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HomeIndiaAdivasi identity, ST status, politics — what’s fuelling anti-Christian attacks in Chhattisgarh

Adivasi identity, ST status, politics — what’s fuelling anti-Christian attacks in Chhattisgarh

Incidents of communal clashes between tribal groups have been escalating in Chhattisgarh, where 400 church-goers were driven out of homes in 3 months. BJP fanned flames, activists say.

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Narayanpur: Suko Naag is breastfeeding her two-year-old son by the window in a room she shares with 25-30 others. It’s getting dark and there are no lights to switch on. When her five-year-old daughter asks for food, Naag snaps at her. The girl leaves with tears in her eyes.

Every day is a struggle for Naag, a member of the Gond tribe, a practising Christian, and a single mother to three, who was evicted from her hut in Borawand village in Chhattisgarh’s Narayanpur district on 18 December.

She is one of more than 400 tribal church-goers, from at least 15 villages across Narayanpur, who have been beaten and forced out of their homes in the last three months. All of them are now staying at a makeshift camp set up in an indoor stadium in the district.

Naag Chhattisgarh tribals
Suko Naag with her children at a makeshift camp at an indoor stadium in Narayanpur | Credit: Praveen Jain | ThePrint

Those who drove them away were fellow Adivasis (tribals) who still follow their traditional animistic faith. They believe that the church-goers should return to their religion or leave.

“The Adivasis basically want their people who have started going to the church to stop praying to Jesus and return to their stream. While some have returned under pressure of being evicted, others have refused,” a senior officer from the administration explained.

Another bone of contention is that most church-goers have not formally converted to Christianity. The traditional Adivasis believe that the church-goers should do so and stop staking claim to their Scheduled Tribe (ST) status and the government benefits it brings.

Sources in the Congress-led Chhattisgarh government claim that members of the rival Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are exploiting existing fault-lines, fanning hatred between the two Adivasi groups, for “political gain” in the state, which will go to polls this year.

Representatives of the Adivasi community, however, said tensions had been simmering for years, and that the recent clashes were sparked due to the growing influence of Christianity in the region.

What is clear is that the rift between the two groups has grown so deep that it has even split families, including Naag’s. Six months ago, her husband had cast her out of their shared house because she had started going to church, leaving her alone with three children to feed.

Naag painstakingly rebuilt her life, earning enough money by working in the fields to construct a new hut. But it all came crashing down after a clash broke out between the two groups in her village on 18 December.

When she was chased out of her hut, she was not allowed to take any clothes, poultry, or money, she said. “They did not even think of where I will go with my children. They were beating me up in front of my husband (who lives separately) and he did not care.”

Fagnu Rama, who was also evicted from Borawand village and forced to leave behind all his belongings, claimed that insult followed injury.

“Later, we received videos in which we could see how they celebrated the night we were chased out. They cooked all our poultry and had a celebration,” he said.

Violence again broke out in Narayanpur, which is over 300 kilometres away from capital Raipur and falls under Bastar division, on 1-2 January too. In this clash, a church was vandalised, statues of Jesus Christ and Mother Mary were broken, and policemen, including the area’s superintendent of police (SP) Sadanand Kumar, were injured.

Broken furniture piled outside the Sacred Heart Church in Narayanpur district’s Banglapara village | Credit: Praveen Jain | ThePrint

Narayanpur police registered four FIRs in this matter and booked Roop Sai Salam, the district convener of the BJP, along with 10 others under Indian Penal Code (IPC) sections pertaining to rioting, voluntarily causing hurt to public servant, unlawful assembly, among others.

Notably, sections of hurting religious sentiments were not invoked in the FIR for the church vandalism incident. When asked why, the police said that the matter is still under investigation and more sections will be added eventually

The simmering tensions in Narayanpur’s villages, many surrounded by dense forests and with little to no connectivity, were evident when ThePrint visited the district last week, with both sides of the divide accusing each other of injustice.

Also read: Adivasis are not Hindus. Lazy colonial census gave them the label

Roots of mounting conflict

Tensions between Adivasis who follow their old religious practices and those who have drifted towards Christianity have been building up over the past couple of years in Narayanpur, which has a tribal population of more than 70 per cent.

