Tribal Christians from Bastar villages refuse to return home following recent spate of attacks

Observers say that the violence in Bastar is a battle over culture and the pushback to missionaries is happening in a more organised manner

Published - December 27, 2022 05:10 am IST - BHOPAL

The indoor stadium in Narayanpur, Chhattisgarh, where some of the victims are still camping.

The indoor stadium in Narayanpur, Chhattisgarh, where some of the victims are still camping. | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

The reluctance of the families of Reshma Korram (33) and Rupji Salam (29) to return home offers a glimpse of an edgy recent past and an uncertain future. 

Among the many tribal Christian families who fled from over a dozen villages in Narayanpur after they were attacked by assailants between December 16 and 18, Ms. Korram and Mr. Salam have been camping at an indoor stadium in the district headquarters when they spoke to The Hindu over the phone late last week. The assurances provided by the administration had little impact. 

The attacks on Christians, allege affected families, were coordinated and the handiwork of fellow tribal villagers at the behest of right wing groups. They describe it as the latest chapter in the rise of violent incidents over the politically sensitive subject of religious conversions in Narayanpur, 350 km south of capital Raipur, and other districts of the Bastar region. 

“We were attacked because of our faith. Since the past year-and-a-half, my family has embraced Christianity, which many in the village don’t like. When I was attacked, the village Patel (priest) was among the attackers and they asked me why was I reluctant to live harmoniously, to which I replied that I was not harming anybody and was free to profess any faith I wished to,” Mr. Salam, a farmer, said. 

Observers say that the recent spate of violence in Bastar is a battle over culture and the pushback to missionaries is happening in a more organised manner. While missionaries have been preaching in the interior region for decades, a newfound tribal consciousness about identity has led to a broader resistance. 

According to Manoj Pandey, a filmmaker who has been documenting the Bastar region for the past two decades, education and impact of digitisation has also led to a stronger response from fellow tribals. 

“Bastar is home to tribes such as Gonds, Muria and Halba who are scattered in different pockets. On the one hand, there are those who fear that any change which a different faith brings, would lead to old customs dying and may even invite the wrath of their deities. On the other, there are many who have received education and have a newfound consciousness towards their identity and customs. Digital medium has led to better information sharing and such content also encourage backlash,” says Mr. Pandey. 

Pastor Sindhu Kumar Das, the Christian forum president from Kondagaon, adds that administrative apathy has also encouraged the attackers against those who assert their right to profess and practice a new religion. 

“A month ago, when there was a death in one of the Christian families, they buried the deceased in their own land, but the villagers with the help of the local police exhumed the body and buried it elsewhere. Such incidents are becoming increasingly frequent,” said Mr. Das, who blames the Sarva Aadivasi Samaj, a group that claims to represent the various tribes in the Bastar region, for the latest “coordinated attacks” and pegs the number of victims at 400. 

Prakash Thakur, the president of the Bastar division of the Sarva Aadivasi Samaj, denies his group’s role in the violence but admits that a conflict is raging in interior Bastar. 

“We worship nature and the respective deities of our tribes which they don’t. Then they do not follow the established social order, such as customs followed during birth, marriage or death. There are harvest festivals and other customs that we celebrate collectively but the proselytized ones refuse to make contributions. We are not for violence but if someone has lost their way, the onus is on us to bring them back,” he says. Sources also allege that the Sarv Aadivasi Samaj is backed by Bharatiya Janata Party that has often raised the issue of conversion in the region. 

Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel finally broke his silence on the matter on December 23. “Met the representatives of the Christian community in Delhi today. I informed him about the developments in Bastar and the action taken by the government. No one is above the law in Chhattisgarh. Any person who spreads disharmony in the society will not be spared,” he tweeted. 

Arun Pannalal, president of the Chhattisgarh Christian Forum, said on Monday (December 26) when the police went to the villages to resettle the displaced Christians, other villagers blatantly refused, even if that meant going to jail. This, he says, is a sign of things to come as he makes makes little the assurances provided by the CM. He alleges that “the government is totally silent and police is taking no action. Higher officials are turning a blind eye”. 

“In the past four years, there have been 380 attacks on Christians. The officials have been asked by the government to turn a blind eye because it wants to corner the Hindu votes by targeting the 18 to 20 lakh Christian voters,” he claims.

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