For the past three years Prakash Masih has traveled from one hamlet to another in India’s northern state of Uttar Pradesh providing legal help for Christians harassed by hard-line Hindu groups.
Born into a Protestant family, Prakash completed his law degree from Uttar’s Pradesh’s law school in 2017. Since then, the 39-year-old has dedicated his time assisting underprivileged Christians subjected to an increase in anti-Christian violence since the pro-Hindu Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in the state in 2016.
When Prakash was celebrating the birthday of his 3-year-old son earlier this month, he got a call from a Christian villager informing him that police had arrested three local pastors from a village called Kounsambi, some 65 km away from his home.
“I have no vehicle of my own and I had taken a day off from work to be with my family but the person who called me sounded distressed,” Prakash told LiCAS.news. “I borrowed a motorbike and it took me more than two hours riding on rough roads to reach to the village,” he said.
Prakash went to the police station where the three pastors were being detained and he was told they had been arrested on charges of forced religious conversion.
“I also talked to the arrested pastors who told me that they were innocent and were being falsely accused. They said they were holding a peaceful religious assembly of more than 100 people in an open space and were praying to Lord Jesus when all of a sudden a police vehicle arrived and then police began beating up many of the Christians there,” said Prakash.
“Later, the three pastors at the prayer meeting were bundled into a police vehicle and put behind the bars,” he said.
Prakash spoke with the head station officer and assured him that the pastors were only holding a prayer meeting which is legally allowed. He also defended the pastors’ right to hold prayer meetings and spread Christian teachings.
“While I was defending the pastors, the police officer got angry and accused me of being with the three men who he said were forcefully converting local Hindus to Christianity,” he said.
“I told the officer that I’m a lawyer who has come to defend the arrested pastors and that as per the Indian Constitution practicing any religion is not illegal and unlawful,” he said.
Later, the police informed Prakash that they were tipped off by local hard-line Hindu groups about the prayer event and were told the now detained Christian pastors were converting Hindus to Christianity.
Prakash had to sign a surety bond assuring the police that the pastors were not involved in any kind of unlawful activity. The three men were finally set free later that night. Being so late, Prakash stayed the night with local Christians.
The next day as he was readying himself to return home, he got a call from another village where a Christian gathering had been attacked by a local hard-line Hindu group.
“The Christian villagers there in Mauama were terrified. I refilled the motorbike’s fuel tank and rushed to that village, but it still took me three hours to get there,” said Prakash.
Once he arrived the local Christians informed him how they were being hounded by local Hindu leaders because of their faith. They told Prakash that some 10 to 20 local Christians were holding a prayer service in a local church when Hindu hardliners barged in and began assaulting people and dragging some outside.
They told him the hardliners also abducted several senior Christians, warning the local villagers of dire consequences if they didn’t shun Christianity and become Hindus.
“After getting all the details from the eyewitnesses, I began searching for the leaders behind the attack and I finally found them in a hamlet, so I then went to talk with them, about why they had done what they did,” he said.
Prakash said the leaders told him that the Christians were luring local Hindus to Christianity which they said would be detrimental to Hindu culture and ethos.
“I told them that if they find anything illegal, they should report it to law enforcement agencies and not take the law in their hands. I also told them what they have done was illegal and that there is still a justice system prevalent in the country,” Prakash said.
The leaders then set the abducted Christians free.
Since 2017 Prakash has attended to more than 50 cases in which Christians have been targeted because of their faith, he said. Travelling from village to village to help the persecuted Christians has become now become a routine part of his life.
In such cases, he provides legal help for free.
“These are poor and innocent Christian villagers being hounded and targeted on baseless charges. There are many fanatical Hindu groups whose politics are based solely on targeting members of other faiths,” he said.
“Sometimes they accuse Christians of luring Hindu youth to Christianity through foreign funding, sometimes there are accusations of forcible conversions. When all such accusations are proven wrong, they accuse pastors of abusing the Hindu gods and goddesses,” he said. “I defend them because I have a firm belief that Lord has chosen me for such work and I am proud of it.”
Uttar Pradesh is India’s most populous state; it has more than 200 million people of which Christians account for 0.18 percent.
In its August report Persecution Relief claimed that Uttar Pradesh has become an epicenter of anti-Christian violence. The Christian rights organization claimed that every fifth violent incident targeting Christians in India occurred in the state.
The report revealed that in India this year, up until August, there were at least 51 hate crimes of “heinous nature against women and children,” including five cases of rape, one of which was perpetuated against a 10-year-old girl.
The report also cited 37 boycott or excommunication cases, 130 cases of harassment, threats, and intimidation, and 80 incidents of physical assault.
Ever since the BJP came to power nationally in 2014, there has been a surge in anti-Christian attacks. The country worsened from 31 to 10 in the Open Doors World Watch List, ranking India just behind Iran in the persecution of Christians. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom this year listed India as a ‘country of particular concern’ in terms of protecting religious minorities.
The Hindu population in India is 80 per cent followed by Muslims which are 14 per cent. Christianity is India’s third most followed religion and has around 28 million followers, constituting 2.3 per cent of the country’s population.