Amritsar/Gurdaspur: Atop a roof in an obscure gully in Fatehgarh Churian, a Pentecostal church is in full swing. “Rabba rabba rabba rabba, pita parmeshwar teri aatma rahe… rabba rabba rabba rabba rabba…” a young boy raps into the mic, boosted to its maximum volume, adding to the trippy and eerie mood. The pastor places his hand on the heads of disciples as they shake violently. Some faint, others cry. But all are waiting for a miracle.
Christianity is growing in Punjab, mirroring what states like Tamil Nadu experienced in the 1980s and 1990s. Small churches are springing up on the rooftops of many villages in Gurdaspur. Tired of centuries of casteism and systemic oppression, many Dalits, belonging to the Mazhabi Sikh and Valmiki Hindu communities living in Punjab’s border belt, have started looking to Christianity in the hope of a dignified life and access to better education.
Kamal Bakshi is the state president of the United Christian Front, a group that has committees in 8,000 of Punjab’s 12,000 villages. According to him, there are 600-700 churches in Amritsar and Gurdaspur districts that belong to four Christian denominations. He says 60-70 per cent of these have sprung up in the past five years.
The Christian faith has co-opted many of the cultural markers of Punjab, from turbans to tappe. On YouTube, one can find Christian giddas (a folk dance), tappe (a musical form) and boliyan (sung couplets), and songs in praise of Jesus in Punjabi. The visuals show men and women singing these songs in a rural Punjabi setup.
With 14 million views, one song goes, ‘Har mushkil de wich, mera Yeeshu mere naal naal hai. Baap wangu karda fikar, te maa wangu rakhda khyaal hai’ (Jesus is with me through all my problems. He worries for me like a father and cares for me like my mother).
Some converts from Sikhism don’t discard their turbans. “Clothes don’t determine anyone’s religion. I have been wearing a turban since I was a young boy. Why should I take it off now that I am a Christian? It’s a part of my identity,” a devotee who does not wish to be named tells ThePrint.
Devotees also enter churches after covering their heads, as is the practice in gurdwaras, although this mandate seems to apply only to women.
Names are a similar case. While most Christians in the state use the surname ‘Massih’ to indicate their allegiance to the Church, many don’t change their previous names.
For them, there’s a reason not to change their names: To take advantage of reservation for Dalits, which isn’t available if they convert. This is also cited as the reason census figures invariably miss much of the Christian population in Punjab, which then leads to negligent representation of the demographic in state politics.
It has also led to a debate on reservation in the state — are converted Dalits no longer marginalised? The current demand of Christian bodies in Punjab is 2 per cent reservation in government jobs and the setting up of a state minorities commission.
Conversion in border villages, Sikh authorities irked
Sixty-year-old Sukhwant Kaur has no one but Jesus. A resident of Dujowal village in Amritsar district, she lives in a one-room house made of bricks, with no stove to cook on and no family to cook for. The only adornments in her house are posters of Jesus.
“The Christian faith has given me a sense of community, Jesus has got rid of negative energy from my life,” she says. Formerly a Mazhabi Sikh, she converted to Christianity because she liked going to church.
Like Sukhwant, many Valmikis and Mazhabis living in Punjab’s border belt, in Amritsar, Gurdaspur and Ferozepur districts, have embraced the Christian faith.
ThePrint visited Dujowal, a village 2 kilometres from the Pakistan border, where about 30 per cent of the voters are Christian, according to sarpanch Samuel Massih. There are two gurdwaras in the village — along with two churches and a temple.
Awan, another border village, is the largest in the Ajnala assembly constituency in Amritsar district, with a population of 10,000. It’s home to four churches of different denominations — Roman Catholic, and Protestant denominations including Pentecostals and the Salvation Army.
This conversion to Christianity has irked the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, the organisation responsible for managing gurdwaras across Punjab and several other states. The committee has launched initiatives to ‘counter’ Christian conversion. One such effort is the ‘Ghar Ghar Andar Dharamsaal’ campaign, where volunteers go door-to-door to spread the word of Sikhism.
Recently, Giani Harpreet Singh, jathedar of the Akal Takht — the highest seat of earthly authority for Sikhs — alleged that Christians were converting Sikhs in border villages through force and by luring them with money.
No reservation, ‘missing’ from census
Even though there is a growing Christian electorate in the state, the community has negligible representation in state politics. There hasn’t been a single Christian MLA elected to the Punjab Legislative Assembly since independence.
This lack of representation affects Christians even at the panchayat level. Sukhwinder Massih, 25, a resident of Awan village, tells ThePrint, “In our village, the Christian vote is more than the Jatt (Sikh) vote. And yet, they don’t let us Christians or Mazhabis become members of the panchayat.”
