“In today’s age, can anyone force someone to convert to another religion?” asks Balchandra Jaysawar. A driver from Jaunpur district, Mr. Jaysawar was among three persons arrested by the Azamgarh police in December on charges of trying to convert Hindus, including a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) office-bearer, to Christianity through allurement. After spending more than three weeks in jail, Mr. Jaysawar was granted bail by an Additional Sessions Court and released on Friday. “If anyone is selling an item and I don’t want to buy it, can he force me to buy it? But for humanity and love, he can pray for someone or help them,” he told The Hindu , refuting all charges.
The Uttar Pradesh Police have so far lodged at least 17 cases under the Uttar Pradesh Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Ordinance, 2020. While 14 of them relate to inter-personal relationships, marriages and alleged elopement specifically involving Hindu women and Muslim men, the ordinance is not restricted to just the bogey of “love jihad”. In at least three cases — Azamgarh, Shahjahanpur and Gautam Buddha Nagar — the ordinance has also been slapped against Hindus and Christians on charges of allegedly alluring people to convert to Christianity. In two such cases, the complainants are directly linked to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)-BJP.
In Azamgarh, an FIR was lodged under Sections 3 and 5 of the ordinance, along with Sections 504 and 506 of the Indian Penal Code on December 20, on the complaint of Ashok Yadav, Gorakhpur “regional mantri (minister)” of the BJP. Along with Mr. Jaysawar, Gopal Prajapati of Varanasi and Neeraj Kumar of Azamgarh were named in the FIR, in which Mr. Yadav alleged that the three men had come to the house of one Tribhuvan Yadav in Dih Kaithauli village with the intent of converting Hindus to Christianity under the garb of a prayer meet.
Mr. Yadav alleged that the group had already converted scores of people and distributed religious material over four days when he intervened. He claims to have found out about the prayer meet when he spotted the group praying outside under the sun due to the cold. “When I went to inquire, they asked me to join the prayer and to convert and leave Hinduism. When I refused, they abused and threatened me. I then called the other villagers,” Mr. Yadav said. He said he did not receive any monetary allurement but claims, without any proof, that others did.
Mr. Jaysawar as well as the family that hosted him dismiss all this as a lie. Though he describes himself as a Hindu, and Dalit by caste, he claims to have faith in Jesus and says he had been invited to the house of Tribhuvan Yadav, a security guard in neighbouring Mau, to conduct a prayer service for the wellness and peace of the family and the village. “We didn’t change their religion, but only speak of changing hearts,” he said.
Lali, Mr. Tribhuvan Yadav’s wife, says she invited the accused to her house for “ prarthna (prayer)” to deepen her “knowledge” about Jesus and his healing powers, in which she firmly believes. She rejects the allegations of unlawful conversion, but like several such individuals in these parts, has complicated religious beliefs. “We were only listening to katha s (stories) of Jesus Christ and sermons from the Bible. All our trouble, sorrow and illness disappeared due to him,” she said. But she adds, “We haven’t changed our [Hindu] religion, caste, clothing or food habits.”
While granting bail to Mr. Jaysawar, Mr. Prajapati and Mr. Kumar, the three accused in the Azamgarh case, a local court noted that through the case diary, it was clear that the Investigating Officer had not recorded the statement of the witness family.
Mr. Kumar, who works as a construction labourer in Kolhapur, says he was visiting his in-laws’ house in the village when he decided to meet the family of Tribhuvan Yadav, with whom his wife had friendly ties. “Even I sat there to listen to the prayer for a few minutes…there was no religious conversion going on,” he said. He claims he did not know the other two accused and only met them in jail. “I am a Hindu Rajbhar (Other Backward Class or OBC),” he said, when asked what religion he followed.
In Surajpur, Gautam Buddha Nagar, police arrested four persons including three women — one of them a South Korean national by the name of Minkaygali alias Anmol — on charges of using enticement to convert people to a different religion. The three other accused were identified as Seema, Sandhya and Umesh Kumar of Prayagraj. They were also booked under Section 295a of the IPC in the FIR lodged on December 19.
The complainant Anita Sharma, who worked as a security guard in a private firm but had to leave her job due to illness, says the accused persons had approached her during the lockdown and helped her with rations and ₹7,000. All was fine till the accused started inviting her to a temporary church in Malakpur every weekend, even sending a car to pick her up, and offered her more money and rations if she removed the images of Hindu gods and goddesses from her house, Ms. Sharma alleged.
“And if you convert, you will get ₹10 lakh, they promised,” she added. “When I didn’t go to them, they would come to my house without my consent. I told them I will not convert. I am from the Pandit jaat (a Hindu Brahmin). How can I change my religion? I will beg to survive but not change my religion.”
The bail plea of the accused in this case is listed for hearing in a local court on January 20.
In Shahjahanpur, five persons, including two Christians originally from Tamil Nadu and two Dalits, were booked under the ordinance on the complaint of Ram Lakhan Verma, a city convenor of the Bajrang Dal, on allegations that they were trying to lure him and others into converting into Christianity with the promise of jobs and free education for children. However, the accused dismissed the charges and said that they were only participating in a musical prayer service in a marriage lawn on January 3 to mark the first Sunday of the New Year. The accused were also thrashed by members of the right-wing outfit. However, no arrests were made in the case.
At least 54 persons have been arrested and over 90 persons booked, most of them Muslims, under the ordinance since it was promulgated in November 2020.