A godman claims that 7,000 Sindhis have converted to Christianity in the past two years. And he is hell-bent on getting them back.
Sai Balram is a man to behold. When he emerges from his den, which contains a megaphone, a collage of his face shot from many different angles, and a poster of Radha and Krishna, he wipes crumbs off his stubble with the back of his hand. In awe, people watch this giant lumber up a dozen steps to the temple tap, gargle, wash his fingers and present them to a helper holding a dry towel. As he lumbers back to his office, women 20 years older touch his feet and ask for his blessings. He pauses and pats their heads before retiring to a sofa-bed in his inner sanctum.
Balram is concerned. He has information that there have been conversions in Ulhasnagar, a small town 60 km from Mumbai. Mass conversions. More than 10,000 have converted to Christianity in the past two years, and 7,000 of them are Sindhis.
Balram knows who they are. He knows who the agents are. He knows where they worship. “I have watched their processes, their intentions, the instruments they use, how they catch people, how they attract them. We have to watch them. We have to observe everything.”
He has watched them for two years. He knows the Sindhi converts have not changed their last name—a bone of contention. “If they change their name, it will be reflected in the census. They don’t want to be exposed.”
He has a plan for them. In the last days of October this year, Balram and other like-minded folk will launch a ‘shuddhikaran’ campaign to reconvert the Sindhis who haven’t changed their names. “What politicians who support them don’t understand is, going ahead, this will become a political threat for them. After these people increase their power, they can do anything.” He searches for a suitable comparison. “When the East India Company came, they targeted the business sector. To rule India now, they will have to rule over our democracy.”
To prevent the quiet takeover by these camouflaged converts, he prefers that their names identify their faith. “Like John, or Joseph. You should be faithful to your religion.”
Balram is a political force in the Sindhi-dominated town of Ulhasnagar. His political party, Gangajal Front, presently supports the local MLA, a BJP man who constructs buildings without any permissions or plans. Before this, the god-man backed Suresh Kalani (more renowned as ‘Pappu’), who contested and won two elections from jail. A political opponent once accused Balram of trying to run him over with a car—an allegation he has denied.
“I’ll tell you a simple thing. If you are in a (Christian) prayer meeting, and if your original (Hindu) god comes into your mind, you are being dishonest with yourself. If it happens, then why are you there? If you are in a twin mind, better to be on one side. But it always happens,” he says, referring to the haunting habit of original gods. “How can you forget? If somebody marries another girl, can he forget his first wife?” He takes a deep breath. “Ask psychorists. Ask cyclesophists. Ask them if this is possible. This is all psychology.”
Pastor Trevor Conway arrived in Ulhasnagar in 1961, much to his own surprise. He had hopped off a passing train from Bombay after hearing a voice that only he heard. “It was a jungle here,” he says, describing what greeted him. “Red earth. Snakes.” The voice told him to set up a church in an abandoned building.
The church where Conway preaches is in a large white building that gleams in the midday sun amid the low-rises around it. Along the far wall, above a small carpeted marble podium, golden type proclaims that ‘Jesus is God’—also the name of Conway’s church.
Conway is dressed in a crisp white shirt, perfectly creased white trousers, white shoes, large black sunglasses and a green net baseball cap. Tightly clasped in his right hand is a worn Bible. He is anxious. He is concerned about a story published in the newspaper DNA. Everybody who needs to know about it has either read it, or heard about it. This is a problem.
The story appeared in the Mumbai edition of DNA in the last week of February. It declared that out of 400,000 Sindhis in Ulhasnagar, 7,000 (1.75 per cent) had turned to Christianity in the last two years. The author wrote that the conversions were a ‘rough estimate’, and had ‘sent shock waves among the community elders’. Over the next ten days, DNA carried three more stories, covering different angles and reactions to the initial story. They included quotes by men worried about the effect these conversions would have on the community. One of the story’s sources was Sai Balram.
Conway’s church is down the road from Pappu Kalani’s walled residence. He feels unprotected, even if Kalani comes by only during election time. Conway is uneasy. How did they come up with this number? He reckons that no more than 800 conversions have occurred. The rest are people who like to come by for peace of mind. But he admits that there are some Sindhis who have not told anyone about their conversion to Christianity. They have kept their last names. They are afraid of being ostracised.
“We call them dalals. They are brokers,” Balram says. “Daulat Basantani. Dinesh Chawla. Pappu Pamnani, a real estate agent. Suresh Chandwani. They consider themselves converted. I know that they (the evangelists) are paid a commission for each new client.”
He mentions a Sindhi who runs a well-known medical store in Ulhasnagar. “The man over there will deny that he has converted. You will ask him to show you a statue of our gods and goddesses, or even a picture, and he would say that it is his business whether he wants to display these gods or not. To not say ‘yes’ is to say ‘no’ in a way. If a man says that he’s not saying the truth, what does it mean? That he’s lying.”
In the world according to Balram, “These poor people who convert have no idea what it means.” In addition, “In this chakkar, they’ve taken down pictures of Hindu gods and goddesses. They don’t do pujas anymore. This strategy imbalances their physical, mental and social atmosphere. They have been given instructions that they should have non-veg everyday. That they should drink. That they should have sex.”
