“Hello, is this helpline for real?”
“Will you really protect us from these people who are threatening me and my family because we are Christians?”
“The local ‘dabang’ has come and told me he will break my house if I hold another prayer meeting. They are accusing me of converting the villagers, but we were just praying for everyone…”
These are some of the panicked calls that volunteers attending the United Christan Forum’s toll-free helpline number: 1-800-208-4545 get from Christians across India. The helpline has received over 154 calls related to incidents of violence in 2021, the highest was January when 34 incidents were reported. Another high was in June when 28 such cases were reported. Then there are distress calls where the caller seeks advice on how to deal with threats and intimidation they are subjected to, because they are Chrstians, sometimes new to the faith. Almost all of them are too scared to approach the local police and report the harassment they face at the hands of right wing groups, and even from their neighbours and sometimes extended families who object to them practising Christianity.
“The relief in their voice when they talk to us is palpable. They often do not expect that someone will help them. Some even ask our coordinators to pray with them and give them emotional support,” a senior volunteer told SabrangIndia on condition of anonymity. The volunteers at this helpline are associated with various Christian Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and groups, and many are lawyers, and para-legal counsellors.
According to the volunteers, “There are more violent incidents taking place than the actual number reported”. The local strongmen keep an eye out if someone is making a prayer hall next to his home on his plot, they create an issue. If the Christians gather for prayers in the house there is harassment by right-wing groups active in the same village or town. “We know there are many incidents happening in Haryana and Gujarat, but hardly any are reported to us,” said the volunteer, adding that it is an uphill task to get the caller to file police complaints. “We counsel them in distress. We give them emotional and legal support. We tell them their legal rights and the benefits of filing an FIR.” Some victims do give a written complaint to the police, but not all of them get an acknowledgment. Some complain just verbally to the police. However, according to the UCF, complaints on record remain around 30 percent. All other complaints are a mere intimation to the police. The helpline conversations often begin with the caller sharing extreme distress. “Then we advise them to go file a complaint with the police and the importance of the FIR,” said the volunteer.
Do the victims know the process of filing a complaint?
No. Many do not even want to know or lodge a formal complaint even when counselled to do so, they do not want to get into the hassle. Many say they have to live in the same neighbourhood amidst the same people, so are just letting police know what has happened and hope it doesn’t happen again. “I have to work very hard to convince them. Not all of them are convinced. I tell them it is important to complain because it helps prevent attacks on others as these people are likely to go find new victims. I often fail to convince them. Many cite the Bible and tell me their faith teaches them to forgive those who torment them. Others tell me they fear that the people will become more aggressive,” shared the distress helpline coordinator. The callers often say “police may not take action on my complaint, but they [the attackers] will come to know I went to the police. They will then get more violent.” Some are also advised by their relatives or pastor associations not to get involved with the police. So that is what they do. Until the next attack, or acts of harassment are unleashed again.
Then they are forced to make an emergency call to the police. The distress calls to this helpline come from across India, for example, UCF recorded 22 incidents of violence against Christians in the past six months from Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, and 19 from Uttar Pradesh. Here most of the callers said they were attacked and accused of ‘conversion’ even though they were only holding prayer meetings, often in their own ‘house church’ a room or a shed earmarked for prayers. Those who attend are already believers. There is a pattern that the UCF volunteers have observed in places like Uttar pradesh. “The vandals come when the prayer meeting is on, beat up those praying and take them to the local police station,” said the coordinator adding, “Then it is alleged that the police keep the victims in the station, they reason that the angry crowds have to be calmed down. Sometimes they are charged under section 151 of the CrPc, which is on suspicion of breach of peace. A person cannot be detained for more than 24 hours here but we often are told of cases of illegal detentions which have gone beyond that. We have filed cases on behalf of many such people. The allegations of ‘conversions’ have been on the rise since last year. Since the anti-conversion law came into force.”
Most of the allegations are by local strongmen, neighbours, even some non Christian relatives of the victims and survivors. Most are provoked by ‘others’ who claim to be from right-wing groups. That is how the situation escalates.
Are the local issues involved?
In Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, tribal Christian families are often told they do not have a right on their own lands after they have converted to Christianity, said the volunteer. These families, often economically deprived, are told they can’t farm their own plots of land, or even harvest the produce they have tended. They are denied access to common drinking water wells. The worst is that they are denied even burials of their deceased family members in the common burial grounds of the community. This is mental harassment, however, “If they don’t agree, physical violence can also take place,” said the UCF member.
