Fatehpur: Wandering minstrels playing harmoniums and preaching the word of Jesus, Pentecostal-style faith-healing sessions called changayi sabhas, congregations full of newly baptised Christians — these are not unusual events in the interiors of Uttar Pradesh.
However, something seems to have changed in the state’s Fatehpur district. While local units of the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) and its youth wing Bajrang Dal have for years complained about “conversion rackets” involving Christian groups, the police have acted on these allegations with unprecedented gusto over the last few months.
Three police stations in Fatehpur have collectively filed at least seven first information reports (FIRs) and arrested 55 people since the beginning of the year. In each instance, the police action came on complaints from VHP or Bajrang Dal members that Christian groups or individuals were trying to convert Hindus through allurements, trickery, and coercion, or some combination thereof.
Even UP’s anti-terrorism squad (ATS) is now involved. An ATS team arrived in Fatehpur last Wednesday to take stock of the various conversion cases registered in the district, sources said. It is also probing the source of funding of a branch of the Evangelical Church of India (ECI) in Hariharganj police station area.
Between 15 April and 20 November, there have been 41 arrests from this church, which is alleged to have links with the global Christian charity World Vision International. The police have further claimed to have recovered several Aadhaar cards bearing the changed names of converts, including from the church’s pastor Vijay Masih.
Another church under investigation is Naya Jeevan in Fatehpur’s Bahuwa town. It is allegedly linked to the Friends Missionary Prayer Band (FMPB), a Chennai-headquartered evangelical organisation. The police arrested four of its members last month.
Khaga police station, too, has registered at least five conversion-related cases, with 10 arrests between January and September.
So, what exactly is afoot in Fatehpur? When ThePrint visited Khaga, Hariharganj, and Bahuwa earlier this month, there were numerous conflicting narratives on the ground.
While some villagers complained that Christian groups were exhorting them to give up Hindu practices and soliciting donations for dubious ‘exorcisms’, others claimed that they had willingly embraced Christianity to escape the shackles of caste and were now being harassed with trumped-up charges.
Further, some “converted” villagers whose new Christian names were found on ‘forged’ Aadhaar cards claimed that they had never been to the church in question — an allegation that the police have refuted. The churches and individuals accused of unlawful conversions, meanwhile, continue to protest their innocence.
Also read: ‘Damaging Bharat’s social fabric’: After linking Amazon to conversion, RSS wants NIA probe
‘Old problem’, new action
Hindutva organisations have been protesting for decades against alleged Christian conversions in Fatehpur, especially in rural belts, but the pitch has increased over the last seven to eight years.
In August 2013, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti arrived at Teesi village here and “purified” converts to Christianity with gangajal, or holy water from the Ganges. She also lashed out at the NGO World Vision International, claiming that its main purpose is to convert people to Christianity. Niranjan Jyoti has been the Lok Sabha MP from Fatehpur since 2014, and is currently the Union minister of state for rural development.
Over the last few years, VHP and Bajrang Dal workers have held several protests, burnt effigies representing World Vision, and locked up houses where prayer meetings were believed to be held.
The difference now is that the police have started “cooperating” and cracking down on the “illegal activities” of Christian groups, said Virendra Pandey, provincial secretary of the VHP’s Fatehpur unit.
“Earlier, the police would not listen to us and even filed an FIR against us for protesting. But now, the police are cooperating,” Pandey told ThePrint.
However, going from arrest to conviction is another matter.
Currently, 37 out of the 55 who were arrested in Fatehpur this year are out on bail. The police say that the VHP’s allegations that missionaries offered poor Hindus money, jobs, and other enticements to change religions are hard to prove.
“People are not coming forward and accepting that they ever took money or that money was offered to them. We are investigating and trying to collect evidence,” Fatehpur Superintendent of Police (SP) Rajesh Kumar Singh told ThePrint.
The state’s anti-conversion law — the Uttar Pradesh Prohibition of Unlawful Religious Conversion Act — prohibits religious conversion through force, religious misrepresentation, and allurement.
The punishment for ‘mass conversion’, which translates to two or more people, ranges from imprisonment for three to 10 years and a fine of Rs 50,000 or more.
Since November 2020, when the law came into force, 507 accused have reportedly been arrested in 291 cases of ‘unlawful’ conversion, but no one has been convicted yet.
From RSS worker to holding ‘changayi sabhas’
On 2 July, Ramchandra Paswan and his wife Neermati were arrested from their home in Khaga’s Sujarahi village along with one other person for allegedly “promoting Christianity and encouraging locals to follow the religion” and “distributing the Bible”, according to the FIR.
