Mar 2024

Madhya Pradesh

Madhya Pradesh is the fifth largest state by population in the country. Geographically, the state was first reorganized in 1956, and then it was further bifurcated in 2000 to form the state of Chhattisgarh. According to data from World Christian Database (WCD), the total population of MP is just over 84 million people with 86% Hindu population and nearly two million Christians or 2.2% of the population. Madhya Pradesh has a significant population of Scheduled Tribes at nearly 18 million or 21.1% and a Scheduled Caste population of nearly 13.5 million or 15.62% of the total population. Roughly 73% of the population lives in rural areas. Of the total workforce in rural areas, 85.6% of the workers were dependent on agriculture for livelihood in the state.[1] The state has an agrarian economy with soybeans, gram, oilseeds, and pulses being the major crops. Minor forest produce like Tendu (Diospyros Melanoxylon) leaves also contribute to the state’s rural economy.


Shivraj Singh Chouhan of the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) became Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh for the first time in 2005. Since then, he has served three consecutive terms as Chief Minister of the state. As a prominent BJP leader, he is presently serving his fourth term as the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh. Previous elections were held in 2018 with the Congress party winning but subsequently 20 Member of Legislative Assembly or MLAs resigned and defected to the BJP and Shivraj Singh Chouhan became the Chief Minister. His term will last for five years, and next elections are due in late 2023.  The state is home to the city of Ujjain, one of the sacred cities of the four sites of Kumbh Mela (one of the largest congregation of believers of Hindu religion). The other three sites are in the states of UP, Maharashtra and Uttarakhand. Ujjain is called the city of temples. It is also home to the Bharat Mata Mandir (Mother India temple) built by utilizing government funds. Ujjain and nearby city of Indore is an important source of leadership for the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the radical Hindu organisation founded in 1925 and mother organisation of the BJP.


Indian National Congress (INC) is the other major political party in the state followed by Bahujan Samaj Party (a party from the state of Uttar Pradesh representing Dalit or Scheduled Caste interests, specifically the Jatav caste) and Samajwadi party (a party from the state of Uttar Pradesh representing the interests of OBCs or Other Backward Castes, specifically the Yadav caste). With elections due in 2023, and given the reduced mandate of BJP’s Shivraj Singh Chouhan, MP is likely to see much more persecution of Christians (specifically vulnerable Adivasi Christians) in the coming months. Vulnerable religious minorities are ripe targets to communally polarize the electorate, as well as divert Hindus away from governance. Instead, the relentless focus on religious polarization feeds anger, insecurity and victimhood of dominant caste Hindus keeping them loyal to the BJP.


After Muslims (6.57%), Christians are the second largest minority in MP with 2.2% of the total population, a proportion that has remained largely unchanged over the decades. Of these, the major Christian populations are in the tribal districts of eastern and western MP with Jhabua alone having around 35,000 Catholics, as per church sources.[2] Historically, Jhabua and neighbouring district of Alirajpur, also tribal dominated, have witnessed the maximum attacks on Christians in the region.[3]

The first Christian establishment in the region was in 1620 by a Jesuit Missionary Simon Figueredo, under the invitation and patronage of Mughal governor of Patna John Maquirrum Khan. In the state of Madhya Pradesh, Christian presence is found from 1750 onwards.[4] The state has seen a long history of attempts by missionaries to convert Adivasis. The 1951 Census of India recorded 88,000 Protestants in the state, 62% of them in the eastern half which comes under Chhattisgarh now. Roman Catholics were also prominent in the state.[5] In 1956 the state government produced the Report of the Christian Missionary Activities Enquiry Committee (popularly known as the Niyogi Report). The report was provoked by allegations that Christian missionaries were inducing lower- caste Hindus and tribal peoples to convert with promises of employment, education, or health and other social services. The Report concluded that large numbers of Dalits and Adivasis[6] were converting to Christianity, that the number of Hindus in the region was declining, and that the goal of Christian evangelistic work was secession – either in the form of a Christian-dominated state within the Indian Union or an independent Christian nation.[7]

