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VHP drive for mass conversion

Lucknow, Feb. 18: Reconversion is back in focus after a VHP-affiliated outfit organised a 'purification camp' for Dalit and extremely backward caste Christians in western Uttar Pradesh this week, reports our special correspondent.

Over 3,000 people from more than 17 villages of Etah district have been reconverted to Hinduism over a period of time, prompting Aloke Sinha, principal secretary, home department, to seek a report from the district administration. Even Christian prayer halls, 14 of them across the 17 villages, have been reportedly taken over and converted into schools for Dalits.

On February 13, the Dharma Raksha Samity organised the 'purification camp' in the villages where the reconverts were allowed to return to temples after being washed in the Ganga and made to sit for a special puja. Yagnas, too, were organised for them to offer prayers.

The organisation has been holding camps and educating villagers about the need to return to their 'mother religion'.

Their return to the Hindu fold was necessary as 'they had been lured by Christians into giving up the religion and adopt the foreign faith' through offers of financial security, said Mohan Joshi, state secretary of the VHP, under whose supervision the reconversion took place.

But they neither achieved financial security nor social prestige and ended up alienated from the legacy of Hinduism, Joshi said.

'It is wrong to campaign that we ever converted (people). These Dalits had embraced Christianity on their own, impressed by our faith,' Father Prakash said on behalf of Father Robert Pinto of the Lucknow diocese.

The latter's office issued a subdued reaction to the entire episode.

'We have instructed our community men,' Father Prakash said, 'to exercise restraint in the face of provocation from any other rival organisation.'

Over 500 heads of reconverted families were invited to a public reception in Etah town by the VHP on February 15.

Most of them, belonging to the Dalit community and extremely backward castes as mentioned in Annexure 1 of the Constitution, had embraced Christianity about a decade ago, according to district officers.

'These people have been vulnerable to change of religion because of endemic poverty,' an officer at Etah said.

The VHP allegedly offered incentives --- like loans for opening shops --- to these residents of villages such as Kasona, Bhojpur, Gopalpur, Kachpura, Kheda, Vasudhara, Faridpur, Puraon, Fapatu, Bijori, Sirsat, Appu, Bamhai, Mobri, Tolabar, Balram, Viswya.

Joshi claimed that the reconverts had each signed an affidavit, saying they returned to Hinduism without any coercion.

Christian missionaries alleged that the poor Dalits and extremely backward caste people were pressured to sign the affidavits. Community leaders in Etah are refusing to react reportedly for fear of retaliation by the VHP.

District magistrate R.P. Shukla today ordered an inquiry into the incident. 'I have asked for a report,' he said. 'All we have to find out is if the VHP had informed us and if there was any element of coercion.'

Religious conversion, he added, was a matter of personal decision and religious freedom a fundamental right.

Sources said saffron flags now flutter in the air outside the 14 prayer halls, mostly made of mud with a Cross on their doors and ceramic images of Christ inside.

The priests who used to conduct Mass in these halls have also allegedly been converted and asked to act as teachers in the schools.

The reconverts, said witnesses to the 'purification', had a tattoo of a Cross on their hands earlier but now bear an 'Om'.

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