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Narayanpur Violence: A Year On, Tribal Christians Struggling To Bury Their Dead In Villages

The situation remains tense in interior villages as conflict continues between Christian tribals and indigenous Hindu tribals. Christian tribals allege they are not being allowed to bury their family members in their own villages

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Damaged windows inside a church in Narayanpur which was vandalised amid anti-tribal Christian violen
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Born in Narayanpur, 45-year-old Sukhram Salam, an Adivasi farmer living in Koliyari village of the Naxal-belt district bordering Bastar, Chhattisgarh, had been practising Christianity since 2018. He passed away due to a prolonged illness on November 29, 2023. His last wish had been to be interred on his own plot of land, for which he had a “patta” (land deed). But when he passed, his body was not allowed to be buried on his plot. In fact, it wasn't allowed to be buried anywhere in or around the village. 

Salam’s grieving sister Santoshi, teenage son Naresh (Kumar) Salam, and daughter Janki Salam who survived him have alleged that the police forcefully took his body away after Hindu and indigenous Adivasi villagers raised objections to the burial. Christians as well as several non-Christian tribal communities have traditionally buried their dead. In Koliyari village, several Christian tribal families have been living for years without facing such an issue. But the past year has been different. 

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Salam’s friend and Koliyari resident Raju Korram who is also a Vishwasi (Adivasi practising Christianity) like Salam states that after the farmer's death, villagers gathered outside his home and created a mob-like situation. “There are 29 Vishwasis in the village, including young and old. We all protested but other villagers from the majority did not allow us to bury the body in the village,” Korram narrates. 

“The police were called and instead of supporting us, they forcefully took the body away without his family's consent,” Korram states. He also alleges that the other villagers attacked some Vishwasis during the exchange and he, along with a few other villagers, was also forcefully taken to Narayanpur by police and district authorities.

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Salam’s body was buried at a graveyard in Narayanpur district centre on November 20, in the absence of any of his family members. Korram, who was there at the graveyard with the police, states that in Narayanpur, district authorities tried to force him to sign papers that prove the family's consent for burying the deceased in Narayanpur. “We did not sign anything, though we were harassed for hours to do so. I am not even related to him but they still tried to make me sign. Finally, they buried the body without the signature of family members,” Korram adds. 

Following the ordeal, approximately 30 Christian Adivasis in Koliyari village, including children and the elderly, have been tense. They claim that the police have asked the village “gayeta” and “patel” (village heads, religious heads) to get signatures from Salam’s family. The villagers also stated that if Salam’s family had “turned back”, meaning if they had renounced Christianity, the villagers would permit him to be buried there. 

This incident is the latest in a string of such cases of communal discrimination being faced by the Vishwasi community living in Narayanpur.

In the past two years, the region has seen conflict between the Christian and non-Christian Adivasis, with the latter demanding that Adivasis practising Christianity should renounce the religion and return to Hindu Adivasi or Mool Adivasi dharma. Organisations like the Janjati Suraksha Manch (JSM), led by BJP leaders and RSS ideologues, have been accused of spreading communal narratives to divide Adivasis in the name of working for the community. 

In a letter written to Narayanpur Collector Ajeet Vasant, Christian Adivasi leader Fulsingh Kachlam from Banglapara, Narayanpur has alleged a lack of support, protection or cooperation from government officials or Chhattisgarh police. 
 

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CPI's Narayanpur poll candidate and community leader Fulsingh Kachlam Rakhi Bose

Before Salam, several other Christian Adivasi families faced similar situations upon losing their loved ones. Since the first phase of voting in Narayanpur on November 7, four instances like the one involving Salam have been reported. 

On November 10, Manku Salam of Sulenga Dhaudai village died and his family was not allowed to bury him in or around his village. The next day, November 11, the body of another Christian Adivasi named Nakul was not allowed to be buried in his village in Chote Dongarpur. On November 12, villagers of Kerlapal did not allow the body of a woman named Ramshila to be buried in the village. On November 14, the family of Massi aka Sanju Salam who lived in Garanji was stopped from burying her body in or around the village. 

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“Despite repeated intimations to local authorities about the problems and threats being faced by the Vishwasi community in Narayanpur, which forms a sizable portion of the district's population, the government or local administration remains aloof. There is a situation of fear in villages where Vishwasi families stay,” Kachlam states. The social activist, who contested the state Assembly elections this year from Narayanpur on a CPI ticket, has been representing the interests of the Adivasi Christian community since the escalation of violence against the community's members.

Locals claim that not allowing Adivasi Christians to bury their dead has been a flashpoint in the souring relations between the former and Adivasis following Hindu or indigenous faith. One of the first such instances which led to protests took place in Bhatpal village in October 2022. Since then, such incidents have become commonplace, especially after the New Year violence between both communities. 

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Janjjati Suraksha Manch’s veteran member and BJP leader Bhojraj Nag tells Outlook that the conflict between the two communities is social, not political. “When Adivasis adopt Christianity, they stop following Adivasi customs. This causes tensions in rural Adivasi society and is dividing villages,” he states. 

Narayanpur Collector (District Magistrate) Ajeet Vasant, however, has refuted the allegations of Vishwasis being targeted in the region and claimed that all the burials in Narayanpur’s Christian graveyard have been done after reaching a consensus with both parties. 

“I have been closely following the incident in Koliyari and I am told that a mutual agreement was reached between the two sides after which the police escorted the body to Narayanpur and carried out the last rites in an established graveyard for Christian communities,” he said. While police remained unavailable for comment, the collector insisted that the deceased Salam’s family was present when he was buried. “His brother was there,” he said. Raju Korram, eyewitness to the burial, states that no family member of Salam was present and that the burial took place without following any customs or rituals. 

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Salam’s sister Santoshi has also filed an application addressing the DM, demanding justice and action against those involved in the “unconstitutional act” of denying them the right to their religious practices. The report names district authorities like the tehsildar, patwari and others as being complicit with police, including thana in-charge (TI) of Benur police station and other police persons. Accusing the TI of high-handedness, Santoshi states that her family cannot return to their village at the moment for fear of attacks. “We are currently in hiding in Narayanpur. We fear that the police will harass us for complaining,” she states. The remaining Vishwasis in Koliyari are also tense at the moment, as per Korram.

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When Outlook visited Narayanpur post-elections, Vishwasis had opined that in the run-up to the elections, the inter-tribal conflict was politicised for personal gains by political parties. “It allows the government and Opposition to ignore issues like development and PESA implementation in tribal lands by dividing the community on the basis of religion,” CPI’s Kachlam states. He also adds that Benur police has often acted as in a partisan manner against Vishwasis and that the attitude of the DM was also neutral, at best, when such issues were raised with him. 

Members of the Sacred Heart Church in Narayanpur’s Banglapara, which came under attack earlier in January, report that church workers in villages where they have lived for the past decade or more are now being stopped from going to church services or holding prayers or other ceremonies in villages. 

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Others like Sudhman Gowde of Chinnari village allege that many Christian families have had to leave their homes. Gowde, who lives with a disability in his legs, states that since the violence in January, he and his family have been attacked in their village twice by other villagers and outsiders and have been forced to leave their home four times. Back in their village for the fifth time, Gowde states that he wants to spend Christmas in his own home and that he will not leave his home and his land so easily. “This is where we have always lived. We hope that our neighbours forget these differences. We are all Adivasis, no matter what religion or gods we follow,” he states, adding that this year, Christmas festivities were likely to be subdued. “Last Christmas and New Year was a violent and fearful time for us,” Gowde recalls. He wonders if this Christmas would be any different. 

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