Chattisgarh: Why Is Violence against Christian Tribals Going Unpunished?
On January 22 Communist Party of India (Marxist) leaders wrote to Chhattisgarh Chief Minister asking that he take urgent action to address the attacks on Christian Tribals in the state. A delegation including Polit Bureau member Brinda Karat, Acting Secretary, Chhattisgarh state committee of CPI(M), Dharamraj Mahapatra State secretary, Adivasi Ekta Mahasabha, Bal Singh, activists Najeeb Qureshi and Vasudev Das had visited Chhattisgarh from January 20-22 and saw for themselves the aftermath of the targeted attacks on Christian Tribals and heard from the victims. No other political leader from any party had visited or met the victims till then.
However, the violence in the area had begun months before, and escalated rapidly in December 2022. Speaking to The Citizen Brinda Karat traced the latest anti-Christian wave in the area to November, 2022. On November1, a 50 year-old woman named Chatibai Nareti, died of jaundice and was buried on her family owned land. However the Janjati Suraksha Manch objected to these burials.
Karat said that it was the “former BJP MLA Bhojraj Nag who declared that the body would have to be exhumed”. The deceased woman’s son Mukesh Nareti was called to the police station and reportedly beaten up. The son was told to “exhume" the body or he would be “encountered” , said Karat who also puts this incident on record in the memorandum. The body was exhumed at night on November 3, and it was then buried in a Christian cemetery around a 100 km away in the city area.
“This is horrific. How can they be denied a burial on their own land. They will have to travel into the city graveyard 100 Kms away now,” she said, adding that this trend was on the rise. This incident just months ago, however, did not seem to alert the government. “The involvement of BJP leaders in this incident should have been an alert to the government. Instead the criminals started acting with impunity and across the region such incidents were reported. This escalated into attacks on the community as a whole” stated the memorandum.
“This is all a part of the Hindutvaisation of the tribal communities,” Karat told The Citizen. Tribal Christians have always buried their dead in their lands in the village till then. “Even now in the majority of villages this is not an issue. Now it is being organised in a planned and motivated manner to divide adivasis in the name of religion,” she stated adding “Political assessments are made by the government that interventions may not be beneficial electoraly.”
According to the CPI (M) memorandum there is an, “effort is to act in the name of “Janjati” to divide the Adivasi community. In every single case it was told to us by the victims that it was those leaders among the tribals who were affiliated to the BJP, who mobilised and led the attacks.”
It was the JSM “under the leadership of the district President of the BJP led a ‘protest’ demonstration in Narayanpur on January 2. It is this meeting which led to the mob attack on the Church in Narayanpur on the same day” Karat traced the biggest attack's origin.
The CPI (M) delegation had submitted its memorandum to the Chief Minister of Chattisgarh Bhupesh Baghel on January 22. It highlights the repeated oppression of the state’s minority Christian population. The left leaders asked that the CM take immediate measures to address the ongoing issue.
That the violence against Christians in the state has been ongoing for some time now and has been escalating for over a year has been repeatedly recorded by various organisations. According to data collected till May 2022 by the United Christian Forum (UCF), 207 cases of violence against Christians were reported in india. While Uttar Pradesh continued to top the list of hate crimes and attacks against Christians, with 48 incidents (during that time frame) Chhattisgarh was a close second with 44 attacks that include violence, intimidation, social ostracism, vandalism and desecration of religious places,
The United States’ Department of State had also released a report on International Religious Freedom. It observed that , “some NGOs reported that the government failed to prevent or stop attacks on religious minorities” in India. It stated that attacks or violence targeting Christians, “in all spheres of life “had intensified as religious extremists aim to cleanse the country of their presence and influence.”
According to ADF India, an alliance building legal advocacy organisation, even in April 2022, when their allies were conducting routine fact-finding visits in Narayanpur, Chhattisgarh, it was found that “Christians from a nearby tribal village called Kokhameta reported that they were being socially ostracised. They informed that out of the 54 Christian families in the village, only 17 families remained in the faith as the rest were pressured to leave Christianity and revert to their old religion.”
It added that “Scheduled Tribe Christians face grave threat to their life and faith, unlawful revoking of their ST status, confiscation of property, denial of water, daily rations and other basic amenities”.
The ADF India allied lawyers helped them file a complaint with the local police station but “the complaint was rejected, which was not surprising because in this village, the Christians are not even allowed to enter the station!” it stated. Even after the complaint was eventually submitted “no action was taken there as well,” and the ADF lawyers filed a private complaint before the District Court Narayanpur under Section 156 (3) of the Criminal Procedure Code, 1973 (Cr.P.C.). “The Court immediately issued a notice to the SHO of Kokhameta to file a complete investigation report” stated the ADF.
