For tribal Christian communities in India’s Chhattisgarh State, the new year hasn’t really come with hopes of a better or safer future.
On 2 January a Hindu nationalist mob barged into the Vishwa Dipti Christian School campus in Narayanpur district and vandalised a church located within the premises of the school. Videos of the mob repeatedly hitting statues of Jesus and Mary, and scattering furniture surfaced on the internet. Both members of the mob and the churchgoers belonged to local tribes in Narayanpur, the two most prominent of which are the Gond and Muria tribes.
But what grabbed national headlines and went viral on social media was the image of a bleeding senior police official who was attacked by the mob when he tried to intervene. Narayanpur’s Superintendent of Police Sadanand Kumar was soon rushed to the hospital after suffering a serious head injury. Christians in Chhattisgarh have suffered attacks like these for several months with hardly any interest from the media, but it was only when a person of power was injured that anyone paid any attention.
The attack on the church was no sudden outburst; it had been brewing for some time. For most of 2022, tribal Christian communities in Chhattisgarh faced discrimination, injustice and violence, with one report documenting 115 incidents of violence through the year. The situation has been escalating since October 2022, with attacks reported on an almost weekly basis as thousands of Christians have been forced to flee their homes in fear for their lives.
In a series of attacks on 18 December 2022, around 16 houses belonging to Christians and four churches were destroyed by Hindu villagers across 20 villages in the districts of Kondgaon and Narayanpur.
Reports indicate that the attackers summoned Christian families to come out of their homes and gave them an ultimatum to either renounce their faith or leave the village. At first the Christians tried to reason with the perpetrators, however when that was unsuccessful they began to protest and they were immediately beaten with sticks. Many were severely injured and about 200 Christians were forced to flee from their villages.
According to a local source, most villagers in these districts belong to a tribe called Gonds. Like most tribal communities in India, they follow a form of animism, which involves the worship of nature and spirits, but the line between these beliefs and Hinduism has blurred over the years. Right-wing Hindu groups often attempt to convince members of tribal communities that they are all Hindus, and many have been forced to identify themselves as Hindus in India’s official census as there is no option to choose animism as a religion.
Despite this, in villages like those attacked in December, the number of Christians has increased over the years and many of them felt they should have their own prayer house. However, when they constructed these premises themselves, members of the tribe, instigated by right wing fundamentalists, warned people not to go to these houses of worship. Those who ignore these warnings typically face violence and pressure to convert to Hinduism.
Pastor Sitaram, one of the victims of the 18 December attack said: ‘We were minding our own business in our houses, some of my neighbours were in the fields outside. On Sunday morning, the villagers called us out and started threatening us to either give up our faith or leave. When we refused, we were beaten up. About 50 of them were there. A lot of us were injured, one person’s bones were broken. Those who were injured were taken to the Narayanpur hospital. Later that evening, we went to the police station and filed our complaint.‘
Another victim who wishes to remain anonymous and was in hiding at the time of the interview added: ‘They came to all our houses and started beating us up and forced us to give up Christianity. I was out, but my family called me and asked me to escape and not return home. I ran away. I have been out for the last two days. I didn’t bring any clothes. I’ve been trying to charge my phone in shops and wherever else I get an opportunity. I cannot stay in one place as I heard that they are searching for me everywhere. There were some panchayat (village council) members too.‘
According to local sources, several Christians from the 20 villages tried to file complaints in their respective police stations, but most officials refused to register First Information Reports (FIR), which are needed to open an investigation. On the night of 18 December, more than 1,000 Christians assembled outside the collectorate in Narayanpur as they had nowhere else to go. Many of them didn’t even have time to bring warm clothes. The Christians were forcibly loaded onto a bus and transferred to a police station in Benur, also in Chhattisgarh, and were promised that their FIRs would be registered there, but no action has been taken since.
This violence didn’t come out of nowhere. A report published on 2 January by a fact-finding committee for the Centre for Study of Society and Secularism found that ‘The early warning of the campaign to forcibly convert Christians manifested in the month of October. However, the District Administration ignored the early warnings such as the threats and intimidations targeting Christian Adivasis. These intimidations were reported but no action was taken which tantamount to breach of peace in the locality. As a result, the violence against Christian Adivasis kept on escalating.’
While those responsible for the violence argue that members of their tribal community are being forcefully converted to Christianity and are turning away from their ancestral faith and practices, this fact finding committee found that none of the Christians were ready to renounce their faith despite their suffering, which suggests that no force was involved in their conversion.
At every level, the Indian authorities must respond, not only by providing relief and safety to those affected by the violence, but by addressing the root causes that have allowed it to fester so deeply within Indian society.
Locally, police must hear the complaints of the Christians and register FIRs so that they can carry out appropriate investigations and bring those responsible to justice. At the state and national level, ministers and parliamentarians must do far more to crack down on rhetoric that conflates Indian national identity with Hinduism and thereby emboldens extremists to attack other religion or belief communities.
Crucially, the international community must also pay attention to the words and actions of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), holding the Indian government to account for its failure, and sometimes complicity, in protecting the vulnerable groups that fall under its duty of care.
By CSW’s India Desk
Featured Image: RANJEET2792, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons