Several incidents of religious intimidation were reported on the evening of the “Pran Pratistha” ceremony of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh. On January 21, a group of Hindu activists climbed onto the roofs of four churches in the Jhabua district of Madhya Pradesh and planted saffron flags, a symbol of Hindu nationalism, on top of the holy crosses.
The incidents occurred in four villages - Dabtalai, Matasula, Uberao, and Dhamaninathu - that are predominantly tribal areas. Three of the affected churches were Protestant prayer halls affiliated with the Shalom Church, while the fourth was part of the Church of South India (CSI). Videos and photos of the activists shouting, "Jai Shri Ram'' and tying the saffron flags to the crosses quickly went viral on social media.
According to the pastor of the Dabalai Shalom church, Paul Muniya, around 50 Hindu activists climbed the church roof and installed a saffron flag next to the cross.
“The church service had just got over and the congregation had left. Only a few church members were yet to leave, when this mob barged into the premises. They threatened the Christians that they better stop following the Christian faith and return to the Hindu fold.
“They said that India is becoming a Hindu nation and they will return to demolish the church if it continues to stand there,” said Pastor Muniya to Christian Today.
Similar scenes played out at the other two Shalom churches and the CSI church.
Eyewitnesses said that around 80-90 Hindu activists gathered near the CSI church in Matasula village around 4 pm, waving saffron flags and shouting provocative slogans. They demanded to install saffron flags on top of the church and the pastor's home. When the pastor, only identified as Edwin, refused at first, the crowd allegedly threatened to get his home and church demolished and deprive him of government facilities on false charges of forced conversions. Fearing for the safety of his family, Edwin relented to their demands.
The pastors claim the activists seemed organised, travelling by motorbike from one church to the next and growing in numbers along the way. By the last church, the crowd had swelled to over 200 people.
Police were relatively quick to respond and brought down the flags. But Christian leaders allege the police also discouraged them from filing complaints, saying it would be better to handle it with love and assure action if it happened again. The pastors claim the police cited pressure from higher authorities. Police have denied dissuading complaint filings.
“For the first two days the police kept evading the matter, then at the intervention from the authorities from Bhopal and Delhi, an investigation took place from January 25 to 27 and then the First Investigation Report (FIR) was registered,” said Pastor Muniya.
A copy of the FIR has not been provided to the victims and that was scheduled to be handed over today (Jan. 27), said the Pastor.
Local Catholic leaders called for heightened security around two major events happening on the weekend - Republic Day celebrations at Christian schools on January 26, and the ordination of the new Bishop of Jhabua diocese, Peter Rumal Kharadi, on January 27. Kharadi had actually put up congratulatory banners for the Ram temple ceremony prior to the January 21st attacks.
Ex-Chief Minister of the state and senior Congress leader Digvijaya Singh shared photos of the events on X and questioned if forcibly planting a flag on any religious site was a crime? He called for action from the district police chief of Jhabua and Chief Minister Mohan Yadav.
Despite the gravity of the situation, Kailash Chouhan, the state joint secretary of the Hindutva group Hindu Yuva Janjati Sanghatan, denied any involvement of activists from his outfit. He claimed to have learned about the incidents through social media, where photos and videos had gone viral.
Christians comprise only about 0.29% of Madhya Pradesh's population as per 2011 census, and are largely drawn from marginalised indigenous tribes. Hindu nationalist sentiment has been on the rise in the state, which is governed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's BJP party. In 2021, the state passed a controversial anti-conversion law with penalties of up to 10 years in prison for forced or fraudulent conversions.
Critics argue such laws are often abused to intimidate religious minorities. They view the January 21st church attacks as another example of rising "saffronisation" - a term referring to the promotion of Hindu nationalism and erosion of secularism under BJP rule. While police downplay the incidents, Christian leaders say their community feels threatened in the charged environment surrounding the new Ram temple.
The incidents took place on January 21, close to the 25th anniversary of the heinous murder of Australian Christian missionary Graham Staines and his two sons by members of the right-wing group Bajrang Dal.