Mar 2024

Uttar Pradesh

Uttar Pradesh is the most populated state of India with a population of just above 230 million (as per World Christian Database, 2022). It has the highest population growth rate of 20% and home to the highest number of Hindus and Muslims in the country.[1] As per the WCD, Hindus comprise 70% while Christians comprise 0.25% of the population. Indexed to the WCD, UP has just above 48 million or 21% Scheduled Caste (Dalit) population and 92 million or 40% Other Backward Classes (OBC) population with Yadav being the single largest caste within the OBC.[2] Scheduled Tribes (Adivasi) are just above a million or 0.6% of the state’s population.[3] The extremely low population of Adivasis is in all probability due to inaccurate classification of Adivasis as either Dalit or OBCs[4]. 23%% of the population lives in urban areas leaving about 77% of the population in the rural areas. The state also has a high rate of poverty, with nearly 30% of the population living in poverty.[5] Uttar Pradesh is the third largest state economy consistently contributing around 8.5% to national Gross Domestic Product over the years.[6]

UP contributes 80 out of the total 543 seats in Lok Sabha, the lower house in Indian parliament and thus the state is significant for any party hoping to achieve electoral results at the national level. There has been a significant Dalit and OBC political mobilization under the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP)[7] started in 1984 by a grassroots political leader and strategist par excellence, Kanshi Ram.  As a result of these efforts, Uttar Pradesh had its first Dalit Chief Minister, Mayawati in 1995.[8] She is also the first chief minister in the history of the state to complete a full five-year term in office and has been Chief Minister four times, her last term being 2007-2012.[9] Mayawati gave way to the  secular socialist party (Samajwadi Party or SP) dominated by the Yadav caste, a dominant Other Backward Classes or OBC caste, which won the 2012 election with significant Muslim support. From the 1990s onwards, the interlinked issues of caste and religion has become fundamental to politics in Uttar Pradesh. The two subaltern parties – BSP (representing Dalits) and Samajwadi Party (representing OBCs) came to forefront and reigned UP till 2017. Since 2017, the BJP has had a majority in the state[10]. Chief Minister and hardline right-wing leader Yogi Adityanath from BJP is serving his second consecutive term (2017 and now 2022). Yogi Adityanath is from the dominant Thakur caste and served as the main priest at a Hindu temple in Gorakhpur district in Eastern UP. He has a huge following in Eastern UP (a region controlled by dominant castes) and it is no surprise that this region has also witnessed maximum violence and persecution of Christians since the BJP has come to power. The BJP won the 2017 elections decisively with 312 seats out of a total of 403 seats. Adityanath managed to win the 2022 elections too although his party could not match the impressive performance in the previous elections. In the 2022 elections, the BJP won 255 seats (a drop of 57 seats from previous elections). The other major loser was the BSP winning only one seat (a drop of 18 seats). The loss of these two parties was the gain of the Samajwadi Party (SP) that won 111 seats (a gain of 64 seats). Numerically prominent lower castes that are not represented by any of the major parties are forming their own parties and negotiating for power sharing with the larger parties[11]. In the foreseeable future, such smaller parties will become increasingly important in swinging the elections.

Christianity came to Uttar Pradesh during the Mughal Empire and the first Catholic Church was built in 1598 in the city of Agra. It was built by the Jesuit Fathers under the order of the emperor.[12] The state has seen many Christian missionaries especially under the colonial rule. There were some Dalit conversions to Christianity in the state though not as many as in other parts of colonial India. Conversion by lower castes often signaled dignity, education, clothing, employment, and political representation for them. Consequently, across Uttar Pradesh many Dalits engaged in menial labour (public sanitation work for example) converted to Christianity. In contrast to proselytization and missionary activity of other religions, Christian missionaries made targeted efforts to convert the outcaste women in rural areas in the early twentieth century.[13]

