Church leader in southwest India loses hearing in one ear.
Pastor Sanjay Bhandari had taken his wife for a medical check-up earlier this month when they decided to visit her sister in the same area in Karnataka state, southwest India – only to be attacked as they were drinking tea.
“While we were still having tea, a few men barged inside the house and, grabbing me by my shirt collar, they dragged me outside, accusing me of carrying out conversions,” Pastor Bhandari told Morning Star News. “I tried very hard to explain that it was my relatives’ house, and that we were only paying them a casual visit, but the men refused to listen.”
The Hindu extremists in Halaga village, near Belgaum city, Belgaum District also ignored the pleas of his wife’s family that day, April 5. The men took Pastor Bhandari outside, where 50 to 60 Hindu extremists were waiting, he said.
The mob paraded him a mile to the rented worship hall where he has led Sunday services for five years, hitting and kicking him along the way, he said.
“They continued to hit me as they dragged me,” said Pastor Bhandari, a resident of Belgaum city. “They abused me and Jesus Christ in filthy language and pressured me to hail, ‘Jai Sri Ram [Hail lord Ram],’ as they beat me.”
The mob accused him of converting their community to Christianity and trying to convert the family he was visiting – though they are already Christian, he said.
“They hit me on my private parts, my face, chest and all over my body, accusing me of trying to convert my sister-in-law,” Pastor Bhandari told Morning Star News. “I tried telling them that the home belongs to my sister-in-law, and that they are already Christians and members of my church.”
The beating and slapping damaged one of his eardrums, he said, causing loss of hearing in that ear.
Shouting Hindu slogans, the mob accused the pastor of converting Santosh Satpute, formerly a Hindu. Satpute told Morning Star News he went before the mob and told them he believed in Christ of his own free will, and that nobody had forced him to change his religion.
Satpute said the mob assaulted him as he tried to help Pastor Bhandari.
“When we tried to rescue Pastor Sanjay, the mob assaulted me along with Pastor Sanjay, his wife, and his brother Bhimshen,” Satpute said. “I was hurt on my chest and my ear.”
The pastor’s wife was manhandled as she tried to shield her husband from the assault, he said. The 42-year-old Bhimshen Bhandari was also injured in the attack.
Upon arriving at the building, the assailants pushed their way in to climb the staircase to the worship hall, but the owner of the building, a Hindu, sternly warned them that if they continued he would call police. The mob desisted from entering the worship hall but began to perform Hindu rituals on Pastor Bhandari, he said.
“They applied Kumkum [vermillion] and haldi [turmeric] and dusted it on my head and made marks on my forehead,” Pastor Bhandari said.
Kumkum is a red powder, 95 percent turmeric and 5 percent limestone, used to make the distinctive Hindu mark on the forehead. Hindu husbands usually apply it on their wives where their hair is parted, and the mob tried to force Pastor Bhandari to do so.
When he refused, they told him that if he persisted, then one of them would do it, he said.
“When they threatened to apply the Kumkum, I applied it on her forehead but did not fill it in the partition of her hair,” Pastor Bhandari said.
Satpute said he was a distraught eyewitness to the ordeal.
“They tortured Pastor Sanjay physically and mentally,” he told Morning Star News. “He was forced to perform Hindu rituals against his free will. The harassment and torture he went through is beyond description.”
The pastor insisted that they go to police to discuss the matter, and the mob left after warning him not to be seen in the area again.
“They warned that they would chop me to pieces if I conduct church again,” Pastor Bhandari said. “Saying that, they dispersed and disappeared.”
Area Christian leaders strongly condemned the attack.
“Initially churches and Christian gatherings were attacked – it is extremely shocking that now a personal visit to your own relative’s house is also objectionable, and you can face the brutality of the Hindu goons,” the Rev. T. Thomas, president of the Belgaum Karnataka Pastors Association, told Morning Star News. “We will not keep silent. We will take this up with the authorities.”
Pastor Bhandari said he has pastored the independent church for seven years without any opposition. He said he was shocked to see two people with whom he had enjoyed good relations among the assailants.
“I have been to their homes and have sat and had meals at their homes,” Pastor Bhandari said. “I was very shocked to see them among my assaulters.”
When Pastor Bhandari initially went to the Shahapura police station, he was instructed to first go to a government hospital, and that police would then take action based on his medical report, he said.
He was hospitalized at the Belgaum Institute of Medical Sciences (BIMS) for treatment of his ear, private parts and injuries to his left shoulder and chest. Discharged on April 10, he continues treatment and medical examinations.
After initial hesitancy by police, Christian leaders on April 6 persuaded officers at the Shahapura police station to file charges against seven assailants for unlawful assembly, rioting, voluntarily causing hurt, wrongful restraint, provocation and criminal intimidation under the Indian Penal Code (First Information Report No. 0020/2021).
Pastor Bhandari’s attorney, M. Ramesh, told Morning Star News that only after giving a memorandum to higher officials did police register the pastor’s complaint.
“On the evening of the incident, we gave a memorandum to the Deputy Commissioner of Belgaum,” Ramesh said. “I spoke to the media directly, and it was only then that the FIR was registered.”
No arrests have been made, according to the investigating officer at the Shahapura station. No action has been taken at this writing.
Though there have been no arrests, the investigating officer, identified only as Raghvendra, said the station has issued notice to the seven suspects to appear before police. He said the investigation was complete.
“We have done all the investigation proceedings. We are waiting for the wound certificate from the hospital, and then we will immediately send the charge sheet to the court,” Raghvendra told Morning Star News. “We have given requisition to the hospital in writing and are waiting to hear from them; only then we can proceed.”
A staff member at the BIMS hospital declined to give information about Pastor Bhandari, citing confidentiality.
The pastor’s attorney repudiated the police delays.
“We will have to fight on higher levels to be heard,” Ramesh told Morning Star News. “They are intentionally targeting the Christian community, pastors and followers of the faith. They are working under a well-planned strategy.”
Pastor Thomas added that Christians have been targeted in eight incidents in the district, though police have filed FIRs in only two of them.
The hostile tone of the National Democratic Alliance government, led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, against non-Hindus, has emboldened Hindu extremists in several parts of the country to attack Christians since Prime Minister Narendra Modi took power in May 2014, religious rights advocates say.
India ranked 10th on Christian support organization Open Doors’ 2021 World Watch List of the countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian, as it was in 2020. The country was 31st in 2013, but its position worsened after Modi came to power.