Chhattisgarh - Injustice Perpetuated
Systematic campaign of dispossession, denial of identity and choice
At a time when the political and judicial discourse on forcible conversions is moving with animated political fervor in various States around the country, Chhattisgarh is witnessing a somewhat perplexing political phenomenon.
Nearly 18 villages in Chhattisgarh have faced attacks after fringe Right Wing forces attacked and drove them out of their homes, villages, and the fields they cultivate. The aggressors demand that Adivasis return to Hinduism or face being banished from their homes forever.
This is a systematic campaign of dispossession and denial of identity and choice. The attacks continued even on Christmas Day and goes to demonstrate the utter malice of oppressive aggression in the name of opposing religious conversions.
A fact-finding team of civil rights activists had visited numerous relief camps and villages and interacted with the victims, as well as the non-Christian Adivasis. They interacted with the village Sarpanch and residents and had detailed encounters with district administration officials including the District Collector, Deputy Superintendent of Police, and Additional Superintendent of Police.
They also interviewed members of political and cultural entities. The fact-finding investigations took place both in affected villages as well as in the district headquarters of Narayanpur and Kondagaon.
The so-called relief camps to which people had fled under duress by extremists were seriously under-equipped. In several or more instances, there was no food, rations, warm clothing, medicines, proper toilets, and other basics available. The authorities were callous and simply declared there was no time to get themselves organised.
It must be called what it really is: abdication of a sense of duty. One could argue that there was unpreparedness for the kind of emergency that turned up. But a government set-up that cannot handle a not-so-massive emergency such as this (it was no major catastrophe in numerical terms) has failed in its mandate to govern.
There is a systematic political schema accompanied by a campaign to coerce the Christian Adivasis into joining the Hindu religion, euphemistically referred to as ‘Ghar Wapsi”.
Facts reveal that beginning December 9, 2022, until December 18, 2022, there were a series of attacks in the 18 villages in Narayanpur and 15 villages in Kondagaon and those displaced were threatened that if they did not denounce their Christian faith and convert to the Hindu religion, they would be forced to face dire consequences, even death.
Many Christian Adivasis were reportedly gravely assaulted and beaten with bamboo canes, tyres, rods, and any equivalent of a weapon they could lay their hands on. Some injuries were severe and needed hospitalization. Serious injuries including a fracture of the collarbone needed major treatment.
It all happened in the midst of harsh winter conditions, the trauma of which was worsened by being compelled to live in the open air or under inadequate shelters. It compounded serious threats to health for people to leave their village and seek spaces without access to shelter, notably for the old and infirm.
What is worse? Under rigorous duress a few were forcibly converted to Hinduism causing psycho-stress and humiliation. It is important to underline that the larger number of displaced and disempowered Adivasis were women.
In one village, the fact-finding team learned that 21 Christian families in the village were taken to the village temple at which time the priest forcibly conducted some rituals and declared them to be Hindus. They also confiscated copies of the Bible from their homes.
In another village, 18 families were forcibly moved and three families were also compulsorily converted. Even differently-abled persons, a pregnant woman and children were not exempted from the brutal violence.
Reports suggest women who refused to convert to Hinduism, were discarded by their own families. Their men-folk and families preferred to compromise their convictions and submit to intimidation.
One narrative from a second Fact finding group suggested that many men only feigned obedience to the marauding mobs of extremists to save their skin. They attend their churches clandestinely but still do not publicly declare their affiliations. The demands of sheer human survival oblige them to tend their fields, and look after their livestock for which they must fake conversion to Hinduism.
Social activists and leaders of the Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribe and OBC community in the region told the fact- finding team that disruptive campaigns were the central issues responsible for attacks on Christian Adivasis”. They underlined that there is a deliberate attempt to undermine the rule of law and compel the Adivasi Christians to concede to the demands. Much of this is happening with the complicity of law and order mechanisms and under the power of dominant political forces.
The early warnings of the campaign to forcibly convert Christians were visible even as early as October 2022, or even before. The District Administration ignored the early warnings of threats and intimidations targeting Christian Adivasis. The administration was half hearted even after an escalated and violent campaign against Christian Adivasis began around December 9.
Not a single FIR was registered even though the survivors of this attack filed their complaints with various police stations in Narayanpur.
