Chhattisgarh has seen a surge in violence against Christians of late. According to a statement issued by the United Christian Forum in June 2022, Chhattisgarh reported the highest number of attacks on churches and Christians after Uttar Pradesh. Christians are less than 2 per cent of the population in the State.
On January 2, several police personnel, including Superintendent of Police Sadanand Kumar, were attacked when they tried to stop a mob from vandalising a church on the premises of Viswadeepti School in Narayanpur district. According to the police, at least 2,000 people had gathered near the school to protest against a clash between two communities over alleged conversions by Christian missionaries in Ekda village. After the protest, a group of people, armed with stones and sickles, stormed the church on the school premises.
A couple of weeks earlier, on the night of December 18-19, about 1,000 Christian Adivasis converged in front of the Narayanpur Collectorate seeking protection from increasing incidents of targeted violence. They were forcibly taken by bus to the Benur police station, and later shifted to makeshift camps at Zilla Panchayat Sansadhan Kendra and the indoor stadium in Narayanpur.
Bela Bhatia, a Bastar-based researcher and human rights lawyer, told Frontline: “This is not a sudden development. In the last decade there have been scores of instances in many villages across Bastar’s seven districts where Christian Adivasis have been attacked, their prayer halls destroyed, pastors beaten, even burial grounds denied. People have lodged police complaints but no action has been taken against the miscreants.”
Although the police claimed to have arrested at least 11 persons, including two prominent BJP leaders, in connection with separate incidents of violence over alleged conversions in Narayanpur on January 4, Bhatia said the action was taken only after the police personnel were themselves attacked.
“While a few lawyers have moved the High Court, the police have registered some FIRs after initial delay,” Brijendra Tiwari, convener, All India People’s Forum, Chhattisgarh, told Frontline. “The administration is now sending people back to their villages against their will. A majority of them have left the camps and are now living with their relatives.” Tiwari said at least 50 residents of Chimdi village continued to remain in the camp.“When we visited their village, the sarpanch told us categorically that they could not return until they had abandoned Christianity,” he added.
Tiwari was part of a fact-finding team of representatives of various civil society organisations that visited Narayanpur and later Kondagaon district where too violence was reported. The team met survivors of the violence and interacted with non-Christian Adivasis, the district administration, police officials and members of political and cultural outfits.
Its report states: “From December 9, 2022, until December 18, 2022, there were a series of attacks in about 18 villages in Narayanpur and 15 villages in Kondagaon, displacing about 1,000 Christian Adivasis from their own villages.” It stated that at least two dozen people had to be hospitalised with serious injuries. “Even persons with disabilities, pregnant women and children were not spared,” it said.
The team found that there was an organised campaign to convert Christian Adivasis to Hinduism. The report cites the example of Manglu Koram of Madamnar village, and says that Koram and members of 21 Christian families were forcibly taken to the village tihad (temple) where the priest declared them to be Hindus after performing some rituals. It added that at least 18 families from Udidgaon village and three families each from Fulhadgaon and Putanchandagaon villages were also converted.
According to the report, all early warnings of forced conversion were ignored by the administration: “No action was taken, not even an FIR was registered, even though the survivors of this attack filed their complaints with Benur Police Station and other police stations in Narayanpur.”
The fact-finding team said in its report that neither the victims nor church leaders nor anyone who should have information of such arrest confirmed the arrest. “The administration appears to be busy pleading and persuading the perpetrators of the violence to permit the displaced Christians to return to their villages.”
While the civil administration and the police seemed to be playing down the communal nature of the conflict, observers said non-Christian tribals were being mobilised against tribal Christians under the guise of the Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996. Degree Prasad Chauhan, president of the Chhattisgarh chapter of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), said, “They are instilling a sense of ‘sacredness’ among the tribals after reinforcing caste restructuring of their traditional system, while creating an impression that they are saving them from contamination.”
Chauhan said the killings of Christian tribals, their evictions, social and economic boycott and ban on their burials were a manifestation of cultural-religious and economic onslaught. “ Pen gudis, or tribal places of worship, are being turned into Hindu Devgudis but there is no opposition to it,” he said.
Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan, a coalition of activist groups that works among tribal communities, alleged that the tensions came to a head following the recent formation of the BJP‐RSS backed Janjaati Suraksha Manch, which has been demanding the de‐reservation of “converted Adivasis”. Its report states, “The delisting campaign threatens not only Adivasi unity, but the Adivasi identity in itself. It seeks to collapse Adivasi religion with the Hindu religion, and deny Adivasi language, culture, history, geography and shared economical struggles and other markers of identity, to all those who have chosen a different faith. If the campaign succeeds in doing so, it will greatly weaken the struggles by Adivasis for self‐governance and against corporate takeover of their resources.”
Maintaining that the Sarv Adivasi Samaj, a social organisation that claims to represent tribal population of the State, was divided over the issue, Bela Bhatia said, “One faction with prominent BJP leaders such as ex-MLA Rajaram Todem have been playing the role of instigators.” She alleged that this faction may even have the support of the Chief Minister. Drawing a parallel with the Salwa Judum of Bastar, which was shown to be a spontaneous movement of local Adivasis against the CPI (Maoist) but was in fact a state-sponsored vigilante group, she said, “There is enough evidence on the ground to show that political opportunism is behind these attacks too. It is yet another example of what can go wrong in a democracy when the two main political parties, the Congress and the BJP, think and act alike!”
For dignity in death
Degree Prasad Chauhan told Frontline that there have been over 450 incidents of violence against Christian Adivasis in the last five years. He cited examples wherein dead Christian Adivasis were not allowed to be buried in their villages. “The body of Janki Sori, 35, was exhumed on [November 3, 2022] by members of the Sarv Adivasi Samaj who believe that their village doesn’t belong to Christians,” he said. The Sarv Adivasi Samaj, according to him, claims to represent natives who believe in animism and draw influence from Hinduism. “Though the woman was buried on her family’s farm, she was later buried in another village.”
In December 2021, Sagram Uikey was not allowed to bury his mother in his own land. Uikey’s family in Govardhan village in Kanker had reportedly converted to Christianity four years ago. On December 2, 2022, at least six villagers were killed when a limestone mine they were working in collapsed about 11 kilometres from Jagdalpur in Bastar district. While the villagers cremated five labourers together, the sixth, they said, had embraced Christianity along with his family and would have to be cremated according to Hindu rituals.
In November 2021, the Chhattisgarh High Court sought a response from a former MLA, Bhojram Nag, the Kanker District Collector, and the Superintendent of Police about the body of a converted Christian Adivasi that had gone missing from the grave. According to the petitioner, Mukesh Kumar Nareti, a resident of Bastar, he was prevented from burying the mortal remains of his mother, who passed away on November 1. Following opposition, he had first buried his mother secretly but the body was dug out and shifted to the local hospital’s mortuary.
Incidentally, in September 2022, Congress leader and Jashpur MLA U.D. Minj had demanded five acres of land for the construction of a cemetery for the Christian community. The demand, however, evoked sharp reactions from the BJP and Hindutva outfits, who termed it as “ill-conceived”.
Concurring that the recent surge of violence was instigated at the behest of the BJP-RSS, the fact-finding report by the Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan stated: “Almost everyone we spoke with affirmed that the village meetings where decisions were taken to oust the church-goers were only attended by villagers from the village itself, and it was these villagers who were carrying out the beatings and breaking of homes and churches.”
The Andolan has asked the Congress-led Chhattisgarh government to curtail the activities of the Janjati Suraksha Manch and other divisive political outfits that have been polarising tribal society.
- From December 9 until December 18, 2022, there were a series of attacks in about 18 villages in Narayanpur and 15 villages in Kondagaon, displacing about 1,000 Christian Adivasis from their villages
- A fact-finding team of representatives of various civil society organisations that visited Narayanpur and Kondagaon districts met survivors of the violence and the district administration.
- The team’s report found that there was an organised campaign to convert Christian Adivasis to Hinduism. It also said that all early warnings of the forced conversions were ignored by the administration.
- While the civil administration and the police seem to be playing down the communal nature of the conflict, observers said non-Christian tribals were being mobilised against tribal Christians under the guise of the PESA Act, 1996.
- The Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan claims that the recent surge of violence against Christians is instigated by the BJP-RSS.
- It alleges that tensions came to a head following the recent formation of the BJP-RSS backed Janjaati Suraksha Manch, which has been demanding the de-reservation of “converted Adivasis”.