The alleged “conversion drive” in Andhra Pradesh has become a serious issue and, if not prevented, may soon take a violent turn, say experts.

The spree of freebies doled out by the Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy-led Andhra Pradesh government is not only causing a loss of public money, but the schemes are allegedly aimed at encouraging ordinary Andhra citizens to convert.

The Opposition in Andhra and right-wing activists have been alleging that ever since Jagan Mohan Reddy has become the Chief Minister of Andhra, he has opened the treasury of the state to the Christian community, with an eye on encouraging conversion activities. Jagan Mohan Reddy and his family are Christians.

Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Jagan Mohan Reddy, under attack from the BJP and the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) for “turning a blind eye to threats to Hinduism” and for allegedly encouraging “Christian conversion”, got support from unexpected quarters — BJP MP Subramanian Swamy, a vocal proponent of the Hindutva cause.

Emerging from a meeting with Jagan at the CM’s Office, Swamy told #KhabarLive: “Whether Jagan is a Christian or not is no concern to us under the Constitution. If he is working against Hindu interests, please tell me how. Just propaganda is not accepted.”

Past months, the BJP attacked the government with the allegation that a crucifix was being built on a hill close to a Hindu religious place at Edlapadu in Guntur district. Senior BJP leader Vishnuvardhan Reddy claimed a “Christian conversion mafia” was encroaching on a Hindu religious place and there was “no place for Hindus” in Andhra Pradesh under the Reddy government.

The district administration later clarified that the cross was being built on a different hill, almost a kilometre away from the Hindu religious place.

Since May 2019, when Jagan Reddy took over as chief minister, he and his government have been under constant attack for allegedly turning a blind eye to the “threat” to Hinduism in the state. Since September last year, the state has witnessed at least 20 incidents of “temple attacks” — where idols were allegedly vandalised, temple property stolen, and a chariot set on fire.

The BJP and the TDP have alleged that, under Jagan Reddy’s rule, temples are desecrated, and Hindu sentiments need to be protected.

In January, TDP chief Naidu said the state is being ruled by a “Christian CM”, and noted that even the Director General of Police (DGP) is Christian. They have their “personal faiths”, but the CM cannot continue in his position if he is not able to stop the temple attacks, he added.

Naidu lashed out at the CM for allegedly encouraging religious conversions by misusing his official position. Meanwhile, actor-turned-politician Pawan Kalyan has accused Jagan of encouraging religious conversions, and carrying out “aggressive baptism” even before he took over.

These allegations are nothing new for Jagan and his family, who practise their faith openly but balk at labels. The same charges stalked Jagan’s father, the late Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy, during his tenure as CM, but they don’t appear to have dented their popularity, as witnessed during last month’s panchayat polls.

For Jagan’s YSR Congress Party, the BJP’s bid to rake up his faith is just another application of the party’s usual narrative, and they doubt it will work in Andhra Pradesh. Even analysts poke holes in this line of attack, noting that the kind of massive victory Jagan scripted in 2019 couldn’t have been delivered by Christians and Reddys alone.

Jagan’s family is believed to have taken up Christianity during the British era, when his great-grandfather was reportedly influenced by missionaries from the UK.

His mother Vijayamma is always seen holding the Bible — be it at his swearing-in ceremony or when Jagan was taken to jail for his alleged involvement in a disproportionate assets case. Jagan’s sister Y.S. Sharmila is married to a well-known evangelist, Brother Anil.

In many of the rows surrounding Jagan and YSR’s chief ministerial tenures, their faith has been dragged up.

One of the major controversies from YSR’s tenure as CM was stoked by a claim that the Andhra government plans to build a church atop the Tirumala Hills — a sacred site for Hindus. The Andhra government had denied the claim.

In September 2019, Jagan faced flak from the opposition after announcing a monthly honorarium for pastors. The YSR Congress Party government subsequently clarified that similar benefits were being given to Muslim clerics and Hindu priests too.

There was another controversy when the government hiked financial assistance for pilgrims to the Haj and Jerusalem, a city considered sacred by Muslims, Christians and Jews. The opposition alleged that the government was using money from the state exchequer to benefit Christians. But such schemes were introduced in 2013 under the then Congress government and continued under Naidu too.

ALSO READ:  Kakinada Fishermen Grapple With Pollution, Climate Change And Unemployment In Andhra Pradesh

The BJP claims the Jagan government has a general disdain for Hindus. “The response of the state government was lethargic when temples were attacked. Ministers insulted Hindus saying ‘will lord Hanuman get hurt if someone broke his hand?’ The State Endowment Minister emphasised on protecting churches & mosques but didn’t react with sincerity on temple attack issues,” BJP state general secretary Vishnu Vardhan Reddy told #KhabarLive.

The opposition has criticised the fact that state police has named TDP and BJP activists in connection with the temple attacks, most of them for spreading ‘false information’ on social media.

Both Jagan and YSR have publicly lashed out at attempts to put them into boxes on the basis of their religion and caste.

According to an article in India Today, YSR once said in the assembly of united Andhra Pradesh, “It is unfair to restrict our family to a straitjacketed identity, be it Christian, Hindu or the Reddy community. We have inter-faith and inter-caste marriages in our family.”