The Uttar Pradesh Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion ordinance was promulgated in November 2020. It requires individuals seeking to convert and religious convertors (who perform the conversion) to submit an advance declaration of the proposed religious conversion to the District Magistrate. Any violation of this procedure shall attract punishment of imprisonment between six months and three years, and a fine of at least Rs 10,000 or 120 USD (for individuals undergoing conversion), and imprisonment between one and five years, and a fine of at least Rs 25,000 or 300 USD (for convertors).  A violation will also render the conversion illegal and void. The Ordinance prohibits conversion of religion through force, misrepresentation, undue influence, and allurement, or fraud, or marriage. It also prohibits a person from abetting, convincing, and conspiring to such conversions.   The new law in the state makes religious conversion a non-bailable offence if found to be guilty of using marriage to force someone to change religion.[14] By late 2021, over 340 persons have been booked through 108 police reports, and 77 individuals have given statements before a magistrate that they were forced to convert their religion. As many as 31 booked under the anti-conversion law were minors[15]. At the time of writing, there is no data available on the caste or religion of those who have been booked and/or arrested under the anti-conversion law.


Suresh, Bahraich, September 2022


Suresh (name changed) is a 37-year-old pastor from one of the villages in the district of Bahraich. He started doing healing work from 2018-2019. Earlier the pastor was a Hindu believer from OBC (Other Backward Castes) with Jaiswal as his second name. In his young days he was very sick and believed himself to be possessed by spirits (dusht-aatma). Someone told him to go to a church in Jalandhar, Punjab. He shares, “I went there and felt at peace. I started going there continuously and felt the presence of Jesus around me. I used to lay mats in the church and gradually I started liking the place and eventually I accepted Jesus. One day I received a prophecy to go to Uttar Pradesh and work for Christianity, so I came here.


At that time [2018-19], the local media ran a series of news against him. The local TV channels reported that a ‘baba‘ (a religious guru) has come from outside to convert people in the village. “They said that I am a dhongi baba (a fake guru), and I am spreading superstition for money, I do jhaad-phunk (exorcism) etc. They tried to tarnish my image.” He shared that the situation in the village at that time was very tense as the villagers also turned against him. They used to abuse him verbally, call him names. They were threatening to beat him up if he organized any gathering or prayers meetings in the village. “At that time my family and me used to sit inside our house and pray silently.” With time the situation calmed down, people around us started accepting us, they saw we are not spreading superstition here but are rather helping people, healing them. They could see the difference, by the grace of God I could heal many of the ailments and also look after those who were possessed. They saw our work and intent and started joining us, started coming for the prayer meetings regularly. That is how we grew, I never told anyone to leave any faith or convert or change. They saw the difference in their lives and started believing in God.


Pastor Suresh has a family of five members, and they all believe in Jesus. There is no official document for conversion; they just started believing in Jesus while continuing to be OBC (Other Backward Caste) by caste and Hindu by religion on paper. However, the pastor also faces challenges from his own extended family who continue to follow Hinduism. His cousins and elders in the family oppose him and his five family members are not invited for family gatherings. The situation has changed drastically after repeated attacks on him and his family since 2019. During one of the prayer meetings in 2019, district level government officials and a few police constables came to the meeting and started taking down the venue; the police broke the tent under which the prayer meeting was being held and heckled the people attending the meeting.  A police complaint was registered against five members of his family accusing them of religious conversion (even though at the time the anti-conversion law had not yet been passed). “We all had to run from the village leaving everything behind as we feared getting arrested. Five members- my mother, sister, wife, one year old child and myself, had to run to escape arrest. We only returned after we managed to get a stay order on the arrest. After we returned we were taken to the jail but were released in a day.


Soon he started his prayer meeting again. But now a police constable sat outside the prayer meeting every time. He made a note of everyone who came to the prayer meeting. For three months, this constable was constantly outside the meeting, conducting brazen surveillance on what was happening and who was coming to Church. Even in the present, he is asked to report to the police station many times for questioning. “I was called to the police station some three-four months back as well. I continue to do my prayer meetings. Earlier 6-7,000 believers used to come to my prayer meeting but after all the attacks and the tension, about 350 people come to my prayer meeting now.


