Chhattisgarh's Christmas of Fear
Fact finding report from Chattigarh's Narayanpur and Kondagaon districtS
"They beat us up badly with lathis and forced us out of our gaon," recalled Ramesh Koram, of Kokodi village. "I am six months pregnant and they beat me up," added Gashni Salam of Padnar village. "They beat us up because we have accepted Christianity," said Kokram, his expression still one of fear.
"They asked us if we will shun Jesus, I said no. They then beat us up," said Ghasni, showing where the mob hit her and her husband Khudaram with sticks, even as he comforts their firstborn, a toddler. "At one time, the police told us they would talk to the villagers, but those people did not listen to the police either. They screamed at us and told us that they will take us into the forest and kill us and no one will know," she alleged.
This in itself is a warning sign on the mood still reportedly prevalent in those villages, feared the displaced villagers. "The first one to attack us was the sarpanch (village head) Jalal Marabi" said Gonchi of village Kokodi, she names the village head fearlessly in a tone that is calm and determined. "Once he hit us, then the mob followed, some hit us with sticks, others with tyres, they injured my husband and broke his right hand. They ebay up women and children. They surrounded us and attacked. There are around four people still being treated in hospital," she recalled the horror in the days leading to Christmas.
These shaken but brave voices belong to the Adivasi survivors of the anti-Christian violence that reportedly broke out in scores of villages in Chattigarh's Narayanpur and Kondagaon areas recently. The victims spoke to a fact finding team composed of a group of human rights activists, advocates and concerned citizens. The victims recorded their testimonials on video and recalled what they had gone through. However, the video is not public yet for reasons of witness protection and safety, said a source.
The violence reportedly intensified from December 9, until December 18, 2022. And according to news reports in publications such as The Hindu, many tribal Christian families had fled from over a dozen villages after the attacks. These families eventually found shelter at an "indoor stadium in the district headquarters". Narayanpur, is around 350 km from the state capital Raipur, and is a part of the tribal belt of the Bastar region.
According to the fact finding report released to the media on December 29, there have been a series of smaller, but frequent attacks in the area since October this year in the region. However, according to the activists, the initial complaints made by the Adivasis fell on deaf ears then. "There were early warnings about these impending attacks. The vishwasu's as the Christian Adivasis call themselves, went to the police station, but their complaints were not accepted. There were no media reports either. These attacks took place in Narayanpur and Kondagaon districts," Irfan Engineer, Director, Centre for Study of Society and Secularism told The Citizen.
He also alleged that in those areas, "there are attempts being made to forcibly convert Christian Adivasis to the Hindu religion". According to Engineer, who led the fact finding team, this was where he saw the first case of alleged "forcible conversion, from Christianity to Hinduism".
These targeted attacks continued to peak for months, and by December 18, around 1,000 Christian adivasis had been forced out of their own villages, said activists. However, the official figures are much smaller. "According to the collector 250 people were displaced in Nayanpur and some 150 in Kondgaon", said Engineer.
Whatever the final number of victims is, they all told the fact finding team of human rights activists that they had been targeted and threatened for their Christian faith. Some of the victims alleged that they were told to "convert to Hinduism or the Adivasi religion" and told to worship their deities. The victims said they were told that this was the only way they would be allowed to return to their own villages.
The fact finding team cited an example of one Manglu Koram from Madamnar village who alleged that he and members of 21 Christian families of his village "were taken to the village tihad (temple) where the priest forcibly conducted some rituals and declared them to be Hindus". The report also stated that "18 families from Udidgaon village and three families from Fulhadgaon village, and three families from Putanchandagaon village were also forcibly converted. Even persons with disabilities, pregnant women and children were not spared of the brutal violence."
However, the displaced Adivasis who spent their Christmas cowering in fear, and trying to survive the bitter cold first in the open outside the district collectorate, and then in the 'relief camp' say they wish to remain Christians.
Sukham Potai, from Ramjhara village, now living at the shelter said such violence had not happened against any other Adivasis and only Christians had been singled out, "It is happening because I believe in Yeshu Masih (Jesus Christ). The TI (town inspector) does not accept our complaints, we tried a few times. What can we do? We are helpless".
"I said we have lived here for generations, where will we go? They then beat us up badly," added Ram, from Kokodi village. "We do want to go back but they won't let us do that. They will beat us up again," said the victims.
"We have suffered a lot, the crops we planted have been damaged, our livestock has been butchered and eaten. I want justice, and my rights. I will not go home till I get that, I will stay here at the camp even if it takes two years," said Gonchi, who wants to fight a legal battle against the accused. "If someone helps us we will fight a legal fight if they continue to attack us vishwasis," she said.
"They can't go back to their villages, unless the administration takes some action" said Engineer. The action however is yet to be initiated as it is not yet known if the police have even filed the initial FIRs based on the victims' complaints, say members of the team which also included representatives of All India Peoples Forum, All India Lawyers Association for Justice, and the United Christian Forum.
The Hindu reported that according to the affected families, these attacks "were coordinated and the handiwork of fellow tribal villagers at the behest of right wing groups."
According to human rights activist John Dayal who gave the overview of the attacks on the Christian community, the government has "weaponised laws" to target Adivasis. The situation was now that "for the past eight or nine years, Christmas has been held under police protection in many Churches across the country," he said adding that "everybody in India believes that conversion to Christianity is illegal, even in states which do not have an anti-conversion law".
These attacks, "remind one of Kandhamal," said Michael Williams of the UCF, adding that many such attacks have been reported on the UCF's emergency helpline over the years. Williams was among those who had briefly met Chattisgarh Chief minister Bhupesh Baghel recently to apprise him of the situation in his state.