The main tribes in the region are the Gond, Maria, Muria, Dhruv, Bhatra and Hala. The Gond tribe constitutes 60 per cent of Narayanpur’s tribal population.

The tribal population in this region traditionally prays to different deities, most of them symbolic in nature. These traditional Adivasis accuse the minority church-going community of having abandoned their gods, which include bhoomi (land), mitti (soil), and the goddesses Kali, Shitla, Bada Deo, Jimi Dari, among others.

According to the data available with the administration, in a total of 366 villages in Narayanpur district, which has a population of 1.4 lakh, only 15,000-20,000 people have taken to Christianity but have not formally converted. This, too, rankles the other Adivasis.

They want the church-going tribals to return to the Adivasi faith or else leave the village, formally convert to Christianity, and give up their Scheduled Tribe status. The prevailing belief here is that once the church-going population formally takes up Christianity, they will lose their ST status and stop getting the benefits of reservation accorded by the government in India.

Evicted women and children at the indoor stadium in Narayanpur that is currently their home | Credit: Praveen Jain | ThePrint

Those who follow Christianity, however, do not wish to return to their former religion and also do not want to give up their ST identity.

On why they changed their faith, all of them narrate a similar story of how they were sick and their illnesses were cured by going to the church and praying to Christ.

Such is the extent of anger among the traditional Adivasis that they have now refused to let the church-going community bury their dead in their village, saying it would “make their mitti (soil) impure, make the gods angry and lead to spread of diseases”.

“The tribal people do not like their own people celebrating Christmas, or holding Sunday prayers because they feel it is against their rituals and traditions,” he senior administration official, quoted earlier, said.

“Moreover, they feel they (the minority group) are constructing churches on their land, burying their dead without following their rituals. They have stopped attending the ceremonies of marriage, birth and death of the fellow villagers, and they do not approve of that,” he added.

Since 2020, scattered incidents of clashes between the two factions have been reported from several villages across Narayanpur as well as in Kondagaon district, with casualties on both sides.

Police personnel in Narayanpur | Credit: Praveen Jain | ThePrint

According to the police, a clash involving five villages took place in Kondagaon in September 2020. Then on 18 December last year, 32 clashes over the same issue were reported in the district. In Narayanpur district, over 20 cases have been registered in the past four months upon clashes between the two groups.

“In these clashes, both sides — the church-going community and the traditional Adivasis — have been injured,” the administration official added.

A meeting, and then violence

A deep red kuccha (broken) road laden with laterite soil, with a vast forest and patches of agricultural land on both sides, leads to Narayanpur’s sparsely-populated Gorra village which has only 22 houses.

This is where a clash between the traditional Adivasis and those follow Christian practices was reported on 1 January, a day before the attack on the church.

Security personnel at Gorra village in Narayanpur | Credit: Praveen Jain | ThePrint

On this day, the traditional Adivasis called a meeting where the village sarpanch and the senior leadership of the Adivasi community, including their gaita (priest) and patel (chieftain), were present.

The purpose of the meeting was to urge local church-going families to return to the tribal faith. When the church-goers refused to comply, matters snowballed into a violent altercation. According to the police, people were beaten up on both sides.

Speaking to ThePrint, Jaguram Dugga, who started going to the church in 2010, said a group of people barged inside his house and started beating him up.

“They had a meeting and called us too. They said we should stop going to church or else formally convert to Christianity and write ‘Christian’ as our religion. When we asked why, they got aggressive. We tried to reason with them saying that we are Adivasis and we wish to remain that,” he said.

“What is the fight about? Just because we go to the church and they go to the temple? So what? Why can’t we follow the god we believe in and still be Adivasi?” he asked.

Another villager, Mungli Bai, who seemed to be in her 30s, said she and her son were beaten too. The violence, she added, was a new phenomenon.

“There were issues earlier but they never escalated to violence. They did not interfere in our matters and we never did in theirs. They stopped talking to us after we started praying in the church, but no one hit us like this,” she said. “On 1 January, they dragged people outside of their homes and started beating them up. They dragged my younger son and beat him until he became unconscious,” she said.

The other side also claims that they were victims of violence. Sixty-year-old Amlu (he doesn’t use a last name) sustained injuries to his ribs in the clash. He alleged that he was attacked by church-goers.

“We asked them (people who go to the church), why are you drifting? But they do not even want to listen. God knows what has got into them. Our patel, who is the elder man of the village, also attended the meeting. Several baithaks (sittings) have happened, and we tried to convince them to return but they did not listen and instead got aggressive and started beating us up,” he said.

‘They came with sticks, rods, stones’

A day after the 1 January clash, the Adivasi group organised another meeting, which also resulted in violence. The Sacred Heart Church in Banglapara and a school on the same premises were attacked, police sources told ThePrint.

At the Sacred Heart Church, which started in Narayanpur 50 years ago, the statue of Jesus Christ at the altar was vandalised to the extent that only the hands on the cross remained.

The crib that depicted Christ’s birth too was broken and the statue of Mary was wrecked. The coloured, tinted glass on both sides of the wall in the main prayer hall was damaged and the furniture inside was trashed.

“They all came marching at us with sticks, rods, and stones. I immediately alerted all my teachers to rescue the children,” Father Jomon, who was inside his office on the church premises when the incident occurred, told ThePrint.

The vandalised door of the Sacred Heart Church in Narayanpur | Credit: Praveen Jain | ThePrint

“The church has been here for the last 50 years and something like this has never happened before,” he added.

While the church started out as a small prayer hall, it was only in the last few years that a larger chapel, complete with stained glass and images of Christ and Mary, was constructed.

Sadanand Kumar, SP of Narayanpur, was also injured in the melee.

“We got a call that hundreds of men had barged into a school, which is behind a prayer hall, and vandalised property. They were going towards the teachers and students, so we called their guardians. I went to the spot but I was hit. The mob had lathis, rods and sticks. Our attempt was to just save the children,” the SP said.

Narayanpur SP Sadanand Kumar | Credit: Praveen Jain | ThePrint

During its investigation of the church attack incident, the police found that the organisers of the second meeting (2 January) were Roop Sai Salam, the BJP district convener (now arrested), and Narayan Markam, former BJP convener from Benur, who is absconding, among others.

The police, however, did not make it clear whether the attack on the church or incidents of violence in other pockets of Narayanpur and Kondagaon were pre-planned and organised.

Also read: Droupadi Murmu is the pivot as BJP plans big tribal outreach in 4 poll-bound states

‘Loss of Adivasi identity’

In Chhattisgarh, conflicts over religious conversion are not new, primarily because the Adivasis fear that they will lose their identity if more people start drifting towards other religions.

When asked about their grouses with the church-goers, the traditional Adivasis generally claim their main aim is to save their “sanskriti” (tradition and culture) and ensure that their tribe doesn’t become extinct.

“We follow devi devtas (gods and goddesses). Our gods are different. We pray to our bhoomi (earth), mitti (soil) and Durga mata (mother Durga). Every village has its own gods and goddesses. They have left all this and started going to the church. Their practices are now different,” Sunita Mandawi, the sarpanch of Gorra village, said.

“Their women do not follow the sringar (beautification) which makes it compulsory for them to wear chudi (bangles) and sindoor (vermillion). If this exodus doesn’t stop, the Adivasi samaj (community) that has been nurtured by our forefathers for years will come to an end, our culture will come to an end,” she said.

Mandawi added that she, along with other representatives of the Adivasi samaj, has been trying to convince the people who go to church to return to their old faith.

Sunita Mandawi, the sarpanch of Gorra village | Credit: Praveen Jain | ThePrint

“We tried to explain this to them with love, then they got angry, so we also got aggressive, but they do not want to return,” the sarpanch said.

Another grievance that the Adivasis have is that the church-going tribals do not contribute to any ritual in the village and have completely cut themselves off.

They neither come for the ‘phool pani chadhai’ — an offering to gods of flowers and water — nor give a nariyal (coconut) for any ceremony, nor contribute money or samagri (material) for any celebration or mourning rites, villagers claimed.

“They never come for any rituals of our gods. They just want to be away from our traditions. Do they think they have become gods themselves?” Amlu, from Gorra village, said.

“If they are so snooty and they are not one of us, then they should leave the village. Why stay here?” he asked.

