Jashpur Nagar/Kunkuri (Chhattisgarh): In the third week of February, the Bhupesh Baghel-led Congress government in Chhattisgarh was preparing to host the party’s just-concluded 85th plenary in Raipur. Meanwhile, in a village in the state’s Jashpur district, members of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) — the ideological fountainhead of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — were preparing for a different kind of an event.
On 21 February, as ThePrint observed, 36 Catholic tribal families took part in a series of rituals — starting with a shuddhikaran (or purification) — after which they were said to have reconverted to Hinduism.
The ‘Ghar Wapsi’ (return to the fold or reconversion) ceremony, organised by the local RSS unit’s Dharma Jagaran Samiti saw the involvement of many Sangh volunteers, a head priest, a monk, senior RSS functionaries and members of the erstwhile local royal family of Jashpur.
An important part of the event were the women priests — locally known as mata pujaris or mother priests, these are women family members of RSS volunteers who have been made priests of small local temples by the organisation. Often the mata pujaris are the first to identify and convince people for Ghar Wapsi, said those ThePrint spoke to in the Dharma Jagaran Samiti.
“Ghar Wapsi does not happen overnight. Volunteers need to be vigilant and convince our people to get them back to us (Hindus),” said Kapil Shastri, an RSS pracharak and state-level in-charge of the Dharma Jagaran Samiti.
“Of 29 districts in the state, at least 18 witnessed rampant conversion by the missionaries. Jashpur is one of the worst affected. If we don’t intervene now, Chhattisgarh will soon be Christian-dominated state,” he alleged.
Explaining how the process of Ghar Wapsi works, Shastri said, “We have our network at the ground level. There are small temples, locally known as dhams, in the villages. These dhams are the centres for Ghar Wapsis at the village level. In Jashpur district, we have 112 dhams that work as our primary network for Ghar Wapsi. There are different committees consisting of village men and women who work as our volunteers.”
Unlike many BJP governed states, such as Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand which have passed anti-conversion laws triggered by the bogey of ‘love jihad’ and ‘Hindu-Muslim conversion, in Chhattisgarh the socio-political narrative is driven by terms like dharmantaran (tribals converting to Christianity) and Ghar Wapsi, ThePrint found.
Members of the erstwhile royal family here have been relentless in their support to the RSS and its affiliates and in aiding their Ghar Wapsi schemes, said those ThePrint spoke to. At last Tuesday’s event, the family’s Prabal Pratap Singh Judev washed the feet of the ‘reconverts’ as they were welcomed back into the fold. This symbolic gesture was started by his late father, Dilip Singh Judev.
Jashpur’s scheduled tribe population is 5,30,378 — 62.37 per cent of the district’s total population — according to the district website, while referring to the 2011 Census. On the whole, tribals comprise 30.06 per cent of the population of the state, according to the Census.
In Jashpur the number of practicing Catholics among the tribals is over two lakh, according to Sunil Kujur, head priest of Kunkuri Cathedral, the most prominent church here.
The simmering misgiving between the RSS and its affiliates and the church is palpable as one travels in the tribal-dominated areas. While the Hindutva brigade accuse the church and missionaries of using the tribals’ poor living conditions and the lure of education and healthcare to convert them to Christianity, the church maintains that no one is “asked” to convert to avail of the benefits provided by it. Church leaders on their part alleged that Ghar Wapasi “was not even constitutional”.
The battle for religious dominance is also motivated, at least partly, by politics, those on the ground admitted. The concern becomes even more immediate with Chhattisgarh assembly elections scheduled to be held later this year.
Jashpur is divided into 756 revenue villages, covering 444 gram panchayats spread across all eight blocks of the district. While party domination at panchayat levels is dynamic and keeps changing, a senior district official, speaking on condition of anonymity, claimed the Congress dominates in over 80 per cent of the gram panchayats. All three assembly seats from the district were won by the Congress in 2018.
While the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance currently holds 71 seats in the state assembly, the National Democratic Alliance of BJP and its allies hold 14 seats.
According to an analysis by Chanakya, a website that provides analyses of election results, the BJP received 38 per cent of total tribal votes in the state in the 2014 parliamentary elections, while the Congress received 48 per cent. In the 2018 assembly elections, the vote share was 33 per cent and 45.4 per cent, respectively.
Villages here are often identified on religious lines by the local people — as those of tribal Catholics, Hindus and ‘Ghar Wapsiwale‘.
Yet for all the tug-of-war over religious allegiance, the line is strangely blurred for the people. Travelling through Jaspur, one comes across families where the husband is Hindu and the wife Catholic, or vice-versa, or a Catholic couple with a Hindu child.
For years, Emanuel Ekka, a 50-year-old tribal Catholic man living in Jashpur’s Birnitola village, has been attending meetings at the village dham every evening, where local RSS volunteers sit for consultations. His wife, Kiran, on the other hand, is a regular at the 6am prayer at the local church.
“I want to be a practising Hindu, I worship Ram, but my wife goes to Church. We became Catholics five years back. The Church gives us easy, and sometimes free access to their hospitals, and some incentives like subsidised school fees for our children,” said Ekka.
