Chhattisgarh: A state where religious minorities live in fear

Five months after the mob violence that forced hundreds of Christians from Chhattisgarh’s tribal belt to flee their homes, victims say they are back home and safe for now, but they continue to live in fear.

On 18 December 2022, more than 20 incidents of anti-Christian violence were reported in various villages of Chhattisgarh’s Kondgaon and Narayanpur districts. Locals claimed that they were pressured to leave their religion and if they refused, they were beaten up badly, their homes were vandalised and their crops were destroyed.

According to reports that emerged later, close to a thousand Christians were forced to flee their homes and seek shelter in neighbouring districts. Some had to walk hundreds of kilometres to seek shelter in an indoor stadium.

Five months later, almost all the displaced victims are back home. But life is not quite the same. They continue to live in fear. Many lost almost all their belongings and are now struggling to make ends meet. The children suffered the most as they missed out on their studies.

At first, many of the Christians stopped gathering together in their homes or in churches, but they have now started meeting again, although not without fear.

On 18 January, the district collector of Narayanpur conducted a peace meeting with all the village heads, trying to convince them to resolve conflict, ensure the safety of Christians and maintain peace in their respective villages. It was after this meeting that the Christians who fled were convinced to return.

Although things are gradually returning to normal, locals say the animosity is still there and continues to spread to other parts of Chhattisgarh. Hindu groups are now calling for an economic boycott of Christians and Muslims – encouraging locals not to buy products from Christian and Muslim businesses, which has a grave effect on their livelihoods.

Some locals told CSW that their Hindu neighbours are travelling long distances just to avoid buying products from Christian and Muslim vendors. Many members of these minority communities are on the verge of losing their businesses entirely.

The call for boycott escalated after a recent communal clash that resulted in the death of a Hindu youth. On 8 April 2023, a fight that started out between two school children in Bemetra snowballed into a communal clash between Hindus and Muslims. Two houses were burnt down, and as the violence escalated a 23-year-old Hindu youth named Bhuwaneshwar Sahu was killed. Three policemen were injured, and the police arrested 10 people in connection with the case. On 10 April, enraged by the arrest, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), a Hindu nationalist group, called for a state-wide bandh (strike) and set a hut ablaze in the village.

A few days later, social media footage of about 70 people taking an oath to boycott Christian and Muslim businesses went viral. The oath was administered by a VHP leader and stated that all Hindu owned shops and businesses must have signages outside their buildings that they are owned by Hindus.

In Kondgaon, many Christians claim that they are not being offered jobs under the Employment Guarantee Scheme because of their religion. According to this central government scheme, adult members of every household in the ‘Below Poverty Line’ category – i.e. households whose combined annual income is below 27,000 rupees – are guaranteed 100 days of waged employment if they volunteer to do manual work. This discrimination on the basis of religion has further pushed the Christians into poverty, while they are already suffering from the impact of the violence.

Christians in tribal communities in Chhattisgarh have been living in fear for several years, but the past year has been particularly marred by violence, death threats and discrimination. And now, even as families try to rebuild their lives having lost most or all of their belongings in recent attacks, these calls for economic boycotts and efforts to prevent them finding work are making that challenge even harder.

The state government must do far more to ensure that the victims are given the right support to earn a decent living, while also ensuring their safety, while the central government must also increase its efforts to promote peaceful co-existence and reverse the damage it has done by embracing a Hindu nationalist agenda.

By CSW’s India Desk

Featured Image: Domino786, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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