By Karuna John
Vikash Kumar Gupta, who hails from Jaunpur in Uttar Pradesh, was still studying for his diploma course in welding from the local ITI, when he said he felt compelled. to listen to his inner voice to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ. “No one asked me to, I just felt like helping people and I found peace when I read about Jesus. So much that I was inspired to follow in his footsteps.” So he did, and began what he calls social work by meeting people and sharing their concerns. “I attended a local Church for myself, and would listen to the preachers talk. I too started talking to people who came to meet me,” says the soft-spoken Vikas who now wants to keep learning about theology, and social work, so he can help people in whatever way he can now, as everyone battles Covid-19.
The 21-year-old’s optimism is both inspiring and surprising, he has recently escaped a mob attack and is currently in hiding at a safe location. He is now fine physically but the emotional scars are healing slowly, “My mother is my source of strength, she gives me hope,” Vikash told SabrangIndia that he is using this forced break from his outreach schedule to stay indoors and “pray for everyone.”
His parents are grateful to have their boy back safe from what could have turned into a massive tragedy when the church he was at was allegedly attacked by a 100 strong mob. But he himself is unfazed, “I just need to take a break from preaching for a few more days, for the sake of my father who is unwell and stressed. So I just pray for people on my own. They call me on the phone and I just listen to them share their worries and I take their names and pray for them,”
According to Vikash, he does not go around asking people to convert to Christianity, in fact he did not even ask his parents and two sisters to convert. “I just prayed quietly,” he remembers his parents being confused, and concerned at this change in the beginning, but they let him be. He was not getting into any trouble, he was just praying. They eventually asked to join the faith years after Vikash himself did. “How can I ask anyone to do anything,” he says looking back, adding “Of course if they want to know anything about the teachings of Jesus I tell them. If they ask me any questions, I answer them.”
This is how he conducts his life as a Christian preacher too. It is not a career, it is a calling, and Vikash is no religious fanatic, he aspires to be a Christian social worker and does his research into subjects of interests, through talks and videos he finds online. “I teach myself online on youtube… I want to learn more… even God says you have to use your brains…,” he says education feeds the brain and keeps it alert.
It was this alertness that helped save his life when the small church he was at, in a village at Dasmada in Azamgarh district of Uttar Pradesh was attacked on July 4. “I had gone there to conduct the prayer service for the small group because the Pastor Sunita Mourya had to go attend a wedding elsewhere and had asked me to fill in. So I drove down,” he recalls. Sunita Mourya is a guide to Vikash in his ministry and he is always at hand to assist her whenever she calls, he says she is almost like a second mother to him, “I call her Sunita ma sometimes.” Together they run prayer services in the Church which has only 30 members or so from the village.
The ‘church’ they worship at is a room in Sunita’s own house. And on that day as Vikash prayed with four others, he says a mob broke in, vandalised the place and beat them up. The 21-year-old managed to escape and hide nearby even as the mob continued their attack. “I quietly filmed the attack from my hiding place, and sent the clip to other pastors in nearby areas telling them to alert the police. I tried calling the police myself too, but the phone call did not connect,” he remembers the fear he felt everytime he recalls the incident.
Eventually the police arrived and took Vikash and the other victims to the Baradaha Police station and registered a case. “They also had my medical examination done, and then let us all go,” he said.
Vikash says he did not know who attacked him, but is worried that they can attack again. “One of the sisters praying with us told the police she recognised some of the men who had abused and attacked us,”he says. Vikash then managed to get in touch with Shibu Thomas who runs Persecution Relief, an organisation that helps Christian preachers who are harassed because of their faith. He told them that he overheard someone from the mob say, “Vikash is the main guy and we must kill him”. Vikash told SabrangIndia he did not know the man who said that, but they may have heard of him, as a lot of people come to talk to him, or ask him to meet them which he does often. “I just go drive down on my motorcycle and meet people,” he says.
Vikash repeated what he told Persecution Relief, “Before the Covid-19 lockdown, we would all regularly meet at Sunita’s home to pray and have discussions. But after the lockdown, that stopped. On July 2, a handful of believers were praying together when a group of Right Wing supporters came and started threatening and abusing them.” Vikash said they kept yelling, and abusing and asking him about Pastor Sunita. “She was away at the wedding, and I tried to calm the angry men down telling them that we will all talk together and solve whatever the issue was,” they left and Vikash told Sunita about the altercation. “She was upset, but then told me we have to forgive them and pray even for them, and to leave it in God’s hands,” recalls Vikash.
Vikash says he was out when the goons returned the next day. Pastor Sunita, also told Persecution Relief that she and the others who were praying at her house were attacked on July 3. Vikash returned and said he was shocked. The mob returned and forced all the Christian believers out of the house and into a bus. Sunita told Persecution Relief, that they were all “harassed, threatened and verbally abused,” in the bus. “I can’t even repeat those disgusting words,” said Vikash, adding “they took us to their temple and forced us to bow down to the idols and ‘worship’.”
“I did not pray, but I did not want to argue with the men. They were not in a mood to listen. If I had fought with them things could have taken a dangerous turn,” said Vikash. In hindsight he wonders if he should have complained to the police that day as well instead of staying quiet after the harassment. However he did not want to aggravate a sensitive situation he says, and endanger everyone’s life.
Perhaps his silence and simplicity then gave the goons another excuse to attack Sunita’s home-church the next day too. On July 4, they were more aggressive, ransacking the house, and threatening Vikash, Sunita, and others to leave the village. This was the last straw and Vikash made sure they eventually lodged a formal complaint at the Bardah police station.
According to some reports, the five people were arrested in the case. However Vikash is not sure what the status of the case is. What he is sure of is that this may not be the last of such attacks. “I just have to be careful, and I will pray to god to grant them sanity, and peace,” he said.
Last Year, The Uttar Pradesh State Law Commission submitted a report to Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, suggesting a new law to check forcible religious conversions. According to a PTI news report of November 2019, published by News18 and others stated that, “The report was submitted along with a draft legislation, Uttar Pradesh Freedom of Religion Bill, 2019.” The report stated, “The commission is of the view that existing legal provisions are not enough to check religious conversion and on this serious matter, a new law is needed like in 10 other states.”
A recent report titled Hate and Targeted Violence against Christians in India has shed fresh light on a series of instances of lynching, ostracisation and violence faced by members of India’s minority Christian community that accounts for just over 2 per cent of the population of the country.
The report prepared by the Religious Liberty Commission (RLC) of the Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI) says, “The absolute sense of impunity generated in the administrative apparatus of India by the Corona pandemic lockdown, and the consequent absence of civil society on the streets and in the courts, has aggravated the environment of targeted hate and violence against Christians in major states and the National Capital territory, as seen in the data available till June 2020.”
Explaining the impact of the lockdown on access to justice the report says, “Even in normal times, the police were loath to register cases. The situation has worsened. Communally motivated crime is either unreported, or under reported. The victims have no recourse to the normal systems of reporting to the police, and severely restricted access to courts for relief.”
The EFI has registered 135 cases related to lynching, community ostracisation and concerted efforts to stop worship and gospel-sharing across India. Adityanath-led Uttar Pradesh leads with 32 cases of hate crimes, while several cases were reported from Tamil Nadu, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand.
This story first appeared on sabrangindia.in