Intolerance towards Christians in many tribal communities in India does not end even in death

Janki Sori’s family were not given much time to grieve. Having laid her to rest in their own land on 1 November, only two days passed before her body was exhumed against her family’s wishes by members of a tribal group known as the Sarv Adivasi Samaj – all because of her conversion to Christianity.

Ms Sori, who was 35 years old when she died, lived in the village of Antagarh in India’s Chhattisgarh state, where the majority of the community are animists who worship nature and spirits, while also drawing some influence from Hinduism.

Those who exhumed her body claimed that their village belongs only to those who follow their religion, and, after burying Ms Sori in a different village on 4 November, the group claimed that they would continue to target converts to Christianity in the same manner until they ‘re-convert’ to the religion or their ancestry and culture.

It wasn’t long before they did it again, as on 10 November members of the same group forced the exhumation of the body of a man named Naresh Ram, another Christian convert who had been buried the day before and who was subsequently buried in another village.

In both cases, post-mortems were carried out on the exhumed bodies before their re-burial, but it is unclear what these processes sought to ascertain.

What is clear however is that two grieving families were subjected to a grave and disturbing injustice at a time when they should have been free to mourn. It is also a grim reminder that intolerance towards Christians in many tribal communities in India does not end even in death.

Chhattisgarh state: A hotbed of intolerance and violence

Ms Sori and Mr Ram’s home state of Chhattisgarh has witnessed a worrying rise in intolerance and violence towards Christians in recent years. Often, and unlike in these recent incidents, the perpetrators belong to right-wing Hindu extremists who have been significantly emboldened under Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which espouses a narrative which conflates Indian national identity with Hinduism.

For example, in October Hindu fundamentalists in Sukma District burst into a private home where a group of approximately 15 Christians had gathered for a prayer meeting, and physically assaulted those gathered, demanding that they forsake their religion.

The victims only sustained minor injuries, however concerns grew as their repeated attempts to register their case with local police were unsuccessful. In one incident on 23 October – two days after the attack took place – two police officers, one of whom is said to have been among the mob that carried out the initial attack, beat the complainants thoroughly right outside the Golampalli Police Station where they had come to register a complaint.

Footage shows one of the Christians being assaulted outside the police station on 23 October

Such allegations of police complicity and even hostility are extremely common. Often, police refuse to register First Information Reports (FIRs), which are required for them to open an investigation, and in some cases they are clearly implicated in acts of violence themselves. Even in the forced exhumation of Naresh Ram, the family have alleged that the perpetrators received the help of several local police.

The government is not doing enough

With Christians facing intolerance from tribal groups and Hindu nationalists alike, and local police rarely providing any assistance at all, it falls to the Indian government to step up and protect vulnerable minorities.

And yet the BJP often only makes things worse. Prime Minister Modi has remained largely silent on the issue, while the BJP’s ideological arm, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), has sought to polarise Indian society by relentlessly dividing communities on religious grounds, leaving religious minorities in the nation unsettled about their future.

Christians are not the only group affected. Muslims face discrimination and hate speech which often centres on alleged cow slaughter and claims of ‘love jihad,’ in which Muslim men are accused of alluring Hindu girls to marriage. Acts of vigilantism, including the destruction of Muslim owned businesses and even mob lynchings, are common. In September this year tensions between Hindu and Muslim communities even spilled onto the streets of multiple UK cities.

The international community must step up

If Prime Minister Modi and the BJP can’t, or won’t, respond to the rampant religious intolerance that is spreading through India at the moment, then the international community must step up.

Unlike many of the countries CSW works on, India is reasonably open to bilateral and multilateral dialogue. The EU, the UK, the US and others must take advantage of this, committing to holding the Indian government to account for its failures to address human rights violations and ensuring that this is not neglected in the interest of economic or geopolitical gain.

By CSW’s Public Affairs Officer Ellis Heasley