Saima, who is the caretaker of a temple in Gorra, where an idol of goddess Jimi Dari has been placed, and also the neighbour of a church-going family, was of the same opinion. She, however, admitted that she misses “the old times”.

“They earlier used to come to the temples, worship our gods, what happened now? We are such a small community. If they start drifting like this, we will end. We are all one and should stay together but they just do not understand,” she said.

“Now we do not talk to the church-goers. I miss the times when there was no problem and all of us used to go together. The old men of the village and our priests are also very angry. Our fight is not with these people, but with their beliefs,” she added.

Tussle over ST status, ‘misled’

The traditional Adivasis believe that if the church-goers refuse to return to the fold, they should formally convert to Christianity and give up their ST status. Experts, however, say that religion and ST status are mutually exclusive.

“If they do not follow any of our rituals, they should not be called Adivasis. They should abandon the title and formally turn into Christians. They do not want to follow our beliefs, and at the same time they want to remain Adivasis for all the benefits they get for being an ST — it doesn’t work like that,” Mandawi said.

Although there is no law that says the Adivasis have to give up their ST status to convert to a different faith, leaders of the BJP and its ideological parent RSS, in Chhattisgarh have been propagating the idea of “delisting”. This means stripping tribal religious converts of their ST status, which entitles them to reservations in jobs, education, and legislative bodies.

“Delisting” has been a long-standing demand of many Hindutva organisations, including the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) and RSS, and according to the Constitution’s Article 342, Parliament may by law make inclusions and exclusions to the list of STs.

Last month, the VHP, in a meeting of its central board of trustees and governing council, had passed a unanimous resolution demanding that the central government make necessary amendments in the Constitution to exclude converted tribal people from the list of Scheduled Tribes. VHP leaders also met more than 300 MPs (Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha) from various parties in the winter session of Parliament to discuss the issue.

A decision on the matter, however, is yet to be taken.

Speaking to ThePrint, another senior officer in the Chhattisgarh administration said that constitutionally, Adivasis can retain their ST status irrespective of the religion they follow. He added that the Adivasi population is being “misled to believe that if the church-going tribal population converts officially, then they all would lose their ST status”.

“One ceases to be a Scheduled Caste (SC) if he or she accepts Christianity or Islam and there are court rulings on this. But Scheduled Tribes (despite taking up another religion) can retain their status,” the officer said.

Senior advocate Sanjay Hegde made the same point. “If you are from a Scheduled Tribe, you may be an atheist, you may follow tribal faith, or any other religion, but you cannot lose ST status,” he said.

“I think what is happening here is the seepage of one idea into another. This rule of one losing their status upon conversion to Islam or Christianity only applies to the Scheduled Castes, because they can only be Hindus. In the case of tribals, they are not seen to be belonging to any religion, so it makes no difference what religion they take up,” he added.

Shalini Gera from Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan, an independent group that works with the tribal population, told ThePrint that “one is an Adivasi because of one’s birth and not because of one’s religion”.

“There is absolutely no law that says that Adivasis will have to renounce their status if they take up Christianity. Going by the same logic, Adivasis who recite Ramayana kathas (stories) and keep Ganesh idols should also have to give up Adivasi status, since Adivasi religion is distinct from Hinduism too,” she said.

Also read: Miracles’, caste & now, crackdowns: The inside story of Christian ‘conversions’ in UP’s Fatehpur

Role of BJP and RSS

According to activists working with the Adivasis in Chhattisgarh, the hostility against church-goers among the Adivasis was stoked by workers of the BJP and RSS in the area.

Gera explained that although there was a division within the Adivasi community and scattered incidents of clashes between them, it was never so organised.

She alleged the recent clash was “organised, backed, and sponsored” by the “Janajati Suraksha Manch (JSM), a wing of the RSS”.

According to her, violence had erupted only over the past few months, “following the formation of the BJP‐RSS-backed JSM”, which has been demanding the delisting of “converted Adivasis”.

A fact-finding report prepared by Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan claimed that the “JSM gives an open call for violence against converted Adivasis” and was “formed with the explicit purpose of opposing conversion of Adivasis to the Muslim or Christian faith”.

