Three Indian evangelists were arrested on Saturday (3 October) in Satna district, in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, accused of violating the state’s anti-conversion law after Hindu nationalists stirred up trouble when the evangelists were invited to Motawa village by a local Christian to show a film.
“They converted two people by offering 5,000 rupees [£50; €68; US$76; AU$ 107; NZ$118],” said police officer Khem Singh. “One of them complained to us. Subsequently, all three were arrested from a local school while they were holding preaching sessions on Saturday night.” Police seized the Christians’ projectors, CDs, and their mobile phones.
Those who complained to police were members of the Hindu nationalist organisation Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP). According to the police, there are ten more who may have converted, and officers are yet to record their statements.Police have accused the men of violating Sections 3 and 4 of the Madhya Pradesh Dharm Swatantrya Adhiniyam (Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 1968), which ban conversions “from one religious faith to another by the use of force or by allurement or by any fraudulent means”. Anyone found guilty of violating the law can face up to three years in prison and a fine of 50,000 rupees (£500; €680; US$760; AU$1070; NZ$1180).
Madhya Pradesh is one of six Indian states where “freedom of religion” laws have been implemented to varying degrees. Although they are dressed up to look like protective measures, they can be easily misused to prevent legitimate Christian evangelism, and in practical terms they are concerned only with conversion from Hinduism to another faith and not the reverse.
According to the 1968 Act, any person involved in the conversion of someone from one religion to another must then “send an intimation to the District Magistrate of the district in which the ceremony has taken place of the fact of such conversion in such form as may be prescribed”. In 2006, this was changed so that in the state of Madhya Pradesh, anyone involved in the conversion of someone from one religion to another must inform the local administration in advance of any conversion ceremony. But, said police officer Khem Singh, “they did not inform the collector before converting locals”.
Police have also accused the men of breaking Section 295 A of the Indian Penal Code against “injuring or defiling place of worship with intent to insult the religion of any class”.
The three men arrested were 40-year-old Stephen Rajkumar, 20-year-old Harilal and 28-year-old Anil Kumar, all of whom worked for a Christian non-government organisation (NGO) called Gospel Echoing Missionary Society. The organisation, committed mainly to the spread of Christianity in India’s northern states, has been working there for over 40 years.
One of those arrested, Stephen Rajkumar, had previously been kidnapped and beaten for his missionary work.