He adds, “Even if our candidate wins in the reserved seat, they don’t grant their tenure any legitimacy. If the Akalis win, there’s a Jatt sarpanch. If the Congress wins, then again a Jatt sarpanch. Nobody listens to us, they all try to oppress us.”
According to the 2011 census, Christians make up a little over 2 per cent of the population of Amritsar district, and 7.68 per cent in Gurdaspur, the district where they are most concentrated.
News reports peg the Christian vote share in Gurdaspur district at 17 to 20 per cent. In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the Aam Aadmi Party’s (AAP) Christian candidate in the Gurdaspur constituency, Peter Massih, was defeated, coming in third after the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) Sunny Deol and the Congress’s Sunil Jakhar.
Sonu Jaffer, an AAP leader and president of the Christian Samaj Front, which has 1 lakh members in Punjab, says, “If any Christian ever gets a ticket, it’s only from Gurdaspur. This time, I’m demanding a ticket from Ajnala constituency in Amritsar district. There are about 43,000 Christian voters here.”
Kamal Bakshi says there is gross undercounting of Christians in the census. “Even if a person embraces Christianity, they don’t change their names in official documents so they can take advantage of reservation benefits. Because of this, the Christian population is grossly undercounted. At least 23 per cent of Gurdaspur is Christian, and the figures must be similar in Amritsar too,” he claims.
Many Christians feel ostracised because they aren’t entitled to reservation benefits, even though their socio-economic profile is similar to Mazhabis and Valmikis.
Thirty-eight-year-old Monica from Fatehgarh Churian says she doesn’t understand why this is happening to her community. “Christians have to work harder for everything. Our community is among the poorest of the poor, and yet we don’t get any reservations. Why is it nobody wants to lend us an ear? You’re the first one who has ever come here and asked us what we want,” she tells ThePrint.
According to Bakshi, 95 per cent of Christians in Punjab are converts, and an overwhelming majority come from Dalit backgrounds. Thus, the lack of reservation feels discriminatory.
Other grassroots leaders share this sentiment. Roshan Massih, the Congress’s Gurdaspur district president, says, “Once a Dalit chooses to be a Christian, they stop getting any reservation benefits and face social ostracisation. So, people try to hide their identity, which is why government figures don’t reflect the correct number of Christians in the state. It’s discriminatory not to extend benefits reserved for the SC Sikh and Hindu community to Christians, who need it just as much.”
Reasons for conversion
A grandiose ‘Jatt’ gurdwara towering over a dilapidated ‘Dalit’ gurdwara is a common sight in Punjab’s villages. There are often two or three gurdwaras belonging to different castes, symptomatic of the deep-rooted nature of caste in the region.
This can feel alienating, and the Church gives a sense of community. Daniel B. Das, director, socio-economic issues, Church of North India, tells ThePrint that “95 per cent of Christians in Punjab belong to the same class and the same previous caste, so there’s absolutely no space for discrimination here, as happens sometimes in South India. Dalits look to Christianity for the security and equality it offers them”.
Bakshi adds, “They say we allure people with money, when all people look for in the Church is equality. It’s the limitations of other religions, like the propagation of untouchability, that they don’t want to address.”
Access to good education is another reason people embrace Christianity. The staff of St Francis Convent School, Fatehgarh Churian, inform ThePrint that the organisation spends Rs. 90 lakh per year on providing children with free or subsidised education. Out of the school’s 3,500 pupils, 400 pay almost nothing. The staff say buses get students to the school from five-six villages within a 20-kilometre radius of Fatehgarh Churian free of cost.
“My kids study here for a paltry sum of Rs. 200-300 and are doing well in life. I owe a lot of gratitude to the Church, they really help people out. Fathers and Sisters always help a pucca Catholic out,” says Soniya Massih from Nawa Pind.
The diocese of Amritsar, under Bishop Pradeep Kumar Sumantaroy, has emphasised the importance of imparting education, says Daniel B. Das. He adds that Roman Catholics have opened five-six schools in Amritsar and Tarn Taran districts, as well as 40 after-school classes attended by 880 children.
“He (the bishop) has given strict instructions to heads of institutes that no child is to be denied admission in schools just because their parents can’t pay for education, regardless of the faith the kid belongs to,” Das says.
But even with the focus on education, Christian leaders stress the lack of it in their community. AAP leader and Christian Front president Jaffer says, “The biggest problem facing Christians is lack of education. The quality of education is very poor, and as most Christians in Punjab come from mazdoor (labourer) backgrounds and poor families, they’re not politically aware, and the community suffers from a lack of representation.”
However, Sukhwant Kaur says religion isn’t a factor for her when it comes to voting. “You build a house for me, give me rations and I’ll vote for you,” she says.
And when asked about getting money for converting, she laughs it off. “The pastors are as poor as I am. They have nothing to offer but peace,” she adds.
(Edited by Rohan Manoj)