Alongside this opposition, they also sought to “de-list” converted Adivasis. The campaign included removing the names of converted Adivasis from the list of Adivasis- a kind of bare de-recognition of their religious choices. This has to be viewed not only as opposing voluntary conversions but also as ‘de-citizenising’ them because of their decision to convert.
It should also be noted that many of the converts were poor and dispossessed people who, in desperation, began attending churches and found cures from prolonged health issues following prayers for healing. It is worth noting that the area has extremely poor health-care standards and facilities.
People's own accounts reveal that it was not medication that cured them of their ailments. They claim with conviction, how prayers and spiritual experiences had healed them. Of course, the extremist elements in simplistic overtones attribute this to witchcraft and/or black magic.
In one village, 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 benefiting from such impunity, the violence against Christians Adivasis worsened.
There were police excesses against the Adivasis who had gathered in the District Collectorate on December 19, 2022 to protest. The Superintendent of Police, Narayanpur was complicit through his lethargy. Even though the District Collector has claimed that an FIR has been filed against those who engaged in violent attacks, evidence is not available on the government website.
No information about the sections under which the FIR was filed was specified. Nor were there details about the number of people accused or arrested. While the SP claimed that there were arrests there was no tangible evidence of these claims. The administration is faultily functioning on the premise that both sides are guilty in the fracas or conflict.
When the fact-finding team asked the Collector what wrong the Christian Adivasis had committed to deserve such harassment, he was clueless and had no answers. When the fact-finding team interacted with the non-Christian Adivasis, they were unwilling to label the Adivasis Christians as wrong. Their only gripe was that the Christian Adivasis had now disowned their previous faith. It was not serious enough to cause enmity.
Alongside there are efforts to silence civil society activists and independent journalists by using politically motivated criminal charges, including terrorism, to jail those exposing or criticizing government abuses.
During India’s Universal Periodic Review at the United Nations Human Rights Council in November, member countries raised concerns and made recommendations on a range of issues including the need to protect minority communities and vulnerable groups, tackle gender-based violence, uphold civil society freedoms, protect human rights defenders, and end torture in custody.
The South Asia Forum for Freedom of Religion or Belief (SAFFORB) has strongly condemned violence against the Christian residents of Narayanpur and Kondagaon districts of Chhattisgarh. They are demanding that immediate steps should be taken to facilitate the return of Christian Adivasis to their villages with dignity and security.
They are also calling for legal action to be initiated without any further delay against the perpetrators of the violence inflicted upon the Christian Adivasis. Additionally, they call for strict action to be taken against those involved in the forcible conversions that have taken place.
A crucial demand asks that police officers who were complicit in the actions of the perpetrators of violence inflicted on the Christian Adivasis be held to account. One of these failings is they had evaded registering FIRs. A further demand has called for homes and prayer houses of the Christian Adivasis that were damaged during the attacks to be rebuilt by the State.
Also listed in the demands are that victims of violence be adequately compensated for the psychological pain and agony suffered, apart from the loss of property (house, agricultural harvest, cattle, etc.) and livelihoods.
There are positive signs too in the midst of these ruthless circumstances. Leaders of the Sarva Adivasi Samaj in Kondagaon district said that Adivasis should be free to choose their religion. The Samaj clearly saw that the RSS was running a campaign to communalize the Adivasis causing unnecessary disturbances in the area.
The fact-finding Team appreciated the temporary relief arrangements in Zilla Panchayat Sansadhan Kendra and the indoor stadium in Narayanpur which were relatively better, even though women complained of lack of water supply in toilets.
Every Indian citizen including the Adivasis is 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. Having to leave the village under threat of or due to violence is an action that is not condonable. The suggestion that this is merely a “minor scuffle” in which both parties are wrong is an excuse for inaction in stopping the violence.
Anti-Conversion laws have now been enacted in several States. These have had a cascading effect on minority Christians. Peripheral extremists are exaggerating the presence of Christians in Chhattisgarh, and elsewhere, and adding figures of fictional dimensions to their actual numbers.
When freedom to profess and propagate religion is constitutionally mandated, how is India competent to make laws that prevent religious conversion, whatever be the incentive?
Ranjan Solomon is a political commentator and a human rights activist. Views expressed are the writer’s own.