The report also alleges that the recent outbreaks of violence can be traced back to the maha‐rally of the “RSS and BJP-backed Janajati Suraksha Manch” in Narayanpur on 26 April, 2022, led by BJP functionaries, that openly advocated violence against Adivasis who have adopted other faiths.

Speaking to ThePrint, Bhojraj Nag, former BJP MLA from Antagarh and state convener of JSM, denied having advocated violence against converts. He, however, agreed that his platforms calls for delisting Adivasis who adopt Christianity or Islam.

“Why should Adivasis who follow another religion be included in the tribe? Our message is that such people should not get any reservation. If you are a Christian by belief, then why do you want to take reservation in the name of an Adivasi? Our call is to delist all such people,” he said.

Sharadh Chauhan, spokesperson of JSM, denied the organisation was an RSS affiliate.

“We are an independent body and we are of the opinion that converts should not get ST status. What happens is that Christians who have not formally converted and still carry Adivasi identity take admissions in educational institutions on the basis of their ST status, which should be made illegal,” he said.

Chauhan said the organisation had been holding several programmes as well as meetings to propagate this idea.

“We have been propagating this idea among villagers and it is because of us that this issue has once again gained importance. Although we never call for violence, this is a matter of what is right and wrong,” he added.

‘Why can’t we practice our beliefs, while keeping our identity?’

In the last week of December, church-going residents of Devgaon, in Kanker district, were given two weeks’ notice to either stop praying to Jesus or vacate their homes. Similarly, people from Kulhad and Borawand villages were given the same instructions.

When the church-going Adivasis refused to comply, they were allegedly driven out of their homes.

“We started going to church in 2015. They made us leave nasha (drugs) and alcohol, they told us that we need to get our lives together and work hard for our families, which we started doing. All our miseries, including all diseases, went away just by prayers. Is this such a bad thing?” Bodai Kawde, a resident of Devgaon, asked.

Recalling the eviction from their homes, Fagnu Rama Usendi from Borawand in Narayanpur, said: “We were not even allowed to take utensils, clothes, tractors and bikes. The panchayat members even took our hens and goats.”

Arun Pannalal, president of Chhattisgarh Christian Forum, alleged that there had been a surge in anti-Christian violence across the state.

“The Christian population of Bastar has been under attack for the last two years and there has been no action from the police authorities. Even the state government has not done much to address the issue. Meetings are held by anti-social elements in villages who are armed with lathis and rods, and who then call church-going people and threaten them to give up their beliefs,” he told ThePrint.

“More than 200 homes have been robbed, so many people have been displaced, beaten up and injured, but no strict action has been taken against the perpetrators. How is this justified?” he asked.

Although the Narayanpur administration has made arrangements for the stay of the displaced people in an indoor stadium, there is resentment among them over why the police did not act in time or provide security knowing that there was a threat to them.

“We have been ousted but we did inform the police in advance that we needed security and that we were scared. These meetings of village panchayats had become regular affairs and they kept forcing us to give up the church,” Kawde said.

The local administration and police are now carrying out regular patrolling in these villages and have also called meetings of the panchayats to reinstate the displaced residents.

“We are making efforts to speak to the village chiefs to ensure that these people are reinstated and live in their homes without fear,” a senior police officer said.

Homeless, but hopeful

“O-N-E — one, T-W-O — two, T-H-R-I-I — three!”

At the indoor stadium, eight-year-old Deepika Salam is learning how to spell numbers. Her friend standing nearby corrects her: “It is T-H-R-E-E — three.”

Both smile and carry on spelling the rest of the numbers on the chart.

Deepika Salam with her study chart at the makeshift camp in Narayanpur | Credit: Praveen Jain | ThePrint

The room where the chart hangs is dark as there is no electricity, but that is no deterrence to Deepika, who is from the Gond tribe and dreams of becoming a teacher.

With no books to study, the children are now making do with charts hanging in several rooms of the stadium.

“I don’t want to lose touch. I don’t know when we will return home. What if I forget whatever I have learnt till now? How will I ever become a teacher? So I give myself half an hour everyday to read all these charts and revise,” said Deepika.

(Edited by Nida Fatima Siddiqui)

Also read: Hemant Soren’s divide-and-rule Adivasi politics at Harvard is against Birsa Munda’s vision

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