Are the mass Christian conversions in Punjab fact or fiction?

By: ilma hasan&
February 3 2022

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Are the mass Christian conversions in Punjab fact or fiction?

On January 17, weeks ahead of the state assembly elections scheduled in the northern state of Punjab, the hashtag #Christianization_of_Punjab started trending on Twitter. Users claimed that Punjab’s Hindu population was disproportionately converting to Christianity. There were over 25,000 mentions of this hashtag within a single day.

Three days later, on January 20, referring to Chief Minister Charanjit Singh Channi from the Indian National Congress (INC), the hashtag  #ChanniSidhuMeansConversion had over 29,000 mentions in yet another trend that also lasted a day. The use of this hashtag spiked amid claims that the state’s leader was not stopping “forceful conversions'' to Christianity in Punjab. The narrative against him was further pushed by the misleading claims that Channi had issued an order to create an endowment for a chair for the university-level study of the Bible but had not promoted Hindu texts, and that he had converted to Christianity using the baptism video of a Sikh man. Fact checking organizations have found these claims to be misleading and false respectively.

According to the narrative, powerful missionaries were going door to door conducting conversions by force, and the INC leadership not only was not stopping this but endorsing the spread of Christianity. In the lead-up to the elections, such claims were not only pushed via copypasta behavior and by popular right-wing accounts, but mainstream news outlets also published op-eds and sting operations on the supposed threat of rising conversions. 

Setting the agenda

This Facebook page is followed by nearly 370,000 users. Its description says the page is against “fraudulent and deceptive conversion by spreading superstition and fear by charlatans and foreign missionaries and their funded Indian agents.”

Ranging from accounts with a significant number of followers endorsing “no conversion” in their Twitter usernames, to the controversy and consequent support among rightwing accounts that erupted after the Christian hymn “Abide With Me” was removed from India’s Republic Day beating retreat ceremony for the first time since the 1950s – the narrative of an imminent threat of increasing conversions has been repeatedly used as an effective polarizing tool over the past few months. 

As reported by Nikkei Asia, the narrative of forced conversion is being used to persecute Christians nationwide, with attacks doubling since 2020. From mobs vandalizing churches, attacking schools to assaulting converts, according to the New York Times, many instances have been backed by the police and members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). A Christian rights protection group’s report stated 2021 was the “most violent year for Christians” in India, with violent crimes against the community rising by 75 percent from 2020 to 2021.

The watchdog Open Doors labeled the persecution level against Christians in India as “extreme,” with a key factor being the use of social media. “When an extremist Hindu mob attacks Christians, one of the first things they’ll do is snatch the victims’ phones, to stop them from recording the incident. However, the group will record the violence and add it to social media to promote their extremist agenda,” the watchdog reported.

Websites with right-wing leanings are publishing misleading articles without any evidence or data to back their claims.

Copypasta was adopted using these trending hashtags. Copypasta is a technique that involves a specific text being copied and pasted by many accounts and indicates bot and bot-like behavior.

This national-level propaganda is being adopted at the state level to instill baseless fears of a shifting religious demographic in Punjab. Similar to hashtags that trended in early January, the ​​#PunjabCongressChurchNexus saw 50,000 mentions between January 26 and January 31. Yet another trend attacking the INC, the hashtag was used in posts that targeted Channi’s religious identity. 

“There is nothing but hype being created on the issue in the past few months due to the upcoming assembly elections and the questions revolving around the identity of Punjab’s chief minister,” Dr. Ronki Ram, a political science professor at Punjab University, told me.

Doesn’t our constitution allow us to choose our religion anyway? Do we have any data?

“There is no issue of forced conversion in Punjab. Doesn’t our constitution allow us to choose our religion anyway?” said Professor J.S. Sekhon, a former political science lecturer at Guru Nanak Dev University. “Do we have any data? Basically, it is part of their propaganda. And it’s happening because the BJP has become an independent entity in Punjab, Making a mountain from a molehill.” 

False claims that there is en masse conversion and that Channi is not a Dalit leader but a practicing Christian, are further spread by leading news organizations quoting BJP leaders. In a Times Now segment, a BJP spokesperson repeatedly claimed Channi is not a Dalit but a converted Christian trying to “hoodwink the people.” In response, the anchor did not question the spokesperson. Similarly, CNN-IBN did a “mega investigation” claiming thousands are being “lured into conversion” every hour, particularly in the last few months. The channel provided no data to back such claims. The reporter even claimed people are taking to Christianity for small sums as little as a pile of bricks. 

Why is conversion appealing?

