Amidst the ongoing attacks against Christian Adivasis in the Bastar region of Chhattisgarh, civil society and community leaders on February 19 organised a peaceful protest in front of Delhi's Jantar Mantar to condemn the unprovoked aggression by the right-wing vigilante groups.
Dr John Dayal, spokesperson of Union Christian Forum (UCF), earlier while addressing the mediapersons at the Press Club of India, Delhi, condemned the rising attacks and said that the “water has crossed the nose and the tears have dried up”.
The protest came up in the backdrop of the allegations that 13 pastors have been wrongfully arrested by the police while most of the right-wing attackers are still roaming free. Outlook earlier reported the clashes among Hindu right-wing and Christian Adivasis in early January that resulted in the eviction of more than 1,000 villagers, most of whom were Christians, according to the District Collector of Narayanpur Ajeet Vasant, have already gone back and got settled in respective villages.
Among the pastors, who had been arrested allegedly for forcefully converting Adivasis to Christianity in Gorrah village of Chhattisgarh, only two got bail last week. On January 1, members of Hindu right-wing groups called a meeting inviting Adivasis and pastors allegedly in pursuit of ‘gharwapsi’; targeting tribals who had converted to Christianity.
“During the meeting, the members of the group, led by an alleged coalition of BJP and RSS, caused a panic among the Christians, who in turn had to call the police to save themselves,” a Chhattisgarh-based advocate tells Outlook.
The presence of the police only aggravated the situation as the Hindu group got angry and violence broke out. Policemen were beaten, and the Christians including the pastors fled the scene, he adds.
However, later the pastors were booked by the police with charges under Sections 147 (rioting), 148 (armed with deadly weapons), 186 (voluntarily obstructs any public servant in the discharge of his public functions), 332 and 353 (deter a public worker from doing his duties) of the Indian Penal Code for “disrupting the peace of the area, non-cooperation with the police”.
“We have video evidence and it is extremely wrong that despite the violence being propagated by one sect, arrests were made from the other. And the police is clearly acting under pressure within a cobweb of political nuances,” says the counsel for the pastors.
A few arrests have also been made from the Hindu wing where BJP district president, Rupsai Salam, and others have been booked under IPC Section 307 (attempt to murder), he added.
Notably, Salam is the Narayanpur district president of BJP who, the locals allege, was involved in the eviction and forceful ‘gharwapsi’ of Christian Adivasis for quite a long time.
Rising attacks against Christian Adivasis
It all started a day before a Catholic church and a grotto of Mother Mary in Edka village, Narayanpur was attacked on January 2 and vandalised by a mob allegedly comprising Hindu extremists. The mob also attacked the police severely injuring former Superintendent of Police (SP) Sadanand Kumar who along with his team went there to pacify the people who were protesting against alleged conversion by Christian missionaries.
Since December 2022, in the districts of Narayanpur and Kondagaon of Chhattisgarh, there have been a series of attacks in about 18 villages in Narayanpur and 15 villages in Kondagaon displacing about 1,000 Christian Adivasis, including pregnant women, children and aged persons, from their own villages, according to a statement released by the UCF at the press conference.
It further added that those displaced were threatened to denounce their Christian faith and convert to the Hindu religion failing which they would have to leave their village or face dire consequences. Not only were they ousted by locals, but they were also assaulted, their places of worship and homes vandalised, their harvest burnt or plundered, and their livestock and all means of living snatched away. Many Christian Adivasis were gravely assaulted and beaten with bamboo canes, tyres, rods, etc. Several had to be hospitalised with injuries like collarbone fractures, etc.
Additionally, the displaced Adivasis had to leave their village and seek shelter in the open during this harsh winter and were given three “unacceptable choices” --- one, denounce their faith and get their homes and lives back. Two, remain Christian and face violence and death and three, find another home, as there is no place for Christians or their beliefs in this tribal land.
According to the press release, on December 27, 2022, three Christian tribal women in Narayanpur were stripped publicly, and physically assaulted in front of about a hundred onlookers in a bid to outrage their modesty and dignity forcing them to give up their Christian faith.
Sonu Mandi (name changed on request), an activist from Chhattisgrah tells Outlook that besides the violence, the Christians in the tribal belt are further subjected to extreme social ostracisation -- being denied basic amenities such as water and even customary burial rights. And instances of similar cases have been reported by the UCF.
Gharwapsi and conflict of faith
The groups of vigilantes allege that Adivasis converting to Christianity is a violation of the rights of schedule caste and schedule tribe.
A segment of Adivasis in the Bastar region believes that those who converted are destroying their religious rituals and practices, people familiar with the development have alleged.
However, activists and advocates believe that Hindu ideology has an organised influence in propagating violence against the minority religion. According to a report by Scroll, the clashes ‘come close on the heels’ of large public meetings organised by the Janjati Suraksha Manch in Chhattisgarh’s Adivasi areas. The organisation has been long demanding that those converting to Christianity and Islam be denied Scheduled Tribes status, cutting them off from reservations in jobs, educational institutions and legislatures. Currently, the ST status applies to all Adivasis irrespective of their religion.
Commenting on the religious fundamentalism propagated, Dr Michael Williams, Chairperson of UCF says, “Christianity has existed, peacefully with other faiths, since the first century when the apostle Thomas came to India and was martyred on Indian soil. The narrative that Hindutva radicals propagate is that Christianity is a ‘foreign culture’ is extremely hurtful and alienating to the Christian community and must be rubbished.”
Relief camps and interim order
In an interim relief order dated January 13, 2023, the Chhattisgarh High Court directed the District Collector of Kondagaon and the Police Commissioner, Bastar Division to ensure basic amenities to displaced Christian Adivasis halted in relief camps.
In its order, the HC noted, “Ensure that all the persons who are presently being provided shelter in any of the camps maintained by the respondent-Authorities, the necessary basic minimum requirement for sustenance like food, water and necessary medical assistance be made available forthwith without any further delay.”
It further directed that necessary steps must also be taken to ensure that persons in the camp are provided with sufficient means to cope with the winter by considering “providing sufficient blankets or other arrangements to beat the cold wave”.
On asking about the current state of Christians at the relief camp, Ajeet Vasant, tells Outlook, “Currently there are no Adivasis Christians at the relief camps and everyone has returned to their villages and no violence has been reported since the early weeks of January.”
He further adds that the situation has been “peaceful” while the matter of reported violence is being taken up at the Chhattisgarh High Court. But locals refute such claims.
“The Bastar region of Chhattisgarh has been long witnessing unrest and tension over religious conversions, this is perhaps the first time that there seems to be an organised, large-scale violence against the Christian Advasis,” a social activist (name withheld on request) had told Outlook earlier.