Jagan struck a similar note in December 2019. “The opposition is unable to digest the good governance being done by our government, and is making random accusations,” he said. “They are talking about my religion and caste too. It upsets me to hear such remarks. I want to state on this platform that humanity is my religion, and fulfilling promises is my caste.”

In his public appearances, the chief minister appears to hold true to his words. Jagan is a regular visitor to the famous Tirumala temple and pays frequent visits to seers and religious heads.

Soon after he won the 2019 assembly elections, he visited the Tirumala temple. Right after he took over as CM, he visited seer Swaroopananda Swamy and sought his blessings. The spiritual guru is said to have set the muhurtham (auspicious time) for Jagan’s swearing-in ceremony too.

On the stage where Jagan took oath as CM, heads of all religions were present. Amid the ‘temple attack’ controversy in Andhra, the CM laid the foundation stone for the reconstruction of nine temples that were demolished by the erstwhile TDP government in 2016 for road widening.

Sources in the YSRCP told #KhabarLive that the CM has given his nod to allot land for the construction of a Vedic school near Tirupati International Airport.

“This whole allegation of religious conversion is baseless. Democracy gives people the freedom to practise any religion they want. It’s not that conversions are more in AP, it’s like any other place,” said YSRCP MLA Abbaya Chowdary.

“If our CM favoured a particular community, why would he include people from all communities in his cabinet or give them MLA tickets? The BJP thinks it’s the sole protector of Hindus. Now, the TDP has joined them. They have nothing substantial to counter the government. So, this route is left for them,” Chowdary added.

While the opposition parties have been raising the pitch over “Christian conversions” and attacks on the Hindu faith, it doesn’t seem to be sticking to Jagan or his YSR Congress Party politically so far. The YSRCP swept panchayat elections last month.

“This is Andhra Pradesh, not Uttar Pradesh, that religious politics will influence people. Our CM’s focus had always been that people below poverty line, regardless of their religion or community, benefit from our welfare schemes. In 20 months, the government has spent Rs 80,000 crore on welfare schemes,” said YSRCP national spokesperson K. Ravi Chandra Reddy.

“There is a lot of negative sentiment against the BJP because it promised special category status but didn’t fulfil it and also because of the privatisation of Visakhapatnam Steel Plant, which is the pride of Andhra people,” he added. “So, they have to divert attention of the people. TDP is taking the same line because Naidu wants to warm up to the BJP.”

The TDP and the BJP were allies until 2018, when the former split ranks over the special category issue.

Another YSRCP spokesperson, Rajasekhara Reddy, added, “Whenever the BJP is involved — it is more of religion-based politics and nothing on development. The saffron party had good relations with Naidu up until 2018. During his tenure too, temples were demolished. Why did the BJP not make any noise at that time? People have rejected their religion-based politics. Panchayat poll results are enough proof.”

ALSO READ:  Hyderabadi Cricketer 'Ambati Rayudu'- Born With Innate Talent And Acumen

According to the 2011 Census, Christians account for 1.5 per cent of the total population of Andhra Pradesh while Hindus comprise over 88 per cent. However, these figures don’t factor in the state’s bifurcation in 2019.

As per the last census in 2011, Andhra Pradesh’s (undivided) population had 88.46% of Hindus and 9.56% were Muslims. It was observed that the total Christian population was around 1.35% and it was added that their population is decreased continuously since the census of 1971. The total number of Christians in Andhra Pradesh was about 6.8 lakhs according to the census 2011.

However, Data proves some other phenomenon. As we know that Christianity has two major factions, Catholic and Protestant. If we talk about the Protestants, then there are multiple branches within and the largest one is Lutheran Church, and as per their website, they have more than 30 Lakh members in Andhra Pradesh alone. So the number of about 7 lakh is already surpassed in one branch of the church only, just think the actual numbers of Christians in the state.

Speaking to #KhabarLive, political expert Amarnath Kosuri said “religion issues were raked up during YSR’s time also but they never dominated the entire political discourse”.

“YSR never allowed Christianity to interfere with his public affairs. He didn’t visit the church frequently but took a holiday during Christmas. He visited Tirumala frequently, even before he became the CM,” he added.

According to political analyst Suresh Alapati, any state where the BJP tries to make inroads, religion–based politics is expected. “Andhra Pradesh is no exception. Moreover, there is a Christian CM at the helm of affairs,” he said.

Added Professor Haragopal, a political expert, “The BJP does not have a strong base in Andhra and they have to counter the CM. How else would they do it? They cannot counter much on the basis of development. Jagan is a practising Christian. He won with a huge mandate in assembly polls . There cannot be only Christians or Reddys voting for him.”

Recently, the Jagan government hiked the financial assistance, which was being given to Christian pilgrims going to Jerusalem, from Rs 40,000 to Rs 60,000 for those with an annual income up to Rs 3 lakh. While the assistance money for those earning over Rs 3 lakh per annum has been kept at Rs 30,000, previously, the assistance money for this group was Rs 20,000. Earlier this year in August, Jagan’s government announced that they would provide an honorarium of Rs 5,000 per month to pastors. As per sources, his government is also working to launch housing schemes and financial assistance for the poorer sections of the Christian community.