“This isn’t really a new trend in Punjab,” Ram told me. “The most vulnerable are unable to function in a system that is becoming increasingly privatized. Since it is out of the reach of the common poor, they choose to attend camps organized by Chrisitan missionaries – maybe this has led to people to consider converting.”

“The fear of inaccessibility during the times of COVID-19 has further pushed them to seek help from the work being done by such religious groups,” he added.

Historically, Punjab has witnessed members from backward classes convert to Christianity since before independence. (Backward classes is the official terminology to classify a group of people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds that do not belong to the Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe categories.) According to Ram, there were conversions even during the British times, reaching a point where the church asked Indian bishops to try bringing more upper castes into their fold since only the backward classes were taking to Christianity.

A 1965 article published in The Economic Weekly that observed the state’s religious composition noted that despite the population of Christians experiencing an increase of 51.56 percent between 1951 to 1961 – with half of the increase due to conversions among members of some backward classes. However, the numbers involved were so small that they “made no material difference in the pattern of religious composition of Punjab.” That trend has continued for decades, with members of Dalit communities converting in hopes of securing social justice.

“Only specific communities of the Scheduled Caste are converting, those within the community that are higher up on the structures are not. Whatever conversions are taking place are among the poor who have no voice particularly in the border areas. Even the benefits of reservation are appropriated by the creamy layer,” Sekhon told me, referring to the well-off members of the backward classes. 

The contemporary trend of religious groups not asking for a name change, adopting multi-dimensional cultures, co-opting traditions and tenets of various religions have only increased the appeal among people.

Sekhon says Christian institutions and networks adopting such practices are on the rise since Punjab is a tolerant state used to not causing hindrance in the operations of such groups. Additionally, families would rather their children attend missionary schools. “Every parent wants to get their children admitted to a Christian missionary school. Why? It’s because these schools are considered to be better, more disciplined. Public schools are substandard.”

A Growing Population

In his Network 18 op-ed titled “Punjab Sikhs Have a New War at Their Doorstep – Growing Christianity among Lower Class,” head of RSS’ media wing Rajiv Tuli argued that while the Christian community comprised of Hindu converts in Punjab, “Sikhism is facing its severest crisis ever.”

On comparing the 2011 and 2001 census, the Christian population continued to be the third-largest community, but there was a marginal increase in their numbers. While they constituted over 24 million people in 2001, their population increased to roughly 28 million in 2011.  

“India’s Christian population grew at the slowest pace of the three largest groups in the most recent census decade – gaining 15.7 percent between 2001 and 2011, a far lower growth rate than the one recorded in the decade following Partition,” a Pew Research Center report found. In comparison, the Hindu population rose by 16.7 percent and the Muslim population by 24.7 percent. It further projected the Christian population to stay at two percent in line with the earlier census as of 2020. 

Between the two censuses that were conducted, Punjab’s Christian population increased by approximately 50,000, constituting nearly 1.5 percent of the state’s demographics. According to the 1991 census, the community constituted 1.1 percent of the state’s population, indicating a marginal increase in numbers over the years. 

With conversion becoming an increasingly contentious issue in India, around ten states have enacted laws against it by 2021. But a Pew Research Center report found conversion to be rather rare. 

“Just two percent of respondents report a different religion than the one in which they were raised, including 0.4 percent who are converts to Christianity,” the report reads. “Christian converts in India mostly are former Hindus, but Hindus gained as many people as they lost through religious switching (0.7 percent raised Hindus identify as something else, while 0.8 percent raised as something else but now identify as Hindu).”

In contrast, state president of the United Christian Front Kamal Bakshi told the Print that Christians are undercounted in the census. “Even if a person embraces Christianity, they don’t change their names in official documents so they can take advantage of reservation benefits,” according to Bakshi. In addition, since people cannot identify as being both Christian and Scheduled Caste, the census numbers could be off we cannot determine the extent of it.

“These communities also vote in a bloc, having huge implications on the politics. In order to make political gains often certain communities are particularly targeted. Perhaps this is what is happening in Punjab," Sekhon says. His analysis is in line with Pew Research Center’s report which found Christians tend to favor the INC over BJP, with one in ten in the community voting for the national ruling party in 2019, the lowest share among all of India’s religious groups. 

Rather than creating an issue, Sekhon says it’s time for introspection. “The Scheduled Caste category doesn’t have the capacity or resources since they are at the bottom of the ladder, it’s their choice to convert. They also feel such groups give them a sense of belonging, identity and solidarity. We have to ask ourselves, why is that the case?”

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