Incited by false information on YouTube, a mob of hundreds of Hindu extremists last month threw stones that smashed through the glass of a Christian-run school in Madhya Pradesh, India where 12th-grade students were taking critical exams, sources said.
Shouting Hindu nationalist slogans like Jai Shri Ram (Victory to Lord Ram) and Bharat Mata Ki Jai (Hail mother India), 400 to 500 people with iron rods on Dec. 6 ransacked St. Joseph School in Ganj Basoda, Vidisha District, incited by false reports that school personnel were converting Hindu students to Christianity.
The assailants broke chairs and pots, damaged vehicles and threw stones that terrorized staff members and students during mathematics testing known as board exams that are key in the course of students’ academic lives and careers.
Some of the stones landed near the classroom where 16 students were taking the exams, said Bishop of Sagar Diocese James Athikalam, whose diocese includes the area where the school is located.
“Stones had reached near the classrooms, and the exam had to be stopped and the children shifted to a safer location where they could continue their exam,” Athikalam told Morning Star News.
School Principal Antony Pynumkal said the mob formed at noon at a site five minutes away.
“They made a big noise,” Pynumkal said. “They all together pushed the gate, and the lock of the gate broke, and they came inside. They had iron rods and stones, and once inside, they started to pelt stones. All the elevations of the school structure are made of glass. Teacher vehicles were also parked here, which they vandalized as well.”
The attack followed a YouTube post by a Hindu extremist group asserting two provocative falsehoods – that eight children baptized at St. Joseph Church in Ganj Basoda on Oct. 31 were Hindus, and that they were students at St. Joseph School.
“Not even a single child out of the eight was a student of St. Joseph,” said Pynumkal of the school run by Malabar Missionary Brothers about 65 miles from Bhopal, the state capital.
The parents of the children who were baptized are Catholics, according to police investigators.
“We have questioned the school and the church authorities and have found that parents of these children were also Christians,” Superintendent of Police Monica Shukla told online news outlet. “So, it doesn’t seem to be a matter of conversion”.
The outlet also quoted Vidisha Sub-Divisional Officer of Police Bharat Bhushan Sharma as saying, “In our preliminary investigation, we have found that these allegations of conversions are false…We are investigating further.”
The school has about 1,500 total students from pre-school to 12th grade, with only four Catholics among those in grades nine through 12, said Pynumkal. Except for seven or eight Muslim students, all other students are Hindus, and all the teachers are Hindus except for two Christians and one Muslim, he said.
On Dec. 3, a nine-minute video was uploaded to the YouTube channel Aayudh, which is run by three people who belong to the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) – Ashutosh Bhargava, Ankit Sharma and Saurabh Kumar – alleging that “Vidisha’s biggest school was under the grip of the conversion mafia.”
The video said of the eight children baptized on Oct. 31 that, by “sprinkling a few drops of water on the children, their culture and identity were changed within two minutes.”
As the video proliferated, on Dec. 4 local Hindu nationalist groups Ahirwar Samaj, Shri Maharana Rajput Samiti and Kayasth Samaj of Ganj Basoda wrote to the Vidisha District collector alleging that eight Hindu children who studied at the school were converted on Oct. 31. The letter urged the district collector to act against the school or else the Hindu community would resort to “violent protests,” for which the administration would be responsible.
The video featured a letter to the National Commission for Protecting Child Rights (NCPCR) alleging that the Diocese of Sagar was involved in converting poor children through its orphanages. Former RSS preacher Vinay Joshi, who lives in Ratnagiri, Maharashtra state, 751 miles from Ganj Basoda, made the accusation in a Nov. 15 letter to the NCPCR.
While naming 16 institutes of the diocese, Joshi included the baptism and subsequent taking of Holy Communion by the eight children at St. Joseph Church. Joshi directs the Legal Rights Observatory (LRO), an organization The New York Times recently identified as a channel through which scores of complaints against Christian charities have been filed, “starving them of funds and shutting many down.”
In response to Joshi’s letter, NCPCR Chairman Priyank Kanoongo wrote to the district collector of Vidisha on Nov. 24 directing him to investigate the institutions run by the Diocese of Sagar, identify the eight children and produce them before the Child Welfare Committee. He also directed him take into consideration the Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, better known as the anti-conversion law, and take the necessary legal action.
The letter directed the collector to submit an Action Taken Report to the NCPCR within seven days.