The case, which is among five filed this year at Khaga police station, came after a complaint from a leader of the area’s Bajrang Dal unit.
Currently out on bail, Paswan said he never tried to convert people but acknowledges that he has embraced Christianity. According to him, he was a member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) until 2007, but gravitated towards Christianity for numerous reasons.
One was caste. “Can you ever make me equal to a Brahmin or Thakur? My forefathers would follow Hindu gods, but why could they not drink water from the same pitcher as the upper castes?” asked Paswan, a Dalit.
Another reason to convert, he claimed, was the “miracles” he had experienced. The turning point for him came in 2007, when his then six-month-old son caught pneumonia. “We tried so many doctors but to no avail. Then my nephew introduced me to a priest and asked me to pray to ishwar (the Christian god). He said changayi ho jayegi (all will be good).”
His son survived and Paswan’s faith was cemented. Eventually, he too started preaching at changayi sabhas, or faith-healing meetings. Changayi translates roughly to ‘wellness’. He also conducted exorcisms to “get rid of bad spirits through prayers to Jesus”.
Paswan showed ThePrint a video of one such “exorcism”. In it a “possessed” woman is seen screaming while he directs the “spirit” to leave her body and to follow Yesu (Jesus).
Over time, Paswan built up a small following, with locals visiting his house for “special water”.
Before Paswan’s arrest, the sounds of drums and singing would emanate from his two-storey house, but now there’s silence, his neighbours said. Some of them are glad. They claim that conversions were the goal of the changayi sabhas.
“This is a business for them. They ask people to donate whatever amount they can. I too went a few times and then stopped. They would ask to leave Hinduism and follow their religion,” said Paswan’s next-door neighbour, asking not to be named.
Another villager, Sharmila Singh, claimed that people would be urged to avoid doctors and to try faith-healing at changayi sabhas instead. “I have myself never attended their meetings but those who have told me that they tell them not to celebrate Holi and Diwali,” she added.
According to Paswan, his neighbours complained to the Bajrang Dal because they were “jealous” that he, as a Dalit, was able to make a good living and build his own house.
“I don’t do wrong to anyone, no gossip, no theft, no greed. I don’t ask for money. I rely on my own earnings,” he said.
He added that he was also targeted because he supported the Samajwadi Party (SP) in the recent election. “[Neighbours] got to know about it when SP leader Neelam Romila Singh visited my home.”
Ramchandra Paswan’s story is similar to that of painter Asharam Paswan of Shikarpur village, about 8.5 km from Sujarahi. He was arrested on 25 June following a complaint from Rajkamal Maurya, a local VHP officer bearer. The FIR against him reads much like Ramchandra Paswan’s.
Both were accused of “promoting Christianity” unlawfully and were booked under various Indian Penal Code (IPC) sections, including 295-a (hurting religious sentiments) and 504 (intentionally insulting with intent to provoke breach of peace), as well as sections 3 and 5 (1) of the UP anti-conversion law.
Asharam Paswan said he became a believer in the wake of a mysterious illness that caused him to faint at odd times. He saw it as being possessed by an evil spirit. He claimed he got better after his niece, a changayi sabha follower, prayed to ishwar for him. He soon became a member too.
“Since then, my family is better. Is praying to ishwar a sin? I’ve left all vices. I am now on a path of righteousness,” he said.
Also Read: ‘18th-century Catholic saint not killed for converting’ — Kerala royals want Pope to ‘absolve king’
The case of Naya Jeevan church
There was a time when Naya Jeevan Church in Fatehpur’s Bahuwa town was a hub of activity. Part of the Friends Missionary Prayer Band (FMPB) network, which has about 35 churches in UP, it was known for sending groups of singing missionaries to nearby villages.
But the church, which is at least 10 years old, has been shut since October when pastor Jailal Gihar and associates Kishori Raidas, Phoola Devi, and Shrimati were arrested under IPC sections 295-a (hurting religious sentiments) and 506 (criminal intimidation), as well as sections 3 and 5 (1) of the UP anti-conversion law.
The arrests came after a Bajrang Dal worker called Madhu Shukla complained that the accused were offering allurements to convert people. She also alleged that pastor Gihar had threatened to frame villagers in rape cases or under the Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act if they did not convert. A juvenile was also named in the case, but not arrested. The other four are still lodged in jail.
Kishori’s son-in-law Shivdas Raidas told ThePrint that their bail pleas were rejected by the lower court and they have now approached the sessions court.
