Satna: Christmas was not celebrated this year in Satna, Madhya Pradesh, after a group of Christians were detained by the police two weeks ago and attacked, allegedly by a right-wing group, during a pre-Christmas programme. The right-wing group claimed they were converting the locals and cases were filed against a priest under the state's strict anti-conversion law.
"We want to send a message to the world that we don't have religious freedom here," said Fr Jossey, a local priest.
The fear in Satna is not unique. NDTV found a similar situation prevailing in various pockets of the state. Christians have chosen to forego Sunday prayers, carol singing and displaying crosses and rosaries through the year, fearing they will be accused of converting locals and persecuted.
On December 14, in Satna's Bhoomkahar village, 34 seminarians and priests were detained by the police and beaten up at the police station, allegedly by Bajranj Dal activists. So were those who went to meet them.
Fr Jenner, who was in the latter group, said, "They did not even allow us to speak. They just started beating". The Bajrang Dal members, he said, asked the brothers to remove their caps, pulled off their glasses and broke them. "It was mental agony, in that moment I felt insecurity in living in India, especially in this locality," he said.
The police denied any violence in the station premises and said the group was detained for their protection. The Bajrang Dal denied getting violent, but stood by its assertion that Christians are carrying out mass conversion drives in Satna.
"None of our workers support violence, but we are free to protect our religion," said Sachin Shukla, a leader of the group. "If conversions are carried out through temptation or love jihad, the Bajrang Dal's national leaders have called for us to oppose it all over the country."
Although there is no proof of a spike in Christian population, fear mongering over conversion pervades Satna, with at least five anti-conversion cases pending in the district.
Laxmi Yadav, a member of the BJP and its ideological mentor, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, spoke to NDTV of exhuming bodies and preventing marriages to save Hindus from conversion. "People in Satna are aware now. When they (the priests) wear their white dresses and go to the villages, they inform us and we take action."
Some villagers in Bhoomkahar, though, said the priests would only visit the village to teach their children English.
Anti-conversion rhetoric thrives in Jhabua as well, a district with a large Christian population that reaches 10% in some areas.
"We have the right to prevent these people... In the end we can even straighten them out by force," said Khomsingh Maharaj, a leader of another right-wing group, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. He claims 30 new churches have been built without permission and this shows that Christians are trying to convert the locals.
Wary of the scrutiny, the Christians remain circumspect. But stories of persecution are common. Sunday prayers invite beatings, said Raju Dohar, a resident of Jhabua. "If you have to stay in the village, you have to stop holding prayers,"
Rakesh Bilwal, a farmer who converted to Christianity seven years ago, has been detained five times and charged under the anti-conversion law. After six years of hearings, he was found innocent last year.
But last December, another case was filed against the 30-year-old. "I live in fear. People watch me," said Mr Bilwal. "If I celebrate Christmas they'll come again and catch me for conversions."
Amiya Jal, 46, a pastor, a teacher and a father of three, was charged with kidnapping and under the state anti-conversion law this May, for helping 60 children take a bus to a Bible study camp in Nagpur. He spent 103 days in jail, and lost his job. "My family has been put through a lot of hardship, my neighbours view us with suspicion," said Mr Jal. "We can't celebrate Christmas because of this trauma. We are not free."