As per the report, in 1955, thirty-two Protestant missionary organizations were at work in the region (this was the united Madhya Pradesh, in 2000 Chhattisgarh was carved out of the state). Few of the missions were sponsored by Indian churches that had been established by foreign missionaries, such as the Mennonite Church in India, which grew from the work of the American Mennonite Mission, or the United Church of Northern India, a conglomeration of Indian Protestant denominations, the most important regional partner of which was the American Evangelical Mission of the Evangelical and Reformed Church. It is difficult to assess the true impact of these recommendations, but its effect can be sensed with passing of the Religion Freedom Act in 1968 in the state and how tensions continue to mount between Hindus and Christians in the region.[8]

Christian Adivasis were attacked, and their churches were set on fire in south MP in 1997-99. In 2004, churches, homes and a mission school were set on fire in Jhabua district. It is said that the arrival of Pentecostal Church to the area alarmed the Sangh Parivar (the family of right-wing organisations set up by the RSS, including BJP). Likewise, the presence of the Pentecostals also gave concern to the Catholic Church which had a presence in Jhabua since 1980s but did not have much headway in conversions.[9] The state has seen a surge in the number of attacks on Christian missionaries since the new government by BJP was formed in 2020. And the spike has been even more visible after the Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act was passed by the Assembly in March 2021.[10]

Madhya Pradesh was one of the first states to pass a law curbing forced religious conversions in 1968.[11] Over the years the law has been made more stringent by increasing punishment and making prior permission for conversion compulsory. The state recently updated its 1968 law to pass the “Freedom of Religion Bill, 2021”. Along with Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand, both BJP-ruled states, Madhya Pradesh is the twelfth state in the country to pass the bill. “The passed legislation has the provision of up to 10 years in jail and a fine of up to Rs 100,000 [approximately 1200 USD] as punishment for religious conversion through coercion, force, allurement and fraudulent means and misrepresentation, including marriages solemnized through fraudulent means.”[12] Within 20 days of passing the bill, the state police registered 21 cases against 47 people with 25 arrests recorded so far.[13] Investigation by the newspaper ‘The Indian Express’ reveals that in at least 11 cases, the women who registered complaints under the Freedom to Religion Act 2021 knew the accused — they were friends, in a relationship, and in one case, married for over five years.[14] Although the law is socially framed in terms of targeting Muslims, the letter of the law equally applies to Christians and even though the religious identity of those booked under the law is not available in the public domain, there have been Christians who have been booked and arrested under this law as reported by many Pastors during the course of research.

Bishop Praveen, Jhabua, December 2021 and May 2022

Jhabua is a district in Madhya Pradesh with a majority of Hindu population (92%), and a small Muslim (1.53%) and Christian (4%) population. 87% of the total population of the district identifies itself as Adivasis (Scheduled Tribes).[15] Further, there are about 46 distinct Adivasi ethno-linguistic groups or tribes in MP and of the 46 Adivasi groups, the Bhils (with maximum Bhils living in Jhabua) constitute 37% of the total Adivasi population in the state, while the Gonds (also found in Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh) constitute 35% of the total Adivasi population[16]. It is the Adivasi-majority districts that are mostly targeted by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and allied vigilante organisations; two such districts, Jhabua and Alirajpur have reported many such cases in the recent past.[17] Since the BJP came to power with a reduced mandate in 2020, the BJP has stepped up its efforts to divide the Adivasi community. It is no surprise that many Adivasis have become the face of anti-conversion mobilization in the district.[18] Jhabua is witnessing ample mobilization by the RSS and its affiliates backed by sympathetic police and local administration to target Adivasi Christians.[19] The case study of Bishop Praveen illustrates this nexus.

Bishop Praveen (name changed) is a Bhil Adivasi and hails from a village 35 kilometres from Jhabua town.  He belongs to the Shalom diocese (Protestant) and has been associated with Shalom for 25 years now, overlooking operations in Jhabua and nearby districts. Praveen is a first-generation Christian in his family. He has four brothers and one sister. He got married at the age of 13 and had a son soon. His son developed a disease for which he could not find a medical treatment. His uncle told him to meet a preacher in the neighbouring village. He took his son and went there. The preacher did not do any mantras (chants) or ask for any animal to be sacrificed. He says, “Till then I did not even know who Jesus is. My son had very little chance of survival. It was at that time the preacher prayed for my son. I saw the effect of it in ten minutes when my son started feeling better. I was surprised that medicine could not help but this prayer made my son feel much better. Since then, I developed a faith in Jesus. I started believing in God.” Eventually he also left drinking and smoking. He used to work as a tractor driver earlier and was a chain smoker but after believing in God, he was able to quit these addictions. He attended a few prayer meetings, and he liked being in the prayer house. He started reading the Bible and discussing it with the Pastor and then he developed a desire to be a Pastor himself. He went to Bible college, and he believes that God blessed him to walk this path. He converted to Christianity 28 years ago. His eldest son passed away after a few years and Praveen believes his son showed him the way to God.