“My father-in-law works as a band player. He came in contact with the church a few years after my mother-in-law died. We are very poor,” he said.
Kishori’s neighbours are sympathetic towards him.
“He would hold prayer meets in his hut and we too would join them. He never tried to convert us. He is a poor fellow,” said a neighbour, who asked not to be named.
Another church member Mukut J.K., alleged harassment. The arrests came on a Sunday, he said, when the attendees were engaged in prayers.
“Some people came and sat among the attendees and started raising questions and arguing. They made calls to their associates, after which they locked the church from outside. The police and SDM (sub-divisional magistrate) arrived and opened the lock,” he claimed.
‘List of targets’
At the time of the Bahuwa arrests last month, the police recovered a register containing the names of 1,342 residents from several nearby villages, including Sakha and Tikri.
The VHP’s Pandey has alleged that these names were of people whom the church had been targeting for conversions.
When ThePrint contacted some of the villagers whose names are in the register, they claimed they had not been offered any money to convert.
“They would visit the villages here, carrying harmoniums and singing songs, they’d hold prayer meets,” said 60-year-old Shivodhan, whose wife Basanti is listed in the register.
The Tikri resident said he tried going to the church some five years ago. “My wife was haunted by an evil spirit. I had taken her to many hospitals and so decided to try the church. Some persons who were haunted claimed to have benefited,” he said. “I saw some people screaming at the sound of the drums.”
However, the couple stopped going after some time. “A bible was given to us but I didn’t know how to read,” he said.
Maiki, another villager whose name was in the list, told ThePrint that she stopped going when she was asked to remove her sindoor and mangalsutra.
Some, however, adopted Christianity, like Ram Avtar Raidas. “I liked Christianity. There is a lot of casteism in Hinduism,” he said.
“When people benefited, they would follow. They would stop after that,” said Kallu, a Sakha resident.
Asked if they were ever offered money or other benefits for joining the church, Kallu said he had not heard of any such incident.
“They have been framed. Like we would give to Hindu temples, the same way small donations are given here,” said Santosh Singh, a resident of neighbouring Ayah village who follows Christianity.
Notably, the December 2014 issue of Friends Focus, a magazine of the FMPB, notes how many people “accepted Jesus”, presumably that month, in virtually all parts of the country, from Jammu and Kashmir to Assam to Gujarat.
There’s an entry for Bahuwa too. “Twelve persons accepted Jesus Christ and the Gospel was proclaimed to 3500 persons in three villages. Also 4000 gospel tracts and 20 New Testaments were distributed,” the snippet says.
When contacted, Paul Daya Singh, who is associated with the Bindki FMPB church nearby, denied the allegations of conversions.
“There is nothing like baptism happening here. The attendees are only encouraged to follow the footsteps of Jesus Christ for changayi (betterment) in their lives. There is no give and take of money. People can pay Rs 20 per month when they become members,” he said.
Also read: ‘Called untouchable in 2022’: Why hundreds of Dalits in Karnataka embraced Buddhism
Mystery of ‘forged’ Aadhaar cards, ‘RSS connection’
Perhaps the most ‘high-profile’ among the conversion-related crackdowns in Fatehpur is that of the Hariharganj branch of the Evangelical Church of India (ECI).
As reported earlier by ThePrint, the controversy started on 14 April, when a local VHP office-bearer, Himanshu Dixit, lodged a complaint claiming that pastor Vijay Masih and numerous others were converting locals to Christianity by chhal-kapat (trickery).
The complaint came on the occasion of Maundy Thursday, observed a day before Good Friday, when many church congregants were attending prayers. Upon receiving the complaint, the police lodged a complaint against 35 named persons and 20 unnamed individuals. Twenty-six persons were detained on the spot. They were officially arrested on 15 April, but all got bail the next day, their defence lawyers told ThePrint.
But that was not the end of it. In October, pastor Vijay Masih and congregant Vinay Kumar, a dental physician at the nearby Broadwell Christian Hospital, were arrested again.
This time, three people filed an affidavit saying that they had been converted and that new Aadhaar cards had been made for them. In addition, the police claimed they had recovered four Aadhaar cards linked to two other people from Masih’s pocket. These belonged to Dalit villagers, Keshan and Satyapal, both from Fatehpur’s Aswar Tarapur village.
A statement issued by Fatehpur Police on 30 October said that Masih had admitted to getting Keshan and Satyapal converted to Christianity on 15 April and had given them new Aadhaar cards under their new names. “We give new Aadhaar cards to such people,” the statement quoted Masih as saying.
