Bangalore: Saffron groups have raked up protests in parts of Karnataka over the proposed visit of American evangelist Benny Hinn to Bangalore. The protests come in the wake of miracle healing sessions by Hinn during his last visit to the IT city nine years back, in 2005. Right-wing groups claim that the self-proclaimed miracle healer was using this as a tool to convert people to Christianity, and that his prayer conference next week too would be a forum for conversion.
In the latest of such protests, a seer of a religious mutt in the north Karnataka town of Hubli allegedly even attempted suicide during a protest late Saturday evening. The seer, Pranavanand Swamiji, was staging a protest to demand that the government not allow Hinn entry into Karnataka. Hinn is expected to attend a prayer conference in Bangalore between January 15 to 19 -- a conference organized by the Bethel AG Church in the city.
"We are opposed to it. The government should not give him permission, because it is an effort a conversion and conversion is against the Constitution," said VHP leader Praveen Togadia on a visit to Bangalore.
The Opposition BJP has also made its displeasure on Hinn being allowed for a conference known. "Pure and simple, Hinn is a fraud, a farce and he is a big showman. We don't want gullible people to be lured by him. The last time he had come, he made a derogatory comment that idol worship is equal to prostitution... that had hurt the sentiments of everyone," says BJP Karnataka spokesperson and former Minister S Suresh Kumar.
The organisations are against the propagation of superstitious beliefs they think will be promoted by "miracle healing" sessions that Hinn had conducted in his 2005 visit. "Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, who was a deputy CM at that time, had himself said such sessions do not augur well for society. When he himself has said that before, it is for him to take a call. India is a country where all religions are given the right to preach, but nobody has the right to induce people to convert and use dirty tricks like posing to heal patients and lure them to convert. That is the main issue," Kumar adds.
Adding voice to the call by saffron groups is the rationalist association. Says A S Nataraj, president of a local rationalists association, "My question is, if he can really touch and heal any disease or disorder just by touching, why, there are so many hospitals opened. Why can't he go to the hospitals and just go on touching all the patients and cure them? So this is just a drama, it is cheating. In another name, he is coming here."
But organizers of the event insist that this conference is far different from the one organized nine years ago. "The last time, it was a public programme, this time it is a private one, a religious prayer conference. Last time it was free for all, this time, we are charging Rs 850 for participants. The last time, it was a Benny Hinn programme, this time he is one of the many speakers at the conference. There is no room for concerns on conversion as only Christians are coming, " says spokesperson for the church, P Chamarajan.
About 25,000 people are expected to attend the conference, as against the crowd of over 2 lakh people that participated in the healing and spiritual programme in 2005, when an entire aerodrome in the city's Jakkur area had been thrown open to hold the crowds.
He points out that the church cannot allow others to dictate to it on who should be invited as guests or preachers for their conference. "We have the liberty as to who will come and who we choose as guests. If protesters are going to decide who should speak at our conference, we will not be left with many options. If they choose, they will keep rejecting everybody. We have chosen Hinn because we believe he is good," Chamarajan argues.
"People need to think before they talk. If the sangh parivar is talking without thinking, I think it's very unfortunate to see what they are doing," Chamarajan adds.
His stand is further strengthened by the fact that a public interest litigation filed in the Karnataka High Court against the conference was dismissed by the court, which asked the police to ensure adequate law and order enforcement for the conference.
Pushed to a corner, the government too says it cannot stop a purely religious conference. "What is the controversy? Every time, there is a controversy. The police commissioner will look into it. It has nothing to do with the government, that's the police commissioner's job," Home Minister K J George says.
The city police says they have nothing against a religious conference, as far as law and order is not compromised. Those concerns exist as the 2005 conference had seen considerable communal tension and some rioting. So approval for the conference is still getting processed, as the police has sought some clarifications from the organizers.
Given the high-voltage drama that is unfolding, cautious organisers now say that Hinn may now come only on the last day of the four-day conference on the January 19. And themes for the conference are still being decided, they claim.