A different kind of Mahakumbh began in Mandla in Madhya Pradesh on Thursday. Unlike the rituals of bathing, devotional singing, and mass feeding of holy men and the poor held on the banks of the river at Mahakumbhs, this kumbh, initiated by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, is focussing on conversion.
This kumbh is more on the lines of the Shabri Kumbh held in 2006 in Gujarat in which a public awareness drive was launched against religious conversion and Christian missionaries.
Lakhs of people, comprising a good number of tribals, are participating in the Mahakumbh at Mandla, over 400 km away, where it is being held for the first time.
Since the past fortnight, Mandla has been witnessing distribution of pamphlets against religious conversion.
The pamphlets state that if the Hindu community awakens then no one can get religious conversion done in the name of social service. Religious conversion would end only when the Hindu community gets united and powerful. It also talks of the "coming home" of those who have been converted.
Some of the pamphlets distributed in Mandla also contain abusive language for certain sections of the society that has led to a controversy.
The Mahakumbh has the prime motive to create awareness in public towards religious conversion, besides appealing to converted tribal people to return to their native religion.
The event has faced opposition from the Christian community and Congress party on the conversion issue.
"Our culture is our identity that is where we stand differently from Western countries. In Madhya Pradesh, everyone is living peacefully, together. There is no reason for anyone to be afraid," Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) told the huge gathering Thursday.
The chief minister said that such functions would be organized every year.
Speaking after him, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat said: "Whatever we are doing here is pious work and it is not only for our benefit but for the whole world."
"The one who loves all is called Hindi, the one who serves the motherland is our brother, and is Hindu. We do not fight with them, we have no enmity with them," he added.
Along with Chouhan and Bhagwat, several other BJP, Vishwa Hindu Parishad and RSS leaders are expected to participate in the event, including Gujarat and Chhattisgarh chief ministers Narendra Modi and Raman Singh, K.S. Sudarsan and Pravin Togadia, among them.
First one to object to the Mahakumbh was All India Congress Committee general secretary Digvijay Singh, who termed the kumbh a 'fake' one. He said: "It is a disinformation campaign against Christians."
He also alleged that the Madhya Pradesh government is spending over Rs. 100 crore on the kumbh.
Madhya Pradesh Congress president Suresh Pachouri has written a letter to union Home Minister P. Chidambaram and state Governor Rameshwar Thakur to draw their attention to the event and raised the issue of religious conversions and the distribution of pamphlets and literature depicting Christians in poor light prior to the Kumbh.
"The mass religious conversion during the three-day event would be against the Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act," Pachouri told IANS.
Both the leaders have urged the central government to intervene in the matter.
The Christian community is apprehensive that the situation in Mandla should not turn out like Kandhamal in Orissa that witnessed largescale communal riots in 2008. They have apprised Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan about the situation and demanded security for Christians and also sought the high court order the state government in this regard.
Father Anand Muttungal, spokesperson of the Catholic Church in the state, told IANS about the congregation, "Many Christians had been forced to fill up forms declaring that they intended to accept Hinduism, a move that has created fear among Mandla's Christian community."