The family claims to be on cordial terms with both RSS functionaries and local pastors, and while Catholic converts, they remain Hindu on paper. “Being a Christian in sarkari (government) papers means losing benefits of schemes reserved for those from the Scheduled Tribes (STs),” he admitted frankly.
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On Tuesday, Sonen Nagbanshi, a member of a snake-god-worshipping tribe in Chhattisgarh, cycled 30 km to reach Imlipara village, in Jashpur’s Chiknipani Panchayat area, with his wife Dilo riding pillion.
It was a big day for the couple — one when they would reconvert to Hinduism, after having converted to Christianity a few years ago.
“We converted (to Christianity) in 2019 after our son, who was suffering from high fever, recovered as the local priest made him drink ‘Ashish Pani’ (blessed water) in a local health centre. We started joining prayers at the local girija (church). But last year, he again fell sick, and we took him to the local hospital. He recovered after treatment,” said Sonen.
He added: “A Mata Pujari explained to us that Ashish Pani was a medicine (paracetamol) and told us how we were cheated. She asked us to join the Ghar Wapsi programme and re-convert, so that we can join our ancestors after death. She told us that this was the only way to absolve our sin. So we stopped visiting the church.”
The Ghar Wapsi programme which saw the Sonens’ reconversion, was held as part of a Mata Pujari Sammelan, and was the same attended by ThePrint last week.
The ceremony included an elaborate series of Hindu rituals, starting with the shuddhikaran to “rectify their mistakes”. This was followed by chanting of shlokas and a havan. It ended with Judev washing the feet of reconverts.
Police officers from the area, present at the event, captured photos and videos of the ceremony and left after greeting the RSS functionaries and members of the royal family.
Justifying the reconversion, Rohit Shashtri, the head priest at the ceremony told ThePrint, “This is a fight for our Bharat against the missionary conspirators. We all have to give everything to save Hindu Dharma.”
A master in Sanskrit from Delhi University, Shashtri said he had returned to his village after completing his education to become a priest.
Also present at the event was Kailash Agarwal, whose family had migrated to Chhattisgarh from Punjab decades ago. His garments shop is one of the few stores visible along the highway to Chiknipani.
He is also the BJP sabha sarpanch (deputy) for Chiknipani and an active member of the Dharma Jagaran Samiti.
Explaining how the Ghar Wapsi programme works, Agarwal said he and his team (of volunteers) approach Catholics converts in the area and convince them to return to “sanatan dharma” (Hinduism).
“I know the area, the villages, the families, the houses of Catholics, the Hindus and the ones who did Ghar Wapsi like the back of my hand. We also monitor people who did Ghar Wapsi, as there are chances of them being lured back to the missionaries’ fold again through money and other incentives,” he alleged.
However, Agarwal admitted to sending his seven-year-old daughter to a missionary school in the area, as there were no other good schools in the vicinity and government schools were “not up to the mark”.
He also agreed that for many of the tribal converts, joining church was less about religion and more about improving their quality of life — access to schools and hospitals offered by the missionaries.
The same dichotomy is exhibited by Prabal Pratap Singh Judev. Now in 40s, Prabal Pratap held a corporate job in the US before returning to Chhattisgarh in 2012 to follow in his father Dilip Singh Judev’s footsteps.
Prabal Pratap is Akhil Bharatiya Ghar Wapsi Pramukh for the state, which means he is the chief of the re-conversion unit of the RSS in the state. He is also the state secretary for BJP.
He initially did not believe in the Ghar Wapsi programme pushed by his father, but claimed an incident in the US changed how he felt about it.
“I always believed in freedom, religious liberty. I used to question my father about his ways of re-conversion. I did not realise how the missionaries were conspiring against us. However, an incident opened my eyes. I was in Kansas and was working in a company. One day a colleague took me to a local church,” said Prabal Pratap. “I sat there and in a few minutes he (his colleague) came back with a priest who started chanting something. I remember he said, it was not my fault that I was born Hindu, adding that I could absolve my sins by becoming a believer, a Christian. I ran.”
Members of the erstwhile royal family continue to have a say in society, politics and administration here and, over the years, they have been relentless in their efforts in supporting the RSS and its affiliates in their Ghar Wapsi programmes, ThePrint found.
According to those from the area ThePrint spoke to, the most popular ‘king’ among the tribals was Dilip Singh Judev. Addressed as “Rajaji, Kumarsaheb, Baba or Mama”, he was a two-term MP from Bilaspur and a three-term Rajya Sabha MP.
He was an Union minister in former PM Atal Bihari Vajpaee’s cabinet in 2003. He gave the Ghar Wapsi process an interesting twist by making the act of the ‘king’ washing the feet of the tribals a mandatory part of the process.
According to Prabal Pratap, Judev’s father, Raja Vijay Bhushan Singh Deo, is known to have distributed land and supported the RSS to build its infrastructure in the state.
Dilip Judev himself was a member of several RSS wings, said Prabal Pratap. Even though he graduated from a missionary college, St. Xavier College, Ranchi, he was always critical about the missionaries converting the tribals to Christianity, Dilip’s son added.