PM tracing the trajectory of violence against Christians in the district, said that the first big attack took place in 1998 when three nuns were gang raped in Jhabua district, at that time various prayer houses were destroyed and burnt. The incident was followed many missionaries being attacked for the next five days in the area.[20] Then in 2004, there were attacks against Christians across the district. Jhabua became the epicentre of these attacks with homes of Christians being burnt, property looted and vandalised and religious materials desecrated. This time the violence was triggered after the rape and murder of a young girl in the premises of a Catholic Church in Jhabua town.[21]

Then the next big wave was in December 2021, when Praveen feels there was planning by Hindu right-wing groups for coordinating multiple attacks against Christians at the same time. He escaped attacks on him but many Christians after being accused of forced conversions have been arrested and are still in jail. He feels that he is fighting his own people as the people supporting Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and Bajrang Dal [both are organisations affiliated to the RSS] are also Bhil Adivasis. They threaten him that one day he will also have to go to jail but Praveen feels that they are also his own people and are being used for ulterior political motives. He feels that RSS and Bajrang Dal are trying to divide the Adivasi community in all the villages. He says, “RSS and their affiliated organisations come to the area and tell Adivasis that they are actually Hindus because they say Ram-Ram to address people. They [RSS] don’t know our history, how we came down from the hills, came into the market and how our language has evolved over a period of time”.

On December 25, 2021, he was conducting a prayer meeting in a village, 30 km away from Jhabua town. Suddenly three police constables came and told him that the police inspector has asked for him. They asked him to stop praying as it spoils the atmosphere. Praveen requested the police to wait for some time in order for him to finish his rituals. By that time about 100 RSS members also came to the spot. At the time there were about 125 believers in the prayer meeting, they all supported Praveen and stood in front of the police saying, “if you arrest our preacher then we will also come to the police station”. The police inspector ordered his force to turn back. RSS members thought Praveen has been arrested and taken to the police station; they all reached there to find that Praveen had ‘escaped’. There was a lot of pressure from RSS and the police returned to the village but by then Praveen managed to flee. Since then, he had to go into hiding for months. An organisation addressing persecution of Christians through legal and financial support stood by him tried to speak to the police about his case. It is only from May 2022 that Praveen started going to the same village for the prayer meeting, but he has shifted his time of the prayer from 10.30 in the morning to 6 in the evening.

There was a series of attacks on Pastors in Jhabua between December and January 2021. Rallies were taken out saying, isaiyon ko ukhaaddenge! (We will exterminate Christians). Many WhatsApp messages and Facebook posts wwere circulated with the same sentiments. Vigilantes attending the rallies carry arms like sword and bow and arrows in these rallies. In one of the rallies, they took Praveen’s name claiming he does religious conversions and is backed by foreign sources. They announced in the rally that he will be killed soon. This created a lot of fear in Praveen’s family. Similar rallies were taken out in five administrative blocks around this time demanding to throw the Christians out of the country, and that Hindus who have converted Christians should be de-listed, that is to say they should lose all benefits under the Scheduled Tribes provisions. Praveen mentioned that there is a lot of pressure on people for Ghar Wapsi [the Hindu rhetorical phrase used when vigilantes force converts to ‘reconvert’ back to Hinduism, a kind of homecoming], they are threatened that their land, water, benefits (such as rice, lentils and other essentials given at subsidised prices) and their reservation (affirmative action for public education and government jobs) will be taken away. He said there is a door-to-door campaign being taken out in Jhabua for Ghar Wapsi. According to Praveen, the last rally took place on April 30, 2022. There were about 5000 people in the rally. This rally was different from others not only in terms of strength of people but also in terms of political power. In the earlier rallies it was mostly the street level cadre from RSS and affiliated organisations that participated. In the April rally however, the ex-BJP Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA) and the present Member of Parliament who is from BJP participated. Again, there were slogans demanding for de-listing of Hindus who had converted to Christianity. After the rally in April, a few Christians submitted a letter to the collector about the threats and sloganeering against them. Unfortunately, the letter has achieved very little as Christians continue to be attacked with impunity by Hindu vigilantes.