However, the attacks in the Bastar region reportedly intensified between December December 9, until December 18, 2022. And many tribal Christian families fled from over a dozen villages Chattigarh's Narayanpur and Kondagaon areas and spent Christmas 2022 in fear,
A month later, they still refuse to speak out openly and on conditions of anonymity say they are still scared. Narayanpur, is around 350 km from the state capital Raipur, and a part of the tribal belt of the Bastar region. According to lawyer-activists who wanted to visit and volunteer legal help to the victims, they were advised not to go to the affected areas at the moment. Many tribal families are now said to be staying in safe houses of extended families elsewhere, some are reported even taking shelter in the jungles.
The CPI(M) memorandum too highlights the prevailing issues in the North Bastar districts of Kanker, Kodagaon and Narayanpur. The delegation led by veteran activist-politician Brinda Karat met and “expressed solidarity with the victims of the violence and also to understand how it was that such sharp divisions leading to violence could occur among Adivasi communities who had hitherto lived in harmony”.
They met over 100 people, including victims of the violence, pastors, priests, adivasis, members of Adivasi organisations, some elected members of local bodies, activists, leaders of the Chattisgarh Progressive Christian Alliance.
They also met the SP of Kanker district, the Collector of Narayanpur, the SDM in Kodagaon and some other officials. According to Karat, “no Minister or any senior leader deputed by the Government had visited the area to meet the victims and affected people.”
This has exposed the apathy of the political class towards those suffering in their jurisdiction. “There is extensive damage to homes, churches, belongings, livelihood and yet there is not a single family or individual victim who has received any compensation nor has there been any effort to assess the damage caused. Around 1500 affected people who were forced to flee their villages or were forcibly driven out who were in relief camps run by the administration have now been “sent home”.”
The CPI (M) confirmed that many families were forced to leave their homes again and were taking refuge “with relatives or sheltering in churches”. The extensively detailed memorandum gave an example, of village Tembrugaon, where “when the pickup truck arranged by the administration with the victims reached the village they were met by a group who were carrying “ tilaks” . They told the Christians that they could enter their village if they applied the tilak as a symbol of their “return” to the “Samaj”— ghar wapasi, otherwise they would not be allowed into the village.
“Since none of those in the truck agreed to such illegal conditions, they were not allowed to go to their homes. In some villages social boycott of the most cruel kind, never seen before in these villages, has been imposed. We know of the purification rituals performed by upper castes against so-called untouchables even today, but these have never formed part of Adivasi practice.”
During their visit to the Narayanpur Church the Left leaders “saw the vandalism, the broken statues, the altar and other items used for Mass destroyed, windows and doors smashed”. “These are homes built by the locals, not churches, a hall is used to gather for community prayer. It was demolished as were the rest of the rooms of the house,” Karat told The Citizen.
Meanwhile, a peace activist from the area told The Citizen on condition of anonymity that they “don't know the location of all the displaced Christians. The police force them to go to their villages, but when they went there, the villagers again throw them out now they are living in the jungle.”
Another activist from Narayanpur, added that the Chief Minister has been silent, “after the tweet when he was in Delhi we haven’t heard from the CM. Although he has given statements at some places about finding out the number of churches built during BJP government tenure”.
The Chattisgarh Chief minister Bhupesh Baghel had briefly met the UCF's representatives to apprise him of the situation in his state. The CM had 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.
Congress’ Minority Cell vice president Anil Thomas told The Citizen that, “Chhattisgarh has a secular government and a secular CM. I personally do not view anything as anti-Christian, in my opinion it is anti-Constitution.”
Responding to why the state government did not intervene soon after the initial attacks were reported, he added that “nobody expected the Narayanpur attack to happen. And when it did, action was taken. Cops were rushed, around 5000 policemen were deployed and arrests were made.” He added the senior police and administrative officials have been tasked with “finding the root cause” of what the “incidents” happened and that there has been no attack since,
However, the sense of fear does prevail in the area, said activists who also claim they were not allowed to go into the affected villages as it could affect the law and order situation.
The CPI (M) delegation was able to talk to the survivors who had come to meet them and share their concerns and ordeals. While a long term rehabilitation plan for the displaced Christian tribals is not yet known, another concern has also been flagged by the CPI (M).
They say that the groups of adivasis shared that their main concern was that the Forest Rights Act was not being implemented. “We had informed the officials we met of these genuine complaints. There are two projects of iron ore mining in the Narayanpur district which is strongly being opposed by adivasis.
“Without taking the opinion of the gram sabhas the government is going ahead with the project. This is highly objectionable. It is essential for the government to ensure gram sabha meetings as mandated by the law. The recent incidents of a communal nature are designed to weaken this united movement of adivasis.”