Adivasi Christians face widespread persecution in Chhattisgarh, pressurised into ghar vapsi

A damaged painting hanging on a wall of a church at a relief camp, photographed on 10 April 2009, in the village of Mondesore, in Odisha. Violence against Christians has increased under the Modi administration, with at least 328 violent incidents documented by activists in 2019 alone, often related to accusations of forced conversions. Daniel Berehulak / Getty Images
29 June, 2020

According to a pastor from Sukma district in rural Chhattisgarh—who wished to remain anonymous—a mob attacked the home of two Christian Adivasi families in the Kokkar Pal village on 20 May. Ravi Kumar, a coordinator of Persecution Relief, an organisation which monitors violence against Christians in India, confirmed this. “The beatings started around 11 pm,” the pastor told me. “They hid in the jungle in the dark of the night. The women lost their way and got separated from their husbands. They were beaten so badly and crawled for three kilometres to reach us.” Ravi told me that the family could not return to their village. “They were in a hospital and are now living in somebody else’s house. We told them not to return to their village because it is not safe there,” he said. The Caravan is in possession of a first-information report filed by the pastor on behalf of the families that were attacked.

The two families, from the Koitur and Mauria communities, respectively, were not able to recognise their attackers, the pastor said. “Clothes were thrown out of their house. They were told to leave if they refused to leave the religion,” the pastor said.

According to the pastor, local members of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the BJP and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad had been organising a consistent campaign to forcefully convert Christians, particularly Adivasi Christians in the district, to Hinduism. “Since November 2019, they have been facing attacks,” he added, referring to the Adivasi families who were attacked in May. In late 2019, after the first attack took place, the pastor told me, the families decided not to file an FIR, hoping the violence would seize. But they faced a second attack in January 2020. The pastor accused the sarpanch of the village, who was elected in January 2020, of supervising locals from the village who targeted the family. He said that the sarpanch is associated with the BJP. “After panchayat elections, a mob arrived with a tractor to demolish the church, saying that Adivasi people visit your church,” he said. “It was on Sunday during prayer service. The local Hindus have abused and harassed me continuously for three years now.” The houses of the two families were attacked again on 20 May.

The attack in Kokkar Pal fits a pattern that multiple reports by foreign and Indian human-rights groups have noted, of a growing number of anti-Christian attacks in India during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s second tenure, and even during the nationwide lockdown to contain the novel coronavirus. In the past two years, a large number of such attacks have occurred in states such as Uttar Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, where religiously discriminatory anti-conversion laws have been drafted or promulgated. These laws making it exceedingly tough for underprivileged groups such as Dalits and Adivasis to convert to Christianity, all the while allowing for ghar vapsi, or conversion to Hinduism, through means that are not always peaceful. In many instances of attacks against Christians in Chhattisgarh, the police and administration appear to have taken no action against the perpetrators. With Christians receiving no support from the police, locals who were antagonistic to them even led social boycotts against members of the community and demolished their houses and churches.

In April 2020, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent federal government commission, recommended the imposition of sanctions on India after monitoring growing number of violations of religious freedom under the Modi government. The USCIRF panel stated in its annual report that India should be designated as a Country of Particular Concern “for engaging in and tolerating systematic, ongoing, and egregious religious freedom violations.” Countries of Particular Concern, or CPCs, are ones where the respective governments “perpetrate or tolerate the worst violations of religious freedom globally.” The United States’ current CPC list includes Burma, China, Iran and North Korea. The report takes special note of the rising number of attacks against Christians in India. “Violence against Christians also increased, with at least 328 violent incidents, often under accusations of forced conversions,” the report states. It further noted that government officials and agencies which are responsible for such violations should be barred from entering the United States.

On 29 April, Anurag Shrivastava, the spokesperson for the Indian foreign ministry, said the USCIRF report was “biased” and a “new level of misrepresentation.” Shrivastava, however, did not contest the statistics presented in the USCIRF report. Commenting on the agency, he said, “We regard it as an organisation of particular concern and will treat it accordingly.”

Shibu Thomas, the founder of Persecution Relief, told me that Uttar Pradesh has seen the highest number of instances of persecution of Christians between 2017 and 2019. “I think the administration and the religious fanatics are hand in hand. The police, especially, is supporting the fanatics rather than protecting Christians, because the percentage of Christians is very low in Uttar Pradesh,” he said. He added that over a hundred churches have been forcefully shut down under the chief minister Adityanath’s administration. According to Thomas, India’s inclusion by the USCIRF among the top ten states for its record of religious intolerance is also matter of concern given the potential consequence of financial sanctions.

The first quarterly report released by Persecution Relief for this year records 187 incidents of harassment, intimidation and violence against Christians, noting that the attacks have continued “in spite of the curb on religious gatherings owing to the nationwide lockdown due to the Corona Virus outbreak.” During my conversation with Thomas on 1 June, he mentioned a pastor in Jamalkul village of Mau district, Uttar Pradesh, who had been shifted to an intensive care unit after he was attacked with a knife for organising a prayer session in a Christian household.

The Uttar Pradesh government, on the advice of the Uttar Pradesh state law commission, is on the verge of enacting an anti-conversion bill drafted by the state law commission which states that any person wishing to convert to another religion must seek permission from a government official who will investigate the reason for conversion. The proposal by the commission heavily quotes Chhattisgarh’s anti-conversion law, the Chhattisgarh Dharma Swantantraya Adhiniyam (Freedom of Religion Act) of 1968, and an amendment introduced to it by the previous Chhattisgarh government, led by the BJP. Chhattisgarh’s amendment has a provision stipulating that “return in ancestor’s original religion or his own original religion by any person shall not be construed as ‘conversion.’” This would mean that Uttar Pradesh’s proposed law will not deem ghar vapsi—ceremonies organised by right-wing outfits like VHP, in which Christians and Muslims reconvert to Hinduism—as forced conversions.

In Chhattisgarh, the passage of this amendment led to the state tightening its grip on the Christian community. Thomas told me the amendment has abetted a rise in attacks on the community in the state. “In Chhattisgarh, the tribals living in villages are suffering,” Thomas told me, referring to Adivasi Christians. “There is a Congress government but they are not raising their voice.” On 4 June, when I spoke to Kumar, he told me there had been three such attacks in Chhattisgarh in the previous month alone. “People pray according to their own belief. But the villagers don’t understand this. They say that will not allow a deity worshipped by English people to come here. I have come across two cases of ghar vapsi here in 2020. And there are many cases of physical violence,” he said. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh contributes indirectly to such attacks by funding the assailants, Kumar alleged. He told me that in multiple cases, despite registering a complaint with the police, Christians who were attacked felt compelled to lie low after being subjected to intimidation and violence.

The two Adivasi Christian families who were attacked in Kokkar Pal by a Hindu supremacist mob, before they were taken to the local hospital. Courtesy Persecution Relief

On 18 June, I spoke to Kuraam Desha, an Adivasi Christian man from Bodiguda village in Sukma district. Desha told me he had been attacked multiple times by radical Hindu groups. “I have been a believer since 2017. I was not going to church before that, but my sisters were going,” Desha said. He told me his sisters and his uncle’s children had been going to church before he began to go. On 8 February 2017, he said, his family was attacked. “The villagers beat up all of us along with the church-goers in the family,” he said. “I was not even a believer in Christianity at that time. After getting beaten up, we realised we were beaten up for no reason, in the name of the Messiah.” Desha told me that over the next year, the villagers called multiple meetings to issue threats against the family. “Then in 2017, more such fights happened,” he said. “They destroyed our house. We informed the police station. The police advised the villagers not to repeat this. They did not do anything to us for another year.” When I asked Desha who attacked his family, he said, “Those who came were associated with the RSS.”

During the lockdown, Desha said, associates of the RSS renewed the attacks against their family. “In May, they destroyed our house and threw out all our belongings,” he told me. “We were beaten up. They threatened to set our belongings on fire.” The family continued staying in the destroyed house over the next two weeks as they had nowhere else to go. “For 15 days, we lived in this condition. Water was dripping and our belongings were ruined. Then we wanted to file an FIR at the Dornapal police station”—under whose jurisdiction Bodiguda village is—“but the police were not willing to register it. They did nothing,” Desha said. According to him, the police have not taken any action against those who attacked his family. Many in the village still oppose him and his family has been thrown out of the community. Despite the hardships, Desha said it was a good decision to convert to Christianity. “We were under slavery before. We are free now. We go to church. The church authorities have stood with us.”

Suresh Jangde, the inspector of the Dornapal police station, told me that no arrests were made in the case. “The victims stated in writing that they do not want to proceed further and that they will come forward if something similar happens again.” He added that the investigating official in the case has been transferred elsewhere. Desha, however, said the locals had only accepted an agreement because both the police and the villagers had pushed them to agree to one. “Yes, we gave them an agreement,” Desha said. “The SDOP”—Pratik Chaturvedi, the sub-divisional officer of Dornapal police station—“sir said that the villagers have assured him that they will not do it again. The villagers agreed, promising that they will not repeat it. So, the police told us to forgive them. So, we forgave them and we submitted an agreement.” When asked if he would have preferred an investigation into the attack, he said, “Yes. But the villagers and police said they won’t do it again, so we agreed.” 

