Leap of Faith: Beneath the Surface of Punjab’s Religious Conversion Line Hides a Grim Reality
Himaneesh Bhagat, 7, has been visually impaired since birth. Her father, who runs a confectionery business, left no hospital unvisited near their home in Jalandhar and across Punjab, before their search for a suitable hospital ended with PGI Chandigarh. But even after more than two years of treatment, Himaneesh hasn’t benefited much. About a year ago, a few local Christians suggested to the family that if they visited a missionary in Jalandhar, the boy might regain his sight. The child’s parents have not yet accepted the proposal.
“I have been told that several of the missionaries’ visitors have succeeded in getting rid of their illnesses that have lasted for years. They promised me that my child will be able to see if I become a Christian. But I haven’t accepted the condition yet. I find no logic there. In addition, my wife and mother are also against the change of religion, ”said Sanjeev Kumar Bhagat, the father of the child.
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Himaneesh, a class 2 student, is studying braille. Her mother, Sunita, says she has more faith in medical science than in any of these religious groups.
But unlike the Bhagats, Som Singh, 42 (name changed), from a village on the outskirts of Jalandhar, says he benefited from the missionaries. Singh told CNN-News 18 that his wife, who became a Christian about a year ago, received a sum of Rs 8,000 which the couple used to secure a pucca house.
“She got the money once. We did not get any other benefit. She was told she would be taken care of if she joined them. She was baptized. I am still a Hindu. They keep harassing me to visit the church but I don’t, ”he said, on condition of anonymity.
Singh works as a day laborer while his wife collects the garbage for their survival. He also said that many other people in his village, who are struggling to make a living, have chosen Christianity, hoping it will improve their lives a bit.
Apart from those who underwent baptism and those who did not, there are those who converted, but after a while returned to their religion.
Kumar, 28, who only wanted to identify with her last name, said that with conversion comes duties that cannot be ignored. “There are certain conditions such as praying before every meal, obligatory mass visits on Sundays and making donations. All of us who have visited churches have paid Rs 2,000 to Rs 5,000. The donations correspond to our wish, ”said Kumar, who works in the sanitary products sector.
It was after his marriage that Kumar converted to Hinduism because his wife was a Hindu. “My parents also asked me to retrain. I remained a Christian for almost two years. I had heard that they offered to send one overseas and help them settle in foreign countries. Despite my baptism, I did not receive any financial aid and I was not able to go abroad. So I decided to stop and I became a Hindu again, ”he added.
Experts say temptations to send one overseas are also rife in Punjab, as several young people have recently fled the state to try their luck overseas.
Amarjeet Singh Narang, a retired professor and social scientist, said there was no single conversion factor. “Up to 30% of the people of Punjab are from lower castes. Many of them come from very weak financial backgrounds. Given this, they may have been drawn not only to overseas travel, but possibly because many of their requirements have been met. It is mainly the underprivileged sections, who feel rejected by society and are perhaps drawn to basic things like education, health and other things, ”Narang said.
During its visit to Jalandhar, CNN-News18 discovered that the two main churches that have been erected are in the villages of Khambra and Khojewala. While Khambra Church is headed by Ankur Narula, Harpreet Deol manages Khojewala Church.
These two churches run ministries and missionaries who not only facilitate those who have agreed to be baptized, but also help them with services such as that of a marriage agency. As CNN-News 18 visited the church in Khojewala, the team encountered Deol staff who declined any opportunity to meet with him, saying he was unavailable. At Khambra Church, Narula staff gave a similar response. People from both churches also declined to share any statement.
Across Punjab, meanwhile, many small organizations run by Hindu and Sikh leaders have also mushroomed over the years, claiming that they are educating people against these conversions and even running door-to-door campaigns. door, asking people not to change their religion.
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Manoj Nanna of Hind Kranti Dal said that over the past two years his organization has helped more than 400 men and women return to their religion after being baptized. “The main reasons are the same everywhere: rationing, medical facilities and cheap education. If there is a dedicated government that provides the foundation for the people of Punjab, I think there will no longer be any reason for people to be drawn in the name of religion, ”Nanna said.
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