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In Punjab, a jump from 1.5% to a possible 15% in Christianity raises demographic change worries, the biggest problem being ‘stealth’ conversions

The identity crisis faced by the Christian converts was pointed out in February as well. AAP leader Rohit Khokkar, who was previously associated with BSP, had told Indian Express that 98% of the Christians in Punjab were converts. He had also embraced Christianity but did not let go of his caste identity for obvious reasons.

On September 6, a report was published by article 14 on Christian conversions and alleged attacks on pastors in Punjab. Despite subtly acknowledging that conversion is on the rise in the state of Punjab, the author tried to water down the rampant conversions and blamed the state for coming up with the laws that criminalised forced religious conversions. To understand the situation and how Article 14’s report missed the actual situation in Punjab, it is essential to counter a few misleading facts mentioned.

The report started with the introduction of one pastor Raju Rangila who hails from Gurdaspur and claims to be among the first pastors in Punjab who recorded gospels in Punjabi. Pastor Rangila owns a bungalow in village Dhariwal, located 13 KM southwest of Gurdaspur, Punjab. He holds events for the people who “want to learn about Jesus Christ” six days a week in the hall of his bungalow that can easily accommodate 100 people.

Now the interesting part of the report was that they categorically mentioned that Raju Rangila was not the only one in the area who had a Church. There are dozens of such “independent” and “home” churches where the “pastors” spread the words of “Jesus Christ”. Quoting George Soni, president of the Punjab Christians United Front, the report noted, “Tough to put a number on it as we do not have lists of all such churches, but I would say there has been a 5-10% increase in the past three years.”

Here, Soni talked only about the past three years and said that the number of Christians has increased by 5% to 10% in that area itself. Such small churches are unaccounted for in any government records and often attract people, notably from the Dalit community and mazhabi Sikhs community, to join Christianity.

As per the 2011 census that Article 14’s report mentioned repeatedly, there were only 1.5% Christians in Punjab, almost a similar number of Muslims was recorded, Hindus were almost 36%, and the remaining over 60% were Sikhs in the state. However, in the past 12 years since the last census was released, the demographic change has happened at a drastic level in the state. The number of Christians, no matter whether they call themselves Christians on paper or not, has increased at a very alarming rate.

Thanks to pastors like Raju Rangila, Bajinder Singh, Ankur Narula, Deepti and others, a number of Dalits from both the Hindu and Sikh community have converted to Christianity. There have been several videos of these pastors making rounds on social media platforms where they could be seen indulging in superstitious ‘healing’ activities in front of lakhs of people in every meeting.

However, Article 14 nowhere raised the alarm over this. Another interesting aspect of the report was a statement of 46-year-old Monty Singh, who visited the Church of Signs and Wonders in Khambra village of Jalandhar, who is a regular churchgoer. Interestingly, Monty Singh is still a Sikh on paper, but speaking to Article-14, he said, “Even though I am Sikh on paper, I feel Christian at heart.”

In simple words, Monty Singh has already converted to Christianity but did not reveal the conversion on paper. There is a high possibility that Monty Singh would lure other Hindus and Sikhs from his neighbourhood to join him for Sunday Mass and try to convince them to “join the fold”. This is any way how they convert people to Christianity. First, a family gets converted, then they convert four others and then the four new Christian families would convert four new families. It is like a multilevel marketing scheme but involves religious conversions.

Another 22-year-old churchgoer named Happy Kaur also mentioned in the report that she has a family of 11, and all go to Church. These 11 people have also retained their caste certificates. Kaur knows if she reveals her conversion on papers, her caste privileges or the benefits like reservation would be stripped from them. People like Kaur are converts. They do not believe in Hinduism or Sikhism and only have faith in Christianity. They will happily go out and spread the words of Jesus Christ but do not tell the government that they have converted in order to retain the privilege.

With such worrying details emerging from Punjab, where Sikhs and Hindus are converting to Christianity but retaining their original name and even caste certificate if they are Dalit, the issue of “reservation for Dalit Christians” becomes far more worrying. Essentially, it is evident that there is not only rampant conversion in Punjab but stealth is being employed to ensure that the real percentage of Christians remains unknown. On top of that, Dalit Hindus who convert to Christianity and have no faith in Hinduism are retaining their caste certificate to get benefits from the state. If Dalit Christians are given reservation, it would only act as an incentive for more such nefarious activity to take place.

