“Shaadi ki taarikh tali hai bas, shaadi ruk nahi gayi hai (the wedding date has just been postponed, it hasn’t been called off),” says Satprakash Navman, convenor of the Aligarh unit of the Dharam Jagaran Manch in Aligarh, about the “ghar vapasi” programme that was called off by the RSS.
“Our focus is now on Christians, but we will not leave anyone. We will target Muslims after this. Over the last 20 years, we have reconverted at least a lakh people in Brij Pradesh alone, the part of UP which has Mathura, Lord Krishna’s birthplace,” he goes on to boast.
With the administration flexing its muscles and the protests by a section of civil society taking effect, the Christmas Day event had to be put off but the VHP, Bajrang Dal and its ilk say ‘ghar vapasi’ events will be back and in a not-so-distant future. “We will now stand outside churches and watch for any Hindus coming out on Christmas,” says Navman. “We know the Hindus in the areas we work. We will catch hold of any Hindu who comes out of the church on Christmas and report them to the district administration.” The aim is to ensure that “no Hindus convert” to Christianity. The fact that many Hindus, and possibly Muslims, attend the service, especially on Christmas eve, with no intentions of getting converted does not seem to have crossed his mind.
Bhagvati Prasad Bhagla says he became a Christian in 1987, after having spent 40 of his 65 years as a Hindu. “We Dalits were never Hindus. If we were, they wouldn’t treat us the way they did. Would anyone torture their own people?” Son of a safai karmachari, he recalls spending most of his childhood sweeping the streets on behalf of his mother who was frequently ill. “I was barely 12 but I remember the day vividly. A little girl, less than five years old, strayed to the middle of the road when I was sweeping one morning and I carried her to the side. The abuses hurled at me by her mother and other neighbours, the way the girl’s clothes were taken off and she was bathed to cleanse her...I’ll never forget it,” he remembers.
Nothing has changed today, he says. Samana Para, where Bhagla lives, is largely populated by Balmikis. His family is one of the 10 families that have turned Christians. The rest, he says, still believe in Hindu gods. “When we call neighbours to our house during a festival, they do not come. Instead, they call us to eat their leftovers,” he says, tears welling up. “I don’t know what crime we have committed. These Bajrang Dal boys constantly threaten us, telling us we are traitors for having abandoned Hinduism.”
It is a newly whitewashed room in the narrow lanes of Samana Para lined by open drains which Pastor Fazal Masih wants to convert into a church. “We have recently rented this room for Rs 2,000 a month to set up a church. This is because the closest church now is several kilometres from here. But we are very scared that it will be damaged or burnt down,” he says.
Although no direct attempts at forced reconversion have taken place so far, the constant threats and abuse along with media reports of the imminent ‘ghar vapasi’ in the city have left a majority of the Christian converts, primarily Dalits and other backward castes, extremely anxious. “We have heard so many instances of pastors being beaten up by the VHP around Aligarh, we are scared to even sing the hymns out loud sometimes,” says Bhagla.
“If the government does not want us to conduct ghar vapasi, they should pass the anti-conversion law. The Hindus will benefit most from it,” says Ajju Chauhan, co-convenor of the Bajrang Dal in Agra. He says it’s easy to identify targets for reconversions. “A little cajoling and they reveal the caste of their ancestors...95 per cent of the Muslims and Christians were earlier Hindus after all. Once they reveal their caste, we can assign them their rightful place in the Hindu fold,” says Ajju, adding that “we never force anyone, we only talk to them with love.”
Many in the Christian and Muslim community feel the ghar vapasi threats is just a strategic ploy to ensure that the anti-conversion law is passed. “Ghar vapasi is not a new phenomenon. For decades, this has been taking place but was limited to tribal belts in central India. However, now it’s planned with much hullabaloo and has spread across the country. It’s all for political gains,” says UP Christian Association general secretary R.K. Chhettree.
“Don’t take my picture while I look like this. You can use my photo with the tilak, it’s become famous these days,” says Ajju. It’s a cold winter morning and he’s in a monkey cap and shawl at his modest house in Agra. Ajju lives a stone’s throw away from the Ved Nagar slum where he conducted the ‘ghar vapasi’ for 250 Muslims. It’s his claim to fame now, nearly two decades after he joined the Bajrang Dal as an 18-year-old. A property dealer by day, Ajju is proud of his Hindutva leanings. “When a Hindu converts, both his ideology, nationality change. If we have to save the country, we need to reconvert our floundering brothers,” he says gravely.
The rhetoric is the same when Outlook meets the Bajrang Dal ‘security chief’ in Aligarh. In a leather jacket and brown aviators, Dharam Veer Lodha alights from a white Scorpio in front of an under-construction power house in Khawrsi, on the outskirts of Aligarh city. Besides safeguarding temples and cattle as a Bajrang volunteer, Lodha, an engineer by profession, supervises the construction of the power plant. “Our phones are tapped, we are under surveillance and the state is putting pressure on us, but we will continue our work,” he says.
Newspaper reports say certain villages in Meerut are the new targets for reconversions. Maliana, a nondescript village 10 km from Meerut city, where several Dalit families converted to Christianity some decades ago, is one such. However, the pastor of the ‘Believers Church’ (the only one in the village), Krishna Paul, says, “The police came here too after reading the reports. But here, and across Meerut, we haven’t faced any direct threats.”
Interestingly, neither Lodha, Ajju nor the several other Bajrang Dal workers Outlook met could produce even one of the thousands they claim to have ‘reconverted’ in the past several months. “This is all of the information I have. I do not know about the people we have reconverted in Aligarh, neither do I have a clear picture of where the 4,000 people we are going to reconvert are coming from,” admits Lodha.
Yet, Sangh parivar outfit members continue to pose for the media and reiterate their commitment to ghar vapasi. “Our strength and volunteer support is only growing day after day. We now have at least 150 volunteers working in every district. Despite the hurdles, we will continue our activities across the country,” proclaims Navman.
By Pavithra S. Rangan in Agra, Aligarh and Meerut