The CM then tweeted a photo with the delegation and added an "assurance" that he had shared the developments in Bastar and the action taken by the government. "No one is above the law in Chhattisgarh" tweeted the CM, adding "Any person who spreads disharmony in the society will not be spared." However, Williams said that they were yet to get an official update on the action taken almost a week since that brief meeting.
Advocate Ajay Justice Shaw who was a part of the fact finding team told The Citizen, "denial of taking a complaint that can be translated to an FIR is something that is the denial of a citizen's basic right to seek recourse for wrongs committed. Any violation of their fundamental rights is a wrong against a society."
The advocate said that it was illegal for a police officer to deny taking a complaint, and an FIR. "Offenses against women, children and the disabled, call for registering a zero FIR. There is no question of first investigating and filing an FIR which is otherwise the pretext that police officers take to not register an FIR," said Shaw. According to him it is because the Adivasis do not have the privileges to access justice.
According to the report, "the District Administration ignored the early warnings of threats and intimidations targeting Christian Adivasis. These intimidations were reported, but no action was taken which tantamount to breach of peace in the locality.
"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. In Temrugaon, three Christian Adivasis were beaten in the presence of 10 to 15 policemen. The policemen neither stopped the attack nor filed any FIRs. With the perpetrators enjoying such impunity, the violence against Christians Adivasis continued to escalate," alleged the report.
The Adivasi victims told the fact finding team that once they were driven out of their village they had gathered outside the District Collectorate around 2 A.M on December 19 and were "roughly shoved in buses and taken to the relief camp," said Engineer.
"The lights in the area were switched off deliberately by the police to take advantage of the chaos. They were then transported to Benur police station. However, no FIRs were registered the next day by the town inspector, even though the victims gave them written complaints, on the pretext that they would first talk to the perpetrators," stated the fact-finding team. They added that they had been assured by the District Collector that "action against the erring police officials and that the CCTV footage of the Collectorate premises of that day shall be duly preserved and circulated."
The report alleges that "even though the District Collector claimed that an FIR has been filed, no such information can be found on the government website. The District Collector further could not give any detail about the sections under which FIR were filed nor specified the number of people accused or arrested.
"Though the additional SP informed that the accused person had been arrested, he could not furnish the details of such arrest. Neither the victims, nor church leaders nor anyone who should have information of such an arrest confirmed the arrest."
Advocate Shaw stated that it was bizarre that Ajit Vasant Collector Narayanpur eventually stated that "we will ensure that none of the victims will be charged with an FIR". This said Shaw "was absurd", and added that "counter FIRs are the norm and that he 'assured' us that the victims will not have an FIR. Crime has to be reported. It is the duty of every citizen, and public officials." Not doing so is "criminal responsibility" when nothing is done by the administration, said the advocate.
He added that the fact finding report will be taken to the authorities and a writ petition will also be filed in court for the cases which have been identified. The administration, he and other members of the group said, was "functioning on the proposition that both sides are guilty in the scuffle or conflict".
However, according to Engineer "when the fact-finding team asked the Collector what wrong the Christian Adivasis had committed, he could not name anything". The report stated that even "when the fact-finding team interacted with the non-Christian Adivasis, even they did not allege that the victims were wrong, their only grievance was that the Christian Adivasis had now disowned their previous faith.
"Every Indian citizen including Adivasis are within their legal rights to believe in any religion of their choice. The fact-finding team did not find any wrongdoing committed by the victims, except having to leave the village under threat of or due to violence. The proposition that this is merely a "minor scuffle" in which both parties are wrong is an excuse for inaction in stopping the violence," stated the activists.
According to a report in The Hindustan Times Mahendra Chhabra, chairman of the Chhattisgarh minorities commission, claimed that the incidents of violence were "related to other disputes, not conversion." The newspaper quoted Narayanpur collector Ajeet Vasant as saying. "It is not true that the administration ignored the violence. We have registered seven FIRs at various police stations, and the accused have been arrested. Secondly, 500 people of the community were displaced, of which around 250 were sent back to their villages and they have been provided security."
However, according to Shaw, there is no proof that action has been taken, and that there are no FIRs or medico legal records available yet. "This is not a scuffle even in the wildest imagination. The administration is diluting these attacks to show as a village scuffle. They will say 'no complainants came forth'"
"The perpetrators of violence are misled to be acting under the PESA (Panchayats Extension to Scheduled Areas Act) particularly the Section 4(d) without following due process of law," stated the report.
The fact-finding team has put on record the following recommendations:
1. Immediate steps should be taken to facilitate the return of Christian Adivasis to their villages with dignity and with security measures in place.
2. Until their return, the facilities in the relief camps should be improved, keeping in mind the requirements of women, children and persons with disabilities; ensuring privacy and sanitation.
3. Facilities for medical treatment should be arranged in the relief camps.
4. Legal action should be undertaken without any further delay against the perpetrators. Strict action to be taken against the forcible conversions that have taken place.
5. A Special Investigation Team should be constituted under the supervision of the Supreme Court or High Court to investigate the offenses committed Christian Adivasis.
This would prevent any further attacks on the Christian Adivasis in other villages and establish rule of law rather than rule of the might.
6. Strict action should be taken as per law against those police officers who were responsible for inaction against the perpetrators of violence inflicted on the Christian Adivasis and for non-registration of FIRs.
7. The homes, prayer houses and other properties of the Christian Adivasis that were damaged during the attacks should be rebuilt by the State
8. The victims of violence must be adequately compensated for the pain, agony suffered, apart from the loss of property (house, agricultural harvest, cattle, etc) and livelihood.