A Fatehpur court subsequently denied Masih bail, noting that the charges now pertained to forgery of government documents.
However, when ThePrint tracked down Keshan and Satyapal in Aswar Tarapur village, they claimed they had never been converted and pointed to a local RSS member called Arun Tiwari, to whom they had given their cards in connection with property matters.
At his mud house, plastered with pictures of Hindu gods and goddesses, 45-year-old Satyapal, a labourer, seemed bewildered.
“I had given my Aadhaar card [to Tiwari] in connection with ownership papers of a plot of land. He does all this work. I don’t know how my name changed,” he said.
Satyapal’s wife added that they gave various documents to Tiwari about two months ago since he had allegedly claimed he could help them to transfer the ownership of 15 biswa of ancestral property to them.
Satyapal added that he had “never” gone to church and had “no clue” how he got a new Aadhaar card. “Tiwari might be behind it,” he speculated.
Kishen too seemed similarly bemused. He said he works in Tiwari’s fields and had asked the latter for help with the benama (sale deed) of a plot of land in his name.
However, he added that Tiwari had also asked him to “become a witness” in a case.
“The discussions were that we [Keshan and Satyapal] should become witnesses. I had no clue for what I was being made a witness. I am uneducated, I didn’t know anything,” he said, adding that he had never been to church.
When asked about the claims of Satyapal and Keshan, Tiwari alleged that the two had been “influenced” by the church. “They did go to the church, which was trying to convert them. Then they complained to the RSS and VHP,” he said. When ThePrint asked Keshan to weigh in, Tiwari asked him to leave the spot.
Asked about these conflicting claims, Fatehpur RSS pracharak Yogesh Kumar said that it was impossible for any RSS worker to have anything to do with conversions. “We initiate action against our own members if they are found indulging in any wrongful activities.”
Asked about the claims of Keshan and Satyapal, Amit Mishra, station house officer (SHO) of Kotwali police station, said their statements were false.
“A few days back, some 15-20 persons including women had visited them and threatened them. Their Aadhaar cards have been recovered,” he said.
Fatehpur SP Rajesh Kumar Singh also refuted the statements made by Keshan and Satyapal and said that they had complained of conversion by church members.
‘Framed’ says church, police disagree
Church members have alleged harassment at the hands of the VHP and Bajrang Dal, whose workers had surrounded the church on Maundy Thursday.
Notably, 23 of the churchgoers who were named in the April FIR are staff of Broadwell Christian Hospital, located about 500 metres from the church.
“The church is a registered society and the Evangelical Church of India is a big organisation. The conversion is a false allegation,” Dr Jesu Das, medical superintendent of the hospital told ThePrint. “All hospital employees had gone to the church for attending the prayers.”
He added that the arrests seemed “planned and orchestrated”.
“The way the police reached the church with its paraphernalia, so many jeeps and a huge force… everything was pre-meditated,” he said.
On the subject of the Aadhaar cards, Dr Jesu Das alleged that they were photoshopped. He claimed that in September, the hospital got a notice saying that three persons had given an affidavit saying that they had been converted and their Aadhaar cards were changed.
“We were told that three Hindu persons’ surnames had been changed to Samson. The body of all three affidavits was the same — a complete copy and paste. They served a notice to the hospital and asked our staff to come and give their statements,” Jesu said.
“I, our dental physician, a physician and another lab technician were called to police chowki. Our dental physician Vinay Kumar whose name was in the FIR was arrested and rest were let go. We asked the police how they could arrest Vinay when all had got bail but the police said that they had increased the sections of IPC,” Das said.
Dileep Chandra Trivedi, one of the lawyers of the defendant church members, told ThePrint, that there had been “no movement” in the probe after 16 April until October, when the Aadhaar cards surfaced.
According to him, the police have only submitted photocopies of these Aadhaar cards so far along with the affidavits of three persons named Rajesh Trivedi, Sanjay Singh, and Pramod Dixit.
Asked about the Aadhaar cards not being produced in court, SHO Mishra told ThePrint that he was not at liberty to speak about the ongoing investigation.
“Let them make allegations. Police is doing its investigation,” he said.
On Sunday, Fatehpur police arrested another person, identified as Johnson Jacob, whose mother works as a nurse at Broadwell Christian Hospital. They also claimed to have recovered another Aadhaar card of a convert named Sanjay Alpert Francis, a resident of Krishna Colony in Hariharganj. Between 30 October and 20 November, 15 members of the ECI have been arrested.
(Edited by Asavari Singh)
Also read: Punjab’s Dalits are shifting state politics, flocking churches, singing Chamar pride