This is the second part of a special report after a fact-finding team’s visit to the Congress-ruled state in central India
IN the previous article, we saw that forcible conversions were taking place in the Narayanpur and Kondagaon districts of Chhattisgarh, but that of Christian vishwasus to Hinduism, and the state has done next to nothing besides pleading those who were threatening and indulging in violence against the vishwasus, turning them out of their villages, to let the displaced persons return to their villages.
Adivasis became vishwasus, turning to Jesus and their numbers were growing since 2015. Small independent one Adivasi pastor led churches, having following of less than 100 vishwasus, and sometimes more, organised prayer meetings wherein those with chronic sickness felt they were cured, and would give up their drinking habits. Giving up drinking habit led to some improvement in their lives and they focussed on education of their children. The strong fellowship that developed during the prayer meetings and love of Jesus is sine qua non for prevention of relapse into drinking habits.
The short visit did not enable us to examine the internal social dynamics within the village community, which pushed a section of the Adivasis towards prayer meetings and developing fellowship with other vishwasus within the Church. However, this did not necessarily mean that the vishwasus gave up all Adivasi traditions, customs, culture and way of life. Most of them told us that they contributed to the village festivals and participated in the cultural events, however, they did not partake the offerings to traditional Gods nor participated in the idol worship.
The Chimdi village sarpanch, however, said that the vishwasus would not contribute financially in the village festivals or religious rituals. Jaising Potai (45), a displaced vishwasu, told us that he gave his contribution to the village festival, however, Kamu Patel and Kachra Gaita refused to accept it because they were not vishwasus. Patel and Gaita are traditional designations of the village head of the Gond community.
In the village Pawada, Manku Koram, belonging to the Gond community forced out one family with 5 members and 3 sisters after holding a meeting. The foodgrain stock of the vishwasus was looted on 18th December, according to Jaldev Koram (M, 30 years). They were paraded on a tractor and threatened to kill them if either they did not convert to Hinduism or else left the village. Jaldev had turned vishwasu in the year 2016. After his becoming a vishwasu in 2016, the village would not accept his contribution to the village festivals.
Jaldev was member of the BJP and always voted for the Party even after 2016. A social and economic boycott was declared against Jaldev’s family. This meant nobody would offer their tractor to plough his land and people from outside the village were fined Rs. 10,000/- if they came with their tractors to plough his land. These were early warnings of the impending storm of violence or threat of life that turned out one thousand adivasis in the two districts out of their villages. There were early warning and such episodes since the month of October as well. The vishwasus complained to the police but their complaints were ignored. Seeing the tolerant attitude of the state, the non-Christian Adivasis were emboldened to scale up their pressures and coercion.
We talked to three victims from Temrugaon – Ramesh Koram (27), Nevru Koram (24) and Shambhulal Koram (27), all from Gond Muria community, belonging to Maranatha Full Gospel Church, under the leadership of Pastor Mayaram Nag. Temrugaon vishwasu community have a prayer hall of New India Church, wherein the vishwasus from Chalka village also would come to pray. The prayer halls we saw are in fact, small mud, bamboo and reed structures. The prayer hall was constructed three years ago, but it was functional only since last year. The vishwasus in the village converted in the year 2007 and 2008. 27 out of 110 families have converted.
After their Sunday prayer meeting on 18th December, a mob from the village led by the sarpanch Rajman Koram, caught them, sprinkled alcohol on them (to break their vow and spirit), beat them up and chased them out of the village. The vishwasus named 8 other accused in their complaint to the police for assault on them – 1) Jhelu Karanga, 2) Dhannu Koram, 3) Laxman Koram, 4) Jairam Koram, 5) Bajman Koram, 6) Jagnu Koram, 7) Shriman Koram, and 8) Ramsingh Potayi. The sarpanch was instigated by Ramdhar Suri from the village Chalka, a Gondwana Samaj and BJP leader. They were beaten with lathis and rods. Besides the abovenamed Ramesh, Nevru and Shambhulal, the others injured in the attack were Kulram Sodi, Ramadhi Koram (35), Shalu Koram (F, 30), Shankar Koram (23), and Jugai Koram (30). Jugai was hit on head. Six injured were hospitalised in district hospital, Narayanpur. Some vishwasus rushed to the police station to report the violence. About 10-15 policemen were deputed in the village. Ramesh, Tularam, Fagu and Sukhlal were beaten in presence of the police and their uniform was torn.
There were attacks on the vishwasus in 2009 as well and were driven out of the village. They were staying in Narayanpur till 2014 on government land. However, there was a settlement and they were allowed to reside in the village once again. The sarpanch changed and the new woman sarpanch – Ratni went back on the settlement. On 4th December this year, Ramadhi Koram was beaten with a burning stick on his back, hands and legs. He was immobilised due to the attack. Complaint was filed, but the police scolded the complainants and turned them away.
From the above, it was obvious to us that when there were early warnings as late as in the first week of December 2022, with low intensity violence targeting vishwasu individuals, the police in particular and the district administration in general turned a blind eye by turning away complainants or ignoring the complaints of violence, breach of peace, social boycott etc. There was another serious early warning of the emerging conflict. The vishwasus were refused permission to bury their dead since about 6 months ago in the village on their own land on the pretext of maintaining Adivasi traditions and customs.
Burial of dead vishwasus was in violation of Adivasi traditions and customs, according to the non-Christian Adivasis. They wrongly invoked the Panchayats (Extension to Schedules Areas) Act, 1996. Even after this the police and the administration did not act. The vishwasus would have to carry the body of their dead for burial all the way to Kondagaon, sometimes more than 50 kms away in dedicated cemetery for Christians in hearse. Those buried in the village were dug out. The non-Christian Adivasis kept escalating their violent actions to the next level until on 18th December, about a thousand displaced vishwasus camped in the compound of the Narayanpur District Collector. It is only then that the administration partially woke up and arranged relief centres for the displaced – in the indoor stadium in Naryanpur and Panchayat Bhavan in Kondagaon. (To be continued)
Irfan Engineer is Director, Centre for Study of Society and Secularism; he is also co-editor of a recent book, Babri Masjid, 25 Years On… Views expressed here are author’s personal.