Like on any other Sunday, on March 6, Pastor Ankush Bariyekar was preaching from the pulpit of the Pentecostal church in Kachna, six kilometres from Raipur, the State capital. Suddenly, 30 to 35 men wearing saffron scarves barged in, chanting “Jai Shri Ram”. They proceeded to break all the furniture and musical instruments and took special care to destroy the pulpit. They did not speak to anybody but systematically went around beating up and terrorising the gathering of around 50 worshippers. As frantic calls went out for help and a group of men along with the police arrived, the mob fled, leaving behind three bikes. A mobile phone video of the men vandalising the church was picked up by the national media and it created pressure on the police to act, resulting in the arrest of 17 men.
But slowly, attempts were made to give a different colour to the issue by terming it one of land dispute, according to Pastor Ankush. “The entire village is built on government land and it has some temples too. If the issue is indeed of illegal occupancy of government land, then the Nagar Nigam should first stop taking taxes from us and then go about it in a proper manner,” he told Frontline . That a case was filed against the vandals was itself a rarity, according to him. Last year, about 40 places of worship of Christians were attacked, but the police did not take any action, he said. Usually, when such attacks were reported, counter-cases were slapped against the Christians, with charges of tampering with the Adivasi culture and forced religious conversions under Section 129 (G) of the Chhattisgarh Panchayat Raj Act. A month before the attack on the church in Kachna, a Methodist church in Korba was attacked in a similar fashion, but there was no follow-up action by the police.
Around the same time, two pastors returning after conducting a prayer meeting in Dhamtari were beaten up by a gang of goons and then arrested under Section 129 (G). Scores of pastors have been arrested on flimsy grounds like this. V.N. Prasad Rao, State coordinator of the Chhattisgarh Christian Fellowship, said that persecution of their community was not new but the precision with which the Bharatiya Janata Party government went about spreading hatred against the minorities was chilling. “The saffron brigade under government sponsorship has become emboldened and are a law unto themselves. The government is using the naxal bogey to finish off Adivasis in Bastar and anybody else who does not belong to their ideology,” he said.
Last year, close to 50 gram sabhas in Bastar, allegedly egged on by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), passed resolutions which stipulated that no other religion except Hinduism, especially Christianity, can be practised in those areas. Prasad Rao countered that if the missionaries’ work was forced religious conversion, so was the work of the Bajrang Dal, the Shiv Sena and the VHP cadre, all of whom have been active in the region for 15 years or more. “Adivasis are Dravidians and have their own deities, but the VHP says that Adivasis are Hindus and brands their deities as avatars of Hindu gods and goddesses. Over the years, the Adivasi god Buda Deva has become an avatar of Siva. The madar drum of the Adivasis is being replaced with manjeera and dholak . The Bhagavad Gita and Hanuman chalisa are translated into indigenous languages and distributed amongst Adivasis. So is that not forced conversion?” he asked.
Several cases of economic and social boycott of Christians have been reported. In 2013, the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), the All India Secular Forum and the Chhattisgarh Christian Fellowship recorded testimonies of communal tension in various places in Chhattisgarh. Relatives of Christians in the same village were asked to excommunicate them or face dire consequences themselves.
According to the PUCL, in the village of Sonai Dongri, when houses were ransacked and symbols of Christianity attacked, people who complained at a public hearing were told by Vibha Rao, head of the Chhattisgarh’s Women’s Commission: “You have changed your religion and society and yet you continue to live amongst these people, so this is bound to happen.” In Chirmiri, a case has been going on against the principal of a Christian girls’ residential hostel. “New angles are being added to the case at each stage. The truth is that there is a Saraswati Shishu Mandir next door, and if our hostel is shut down, it will benefit that institution. The reason is never purely religious,” said Father A.P. Joshi, legal adviser to the Raipur Catholic diocese. In 2014, the PUCL wrote to the National Minorities Commission requesting intervention in the repeated attacks on the Christian community in Madhota village.
“Another issue which has taken a communal colour is misuse of the State cow slaughter law. In Raigarh, when cattle were electrocuted along the railway line and members of the Dalit community were summoned by the Railway authorities to remove them, Hindutva organisations got these Dalits arrested under false claims of cow slaughter,” says a PUCL statement.