The number of believers only increased with time (gradually building up to around 300 believers) and he built a prayer hall for the meeting in late 2020 and early 2021. After two months of prayer meetings being held inside the hall, the next attack happened. Pastor Suresh says “The construction of the hall was not complete yet, but we had started doing the prayers inside the hall for the convenience of the believers. In February 2021, we were hosting a Satsang (prayer meeting) and after the believers left, the police came inside the under-construction building. There were eight policemen; they closed the door after barging inside. And then they started beating up my wife and me for half an hour. They kicked and punched my wife. They kept shouting abuses at us and kept asking us, ‘with whose permission you are converting here?’ This went on for half an hour until the police left leaving the couple severely injured inside the prayer hall. Because of the injuries sustained from the attack, Pastor Suresh had to get a hip replacement done recently and his wife suffered multiple internal injuries. The couple was taken to the police station again, this time they were released after intervention from human rights lawyers.


Pastor Suresh did not give up after the incident. He believes that the one and true God has sent him for this work to Uttar Pradesh and his believers need him; with much courage he started his prayer meetings again after only two weeks of this incident. This year [2022] on India’s 75th Independence Day, the union government floated a campaign around the national flag, a call for Har Ghar Tiranga i.e., the Indian flag in every house. The pastor also had hoisted the flag on his house, and some neighbours in the village threatened him by asking ‘why are you hoisting the flag on Independence Day? You are not even an Indian anymore’. The Pastor shared that the Pradhan also spreads rumours about him saying ‘these people worship the God of Britishers; these people are not from our country, they are outsiders, don’t believe them’. They still face threats and challenges from the villagers.


In the pastor’s village, most of the population is Brahmin[16] and Scheduled Castes (SCs) or Dalits. There are only four families in the village who believe in Christianity (his current congregation of believers numbering about 300-350 believers come from nearby villagers, a mix of new converts and some from his earlier congregation who had left after the attacks). He asks, “For how long will I live in fear? Even if my family has to suffer, I will do my work. I have now dedicated my life to prabhu [Lord], Jesus. I know that local wing of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and Bajrang Dal are involved in this, they threaten to kill me, and I understand that there is no punishment for them under the law of our time. Members of Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) have come to my prayer meeting; they have torn the bible, calendar, posters etc. They say that we will blast this place with a bomb. If you threaten me like this, then for how long do you expect me to live in fear? Now I will do what I want to do; I will continue healing people as I have been told by Jesus to do, I will follow His path and will face whatever comes with it.” Given that Pastor Suresh has faced a lot of harassment from police (both through complaints and through physical violence) over the last four years, it is difficult if not impossible for him to approach the police with these threats that he has been receiving.


In his village, much like most of UP, the Brahmins hold the most power. The pradhan (head) of the village is a pandit (Brahmin). Another pastor shared that the Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA) for Bahraich constituency is very close with the pradhan and they both have conspired to file a First Information Report (FIR), i.e. a police complaint, against him in September 2022. Since many believers started coming to his prayer meeting, they saw the change in themselves and in their lives; their loved ones have been healed, the condition of their houses and lives has changed after attending the prayer meeting, the pastor believes that it is becoming a matter of concern for others in the village. They feel threatened that a pastor is gaining so much power in the village because so far only the Brahmins have enjoyed power in the village. The FIR against the pastor and his family has five sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) slapped on him. These are: 298A (uttering, words, etc., with deliberate intent to wound the religious feelings of any person), 295A (deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage reli­gious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or reli­gious beliefs), 188 (disobedience to order duly promulgated by public servant), 504 (intentional insult with intent to provoke breach of the peace) and 506 (punishment for criminal intimidation). Now the case has reached the court and the family has to go for every hearing. For each section of the IPC, it could take months if not years to settle in the court, and often the legal process itself is the punishment even if Pastor Suresh and his family are ultimately acquitted.


