This Bihar Village is Caught in a Conversion Crossfire

Gaya, Bihar: At Gaya's Atiya village, just eight kilometres of bad roads away from international tourist hotspot Bodh Gaya, tension has carried itself into new year. In the last 10 days, this village has hit the headlines, with reports of alleged conversions, following which a 'ghar wapasi' programme was organised here by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad or VHP.

Trouble started here on Christmas Day last year, when local media started reporting news of a mass conversion drive at a church in the village on that day. But villagers like Vinod Manjhi claim that 42 families, part of the Mahadalit community at the village, have been following Christian traditions since 2007 itself, though they have not officially converted from Hinduism, and that others were just attending the Christmas Mass.

"We have been celebrating Christmas since 2007. We have not converted, we are still Hindus. We just have a belief," Mr Manjhi said.

Others in the village claim the belief in Christianity started when a few families started attending prayer service many years ago, and rid themselves of social evils like drinking and gambling. A little outside the village, Shiv Shankar and his father, the first people to embrace a Christian way of life in this village in 2007, reject allegations by Hindu organisations of being ringleaders in a conversion drive here, say there have been no forcible conversions, and Christian rituals are still restricted to only 42 families in the village.

"This is a secular country, it is our right to follow any religion. If that is not allowed, it is a violation of our fundamental rights," said Mr Shankar.

But at the other end of the spectrum here, organisations like the VHP and others say this is a grey area. Four days after the allegations of conversion at Atiya, a 'ghar wapasi' programme was hurriedly put up at the village. In attendance were Gaya BJP MP Hari Manjhi and other VHP and Bajrang Dal leaders. Most villagers though, stayed away. But the VHP leaders say they are planning more programmes in the village and the district.

Mani Lal Barik, VHP District President of Gaya said, "On that day, there was a lot of pressure put up by the administration. There were rumours that Section 144 had been imposed, that's why people did not show up."

The Bihar government has so far maintained an enquiry will be ordered if needed, and that they have no role except when there are forcible conversions. For these villagers though, dealing with media attention on one hand, some of it unwanted they say, and aggressive religious posturing on both sides, is something they would rather avoid.
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