NEW DELHI – Members of Hindu extremist groups in recent weeks have expressed disapproval over the Christmas festival, sending threats to schools and condemning it as a forced conversion to Christianity.
In India, a nation of overwhelmingly Hindu population, Christians make up only 2.3 percent of its 1.21 billion people, according to the 2011 census.
But the country has embraced, with certain enthusiasm, the globalized image of Christmas with lit-up trees and men in red caps and long, white beards.
Several extremist sections in the country, however, consider the celebrations disguised proselytizing.
During Christmas celebrations, Christianity is publicized and spread,” Munna Kumar Sharma, secretary general of the extremist Hindu party Akhil Bharat Hindu Mahasabha, told EFE.
Another radical Hindu group, Hindu Jagran Manch, recently created a stir in the country by sending threats to schools in different cities in the state of Uttar Pradesh not to celebrate Christmas.
The head of the Hindu Jagran Manch, Raja Tripathi, has eventually moderated his tone and told EFE that they are not against Christians celebrating Christmas, but “Hindu students should not be forced to participate in the celebrations.”
Similar anti-Christmas incidents also occurred in the states of Rajasthan (west) and Madhya Pradesh (center), all of them major support bases of the Hindu nationalist party BJP, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
India’s opposition has accused Modi of harboring these extremist groups, who are emboldened behind the shield of the BJP.
On Dec. 20, in Rajasthan’s Pratapgarh district, members of Hindu outfits, Bajrang Dal and Vishwa Hindu Parishad, violently interrupted a Christmas event, claiming a forceful conversion of Hindus to Christianity was taking place.
A police investigation however ruled out this claim, according to Indian Express newspaper.
A week earlier, on the outskirts of Satna, in Madhya Pradesh, the incident was more serious.
On Dec. 14, a Catholic priest George Mangalapilly, another priest and 32 seminarians were singing carols in several villages before being attacked by the Hindu radicals of the Bajrang Dal group.
Mangalapilly told EFE that he and his group were taken away by the police in what appeared to be an attempt to protect them, but instead of taking them to the St. Ephrem seminary, they were taken to a police station.
“When we reached the police station, they threatened us and even beat some of us,” said the priest.
He added that seven priests who went to the police station to secure their release were also held and their car burned by a mob outside.
A man, who according to Mangalapilly was related to the extremists, claimed that he had been forcefully converted, which is a crime in Madhya Pradesh with a penalty of up to two years in prison and a fine of up to 10,000 rupees ($156).
“He said we had baptized him, and given him 5,000 rupees, a rosary and a Bible. Later they asked him who had done it and he pointed to me, because I was among the senior ones and could speak the local language,” Mangalapilly said.
Finally, they were released following pressure from the upper echelons of the Catholic community, although he was released on bail and had to appear before a court.
“The violence perpetrated by groups who claim to be ‘nationalists’ and have taken upon themselves the mantle of protecting ‘nationalism’ and ‘religion’ is disgraceful,” said the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India in a statement issued after the incident.
Tushar Gandhi, activist and great grandson of Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi, sought to take the extremists head on.
“Any School wishing to celebrate Christmas in their school I volunteer to be Santa Claus. We must stand up to the Right Wing Thugs,” he tweeted.