb of celebrating Christmas in the school.”
Pandey said they “immediately called other people and went to check their agenda”.
“We sat there for over an hour and observed the function,” Pandey added, saying that Christian missionaries participated in the plays and claimed that “Jesus Christ saved the entire humanity and there is only one God that is Jesus Christ”.
“We understood that children were being brainwashed through such plays and speeches into accepting Christianity. We asked them to stop. When they did not stop, I took over the stage and chanted slogans of ‘Jai Shri Ram’ and ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’ because anything against Hindutva will not be tolerated,” Pandey said.
“If you say all this in front of Hindu kids who are fragile and gullible, their faith in Ram and Gita vanishes. It’s the biggest challenge we are facing today, we can not let our children get converted,” Pandey said.
According to Pandey, this “is exactly similar to what Muslims do”. “They offer namaz openly on roads to display their show of strength. We will not let this happen,” he said.
Narender Singh Pahari, a former Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader, who was also among the protesters, alleged that Christian missionaries “were called from Kerala to convert Dalits” at the event.
“A lot of money was spent on food and bringing pastors from Kerala. They kept saying that Hindus have a caste divide and our religion divides people on the basis of class and caste. We take objection to such statements,” said Pahari.
“We are very innocent people, we did not think so much to make someone’s videos, we decided to protest on our own. Had they said anything else, I would have smashed their faces,” he said when asked if he had any videos to support his claims. “And the reason we did not file any police complaint was that our Dalit people would have been defamed.”
“If any such attempt of conversion is made again, we will again stop it by force, if you want to call it gundagardi, we are happy to be called gundas,” he added.
What the organisers say
According to Joshua Anand, the event was organised by Ravi Kumar, who runs a tent business in Pataudi. Anand said Kumar is inspired by Christianity, but not Christian by faith.
“He (Kumar) kept this Christmas programme at a school in Pataudi and invited us and other followers to simply commemorate the birth of Jesus Christ and have fun. It was meant to be a private event, that’s why we didn’t put up any banners or big hoardings, we only sent out invites to our own family friends and members,” said Anand.
“Other local residents who got to know about the programme also came on their own, we never invited anyone apart from our own circle,” he said.
Kumar told ThePrint that they didn’t have “ill-intentions of converting anyone”.
“We had taken proper permission from the owner of the school and paid fees to rent the premises for an evening. In fact, when a crowd barged in, we asked them to sit and see our entire programme and let us know if they found anything problematic. But the crowd did not wait, they took over the stage and snatched the mic,” he said.
“We had only invited 50-60 people, all known to us and followers of Jesus. Why would anyone have a problem with a section celebrating a festival through a cultural programme,” he said, adding that nothing was distributed at the event except home-cooked meals.
Joshua said his son “studies in a private school in Gurugram, and is dressed as a Krishna in his school on every Janmashtami”. “Does that mean that the school is trying to convert him?” he added.
“It was a Christmas event for the followers of Jesus. That’s why we only kept skits, dance performances showcasing the life of Jesus Christ and the meaning of the Bible. Just like skits on Ram and Sita are performed on Diwali,” he said. “We never even said that Christianity is the only religion one should follow or Jesus is the one and only God.”
SBD Public School owner Shrikant Yadav corroborated these claims. “I gave permission to Ravi Kumar on goodwill. I knew they were having a Christmas gathering and a cultural night. School was over at 12.30 pm on 24 December and the function started around 4 pm,” he said. “Absolutely nobody from the school was present for the function. The kids seen in the video are local kids but not from our school.”
“When I got several calls from Right-wing organisations, I immediately reached the school… I didn’t see any blankets being distributed or any pastor giving sermons. I don’t know what was the issue with the programme,” he added.
What other local residents say
Two local women from Pataudi, who were present during the programme, said on condition of anonymity that it was a peaceful programme and no one tried to lure or brainwash them or their children.
“We were told by our friends who happen to be Ravi’s neighbours that a programme is happening. We took our kids and went simply to enjoy and have a good meal. It was no big deal because this has been the culture in Pataudi where people go to each other’s programmes to enjoy,” said one of the two women.
“We went with our kids, but there was nothing in the entire event which made us feel uncomfortable. At no point did anyone try to lure or brainwash us or our kids. It was a peaceful cultural programme where they were talking about why Christmas is being celebrated and the life of Jesus,” the woman added.
After 30-40 minutes, she said, “some men barged in and created a tense atmosphere”. “That’s when we hurriedly left,” she added.
(Edited by Amit Upadhyaya)