Similar patterns are also observed in Maharashtra. In Orissa many who are Christians are often told to leave the village. “There were hardly any calls from Odisha in the past, these have increased in the last six months or so. Their homes are also demolished. Recently our network has been strengthened and cases were obviously happening even before the news reached us,” he said.
In South India, the pattern of harassment is different, here “concerns” are raised over holding prayer meetings in house churches. “For example in Tamil Nadu there is a rule that if more than 50 people gather in your home, you must get permission from the authorities,” said the volunteers. Often it is the neighbours who object to ‘noise’ from the prayer meetings. There are also objections concerning land use and allegations of encroachment. “Often a notice of eviction or demolition is pasted on the house church, when two doors away a temple or even a mosque continue to function. The entire settlement / village is on the same land they say is government land. This is a common trend observed in Tamil Nadu and Telangana also,” said the volunteer.
According to a statement issued by UCF, around 152 incidents of mob attacks/violence were reported against Christians the past six months, 603 women were injured as well as 223 Tribals and 202 Dalits men and women. 18 incidents of damage to places of worship/ churches too were reported. Seven cases were filed under the Freedom of Religion Act so far this year. According to the UCF, “Though such laws in certain states have been in force since 1967 – over 50 years now – but till today, no one, not a single Christian has been convicted for forcing anyone to convert. Moreover, census after census have shown that Christian population remained 2.3 percent of India’s population of 136.64 Crores (2019).”
Are the victims of violence forced to compromise?
A ‘compromise’ or settlement is often what even the local police push for, said the volunteer, rather than registering an FIR. Many complainants agree when the police ‘advise’ them to forget and forgive “this one time” and promise action of the right wing groups to do anything again. “The police say ‘we will look into it’ so people feel assured and do not file a complaint.”
The helpline observed one such compromise even in Delhi, where a Gideons pastor who was reportedly distributing tracks (booklets or pamphlets with biblical teachings) was roughed up and taken to the local police station. “He was allowed to leave after a while, and then did not want to pursue the matter or file a case. Another local pastor made a written complaint but it was too weak a complaint. Some right wing groups had protested outside his place during Easter. The man had felt intimidated. The pattern is that the right wing groups carrying out the harassment often put their photos and videos on social media,” said the UCF team member.
Often the police at first instance also accuse the victims of “conversion”, said the volunteer who works closely with a team of lawyers. “We have asked the police if changing one’s religion is a crime, to which they suddenly change tracks and talk about forced conversion or conversion after luring people with promises of ‘benefits’,” he says. When reminded that they just said conversion, cops cite proof of Baptism. “But how is that forced conversion? Many such conversations happen. There is no proper definition of conversion, but the word is used to scare the victims themselves,” he said adding, “Counter FIRs are also filed. Even the procedure to convert for marriage is so complicated. It is called the Freedom of Religion Act, but its work is the opposite of freedom.”
Other states which are witnessing violence against Christians for their faith according to the helpline records are: Karnataka (17 cases reported), Madhya Pradesh (15), Odisha (12), Maharashtra (9), Tamil Nadu (6), Bihar (6), Andhra Pradesh (4), Uttarakhand (3), Delhi (3), Gujarat (2), Telangana (1), West Bengal (1), Assam (1) and Rajasthan (1). Over 1,137 calls were attended to at UCF helpline, the callers are then helped so that their grievances reach the concerned authorities. According to UCF, the team of lawyers helped obtain release of 84 persons from detention, and 29 places of worship were “reopened or continue to have prayer services”. However, only 18 FIRs could be registered against the violence perpetrators.
How can a victim of right-wing violence even file a complaint
“We do offer that help and information,” said the volunteer. Each call is recorded and shared with the various organisations involved in this helpline. There are legal experts, and the team supports the victims from the first step to filing a complaint to fighting their cases in court. They are assured all help and legal support is for free. The UCF calls are attended by para-legal counsellors who have been trained, they then direct the queries to the lawyers in the team, who will then give the legal advice. Cases are taken up by various lawyers according to the jurisdiction.
The UCF stated that its toll-free helpline number: 1-800-208-4545 was launched on January 19, 2015, “with the aim of upholding fundamental freedom and promotion of values of justice, liberty, equality and fraternity of India.”
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