Kanoongo also is closely associated with the RSS, and the NCPCR under his watch “has been accused of furthering the ruling regime’s political vendetta,” according to human rights activist and former administrative service officer Harsh Mander. Kanoongo has also made headlines raiding Christian hostels and orphanages, accusing the authorities of those institutions of religious conversion. On Nov. 8 Kanoongo led a raid at the Christian Missionary Girls Hostel in Raisen, Madhya Pradesh, alleging that children were being converted.
The NCPCR on Dec. 12 also filed a First Information Report against a children’s home run by the Missionaries of Charity, an organization started by Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Mother Teresa, under Section 295 (A) of the amended Gujarat Freedom of Religion Act, 2003 (Anti-conversion law). Within days of the filing of the FIR, the government of India rejected the Missionaries of Charity’s renewal application under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA), casting the future of its entire operation into doubt.
Police have reportedly arrested 14 people in connection with the attack; all have been released on bail.
The mob gathered after a message circulated on social media app WhatsApp inviting readers to participate in a “protest.” Translated from the Hindi, the message urged recipients to “meet and encircle St. Joseph School staging our protest against the school that is involved in religious conversion” and was signed by the Hindu nationalist group, “Vishwa Hindu Parishad-Bajrang Dal.”
Principal Pynumkal told Morning Star News that he received this message from a school staff member on the evening of Dec. 5 and immediately met with local police.
“Though the police station in charge assured me of police protection, no police force was deployed at the school the next morning,” Pynumkal said.
The school also sought help from Catholic leaders who also met with police and received assurances of protection that did not materialize, he said.
“The mob entered our campus at 12:15 or 20, and till 12:50 they were here – during that time, the police were not here” except for two policemen who arrived after the mob reached the campus, Pynumkal said.
By the time the mob left, only four or five policemen are seen in the CCTV footage, he said.
“If you see the CCTV footage, you will see the policemen as mere spectators standing and staring at the mob pelting stones, breaking and damaging the school property,” Pynumkal told an Indian news media outlet. “It feels like they are watching a movie. The policemen did nothing. From 10 a.m. I started to call the SP [Superintendent of Police] and the Inspector, but nobody was picking up the phone.”
Pynumkal had also approached local police in November seeking protection from the end of November until after mid-December, when board examinations were taking place. Police did not show up, he said.
Of the 14 people arrested, four have reportedly been identified as members of the Bajrang Dal and the rest as members of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Council of Hindus), both Hindu nationalist groups.
They have been charged under Indian Penal Code sections against punishment for rioting, rioting armed with a deadly weapon and mischief causing damage in the amount of 50 rupees.
Pynumkal said the assailants were youths that were not local except for few.
“The mob had come with clear instructions,” Pynumkal said. “Soon after they vandalized the school and caused whatever damage they could to the school and its infrastructure in 30 minutes, they immediately left. They vanished/disappeared as the mob automatically left the premises. They had received instructions. It was all pre-planned.”
No action has been taken against YouTube channel Aayudh. Fact-finding website Altnews.com reported that Aayudh uploaded another video on Dec. 6, calling it a ground report on the day of the attack in which its reporter took credit for reporting “on the alleged conversions that led the Hindu community to take to the streets.”
Aayudh uploaded a similar video the next day accusing the school of running an “illegal conversion racket.”
Also motivating the attack, Pynumkal said, was a local election scheduled for Thursday (Jan. 6).
“They want to create an issue to get benefit,” he said. “Otherwise, they knew that no conversion was taking place. The Holy Communion was taking place in the church, it was not in the school. They knew everything, yet they attacked the school. And now the election dates have been postponed.”
Athikalam of Sagar Diocese said that false propaganda is commonly spread against Christianity for political purposes.
“Feeding the people with the wrong idea of nationalism, the wrong idea of Hinduism, and igniting them for political mileage is what they do,” Athikalam said. “Young people were hired. Out of all the people who stoned, some might not even know why they were stoning.”
The hostile tone of the National Democratic Alliance government, led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, against non-Hindus, has emboldened Hindu extremists in several parts of the country to attack Christians since Prime Minister Narendra Modi took power in May 2014, religious rights advocates say.
India ranked 10th on Christian support organization Open Doors’ 2021 World Watch List of the countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian, as it was in 2020. The country was 31st in 2013, but its position worsened after Modi came to power.