LUDHIANA, Punjab—Pastor Sultan Masih, who was gunned down in Ludhiana on July 16 while standing outside his church, had previously been confronted and threatened by members of the violent Hindu nationalist organization, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).
According to reports by a Christian news outlet, fellow pastor Balwinder Kumar said RSS members quarreled with the pastor on several occasions and accused him of converting Hindus to Christianity. Kumar reported the RSS members warned Masih to cancel the anniversary celebration. “RSS activists accused him that, ‘You Christians get paid for converting people,” said Kumar.
Masih’s son, Alisha Masih, offered further details. In May, he said, the Temple of God Church which Sultan Masih co-founded had celebrated its 25th anniversary. According to Alisha, men approached his father after the celebration and demanded to know how he paid for it. They asked him if they could get money to “convert.” His father refused to offer anything and said “those who had converted had done so because they had come to believe in Jesus.”
India’s current Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, joined the RSS as a child and began working as a full-time volunteer in 1971 at the age of 21. The group, according to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (PDF link), promotes “an ideology of Hindutva, which holds non-Hindus as foreign to India.” Modi proudly confirmed his acceptance shortly before becoming Prime Minister in 2014, stating: “My identity is of a Hindutvawadi.”
The RSS was founded in 1925 to promote an ideology of a “Hindu” India. Its membership is estimated at approximately 6 million, and its members participate in daily, weekly, and bi-weekly at one of approximately 60,000 shakhas (units). Only Hindu males are allowed to join. The RSS operates as a paramilitary organization, adopting a uniform of brown pants and a white shirt. RSS members drill, exercise, parade, train with weapons, partake of ideological training, and often march in formation through towns in various regions of India.
MS Golwalkar, who was the national leader of the RSS from 1940 to 1973, articulated the group’s ideology when he wrote in 1939: “Non-Hindu people of Hindustan must either adopt Hindu culture and languages, must learn and respect and hold in reverence the Hindu religion, must entertain no ideas but of those of glorification of the Hindu race and culture…. In a word, they must cease to be foreigners, or may stay in the country, wholly subordinated to the Hindu nation, claiming nothing, deserving no privileges, far less any preferential treatment — not even citizens’ rights.”
“RSS is India’s number one terrorist group,” said former Maharashtra inspector general of police S.M. Mushrif in 2015.
The RSS and its many affiliates have been directly linked to a number of large-scale massacres in the past 35 years. In 1984, for instance, RSS members were implicated in a genocide against Sikhs in Delhi. In 1992, Member of Parliament L.K. Advani led a mob of RSS members to destroy a disputed mosque in Uttar Pradesh, after which up to 3,000 Muslims were killed in riots. Again, in 2002, RSS members under the leadership of Gujarat State legislators took to the streets to slaughter approximately 2,000 Muslims. In 2008, Hindu nationalists were linked to the massacre of 70 Christians in Odisha State. RSS members have also been linked to bombings, including the 2007 Samjhauta Express train bombing, as well as targeted violence against Christians all throughout India.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), to which Prime Minister Modi belongs, acts as the political wing of the RSS. However, according to Mushrif: “It is immaterial which party is in power.” Instead, he blames a deeper root cause — a widespread embrace of the Hindu caste system which advocates a hierarchical order of society with Brahmans, the highest caste, at the top. As Mushrif said, “It is the system that is working, it’s the Brahmanical system. And when I say Brahmanical, it doesn’t mean the Brahman, it’s the mentality, the attitude to dominate and oppress.”
“Brahmanism will use any means to divide people, whether caste, religion, or race,” said Bhajan Singh, Founding Director of Organization for Minorities of India (OFMI). “Brahmanist elements have been caught on multiple occasions orchestrating false-flag terror attacks with state-sponsorship, such as in the Chittisinghpura Massacre in 2001. All victims of this oppression should be proactive to expose these methods and deny these supremacists any success.”
Singh added: “Brahmanism denies people the right to make their own free choices. The Brahmanical system despises the ability of free people to choose and change their religion. They have a cynical view of conversion because they falsely believe members of any religion only exist as statistics and bodies to empower the ruling elite.”
Controversies about conversion in India have been ongoing for years. One particular controversy erupted in Agra, Uttar Pradesh in December 2014 after RSS affiliates forcibly converted 250 Muslims to Hinduism. Offered ration cards and government housing on the condition that they convert, the Muslims attended a Hindu sacrificial ceremony, after which they were told they had become Hindus. The organizers promoted the event as a ghar wapsi (homecoming) ceremony, indicating that the Muslims were returning to the “home” religion of India. Subsequently, they announced their intentions to “reconvert” all Christians and Muslims to Hinduism.
Five states in India currently have active “anti-conversion” laws which generally require government permission before changing faiths; several other states are considering similar laws and the BJP-controlled Union Government has threatened to pass a national law. However, according to United Nations official Heiner Bielefeldt: “The laws are… applied in a discriminatory manner in the practice of ‘reconversion.’” Those converting to Hinduism are not subject to the same strictures as those converting to any other faith from Hinduism.
“Mob violence against minorities by the RSS and targeted killings all have the same goal as the anti-conversion laws,” said South Asian Affairs Analyst Pieter Friedrich. “The goal is to use every possible means of force to compel people to identify as Hindu whether they want to or not. Instead of relying on peaceful persuasion to convince people, these extremist elements are relying on brutal coercion.”
“The people who killed him were surely monitoring his activities because they waited for the time until he was alone,” concluded Alisha Masih. “Our father was a courageous man, and he was never afraid to die for Jesus.”
Punjab’s population is nearly 60% Sikh. The Sikh religion was founded in Punjab in 1499 in direct contradiction to the prevailing Hindu caste system. Its teachings and rejection of caste requirements have provoked the hostility of RSS and similar extremist elements throughout the centuries.
“The state of Punjab is very safe in India for Christians,” said fellow pastor Paul Tamizharasan. Praising the relationship between Christians and Sikhs, he explained: “There are Sikhs living here — they are also a religious minority. We are also a minority.”
Pastor Sultan Masih is survived by his wife, Sarabjit, and four children.