Desha’s account of continuous violence and persecution of Adivasi Christians is similar to accounts from Dantewada district, in Chhattisgarh. An Adivasi Christian from Kameli village in the district, who wished to remain anonymous, told me, “These things keep happening. We suffer beatings every year.” Referring to locals backed by the Hindu groups, he said, “They trouble us and ask us to flee from here. They say we don’t have a place here. Only Hindus will live here.” He explained that this year, all 105 Christians in the village were asked to vacate their houses. He said he has been a Christian for 25 years now. “If it was just a couple of years, it would have been a different matter,” he said. “But it has been many years since I embraced this religion. I tell them that I cannot denounce it now, no matter what happens. We had filed a complaint to the police but nothing was done. We complained at least thrice.”

Wycliff Chinnam Sagar, a pastor from Dantewada district, told me that Hindutva groups had been holding frequent ghar-vapsi programmes for the past five years, which had become more common during the lockdown. “Several families I have spoken to are being harassed and told that they will have to leave the village if they continue to follow Christ,” Sagar said. He told me that, along with local Christian bodies, he was planning to write to the district collector raising the community’s grievances.

Arun Pannalal, the president of the Chhattisgarh Christian Forum, told me that the sudden growth in the frequency of ghar vapsi functions was a phenomenon across the state. He said that in Chhattisgarh’s Bijapur district, the Shiv Sena’s local unit had put up several bright posters inviting the public to an “aakrosh rally”—rage rally—against religious conversions to Christianity. The poster said that a major ghar-vapsi ceremony would occur in the town on 22 July. One of the slogans on the poster declares, “Desh ka Hindu jaagega, Pope Padri bhagega”—The nation’s Hindus will rise, the Pope and pastors will run away.

On 20 June, the Chhattisgarh Christian Forum filed an FIR against the Bijapur district unit of Shiv Sena for the event. Referring to the social-media posts, banners, posters and pamphlets related to the upcoming programme, the forum’s complaint to the Khamardih police station stated, “This publicity material throttles the Christian community’s liberty, fraternity, right to life and religious freedom, which is a serious offence.” In a similar letter addressed to the district collector of Bijapur, the forum wrote that “except for the Constitution, no one else can set conditions to reside in India.”

When asked about the Shiv Sena rally, Mamta Ali Sharma, the town inspector of Khamardih, said, “We have forwarded the complaint to Bijapur. Once more details come from there, we will proceed with the investigation.” When asked if any action will be taken against Shiv Sena’s state secretary, Resham Jangde, and the state party vice-president, Chandramouli Mishra, both of whom had helped organise the rally, she reiterated that they are waiting for more details from Bijapur police officials.

The government’s reaction to anti-Christian rhetoric and violence in the state has often been lacking. The pastor from Sukma district told me that he had filed a FIR on behalf of the family whose house was destroyed with the local police station in Sukma. When I asked him about police response to such complaints, he sounded cynical. “They go to the village after two–three days to take witness statements and survey the area where the violence took place,” he said. “Instead of taking action, they only intimidate us more. They say, ‘There are three Christian homes. Beat them as well.’” Gowardhan Nirmalkar, the inspector of Sukma police station, said, “The accused have been arrested and produced before the Sukma court.” He continued, “There are ten accused. It appears to be a fight between Hindus and Christians. I have arrested all those whose names have come up so far in connection to the incident. I am personally investigating it.” He denied the involvement of any organisations in the attack.

In a similar vein, Kumar told me, “Unless we pressurise the police, they don’t do any work. They set it aside and it is only when we take it all the way to the high court that the matter is heard.” He told me about one such case. In September 2014, the Chhattisgarh Christian Forum filed a petition challenging a resolution passed by the gram sabha in Sirisiguda village that banned “religious activities such as prayers, meetings and propaganda of all non-Hindu religions.” In May and June of 2014, over fifty other gram panchayats in Bastar had passed similar resolutions under the state’s Panchayati Raj Act, which prohibited “all non-Hindu religious propaganda, prayers and speeches in the villages.” In October 2015, the Bilaspur High Court  ruled in favour of the Chhattisgarh Christian Forum. Though the high court struck the resolution down as unconstitutional, the Sirisiguda village council, as well as others, continue to override the Constitution in the tribal belt.

Pannalal, the president of the Chhattisgarh Christian Forum, told me that there had been a considerable infiltration of the RSS into Adivasi society in Bastar, in southern Chhattisgarh. He said that, in northern and central Chhattisgarh, the number of attacks against Christians has reduced due to a few high-profile court cases that prosecuted Hindutva outfits who led such attacks. “The RSS units are very active in Bastar,” he said. “The attacks which occur there are instigated by some vested interests.” He told me that previously the Bajrang Dal—a militant organisation affiliated with the RSS—used to directly attack churches. Now, he said, they tend to make Adivasis affiliated with them attack people from their own community who have converted to Christianity. “They are turning tribals against other tribals. Now they are not coming forward themselves. It is an instigated fight.”