It’s a bit of an open secret now that a vast majority of SC/STs in Andhra Pradesh have converted to Christianity in the last couple of decades. The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Andhra Pradesh lists its membership on its website as 3,000,000. That’s over 6% of the entire population of the state, listed as members of a single church. CM Jagan’s recent extending of monetary help to pastors in AP showed that there were nearly 30,000 pastors in AP, which seems to corroborate the suspicion that there are many more Christians in the state than official estimates might have us believe.
Although Christianity and missionaries have always had a strong presence in the state of Andhra, the large-scale ramping up of Christian conversions began under the populist mass leader and two-time CM YS Rajasekhara Reddy, Jagan’s father. He doled out freebies to pastors and invested crores in constructing new churches across the state. He appointed a known atheist (possibly Christian, since it is known that his daughter had a Christian wedding ceremony), B. Karunakar Reddy, to the post of TTD chairman (the head of the Devasthanam board of the Tirupati temple).
YSR aggressively advocated for the rights of converted SC/STs to keep their reservation status in public employment and education, thus creating a new breed of “crypto” Christians who, despite being Hindus on paper, were Christians in practice: a fact that rebel YSRCP (Jagan’s party) MP alluded to in his now-famous interview on a popular cable channel. In fact, 70% of pastors in the state allegedly hold caste certificates, which is unconstitutional if true, but not hard to believe as the State has been continuously lobbying for the issuance of SC ST certificates to converts that have been having trouble acquiring them.
“With YSR’s advent in 2004, evangelical activities increased alarmingly and mass conversions were witnessed in rural areas on a large scale. His open pandering to Church and missionaries emboldened evangelists to go all out in their conversion activities. They dared focus on Hindu pilgrimage sites such as Badrachalam, Simmachalam, Srisailam, Ahobilam, Mangalagiri, Kalahasthi, and didn’t spare Thirumala-Thirupathi! YSR aided the Church and missionaries in many ways”, said B.R. Haran, late Senior Journalist
During YSR’s tenure, Thirumala Thirupathi Devasthanams was always at the centre of controversy, from the appointment of his step-brother, a liquor baron as the Chairman, to horrific mismanagement, complete lack of transparency (that continues to this day), blatant politicization and abuse of power, misplacement of gold and jewellery, to sacrilege of the Tirumala Hills by allowing evangelical activities to run wild.
The state’s soft stance on conversion and the appeasement of a now-significant minority of Andhra Christians continued under Chandrababu Naidu’s TDP, a former ally of the NDA. Churches were built, missionaries were given free rein to operate across the state, and pastors’ salaries were increased. Jagan, though, has taken state assistance to the Christian populace to the extreme: financial aid for Jerusalem “yatras”, money for Christian weddings, and more money to pastors across the state. The Andhra state government even has an arm, the “State Christian Finance Corporation”, which oversees Christian welfare and public policy. The “Financial Assistance for the promotion of Christian Culture” is a scheme that this body implements.
In September 2020, YS Jagan’s government also unethically dissolved 2500 temple trusts across the state, citing a need for greater representation of the SC community in temple management. Although the move seems to have been made in good faith, it is anything but. Coupled with the GO that struck down the mandatory background check for trustees/board members (citing the excuse that background checks were “time-consuming”), the sinister plan to fill up prestigious temple trust positions with converted or crypto Christians has essentially been laid bare. Both these orders are in a blatant violation of the provisions of the Endowments Act of 1987 wherein hereditary trustees are to given a place on the trust or temple board, and non-Hindus may NOT be appointed to endowments positions or as trustees or as heads of Hindu religious institutions, and only “devout Hindus” must be given a place in Temple administrative positions.
In November 2020, YS Jagan also announced an increase in financial assistance offered to Christian pilgrims visiting Jerusalem and TEN other “Biblically significant” places from Rs 40,000 to Rs 60,000 (for those with annual income up to Rs 3 lakh), and from Rs 20,000 to Rs 30,000 (for those with annual income over Rs 3 lakh). The government also granted permission to Christian pilgrims availing the scheme to visit four additional places in Israel: the Madaba Church of the Apostles (Jordan), Virgin Mary Tomb, Solomon’s Temple and Mount Moriah.
Christianity has strong roots in Andhra Pradesh, and conversions to Christianity have been taking place in the state since the 18th century. But the ramping up of conversions, and their large-scale commercialization only began under the Congress government of YSR.
Dr Gautam Sen, a renowned academic and former professor at the London School of Economics described this phenomenon in late 2019 as “conversion by stealth”. He went on to assert that Jagan has proved himself to be an even stronger evangelist than YSR, and that prominent celebrities have joined the Christian fold and have been aiding in this mission (notably, the BJP recently inducted Christian TV and film actor Babu Mohan into their party).
In the light of recent attacks on Hindu temples, Dr Sen’s ominous suggestion that Christian conversions and their political and economic hegemony across Andhra through “church planting” (a phenomenon by which missionaries assert their authority through the rapid building of churches across geography, even in Hindu-majority areas) could lead to communal tensions and separatism now looks prophetic. Dr Sen has also analyzed the insidious measures by which conversion activities happen by stealth. Converts are told to hide their new faith by the Church, in order ensure that conversions can proceed uninterrupted and under the radar – even on a large scale, without setting off alarm bells within the Hindu community. The stealth is doubly beneficial, as the converts themselves can also retain their reservation benefits – creating a substantial section of “Crypto-Christians”, who can be seen in numerous Government positions (through the illegal use of reservations), including those on Temple boards/trusts where they have a clear conflict of interest, and avail schemes meant for both underprivileged castes and exclusively Christians.
A popular evangelical in AP, one “Pastor Praveen” (who has been arrested recently) was seen in a video boasting about having converted 600,000 people to Christianity in 2015 alone and claimed to have destroyed “tree” and “rock” images as “false gods” with the approval of locals. In a bid to raise funding abroad, he also admitted to having created 700 “Christ Villages”, where the entire village has been converted to Christianity. A frightening example of Christian intolerance to idolatry, which at least on the surface, seems to be manifesting itself today in the attacks on Hindu dharmasthalas across Andhra.