Chhattisgarh Police have arrested at least 11 persons — including the current and former district presidents of the BJP — in connection with separate, violent incidents over purported religious conversions in Narayanpur earlier this week.
Among them, BJP leaders Rupsay Salam, 55, and Narayan Markam, 50, have been arrested in connection with Monday’s incident, in which Narayanpur Superintendent of Police (SP) Sadanand Kumar was injured and a church vandalised. Mr. Salam assumed charge as the BJP district president in October and since then, the duo have led several campaigns against Christian missionaries in villages across Narayanpur, sources said. This period has coincided with several violent incidents over the sensitive issue of religious conversions in the State.
Bastar Inspector General of Police (IGP) P. Sundarraj said that the duo and four others were arrested because they had called the meeting that was attended by 2,000 people, and later branched out into smaller marches, and one such group attacking the church. On the latest incident being linked to previous incidents of attacks on Christians or other clashes, Mr. Sundarraj said that, at present, the focus was on two incidents — the one in Gorra village where two groups clashed on Sunday, and the church attack in which SP Kumar was injured a day later.
In his late fifties, Mr. Salam has been with the BJP since 1985, while Markam, a few years his junior, joined the party in 2002, said Brijmohan Dewangan, another former BJP district president from Narayanpur. He added that Mr. Salam last held the post in 2012 , but had held other responsibilities in the party, besides being a patron of the Sarva Adivasi Samaj. The Sarva Adivasi Samaj is a group that claims to represent the tribals of the Bastar region but is divided into several factions, often creating confusion. After Monday’s church attack, one faction had distanced itself from the group.
As events unfold in the Bastar region, the recent incidents have caused a stir across the State, with the BJP now targeting the Congress over the issue of religious conversions. The issue has rocked the State Assembly during the ongoing winter session, even as sources claimed that religious conversions will be a focal point for the BJP in the elections later this year. The arrest of the Salam-Markam duo has resulted in a more aggressive backlash against the Bhupesh Baghel-led government vis-à-vis conversions.
“This government rolls out the red carpet for missionaries and imposes non-bailable Sections on those trying to protect tribal culture…,” former State Minister and senior BJP leader Ajay Chandrakar said in the context of party leaders getting arrested. “More than 60 complaints [on purported religious conversions or violence over it] have been registered in Narayanpur in three months but no action has been taken. The Baghel government is receiving donations from Christian missionaries and its attack on those opposing them is not on the BJP, but on the civilisation and culture of the tribals,” Mr. Chandrakar said.
While a bunch of senior BJP leaders have already made an unsuccessful bid to enter Narayanpur on Tuesday [the police did not let them in, citing security reasons], Mr. Dewangan added that, locally, the party would organise more protests to secure Salam’s release. “It is true that he has been vocal against against the missionaries, but he did not indulge in violence,” he claimed.
Meanwhile, the situation remains tense even as the police and district administration called a peace meeting on Wednesday, asking all sides to exercise restraint.
The Chhattisgarh Christian Forum on Wednesday alleged that a campaign was being launched in tribal villages to create a “Christian-free State”. The forum said in a statement: “The villages are being cleared of Christians with the help of drums and sticks. Here, the Chief Minister is discussing the issue, and in village Bandapal Narayanpur, a church is being demolished, families of ten Christians have been looted and their houses demolished. Article 25 gives people freedom to follow any religion, the government is preventing people from following the Constitution.”