There are five Sindhi pastors in Ulhasnagar. One of them is somewhat surprised when Conway drives up to his home on his scooter late afternoon, drops off a reporter and photographer, and leaves. Pastor Sonu Lehrani is unprepared. He is in a grey sleeveless T-shirt and khaki shorts. He invites us to sit in the living room, which also has a large bed. His wife sings a song in the kitchen. When she comes out and sits beside him they sing in unison. He was a goon once, he says. “I fell into bad company. I did everything a man should not do. Drugs, women, each and every thing. There is no bad thing I didn’t do. I always thought that I had to die anyway, so why not go out having fun? But then I discovered the Bible, and I came to understand that there was a Hell.” He didn’t like the sound of eternal fire, so he resolved to change. His wife likes what the conversion has done to him. But they do not use the word ‘conversion’. Instead, they say, ‘a change of faith’. They have a young girl who watches them happily, and a young boy who seems on the verge of rebellion.
An hour later, he drives up to the local Salvation Army building, dressed in a shiny white shirt and jeans, with his wife riding in a striking green salwar. He jogs up two flights of stairs to a large room with rows of seats and a podium at the front. He takes his place before the large golden cross, surveys a small crowd stream in silently, and tells them all about Christ. It is an eclectic crowd. Many women, a few men, a handful of kids. Fat housewives, and others who look like their maids. One Sindhi man, slight and hunched, says he has not converted, but has been coming by on and off for eight years for some peace. “I don’t know why. I just like it.” His family knows about him, and they have accepted it. Another woman, a Sindhi lady who has struggled up two floors, began attending sessions after her sick daughter’s health had turned miraculously. Her daughter stands by, watching her, hollow-eyed, but otherwise healthy. Pastor Sonu stands behind the daughter, nervously watching everyone.
Pastor Sonu is startled to see us lurking around 20 minutes after we exchanged goodbyes. He has come by to check on a girl who is reading aloud to children. She is not very old herself, but holds up a picture book with authority. Five children sit on the floor. “Aaj ka vachan kya hai (What is today’s lesson?” she asks. And asks again.
The kids are blank.
The pastor watches us watch the children. He is uncomfortable with this, but wants to be nice. Letting us hang around and just watch everything is against his better judgment. We are reporters, and he is a man of God in a town filled with people out to cause him trouble.
After we leave, he rings a friend, an older pastor in Mumbai. He is worried. Perhaps he should have turned the reporters away. The older pastor rips into him for being injudicious. “Why did you do it?” he asks.
“Three days after my name appeared in the newspaper, the police—the CID—came here to interview me,” Balram says, pointing to a chair. “They asked me how I got the figure. After it was done, they said they agreed with me. ‘Sir, you are right.’” (The Ulhasnagar CID denied meeting Balram.) Balram says that after the story appeared, the crowd attending the Christian prayer meetings has halved. “They have done it out of fear. They fear that they will be attacked. This is psychological pressure. The dalals call up the police and say they need protection for their prayer meetings. If they see six-seven men around, they call for protection. You know how, when you are attacked by a cat, you see cats everywhere? It’s like that.”
Balram will use pressure as part of his campaign. He plans to boycott the ‘brokers’ socially, and financially. “We will stand outside the medical store and ask customers, ‘Saab, there are other medical stores here. Is it necessary for you to buy medicines here?’ If there are adharmik [irreligious] people, it’s not like the medicine will have any effect on them. But if this affects his business by 20, 30 or 40 per cent, he will join his hands and ask us to forgive him. ‘Please reconvert me’, he will say, ‘I don’t want to go to that faith.’ Then he will stop converting others. Even if we get 5 per cent of these wholesalers, it will succeed. If Procter & Gamble stops supplying to them? Then what will happen?”
He says that he has the support of the shopkeepers’ association. “They want to join us in this. We want them to convince wholesalers not to supply products to these people. Once that happens, we will start a media campaign. We will not take the law into our hands. This is a totally non-violent procedure. We will target six brokers first. This is a low-impact strategy.”
A number is at the heart of this unrest—7,000. Balram knows who is behind it. It is him. He has done his research. He has remained quiet for two years, and now he has the answers he wanted. But first, he explains the exact science behind the numbers. “We know there are 192 prayer centres,” he says. “We have a list of 192 centres. We multiplied 192 with an average of 30 people per centre. You will get a figure of 6,000. This is a minimum figure. We estimate that if it (the prayer meeting) is happening in a flat, there are 20 people or 30 people. If it is a bigger flat, there will be 40 or 50 people. We have every answer. We know their (evangelists’) mentality. We know where they have come from. We know how they have spread across India. They want to finish Hindus and Muslims. Muslims cannot be converted, so kill them in the name of terrorism. It’s a conspiracy. Now Israel will be on their list. India is also on this list.”
Balram will tackle all that later. For now, there are reconversions to take care of. “There’s a step-by-step plan. It’s not like we’re going to convert people in one session. This shuddhikaran (purification) will take at least six months. We will have to sit with each person individually to brainwash him. We can’t get them all in one go. We won’t do this in Shiv Sena-style.”