JASHPUR, India (Reuters) - Christian missionaries first rode to the remote town of Jashpur on horseback 150 years ago, educating the poor and converting them in their thousands.
Now they are at the heart of a debate engulfing India, pitting Hindu revivalists against those determined to maintain a secular tradition which goes back to independence in 1947.
"It seems here that most of the (Christian) missionaries, they are only working for conversions," says K.P. Singh, who runs the Hindu Kalyan Ashram in the former princely state of Jashpur.
The Kalyan Ashram, founded in 1952 to give schooling and health care to the poor, provides a Hindu alternative to the Christians who traditionally dominated education here.
On the surface, this is little more than a competition between religions, both vying to help the poor.
"We are working simply for the welfare of the rural poor," says Singh. "We are working for our own people. We are not buying land in America to convert the Christians."
But secularists see a more sinister plan behind the rivalry, accusing the Hindu right-wing of whipping up fear of Christian conversions in the same way as fascism traditionally creates an artificial enemy in order to flourish.
"They believe in Goebbels, Hitler's propaganda minister. You tell a lie a hundred times and people believe it is true," says Ajit Jogi, the tribal Christian chief minister of Chhattisgarh state in central India, to which Jashpur belongs.
As this theory goes, what starts as resentment against the westernizing influence of Christianity explodes into rage against Muslims and ultimately political gain for the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). In this particular holy war, truth is the first casualty.
While the Hindus accuse the Christians of bribing tribals to convert -- Singh says 10,000 rupees ($210) is the going rate -- the Christians deny mass conversions and say those few who do convert do so to escape the rigid Hindu caste hierarchy.
"We do not give money," says Father Paul at a church in the nearby town of Kankuri. "In Hindu society they are not considered equal. They think that with us, they can lead a better life."
FROM BELGIUM TO JASHPUR
In the 19th century, Catholics, many from Belgium, rode into this remote and barely accessible corner of central India, around 580 miles southeast of New Delhi, to work with the poor, predominantly tribal, population.
"Our people feel very grateful to the missionaries that they came and did something for our people. They came to evangelize, but before preaching they did social work," says Father Paul, whose tribal grandfather converted to Christianity.
"The missionaries educated them. The first priority for missionaries was to build the school," he says.
As a result, today a third of the people here are Christians, compared to a national average of just 2 percent.
It was only after independence that Hindu charities really began running schools for the poor. Critics say they were keen to break down Christian dominance of education and impose a Hindu religious framework in what is an officially secular country.
The Kalyan Ashram in Jashpur was the first in India, says Singh. The movement has since mushroomed to provide health care services or education in 8,472 places across India. Children are given a standard school education, learn Hindu prayers and songs and are encouraged to practice sports like archery, legendary in Hindu mythology.
Human rights activists say some of the Kalyan Ashrams also whip up intolerance of minorities among the traditionally peaceful tribal people and point to the involvement of tribals in Hindu-Muslim clashes which hit western Gujarat state last year.
"These ashrams played a big role in the riots. Their role is beyond doubt," said Gujarat human rights activist and Jesuit priest Cedric Prakash. Police in Gujarat said, however, that ashrams had not been named in their investigations.
POLITICS OF CONVERSION
In the lush green rolling hills of Jashpur, whose thick forests were once a hunting paradise for its maharajahs, the Gujarat riots and political rivalries seem far away. The region still carries many of the traces of the feudal rule which dominated it until 1947. In an oddly flamboyant gesture, the son of the last maharajah used to reconvert people back to Hinduism by washing their feet.
"I was trying to bring them back to their original forefathers' religion," says Dilip Singh Ju Dev, who has since become a junior minister in the national government. "I wash their feet and bring back those who have converted. A message goes out that a royal is washing their feet."
But even in this remote spot, politics dominate. Chhattisgarh is one of four states due to hold elections this year ahead of a national poll due by 2004, which will decide between the pro-Hindu BJP and secularist Congress party.
And the BJP has already said it intends to make conversions an issue in its bid to topple Congress Chief Minister Ajit Jogi. "After Ajit Jogi became chief minister the rate of conversions has gone up," says Raman Singh, state president of the BJP. Propaganda, says Jogi.
"If you look at the figures, the figures have drastically come down in recent years. They have to be one-tenth of what they used to be even five, six years ago," he told Reuters.
There is only one place here where you can find something approaching a commonly agreed truth. In Kadopani village, a cluster of dark wooden huts on an inhospitable plateau above forests inhabited by wild animals and leftist guerrillas, the Kurwas tribals scratch out a living by collecting fruit and bartering.
The men use bows and arrows to catch animals; the children are dressed in rags barely covering their swollen bellies. Pulmi, a mother of two, complains that they don't have enough land to grow rice -- the staple crop of Jashpur. She doesn't seem to care whether they will be helped by Christians or Muslims. These people are just hungry.