Praveen started going for his prayer meetings again from May 2022. During the same time a Christian believer was attacked with an axe in a village in Jhabua district. About 20-25 people from VHP came and attacked a group of 7 Christians, 6 of them were attacked with stones and one was attacked with an axe. Praveen says that a different group visited his church around the same time and stopped his prayer meeting. Praveen argues that since vigilantes attacked Christians at five or six places around the same time, it appears to have been coordinated and premeditated.  After these attacks people from the Christian community in Jhabua sent a letter to the top bureaucrat in the district and asked him, which country would you like to send us to?

While local elections were held in Jhabua district in 2022, it is perhaps to be expected that the BJP would try to maximise communal polarisation, hoping to reap the benefits by getting Hindus to vote for them in large numbers. However, the consequences have been severe for Christians. Praveen says that many Christians are now fatigued with these attacks and ready to retaliate with arms. Every year a Christmas fair is organised in Jhabua but in 2022 it could not be organised due to the pervasive feeling of fear amongst Christians as well as lack of support from government and the administration. Instead, non-Christian Adivasis organised a separate Adivasi mela in Jhabua emphasising the ‘authentic’ Adivasi identity. Praveen feels that in Adivasi areas brothers are fighting between themselves; there is insecurity for the future, there is no support to fight back.

The case study clearly reveals that vigilantes affiliated to the RSS are operating with complete impunity to implement their agenda of persecuting religious minorities. In Adivasi areas, the followers of Christ are the main targets, and spreading hate against Christians seems to be the most effective strategy for consolidating Hindu support. The BJP’s Shivraj Singh Chouhan has been chief minister of MP continuously since 2005. However, in the last state level elections of 2018, under his leadership the BJP failed to secure a majority. The Congress party (INC) formed the government for 15 months and it was only after BJP managed to get 15 Congress leaders to defect that the BJP came back to power and Shivraj Singh Chouhan managed to return as chief minister. Unable to win votes on mass appeal or good governance, it is clear that Shivraj Singh Chouhan is trying to emulate the hardline Hindutva agenda of Yogi Adityanath, the BJP leader and chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. Chouhan and his cabinet make their hostility to religious minorities so explicit that administrators, officials, police, lower courts etc. have understood that if they are to be in the good books of their higher-ups, they should also discriminate against religious minorities. The same atmosphere has also emboldened vigilantes from RSS and affiliated organisations to attack Christians at will, fully well knowing that no action will be taken against them. The worst consequence is that amongst the large Adivasi groups such as the Bhils, there is an internal split between Hindu Bhils and Christian Bhils. This divide if not addressed urgently through dialogue and cooperation, will only serve to electorally benefit the BJP and cement their ideological hegemony in the state for many more decades to come.






[6] Dalit refers to Scheduled Castes (SCs), roughly 21% of India’s total population (but excluding Dalit Christians and Dalit Muslims) and were formerly seen as Untouchables due to their position in the Hindu caste system. Untouchability continues to be widely practiced although illegal now. Adivasi refers to indigenous communities classified as Scheduled Tribes (STs), roughly 8% of India’s total population. India is home to hundreds of tribes or Adivasis, each existing with a distinct ethnic identity – modes of worship, deities, rituals, traditions, origin stories, faiths and languages.





[10] https://www.thequint.com/news/india/shivraj-singh-chouhan-silence-on-attacks-on-christians-in-madhya-pradesh#read-more





[15] https://www.censusindia.co.in/district/jhabua-district-madhya-pradesh-464

[16] https://samparkmp.org/demography-of-bhils

[17] https://article-14.com/post/police-govt-ally-with-hindu-groups-intimidating-attacking-christians-in-mp-0-29-of-state-population–61fb458cf16f5

[18] https://scroll.in/article/1013845/conspiracy-to-end-adivasi-culture-how-hindutva-groups-justify-harassing-christians-in-mp

[19] https://article-14.com/post/police-govt-ally-with-hindu-groups-intimidating-attacking-christians-in-mp-0-29-of-state-population–61fb458cf16f5

[20] https://www.indiatoday.in/magazine/states/story/19981012-political-parties-politicise-attacks-on-christian-community-in-madhya-pradesh-827175-1998-10-12

[21] https://frontline.thehindu.com/the-nation/article30221310.ece

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