The case study illustrates several issues that lie at the heart of Christian persecution in UP. Firstly, this case study clearly reveals the caste-based hate and discrimination that intersects with religious conversion. Any attempts by OBCs, Dalit and Adivasi Christians to escape the tyranny of the caste-based hierarchy are met with immediate misuse and abuse of the law to harass Christians. Secondly, the harassment of Christians through law and local government (Panchayat) goes hand in hand with the surveillance, threats, and physical violence that Christians face at the hands of vigilantes affiliated to the RSS. This combination of state and extra-state actors working in tandem results in Christians feeling extremely isolated and insecure since they see no hope for any justice or fairness from state or society. Finally, this case study also reveals the pernicious role of local media that are highly complicit in the defamation of Christians (especially pastors or any other Christians who provide effective leadership for the community). The media de-legitimises the fundamental rights of Christians and makes conditions ripe for justifying subsequent attacks from state institutions as well as from vigilantes. As long as the Yogi Adityanath-led BJP government remains in power, it seems likely that the violence against religious minorities (especially Dalits and Adivasis) in UP will only increase sharply. Only the return of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and Samajwadi Party (SP) to power, with their commitment to protecting the interests of the oppressed castes can bring back some semblance of hope for OBC, Dalit and Adivasi Christians.



[1] https://www.deccanherald.com/content/497347/muslim-population-grew-faster-census.html

[2] OBCs although technically classified as ‘backward classes’ correspond to backward castes. In the four plus one caste hierarchy (called Varna), OBCs are above Dalits but below the Brahmins (priests), Kshatriyas (warriors), and Vaishyas (traders) castes. Although there has not been a caste census since 1936, it is commonly believed that OBCs represent just above 50% of Hindu population (which in turn is about 80% of India’s population). For more details on significance of OBCs in Uttar Pradesh, see: https://indianexpress.com/article/explained/why-smaller-castes-could-hold-the-key-to-power-in-2017-uttar-pradesh-assembly-polls-4447802/

[3] https://tribal.nic.in/ST/Statistics8518.pdf

[4] https://caravanmagazine.in/communities/adivasi-uttarpradesh-demand-scheduled-tribe-status

[5] https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/economy/indicators/now-only-22-per-cent-indians-below-poverty-line-planning-commission/articleshow/21288723.cms

[6] https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/lucknow/how-uttar-pradesh-is-key-to-forging-indias-economic-and-political-path/articleshow/89170220.cms

[7] The BSP historically has been the party that has best and most represented the Scheduled Castes (also known as Dalits) in Uttar Pradesh politics, particularly the Scheduled Caste called Jatav.

[8] https://indianexpress.com/article/explained/uttar-pradesh-assembly-elections-2017-bjp-samajwadi-party-akhilesh-yadav-narendra-modi-rahul-gandhi-mayawati-mulayam-singh-yadav-congress-4562628/

[9] https://thewire.in/politics/uttar-pradesh-development-trajectory-histry-politics

[10] https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/elections/data/the-politics-of-uttar-pradesh

[11] https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/uttar-pradesh-polls-caste-based-political-parties-bargaining-hard-with-major-parties/articleshow/85618824.cms

[12] http://www.agraarchdiocese.com/akbar-church.aspx

[13] Gupta, Charu (2014). Intimate Desires: Dalit Women and Religious Conversions in Colonial India. The Journal of Asian Studies. Vol. 73. No.3. pp. 661-687.

[14] https://scroll.in/latest/987825/up-assembly-approves-bill-prohibiting-religious-conversion

[15] https://www.siasat.com/340-people-booked-under-anti-conversion-law-in-up-2230339/

[16] Brahmins or priests are a dominant caste in the Indian caste system and are placed at the top of the caste hierarchy.

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