The growing number of churches worried Sikh and Hindu leaders

Hindu organisations like Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal have been voicing against the rampant conversions in Punjab for a long time. Initially, Dalits were getting converted at a mass scale, and Sikh leaders were not bothered that much. The situation took a drastic change in the last 2-3 years after videos of several Pastors dressed as Sikhs started circulating on social media platforms, and locally, it became visible that Sikhs, especially Mazhabi Sikhs or Dalit Sikhs, were converting to Islam.

Last year, Shri Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) announced a program to put a stop to the rampant conversion in the state, but the Sikh leadership has not achieved much in breaking the chain. A point that Article 14 raised linked to the statements given by Sikh leaders was that there had been an alleged increase in attacks on pastors and churches. Local Sikh bodies and Nihang Sikhs have clashed with Christian missionaries, which was highlighted in the Article 14 report.

The reality is different from what has been projected. In general, no one has any problem with any religious program happening in Punjab. I am from Punjab and have seen events happening in harmony for a long time. The issue started with missionary programs mushrooming in areas where no Christians live, or the number of Christians is almost negligible.

Article 14 specifically pointed out a May 2022 incident where locals had stopped a Christian event in Zirakpur. OpIndia had exclusively covered the event, and Article 14 linked the source as the video published by one of the church members who had recorded the whole incident. There are a few points that need to be considered.

First of all, though they had permission from the local administration, the residents of Green City, Mamata Enclave and Laxmi Enclave surrounding the location of the event were not informed, or permission from the residents’ association was not sought. There was not even a single person from these three localities who were part of the event. All of them were outsiders that raised red flags.

The local BJP leaders and Hindu organisation members, along with the residents, resisted the Christian event, and they got irked when they found out that the pastor was using a car with Police written on it. The car allegedly belonged to an on-duty Police officer who was a member of the Church. Using such a car was against the law, and the BJP leader demanded action against them and stopped the car from being removed. It was allowed to go only after Police issued a challan and promised action.

Article 14 report mentioned that the pastor was allegedly attacked in this incident. As someone who was present at the scene the whole time, I can say that it was completely false. No one was attacked by the Church. In fact, female members of the Church were sent in front of the car to push the BJP leader, of which we have the video proof.

In other cases as well, like the recent case of Village Daduana, it was reported that the local Sikh leaders have been complaining to the administration against the Christian events and said people were forcefully converted. The Nihang Sikhs swung into action only after the administration failed to take any action on the complaint of the locals against the Church.

Demographic change on and off the paper is a concern for all communities

Article 14’s report said the attacks on the Church are based on the “conspiracy theories” of the demographic change, similar in other states. They mentioned 2011 data as the source that demographic change was just a conspiracy theory, but the report itself has contradictory statements. First, the report mentioned there is an increase in small churches in rural areas.

Secondly, George Soni himself said while speaking to Article 14, “If we make a list of all the members of major churches, we can approximately say that up to 15% of Punjab are Christians.” If he is to be believed, only in 11 years did the number of Christians go from just 1.5% to a whopping 15%, but it is still not an alarming change in demography as per Article 14. Notably, most of these 15% are converts, and it cannot be confidently said how many more have not said publicly that they have shunned their previous faith and accepted Christianity just to ensure they keep getting caste benefits.

Emanuel Nahar, chairman of Punjab’s Minority Commission, has said in a statement that the official number of Christians remains low because the Dalit Sikhs do not formally convert to Christianity but continue going to Church.

The identity crisis faced by the Christian converts was pointed out in February as well. AAP leader Rohit Khokkar, who was previously associated with BSP, had told Indian Express that 98% of the Christians in Punjab were converts. He had also embraced Christianity but did not let go of his caste identity for obvious reasons.

Rohit Khokhar said that these people don’t even want to convert officially because they get the benefits of reservation while sticking to the original faith, at least on paper. He further added, “If there is some issue of religious persecution, a person will vote as a Christian. If there is some Dalit rights issue, they may vote as Dalit.” In the end, the vote was not going to the matters related to development in the region but to matters related to caste or religion.

Dalit Sikhs are stuck in the conversion traps for a “better life”

But why do Sikhs convert to Christianity? The reason is the caste system that is much prevailed in Sikhism as well. Most of the “Dalit Sikhs” or Mazhabi Sikhs accepted Sikhism with the hope of getting better treatment from their fellow Sikhs from the Jat community. However, things did not turn out well in their favour, and until recently, there were reports that Dalit Sikhs have separate Gurudwaras, and they are often not allowed to Gurudwaras managed by Jat Sikhs. Details about Dalit Sikhs can be read here.

Ayodhra Ram Mandir special coverage by OpIndia

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B.Sc. Multimedia, a journalist by profession.

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