She is frail, with large brown eyes, a shawl wrapped around her to conceal the bruises on her arms. Her voice is soft but she speaks with dignity and a gravitas rooted in struggles for survival. She says, “In my village Ramavand, meetings were being held in Sanskrit Bhavan. I was warned not to go for Sunday prayers. On December 27, they dragged my husband there and started beating him. They kicked him as though he was a football, each player taking a turn… I was caught by six women relatives of the village leaders. The men were telling them to teach me a lesson, hurling filthy abuses at me. My blouse was torn, my hair pulled, my head punched repeatedly and I was beaten to the ground… Eleven women who are believers in my village, including a teenager, faced such torture. They said if you want to live in peace ‘ghar waapas’ (come back) to our Samaj. I said I have done nothing wrong, only prayer.”
In her case, an FIR was filed — no action has been taken.
Her’s is one among an estimated 500 Adivasi families of the Christian community in the districts of Kanker, Kondagaon and Narayanpur in North Bastar in Chhattisgarh, who are traumatised and terrorised because of concerted attacks on them starting from October last year. The extent and cruelty of the violence, including against women, are hardly reported, as I found when I visited the affected areas with a delegation recently. In December, 1,500 people had to flee their homes, taking shelter in government-arranged camps, churches, houses of relatives and friends. Over 200 have still not been able to return. Churches across the districts, including the main church in Narayanpur and “prayer rooms” have been vandalised and in some cases burnt. Houses have been broken and looted. Those arrested for the attack on the Narayanpur Church include the BJP district president and other local leaders.
The “ghar wapsi” campaign against conversions led by RSS-affiliated organisations like the Bajrang Dal and VHP is not new. The difference is that this time, through the creation of platforms such as the Janjati Suraksha Manch, it is projected as a spontaneous movement by Adivasis themselves to protect their traditions against conversions. It is nothing of the sort.
In the first week of November, a protest demonstration of the JSM was led by a former BJP MLA, a tribal leader of the area. He made a provocative speech demanding that the body of Chaitibai, a 55-year-old Adivasi Christian woman who had died of jaundice and whose family had buried her on their own land, should be exhumed. He declared that the burial of a Christian in the village would “anger the village deity” and bring ruin to the village. Chaitibai’s family was threatened to the extent that they left the village. The next night his followers dug up the grave and dragged her body out. The administration, instead of taking action against such an illegal, barbaric act, took the body and buried it in a Christian cemetery 100 km away. This encouraged the JSM to organise more exhumations, which accelerated into violence against the community. The symbol adopted for the present round of violence is not of the living but of the dead.
Such actions have nothing to do with the protection of Adivasi cultures. Adivasis bury their dead and the practice of those who are Christians burying their dead on their own land has never been an issue in any Adivasi-inhabited area anywhere in India. It is a manufactured agenda, reflecting the project of the Hindutva-isation of Adivasi cultures.
Chhattisgarh has a law against forcible conversion adopted under the then BJP government in 2006. Contrary to the present campaign against conversions, there is not a single reported case of forcible conversion. What is under attack is the constitutional right to freedom of conscience.
Temples are being built in Adivasi areas, kirtan and bhajan mandalis are organised, rituals connected to idol worship, so distant from Adivasi beliefs and cultures, are openly propagated — these too, looked at from the prism of Adivasi traditions, can be considered an imposition and constitute conversion. When Christian believers among Adivasis are threatened to “ return home”, which home is being referred to? In Jharkhand, the Assembly under the leadership of the JMM government, adopted a resolution to add a column in the Census format to include “Sarna/Adivasi” to denote the beliefs and faith of Adivasis as separate from the other religions mentioned. This has been opposed by the BJP and “ghar wapsi” campaigners precisely because for them “ghar wapsi” is identified as coming back to the “ Hindu fold” and nothing to do with the recognition of Adivasi beliefs.
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Adivasis in Narayanpur are in a struggle against two iron ore projects, which are being imposed without the legally and constitutionally mandated consent of the gram sabhas. Similar to the Odisha Niyamgiri project which was stopped by the Supreme Court, these projects adversely impact areas considered sacred to Adivasi belief. The Janjati Suraksha Manch is silent on this. Yet, it is this very right of the gram sabha which is being distorted by the ghar wapsi campaign to adopt resolutions prohibiting the entry of Christian pastors into their villages without the consent of the gram sabha.
In the context of state elections later this year, BJP’s default strategy of divide and gain is clearly in play. But what should one say about the Congress government, which has not sent a single minister to visit the area, and has not helped a single affected family with compensation?
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It is only after a police officer was injured in the stone-pelting on the church that arrests were made. Even though numerous complaints by victims, including women, have been filed and in some cases, FIRs lodged, those named have not been arrested. The MLA in Narayanpur is also the state president of the Congress who, as far as the victims are concerned, was missing when they needed him most. Is this the way to unite India?
The writer is a member of the CPM politburo
© The Indian Express (P) Ltd