“Father washed their feet (the feet of the tribal reconverts) and sent a message. He realised that the tribals convert primarily for caste discrimination and untouchability issues among Hindus. His idea of washing their feet was to get social acceptance for them,” said Prabal Pratap. “He thought that the tribals would feel safer if the king washed their feet and welcomed them. He had to face huge resistance for doing the work. He was disowned by his own clan of Rajputs. He suffered a lot for doing this noble work and for protecting Hindus. He always said that protecting Hindus is more sacred than building temples.”
Hindu Ghata, Desh Bata. Seva Karo, Sauda Nahi (If the number of Hindus goes down, the country gets divided. Serve, don’t make deals) — these are oft repeated words in the district, often used by RSS-BJP functionaries.
Church vs RSS, Congress vs BJP
The RSS works through the well-knit network of Mata Pujaris to approach and convince the converts and get them to the Ghar Wapsi events, found ThePrint. Working in small groups, they also monitor the families after their Ghar Wapsi to ensure they don’t return to the church.
“We are working for our Dharma. It is easy for us to meet the women of the converted families as they are part of Hindu Dharma. They were misled and we are getting them back. This is a service to the Hindu society,” said Sahodara Lakra, a Mata Pujari present at the Ghar Wapsi programme in Imlipara.
The village has a Mata Ki Dham, around which last Tuesday’s programme was organised.
Church leaders in the area, however, question the legal sanctity of the reconversion process.
“Ghar Wapsi is not even constitutional. Political parties create and spread a fake narrative to satisfy their vested political interest. This is nothing but an eyewash,” alleged Mukti Prakash Minj, vicar general of the Kunkuri Cathedral in Jashpur.
Chhattisgarh has multiple dioceses, the major ones being Jashpur, Ambikapur and Raigarh, districts with high tribal population, said Sunil Kujur, head priest of Kunkuri Cathedral. The headquarters of Jashpur diocese is Kunkuri Cathedral, believed to be the second largest church in Asia.
While the Jashpur diocese has around 52 other churches, with 150 senior priests serving the tribal society in several forms, according to Kujur, the local people believe the Cathedral to be the centre for religious conversions.
RSS functionaries allege that missionaries lure tribal villagers through Changai Sabha, village meetings organised by pastors or priests to discuss health issues in the villages.
But Kujur dismissed the allegations.
“Many tribal villagers have been Catholics for generations. Long before independence, the missionaries (here) came from Belgium and travelled across regions. They found how deprived the tribal communities were. They did not have any access to health and education,” said Kujur.
“The missionaries started educating them and when many of them came forward to run the system of education and health for tribals, the missionaries left. The priests and the missionaries (now) are not foreigners, they are all Indians, primarily tribals. We are running the system for the wellbeing of the tribal population,” he added.
Talking about the poor infrastructure in the area, Minj said the area did not have a network of schools and hospitals for tribals, who live in remote villages and that the missionaries built schools and hospitals here.
“We never ask them (the tribals) to convert. We never ask them about the religion or caste of the children in the schools or the patients in the hospitals. Right to religion is permitted in the Indian constitution. We educate them and they choose. Nobody is forced to become a Catholic, it is their choice,” he said.
Talking about the Ghar Wapsi programme, he added: “They are doing this now because the elections are approaching. They have an idea that the Christians don’t vote for BJP. It might not be true. They (BJP) are dividing the tribal population on communal lines. They are also trying to delist them, remove reservations.”
With assembly elections held or scheduled to be held in nine states in the country this year — Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Telangana, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura — tribals are an important votebank.
Two of these states, Chhattisgarh and Tripura, have over 30 per cent ST population, while three, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland, have over 85 per cent ST population.
In the 2023-24 Union Budget, the last full budget of the current BJP-led government at the Centre before the 2024 general elections, many sops and schemes were announced for the country’s tribal population.
“To improve the social-economic condition of the particular tribal groups, PMPVTG (Prime Minister’s Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups) Development mission will be launched, to saturate PBTG habitations with basic facilities. Rs 15,000 crore to be made available to implement the scheme in next three years”, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman had announced in her Budget speech.
She had also announced recruitment of 38,800 teachers and staff for the existing 740 Eklavya Model Residential Schools, meant for tribal students across the country. Around 3.5 lakh tribal students are currently enrolled under these schools.
A senior state BJP leader claimed most of these schools are concentrated in Chhattisgarh.
But the grouse of Catholic votes not coming to the party is repeated by Anand Sharma, member of BJP’s state coordination committee.
“The Catholic tribals never vote for BJP. We have booth-wise data, and we know that the villages of converts do not cast their votes for BJP. The Congress enjoys such an arrangement. They get tribal votes and they facilitate the missionaries.”
A senior Congress leader, however, claimed that religion does not matter in elections.
“The BJP government ruled the state for three terms. What did they do to uplift the lives of the tribal population? Now they are dividing them in the name of Ghar Wapsi and spreading hate,” alleged the leader.
(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)
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