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Why Punjabi Dalits are turning to Christianity en masse | Ground report

A reality check done by India Today TV to find out the reasons why the Dalits and other poor communities are converting to Christianity showed the prevalence of caste discrimination in the Hindu and Sikh religions.

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Christians in Punjab
Media reports say that the majority of Christians in Punjab are converted Christians

By Manjeet Sehgal: Punjab recently witnessed a series of clashes and protests between the Christians and the radical Nihang Sikh communities.

A Catholic church was vandalised and the car of a church functionary was set on fire in Patti, Taran Taran on the intervening night of August 30 and 31 by 150 radical Nihang Sikhs.

A Christian programme was attacked by members of the same community on August 29 in Jandiala Guru, near Amritsar. Horrific videos showed women and children crying as they rush to help as Nihangs throw chairs around.

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ALLEGATIONS AGAINST MISSIONARIES

Hindu and Sikh organisations have accused the Christian missionaries of conducting illegal conversions by using miracle cures and fraudulent practices as bait to do conversions.

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We spoke to Manoj Sharma Nanha, president of the United Hindu Front, who claimed he had personally stopped such dubious conversions.

"We are not against Christianity but we are against the fraudulent methods being adopted to convert people. People are being promised that they will get rid of sickness and the dead will be alive if they embrace Christianity. Some foreign preachers come on a visitor’s visa and indulge in conversions. This is like theft in our homes. We will not tolerate this," Manoj Sharma Nanha said.

Some self-styled leaders of Hindu outfits also accused the missionaries of using money to facilitate conversions.

The chief of Akal Takht, the highest Sikh temporal authority, Gyani Harpreet Singh, claimed that poor Sikhs, Hindus and people from the backward classes were being targeted by the Christian missionaries.

CHRISTIAN ORGANISATIONS ALLEGE CONSPIRACY

Rejecting the claims being made by the Hindu and Sikh leaders, the Christian missionaries and organisations have alleged discrimination and planned and systematic propaganda against their religion by the Hindus and Sikhs, who are in the majority.

The president of Punjab Christian Movement, Hamid Masih, said that the dominating Hindu and Sikh communities are trying to portray the Christians as villains. He said the allegations that missionaries are offering money and using miracle healing to convert the people to Christianity are baseless.

Also Read | The pastors of Punjab

"A hate campaign was launched against the Christians six months back. Earlier, only the BJP and the RSS targeted us. Now the Sikhs have also joined them .Seven to eight attacks on Christian volunteers, churches and gatherings were reported. No action has been taken against the people involved in the attacks," Hamid Masih said.

Masih also alleged that the FIRs registered in church attacks were just eyewash since no arrests have been made. Those detained were released within hours.

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"They (the police) immediately registered cases against our female volunteers who were just interacting with the people. We are worried that an attempt is being made to create tensions between religious groups. The reality is that we have been rejected, discriminated against and neglected on all fronts," Hamid Masih said.

Also Read | Conversions in Punjab: Lure, superstition, mind games or faith?

A reality check done by India Today TV to find out the reasons why the Dalits and other poor communities are converting to Christianity showed the prevalence of caste discrimination in the Hindu and Sikh religions.

We spoke to a number of converted Christians who were earlier Hindu and Sikh dalits.

Ramesh Chandra, who lives in the Nurpur locality of Hargobindpur in Jalandhar, said there are seven to eight gurdwaras (Sikh temples) in his village. These gurdwaras belong to various types of Dalit Sikhs, including Ravidasis, Mazhabi Sikhs besides the dominating Jat community.

"I feel honoured as I face no discrimination now. Christianity is the only religion which treats all humans as equal," Ramesh Chandra, who converted seven years back, said.

Sharif Masih, who owns a car tyre showroom in Jalandhar, said he belonged to the Balmiki community and has a rural background.

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"Sikh religion says all humans are equal but in various rural gurdwaras being run by the dominant Jat community, Dalits face caste discrimination .They are asked to maintain a distance when the langar is served. I faced no discrimination after I was baptized,” he said.

We also spoke to a young Dalit Sikh, Gurbaz Singh, a school dropout who works as an electrician. He is no different from the so-called upper-caste Sikhs. He wears a turban and carries all the symbols of Sikhism.

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"It is an irony that, despite being a Sikh, people at times ask me about my caste. I tell them I am a Sikh who has no caste, but if you believe in the caste system then I belong to the lowest caste," Gurbaz Singh, who is against the prevalence of castes among the Sikhs and the mushrooming of religious places on caste lines, said.

CONVERTED CHRISTIANS REMAIN DALITS ON PAPERS

According to the 2011 census, the Christian community has the smallest population - just 1.26 per cent in Punjab .There are 1.93 per cent Muslims, 31.9 per cent dalits (both Hindus and Sikhs), 39 per cent Hindus and 58 per cent Sikhs.

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Christian leaders claim their population is not 1.26 per cent but nearly 15 per cent, as converted Christians remain Dalits on paper and avoid their religion to get the reservation benefits which are not available to converted Christians.

Nearly 72 per cent of the Sikhs, most of them Jats, live in rural Punjab and own the majority of the land holdings. Dalits just own only 0.72% of the cultivated land in Punjab, which compels them to work as farm labourers.

Christian organisations have been demanding reservations for jobs for the poor of their community, but the same is not available in Punjab.

Media reports say that the majority of Christians in Punjab are converted Christians who are not only fighting poverty but are also battling to maintain their new religious identity.

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