Christianity Outlawed

The quiet tribal community in Bastar is under going a change. A change for the worse! Tribals are being increasingly communalised and conflicts are being reported from the area, which sometime turn violent and divide the tribal community further.

One such conflict was reported from Sirisguda village, Bastar in early July 2014. The village has a tiny presence of Christian Tribals for around 20 plus years. In the Bastar area, however, Christians have been present for the last 150 plus years.

In Sirisguda, there are 52 Christian families out of around 650. The Christians are scattered in various “paras” or “mohallas” in the village. But the Christian families had been facing social discrimination. They had been denied ration for over 2 months (since May 2014) and their ration cards had not been renewed.

“Every time we went to the ration shop to get our share of rice as promised by the state government, people from the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) would be sitting there and they would make sure that we do not get anything,” said Shibu Ram Mandavi, a Christian from Sirisguda village.

“They would taunt us, curse us and ask us to renounce Christianity,” he added.

In order to renew the cards the VHP members along with the Panchayat officials asked the Christians to provide ‘chanda’ (donation) to the tune of 200 Rupees per family member towards the village devi (goddess) festival.

“We are poor people. How can we give 200 Rupees per person in our family in order to renew the cards? We told them that for years we had contributed to the festival willingly, and as much as we could, for we love being integrated with the village community, but they would not listen. They insisted on the amount and there was nothing we could do. Many of us are daily labourers, how could we afford the huge sum of money. So we continued on without food.” Mandavi said.

With the situation turning dire, the Christians then turned to the food inspector who was available in Jagdalpur, the nearest town and appealed to him to intervene. He did so by sending two officials to the village on June 15, 2014, to speak to the Panchayat officials and the Christians but the Panchayat people did not turn up for the meeting that was scheduled at the ration shop.

According to eyewitnesses, when the officials accompanied by the Christians approached the Panchayat members who were all huddled up along with VHP officials having their own meeting in a different location, they were attacked and chased away from the village. After this the Panchayat members and the VHP workers turned their ire towards the Christians.

“I was near the Panchayat Bhavan when I saw the food officials leave in a hurry. Suddenly I was surrounded by Panchayat members and people from the VHP who identified me as a Christian and called to each other to hit me. They abused me with filthy words, and started to beat me, cursing the Christian faith as well. They dragged me, beat me with their fists and legs, pushed me down on the ground and then jumped on me. Soon I lost consciousness and was later picked up by my wife accompanied by some other women.” Said Sukhram Kashyap, who works as a labourer. He has not been able to go to work since the day he was beaten up and feels unwell most of the time.

That day 10 Christians including two women, Aiti and Kari, suffered injuries. One of them, Aitu Mandavi, suffered serious injuries and had his shoulder dislocated. While the 9 were treated at the local hospital, Aitu was carried to the district hospital where the care is better.

“I know these people who beat me. I grew up with them. Outsiders have polluted their mind and created divisions. Now the same people pressurise us to convert to Hinduism or be killed. They say they want to finish Christianity from Sirisguda” Kashyap said.

A day later, on June 16, 2014, the Gram Sabha of Sirisguda met and passed a resolution under section 129 (G) of the Chhattisgarh Panchayat Raj Act outlawing all non-Hindu religions from Sirisguda. The VHP functionaries were present in this meeting and a copy of the resolution has been officially marked to “Respected Chairperson VHP, Jagdalpur”.

The section 129 (G) 1 of the act gives power to the Gram Sabha in order to “Protect the peoples’ traditions, cultural identity, community resources and traditional way of dealing with disputes.” (Loose translation from Hindi)

Hence by equating Hinduism with “people’s traditions and cultural identity” and outlawing all other faiths especially Christianity, the VHP has successfully fractured the Tribal community by polarising them on communal lines.

This was soon followed by similar resolutions from Badanji, Belar and Parapur Gram Sabhas and according to media reports; over 60 villages have adopted similar resolutions banning Christianity from their villages.

Christians approached the state administration and the chief secretary of the state Mr. Vivek Dhand, had assured them that these resolutions are ultra vires of the constitution and would be dealt with firmly. The collector, Mr. Ankit Anand has been on record on media saying similar things. But on the ground the situation is getting worse according to reports received.

Soon afterwards the meeting with the state administration, villagers in Parapur and Gadiya were threatened with Kandhamal like violence if they did not leave the village or do not convert to Hinduism. A week later the VHP started beating up people in Parapur as a result of which a few Christians suffered grievous wounds.

The Chhattisgarh Christian Forum (CCF) along with other organisations has moved the High Court of Chhattisgarh filing a writ petition in September to challenge the outlawing of non-Hindu faiths in Bastar. The single bench of Justice M. M. Shrivastava has asked the government to reply on the petition filed within 3 weeks.

Speaking to the media, Mr. Arun Pannalal the president of the CCF said,

“Our main contention is how anybody on Indian soil can refuse entry to Indians. Nobody can stop the entry of religious missionaries under any law”.

Sources say that the collector Mr. Anand has since changed his stance and only promises protection to the Christians while commenting that he cannot really do anything about the resolutions.

“What is being done is being done very systematically. The VHP, BJP and its allies have been moving in the area recently and have been telling the Tribals that their identity is Hindu and that the Christians are out to convert and enslave them.” Says Navneet Chand, a local political leader.

Last year members of the VHP accompanied by the local police and Tehsildar razed a church in Gadiya village to the ground. “The Christians present in the church were beaten up, women misbehaved with, church property broken and the altar desecrated,” said Pastor Budhram on whose land the church had been built after obtaining all due permissions. Today the faithful worship under plastic sheets near the broken down structure, as they have no building now.

“They have installed temples of Hanuman and sometimes Durga alongside the ancestor shrines of Tribals, telling them that this is needed to protect them from Christians. The VHP and BJP give money generously during Hindu festivals to local unemployed boys who are then formed into committees and serve as cadres for them. So we now have Tribals celebrating Ganesh Chaturthi and Durga Utsav and other Hindu festivals, which was not the case in the past. When you get 25 – 30 thousand for celebrating each festival, why wont you?” He added.

But there is another angle as reported by other people in the region. The area of Lohandiguda, where most of these villages are, have been marked for a steel plant by the Tata Group. The project is expected to come up around 5000 acres of tribal land made up of 11 villages including the villages where the resolutions have been taken and the VHP has become recently active.

“There is a nexus between the VHP and the corporates to divide the tribal society in order to take the project further,” a local leader said on the conditions of anonymity. “The project has been stalled since 2005 and Christians are just collateral damage in this,” he said.

But for now the atmosphere in the Bastar area is tense, charged with communalism. According to recent reports from CCF, 12 Christians have been hospitalised after being attacked by the Bajrang Dal on October 25, 2014. CCF claims that the Christians were asked by the district administration to assemble at Village Madota, District Jagdalpur, on the morning of October 25. But no official turned up, instead Bajrang Dal people armed with spears and lathis came and beat the Christians up. As a result many Christians have suffered wounds and broken bones and are being treated now. Eight of them are in serious condition.

The Sangh parivaar and allies seem to have won their day in successfully dividing the tribal population of Bastar on communal lines. There are fears that the model might be replicated in several other tribal pockets of India. Meanwhile, Christians in Bastar wait for administration to act and fulfil their constitutional mandate.

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