Chandra Mohan, a BJP leader from Andhra Pradesh, alleged that the freebies given by the Jagan government would give rise to conversion activities in Andhra. “Most of the decisions of the Jagan government are proving to be anti-Hindu and his spree of freebies is nothing but promotional programmes for encouraging conversion. If this is not checked soon, the issue may turn the state into clash zones between the majority and minority communities,” Chandra Mohan added.

The state government’s version was not available to this reporter at the time of going to press. Though #KhabarLive tried to contact officials of the minority welfare department, the officials did not reply to queries on the issue raised.

On the other hand, Dr Gautam Sen, who taught at the London School of Economics and Political Science for two decades and keeps a tab on the matter, told #KhabarLive: “My sense about Andhra Pradesh is two-fold: the first is the lack of reliable data and some of it suspect, because it is suggesting a decline in the Christian population which is simply untrue. But this is happening in Nepal too, with the census showing decline in the Christian population during the past two decades when anything up to a third have converted, according to a former Prime Minister of Nepal. I think the reason for the anomaly is somewhat similar in both cases though there is usually an additional factor in the Indian case. Converts are told to hide their new faith by the church in order ensure that conversions can proceed by stealth, which is the rationale in both in Nepal and India generally and surely in Andhra Pradesh. In addition, in the Indian situation the reason is fear of loss of reservation privileges still unavailable, in law, to Christian converts though in practice this has not been the case for a very long time.”

ALSO READ:  Osmania University Students Fumes Over Unfulfilled Promises By TRS Govt

As per the 2011 Census, the Christian community in Andhra Pradesh accounts for about 1.4% of the total population; however, the number of followers of the faith is estimated to be higher in the state due to the rising conversion phenomenon.

Sen said: “I am hearing persistent anecdotal evidence of frequent accounts of travellers suggesting conversion of ordinary Andhra citizens to Christianity, despite their Hindu names and no outward signs of their newly acquired Christian faith. My inference is that conversions have occurred on a significant scale in Andhra Pradesh, with the coastal belt now dominated by Christian communities and a majority in some tribes have also converted to this religion. Money and other services are clearly being offered and the Jagan government’s intervention in favour of Christians is fuelling the spate of conversions. Jagan Mohan Reddy has proved to be a stronger evangelist than his father Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy.”

Explaining the consequences of the rising cases of conversion, Sen said: “The other important phenomenon that is being ignored by most people is the scale of ‘church planting’, which has been a common historical practice as a prelude to conversion and the assertion of political authority over Christian communities. In countless Andhra Hindu-dominated villages, churches outnumber temples. I guess that once a critical minimum of Christian population presence is reached in states like Andhra Pradesh, the state will act in ways familiar to the Northeast. Whether a bid will be made for full sovereign status remains a question, but if Tamil Nadu also becomes substantially Christian and the DMK is merely an evangelist front, serious consequences may occur. Also in Telangana, or (even) the number of churches across Bengaluru…”

“Conversion is resulting in serious consequences due to leading Andhra families converting to Christianity, including leading filmmakers of the state joining the bandwagon,” Sen said.

While the religious card is doing well for the Jagan Mohan Reddy government, promises of infrastructure development and policies to drive economic growth have taken a backseat. The Andhra government has canceled many projects during the contract period and this has damaged the confidence of investors.

In conclusion, these points prove beyond doubt that there are large scale conversions to Christianity as well the census data could be fudged.

We believe the reason for hiding this information could be due to the Government-sponsored benefits. Despite a large number of government schemes for Christians, including giving some benefits to Christian converts from Scheduled Caste, the reservations in educational institutions and jobs are only available to Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, and OBCs.

Scheduled Castes can only be of Hindu or allied religions, not Islam or Christianity. Many converts to Christianity from Scheduled Caste are not showing their new religious identity for fear of loss of their reservation benefits. It is to be remembered that this tactic is used in the other Indian States as well. Converted people do not change their names on conversion to Christianity.

This is proved many times, multiple senior IAS officers Andhra, who claim SC status for their government are actually converted Christians. Even the Andhra CM Jagan Mohan Reddy is a Christian. The Home Minister is a Christian, the DGP of Andhra is a converted Christian. Even the Andhra Intelligence chief, TTD Chairman, Andhra’s Education minister, and more than 50% of Andhra Cabinet Ministers are indeed converted Christians. Most numbers of Disctirct collectors are converted christians.

Jagan Government is spending Tax Payer’s money on Christians. Last year, the Andhra hiked the financial assistance for Christian pilgrims going to Jerusalem, from Rs 40,000 to Rs 60,000. In August last year, Andhra government declared that they would provide an honorarium of Rs 5,000 per month to all the Pastors. Andhra Government is also working to launch housing schemes and financial assistance for the poorer sections of the Christian community only.

It is very much true to call Andhra Pradesh a ‘Christian state’ now. #KhabarLive #hydnews